"Moby Duck" by Donovan Hohn

Penguin Publishing, Beth Chimera
Moby Duck, Donovan Hohn
Penguin Publishing, Beth Chimera

Jeff Glor talks to Donovan Hohn about "Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them"

Jeff Glor: What inspired you to write the book?

Donovan Hohn: There are many different answers to that question. Sometimes I blame Herman Melville, who made me want to do what Ishmael sets out to do--"sail about a little and see the watery part of the world." Sometimes I blame my upbringing on the shores of San Francisco Bay, which for a while made me want to be a marine biologist when I grew up. I could also blame certain living writers I admire. But the simpler answer is that when I stumbled on the story of the bath toys lost at sea, the version of it I stumbled on raised more questions than it answered. I'd never heard of containers falling off ships. And there was something both riddling and enchanting about the images that swam into my brain--of yellow duckies out there on the deep, or traversing the Arctic. But I think the single thing that turned my flights of fancy into a multi-year adventure and into a book was a map I received from oceanographers in Seattle on which they'd charted where the toys had been found and where they were likely to go. It was as if the currents and the toys had drawn a trail for me to follow.

JG: What surprised you the most during the writing process?

DH: The most honest answer? That I actually managed to make it to all the places on my itinerary--the factory in China that made the toys, the Arctic in the company of scientists. I hadn't really thought I'd be able to find any of the toys out there in the wild, but I did. Really the research was an endless source of surprise, which is one of the reasons to go on a journalistic adventure. There's no substitute for field work. One example: I hadn't set out to find an environmental story, but on my first research expedition, in 2005, I heard of the so-called Garbage Patch in the North Pacific. That was surprising. But more surprising still was my discovery that the story of the so-called Garbage Patch was a much more complicated one to tell than I'd initially realized.

JG: What would you be doing if you weren't a writer?

DH: Teaching American literature.

JG: What else are you reading right now?

DH: "Tubes" by Andrew Blum (forthcoming). "Rabid" by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy (forthcoming). "The Missing of the Somme" by Geoff Dyer. "The Thousand Saints" by Eleanor Henderson. "Breaking and Entering" by Eileen Pollack. "Reading Chekhov," by Janet Malcolm. "Travels in Siberia" by Ian Frazier.

JG: What's next for you?

DH: Travels in the former battlefields of the 1920 Russo-Polish war.

For more on "Moby Duck" visit the Penguin Group website.