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Interview: Donovan Hohn, Author of Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea…

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There are some books which I know, as soon as I heard of them, I MUST Have. And a few where I think, “I MUST interview the author of that book.” Such is the case here.

I have long been a fan of rubber duckies. Or as I put it, being the silly punster I am, I am into things fowl. I wrote here about this odd obsession and when I moved from Maryland to Texas and stayed at the homes of people I knew online but had not yet met in person I had them take photos with some of ducks.

So you can see two things from this: 1) I need mental help and 2) this book, about the biggest news event about rubber duckies since their invention, was a must-read for me. (Before you get too concerned about #1, I gave away many of my ducks because I was concerned for my sanity plus I didn’t want my duck-loving to define me).

Reading this book I learned a lot—some of which I touch on in the interview—and it was clear the author had also learned a great deal more than he had probably expected.

I was delighted to learn that the more famous book about rubber ducks—Eric Carle’s Ten Little Rubber Ducks—is about the same instance, in which 28,800 bath toys were lost at sea.

I mentioned this to my older niece, who is nine and was wondering why I had both a big book about rubber ducks and a rubber duck I’d bought at a bookstore, a duck with a label, “Reader Duck” (to serve as a consultant for the interview). I explained to her what the big book was about and also about Carle’s book and she summed up thusly: “So it’s a shorter version?” Yes, major understatement.

That said, this book is fascinating and takes the reader places he or she is not expecting—I did not anticipate learning as much as I did about not just the origin (creation story) of rubber ducks but also about ocean currents, battles over how best to clean trash that travels the sea and that lands on shores, and related topics.

I suggest you check out this book. You don’t even have to be interested in rubber duckies to find this interesting.

The author is a journalist whose work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Outside and the Best Creative Nonfiction. His first child was born while he was working on this book. 

Here are two excerpts to give you an idea of what is in the book:

“Let’s draw a bath. Let’s set a rubber duck afloat. Look at it wobbling there. What misanthrope, what damp, drizzly November of a sourpuss, upon beholding a rubber duck afloat, does not feel a Crayola ray of sunshine brightening his gloomy heart? Graphically, the rubber duck’s closest relative is not a bird or a toy but the yellow happy face of Wal-Mart commercials. A rubber duck is in effect a happy face with a body and lips—which is what the beak of the rubber duck has become: great, lip-sticky, bee-stung lips. Both the happy face and the rubber duck reduce facial expressions to a kind of pictogram. They are both emoticons. And they are, of course, the same color- the yellow of an egg yolk or the eye of a daisy, a shade darker than a yellow raincoat, a shade lighter than a taxicab.”

And as he decides to go on boats to look for the duckies:

“It is no doubt ill-advised to volunteer as a deckhand while recovering from back surgery, even routine, noninvasive back surgery. But I was desperate. Pallister was embarking for Gore Point that weekend with or without me. I’d already gone adrift. There was no turning back. Like it or not, I was a professional duckie hunter now. I wasn’t about to spend the summer convalescing in Manhattan, not when there were Floatees to be found. At my postoperative examination, I told my surgeon that I had some ‘urgent business’ in Anchorage, leaving out the part about a voyage to inaccessible coasts. Inspecting his handiwork, which was healing nicely, my surgeon said he guessed it would be ok for me to travel, so long as I didn’t lift anything heavier than ten pounds, doctor’s orders. No bending from the waist. No sitting for prolonged periods of time… The following morning I stuffed a pair of brand-new Sitka sneakers into a brand-new ergonomic backpack with wheels, asked the cabdriver if he’d mind loading said backpack into the trunk, kissed Beth and our almost-two-year-old son Brunto good-bye and flew, hell-bent, to Anchorage.”

And now the interview….

When you started this trek were you thinking of turning it into a book or did that plan come later?

No, when I first imagined writing about the bath toys lost at sea, I had in mind an essayistic article for Harper’s Magazine, something I could research and write in a single summer. But it wasn’t long after I began the research that the notion of the book arose. It’s genesis was the map I received from oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, indicating where the toys had been found and where they would go. Once I set out on that trail the toys and the currents had drawn on my map, I wanted to keep following it.

As a journalist yourself, what do you make of how the news media has covered this story over the years? You mention on page 15, for example,  that the media started to turn all the animals into ducks and changed them from plastic to rubber? Is it speciesism as Dr. E  suggests on page 45? Or just simplicity?

The story sounds like a fable, like something from a children’s book, and so it’s not surprising to me that journalists emphasized the more fabulous details. Yes, there’s the impulse to simplify for the sake of journalistic economy, but no headline referred to The Red Plastic Beavers Lost at Sea. Many did refer to Rubber Duckies Lost at Sea, and it’s easy to see why. Who’s ever heard of a red plastic beaver? Whereas everyone’s heard of—and can immediately picture—rubber duckies.

But here’s where the question gets more interesting: Why can everyone picture yellow duckies? Why is that image so delightful? When did yellow duckies enter our collective consciousness? Why did they become part of the popular culture? “Speciesism” may be a far-fetched explanation, but if you look at pictures of childhood over the last century or two, I think it’s also a plausible one, especially when it comes to yellow ducks with blue eyes. There are other explanations that I mention in the book: the white Pekin was the most popular breed with American poultry farmers and the white Pekin is the only breed that gives birth to spotless yellow ducklings, so yellow ducklings are now part of the American pastoral.

What were you surprised to learn as you did the work and research which led to this book?

Oh, boy! Too many surprises to mention. I was surprised to learn that containers fall overboard from container ships. That mid-20th century government health manuals advised parents to give their little boys bath toys so that they wouldn’t be tempted to play with, um, themselves. That an albatross can fly while asleep. That there are underwater storms in the ocean—slow-moving, invisible, long-lasting cyclones of water that  swirl through the deep very much like storms swirling through the atmosphere. The book is full of surprises, for its author at least.

Has the book changed how you view objects like rubber ducks? Do you now have more or fewer ducks than when writing this book? I bought two ducks to serve as consultants while I read it.

I have more ducks now, many more, mainly because people started giving them to me. Do I look at them differently? Of course! I know what they’re made of and how. I can think of them as commodities, as cargo, as pollutants, as icons of childhood. I know about their pop-cultural history. I can tell a duck of the ’70s from a duck of the ’90s.

As with Sarah Vowell, Tony Horwitz, and Bill Bryson you manage to combine history and research with some fun lighter moments. Was that one of your goals? What do you think of those three authors and did you try to learn from writers of that type when writing this?

The combination you describe was very much intentional. There’s a similar combination in Moby-Dick. People forget how funny that book is. There’s slapstick, satire, raunch, adventure, along with the information and the philosophy. The last thing I wanted to write was something dry or somber or nutritious. I’ve read and enjoyed the three writers you name. I feel certain generational affinities with Vowell, certain intellectual affinities with Bryson (an eclectic curiosity, the love of arcane stories and facts hidden in the common place). As for Horwitz, I looked closely at how he put together Blue Latitudes, which like my book weaves together many voyages into one, and moves gracefully between Horwitz’s experiences and the subject—Captain Cook—he’s investigating.

You talk on page 22 about noticing all the different types of rubber ducks and how many people have them. What did you ultimately conclude about that? Is it related to your other observation, on page 47, about the rubber duck being essentially a happy face with a body and legs?

I don’t know that I came to one conclusion about the mass appeal of the yellow duck and its mutant descendants. In a way, they’ve become a kind of language, a kind of code, all those varieties of novelty ducks. First you have this sentimental icon of childhood—innocent, sunny, eternally cheerful, vulnerable, all that. When the yellow duck first appeared in American bathtubs, those associations were in earnest. As time passed, as children who once played with yellow ducks grew up, the duck acquired a nostalgic charge. My two-year-old likes to play with bath animals, but to him they’re not symbols of anything, and he’s pretty indiscriminate. A red beaver is as fun as a yellow duck. Grown-ups who like yellow ducks like what the yellow duck means more than what it is. There’s a self-consciousness, a knowingness, about the meanings and sentiments the yellow duck conveys. Which helps explain all those variants—devil ducks, S&M ducks, etc. They play ironic variations on the original sentimental themes of childish innocence.

You write about becoming scared of the water because of the movie Jaws and of your son’s own fear of water (genetics?) and of your mom’s mental problems. Was it hard to share personal things like that in this book or did you decide to just share it all?

It is a first-person book, of necessity. Of necessity because I’m an actor in the journey as well as narrator. In fact, I’m the only actor present from beginning to end. So I felt I had to reveal something of who I am, what I felt and thought as I was traveling about the world. Then, too, I’m a fan of the personal essay, and of travel books that mix the inwardness of the essay with the outwardness of the journey. More than personal revelations, per se, what I like is some sense of the narrator’s consciousness.

That said, I tried hard to make the book much more about what I learned and the people I met than about me. The personal narrative is there, weaving my several voyages into one, but it’s usually in the background. For what it’s worth, there’s a lot I didn’t share! Some readers, for instance, have come away with the impression that I was a far more absentee father than I in fact was because I left out what happened between my voyages (one interval encompassed the first two years of my kid’s life; I changed a lot of diapers!). I only shared those personal details that I thought would enrich or illuminate or explain or complicate or in some other way serve the story. 

What did your friends and family make of your quest, of what you describe as becoming “a professional duckie hunter?”

My family was hugely supportive, my wife included. My friends, too. There was one teaching colleague who thought I was making a big mistake when I quit my job to write a book, but I think he would have thought that no matter the book. Although I’d never been a professional duckie-hunter before, I had been doing this sort of writing—narrative nonfiction—professionally for a number of years. Then, too, that I’d found a publisher made quitting my job less half-cocked and hellbent than it would have been otherwise.

I know it sounds like a crazy thing to do, go chasing toys all over the hemisphere, and in fact the craziness of the voyage was part of the appeal, but once you see where the trail of the toys leads—into ocean science, and environmental politics, and global trade, and maritime disasters, and the history of childhood—I don’t think that what I did is any crazier than, oh, say, since you mentioned Bryson and Horwitz, hiking the Appalachian trail or sailing all over the Pacific in pursuit of Captain Cook. Do you?

Was one of your goals with this book to explain oceanography? What other goals did you have when writing this book?

The goal was to understand and explain the journey of the toys, which required me to learn and explain a great deal of ocean science—a subject of considerable fascination in its own right. As for other goals, they all grew out of that central one of understanding and explaining the journey of the toys. To understand the beginning of the journey, I had to learn about the Chinese toy industry. To understand how they ended up falling overboard, I had to learn about the shipping industry. You get the idea.

How has writing this book changed you?

Suffice it to say that my understanding of the world is no longer quite as childish as it was five years ago.  And I think I’ve exorcised for a good, long while the urge to go to sea.

I decided to read the last 50 pages of the book while in a bathtub surrounded by rubber ducks. Is that a bit freaky or does that seem fitting?

I suppose that depends on the variety of duck you chose. There are some pretty freaky varieties on the market. But having seen a picture of a couple of your ducks, I’m inclined to say, more fitting than freaky. I don’t recommend, however, trying to read Moby-Dick while swimming with whales. While sailing over them on the other hand, that I recommend highly.

Are you planning on writing another book?

Yes! Not just planning. I’ve begun working on it.

What is your next book about?

My evasive answer failed. With a new project, I tend to be a little protective, as if tending a seedling. I can say this much: the subject matter has little in common with Moby-Duck, it won’t require any seafaring, but it will require the services of a Russian translator.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.