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Once upon a time in New York

I bought my Penguin paperback of Moby-Dick on February 23, 1988. I’m certain of the date because it’s scrawled on the first page, just above a thumbnail biography of Herman Melville. I used to have a habit of noting a book’s purchase date on its first page, and sometimes I would add the store where I bought it, though I only added the city in this case: “NYC.” I remember the circumstances vividly. I bought Moby-Dick at St. Mark’s Bookshop on St. Mark’s Place while headed to see, for the third time, a Brazilian-themed production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Public Theater. Then, at a stationery store, I bought a blank greeting card with a Monet landscape on the front. The card was for Elizabeth McGovern, who was playing Helena in A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and I inscribed the card at a coffee shop cater-cornered from the Public Theater on Lafayette Street. “I’m an actor and writer in town from L.A.,” I wrote, “and I’m planning to see the play tonight and I’d like to say hello afterward,” describing myself briefly—“I’m tall and wearing a black leather jacket”—so that Elizabeth McGovern—or “Liz,” as she was known to friends—could recognize me after the performance. I listed a few mutual acquaintances without mentioning Orrin, as I’ll call him, who was also in the cast of Midsummer and had advised me against trying to contact Elizabeth McGovern, and I certainly didn’t mention that I had seen the play twice already. She might take me, rightly, for a stalker.

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In the spring of 1989, I registered for a class called “Melville and Pynchon.” We were assigned two novels: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The professor paired these books up, as far as I could tell, for their unreadability.

Opening Words

On a cold day in the autumn of 1998, eight years after my sister died, I went back to Cleveland to visit her grave with my hus- band, David. It was a bleak, overcast afternoon in November when we drove to the cemetery. My sister Kim is buried in that city of steel skies and flat lands in a place called Mount Olive Cemetery. I like the tone of authority in the name of her burial place. It feels as though she’s been anointed, lifted to a place of holiness. The cemetery is on the outskirts of the suburbs. We drove first through the orderly suburban streets, then under a stark bridge that appeared to lead nowhere, and then through the black gates. I thought after all these years that seeing again the sight of her gray headstone and the small plot of land designated to her on this earth would devastate me. Instead a long calm washed through me. I did not cry when I saw Kim’s grave. I read the inscription composed by my family: Kim Elizabeth, July 19, 1968–April 16, 1990, Our Beloved. Kim’s suicide has forever altered the way in which I re- spond to the world around me. It has transformed the way I think and feel about intimacy, motherhood, friendship, and our responsibilities to others. Her early death changed every pre- conceived idea I had of suicide, depression, suffering, parenthood, and our debt to another person. Before Kim ended her life, I thought, like most people, that someone who would take his or her own life was somehow different from the rest of us.

I was wrong.

At her gravesite, beneath which lay the box that contained the flesh and bone that had comprised her physical self—the box that eight years earlier I had watched being lowered into the ground and had thrown dirt on top of, a Jewish ritual to signify the family’s responsibility to bury their loved ones—I was overcome with a familiar feeling of disbelief. I wanted, like Demeter, goddess of the spring who lost her daughter to the underworld, to plead with the gods to bargain back her life.

As the gray afternoon light moved through a stand of trees I wondered, as I had so many times, if Kim had really wanted to die or whether her act had been a cry for help.

I cannot go back to Cleveland without feeling the shadow of Kim over the city. It is in the color of the sky, in the shapes of the familiar houses on our suburban block, in the shade of the bushes along our front walk. Her loss is wrapped inside the tree that shades our yard. When I go into her bedroom—now turned into a kind of den, with a new desk and chair forced awkwardly into the room—I can only see it the way it used to be: Kim’s unmade bed, her clothes piled in a corner, her teddy bear thrown on the floor.

I still on occasion wake up in the morning and forget that she is gone, that she’ll never be able to have the baby she once wanted, that she’ll never know my son. I sometimes catch a quick flash of her face in my mind and it is as if she’s looking at me, trying to tell me something. I try very hard to listen.

Kim was the youngest of four girls, the only child of my mother and her second husband, the baby of our family—my baby, I sometimes thought, my Kim. My mother and we three remaining sisters reconstructed the weeks before she died. We read and reread the short suicide note she left. We recounted the last conversations, moods, phone calls; we talked to her friends and boyfriend, hoping that these conversations would explain why she’d left us. Her life and death have shaped each of us in profound ways. We talked and talked, among ourselves, with everyone who knew her, and didn’t get far. Then we stopped talking and mourned privately, each in our own way, trying to move on. But I could not really move on. It wasn’t until just a few years ago, when my own son—at the cusp of adolescence, soon to be a young man—reached the age at which Kim’s life began to falter, that I knew I had to try to understand what happened to my sister. My responsibility as a mother made it imperative. I knew that in order to go on, to live my life, the life I have built with my husband and my son, my life as a writer and an editor, I had to go back and excavate her history. I had to understand why she would take her own life and whether I could have stopped her.

Kim was a decade younger than us, her three older sisters. All of us shared the same biological mother, but Laura, Cindy, and I were born from a different father. Our father came from a family of Jewish immigrants. He died when I was two years old, Laura three, and Cindy nine months. My mother, also Jewish, remarried an Irish Catholic man when I was eight years old; two years later she gave birth to Kim. My mother hoped Kim would bridge our not-yet-sturdy, second, Jewish- Catholic family and restore a home that had been shaped by grief and loss. But three years after Kim was born my mother and stepfather divorced, and our family went back to being a family of women.

When Kim died, I was living in New York City, newly married and three and a half months pregnant with my first child. My older sister, Laura, was also living in New York City, working in an art gallery. Cindy was married and training to be a psychologist in Los Angeles. Kim took her life in my mother’s garage, my mother asleep in her upstairs bedroom in the house in Shaker Heights, Ohio, where we had all grown up.

The dialogue we have with the dead is never ending. That day at her grave I told myself that I would write about her for two reasons: to redeem her death, and in so doing honor her, and because I needed to understand what she had done and why in order to move forward with my own life. There were days, weeks, sometimes months when I was engaged with life—with my family, friends, and work—but it was as though Kim’s suicide hung over me, at the back of my thoughts, and it would creep up at times and I would feel frightened by it.

If I could recognize the forces that weakened Kim’s strength and attempt to re-create her inner world through my writing, perhaps I’d begin to understand what caused her to take her life. And maybe in doing so, I could forgive myself.

In her death I was closer to her than I had been the few years before she died when she had kept a wedge between us so I would not catch sight of the troubled person she had become.

How had I let her disappear from view? How had we let her go? These are some of the questions I sought to answer.

Her grave that day seemed lonely amid the graves of strangers. That she was buried alone, not in a family plot (her death was so unexpected that no such arrangements had been made), represented to me the estrangement she had come to feel in life.

I took David’s arm and listened to the branches creaking overhead. I looked at the gravestones, some covered with fresh-laid flowers, others less attended. On the most fundamental level it did not seem real.

When I was a child, birds in close proximity had frightened me. Their skittish nature reminded me of my own reactions to a world made precarious by the sudden death of my father.

But when I saw a school of birds clamber over the sky at Kim’s gravesite, making a perfect V in the air, and saw one bird land on one of the monuments near her grave, I was filled with a strange happiness, as if Kim’s spirit were alive and present in the opaque November sky. I thought of T. S. Eliot’s lines in Four Quartets: “Go, go, go, said the bird: / Human kind can- not bear very much reality.”

I have twenty-one years of Kim’s essence stored up in my memory bank. The fallacy about death is its finality. Kim is as alive for me as if I were still at the foot of her bed, in her childhood room that was once my room, listening to her talk about the pair of jeans she had just bought at the Gap, or the day she had spent at one of the Lake Erie beaches, Mentor-on-the-Lake, with her girlfriends. Or sitting with her around our dining room table, her dirty blond hair fallen over her face as she worked on a thousand-piece puzzle of Mona Lisa or Monet’s Yellow Irises with Pink Cloud.

The gray November sky that afternoon carried within it the truth of something foretold. I regretted again, as I had at her funeral, that we had never given her a proper eulogy—that, too distraught, I had not been able to speak about her and the significance of her young life. Her funeral was shrouded in sorrow, shame, and incredulity. We were struggling to accept that she was gone, no longer able to shake her out of the long drift of delirium that compromised the last years of her life, never to see into her mercurial half-gray, half-blue eyes, never to touch her again. The rabbi spoke for us, said the prayers of mourning into the cold April air as we listened, hoping that the world on the other side of life was a better place. Two daysbefore she killed herself had been my birthday and she had called to wish me a happy day. Happiness no longer seemed part of the equation. The world felt tenuous and unsafe. Then I did not know how to grapple with or incorporate the violence of her act of resignation. I did not know how to grasp that she had wanted, at least that night, to die. Or perhaps had wished in those moments to be unlocked from her pain.

It seemed impossible, and I floated in the sea of my disbelief, still thinking that there had been a mistake. Though she was clearly dead—she had to be, my husband picked out her coffin—I could not accept it. I was still worried about her, convinced I could do something to change the course of what had happened. More, I was left with the belief that she had inherited the grief, loneliness, and pain of our family, and that her suicide was partially a result of this burden. I wondered whether Kim’s suicide had been inevitable.

Before it happened to Kim, the horror of suicide—that a person could take her life because of searing emotional pain—had seemed, while devastating and tragic, more of an abstract concept. Though I had known a few people who had committed suicide, one a childhood friend, over time I had pushed those losses into my unconscious. For years, even after Kim died, my defenses were formidable. If I were truly to have understood her state of mind then, I would have had to feel her pain unen- cumbered by the layers of protection I shielded myself with like thick sweaters against the cold. Every time I tried to grasp it I was overcome. It was as if I lived behind a blackened door.

In Moby-Dick, Melville’s masterpiece, Ishmael tells of his de- sire to meet the unknown when he undertakes the voyage of the sea in his quest for the whale:

Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land? Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and make him the own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, wild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.







To understand suicide is to try to comprehend the ungraspable phantom of life: the power of the darkness, fear, and weakness within the human mind, a force as mysterious, turbulent, complex, and uncontrollable as the sea, a force so powerful it may not be capable of withstanding its own destructive power.

After reading Moby-Dick, a treatise on the abyss and the inchoate and terrible power of inner demons, it does not surprise me to learn that Melville’s own son Malcolm died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of eighteen. Perhaps in writing the prophetic, meticulous novel of Ahab’s obsessive, diabolical quest for the white whale, Melville had hoped to crack open something of the mystery of his son’s or his own despair. Of the need to undertake the voyage, he wrote, “Somehow dreadfully, we are all cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

The page has been my container, my ship; my words my compass; my memory my harpoon in my desire to wrest coherence from the unwieldy material of personal truth. Whenever I come close to understanding the terrible mystery of suicide, it eludes me again, darting away like the mercurial whale beneath the surface of the ocean, plunging further into the depths of the un- known. When I think I’ve made my peace with the white beast, it rears its head, continuing to shadow the present. There is a desire to still the chaos, but it catches me when I least expect it.

When a young person ends his or her life, the grief of those left behind is complicated by despair, disbelief, fury, guilt, and shame. But my dismay has never been directed at Kim. It is directed at the world she was born into, the past that shaped what she would have to bear, and the failure of those closest to her and the community around her to offer the support and confidence that might have sustained her. Even in our darkest moments most of us have hope that life will turn for the better.

“Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul,” wrote Emily Dickinson. “And sore must be the storm / That could abash the little bird / That kept so many warm.”

At Kim’s gravesite I told myself that I would try to tell her story. In the years that followed I periodically researched and made notes, but I always put them away again, thwarted by complicated emotions and the moral dilemma of exposing my family’s private world, as well as my own.

A few years ago I flew to Los Angeles to spend a few days with Dr. Edwin Shneidman, a leading figure in the study of suicidology. That visit changed the way I thought about suicide, but it wasn’t until I began attending a monthly suicide bereavement group and listened to other survivors of suicide tell their stories that I was able, bolstered by the courage of others living with suicide, to write my story, free of disgrace. These pages narrate the story of what happened to Kim and my voyage to come to grips with her suicide. Since I cannot bring her back, I have struggled to make her lapse into darkness and the devastation of suicide understandable. Suicide should never happen to anyone. I want you to know as much as I know. That is the reason I am writing this book.







What is memoir?

The word derives from the French, mémoire and from the Latin, memoria meaning memory, or a reminiscence.


Why did you write a memoir?

I did not think of my book as a memoir when I was writing it. It defied categorization. I thought of it as giving life to the experience of my investigation. In that sense it was driven solely by the need to discover.


Do you believe in muses?

Yes. My sister, Kim was my muse for this book. The persistence of her memory guided me.


Were there other guides?

Yes, Melville was a guide. In Moby Dick Melville refers to “the ungraspable phantom of life,” which for me is a perfect metaphor for suicide.


Is all art driven by investigation? By the need to discover?

If it is going to maintain a sense of urgency, it must.


Will you write another memoir?

As I said, my book is not solely a memoir. I don’t mean to be coy. It is more than that. I write about my experience living with my sister’s suicide, and also attempt to recreate her inner world. The book is also partially research driven. It is not only an account of what I have remembered. I am interested in writing another nonfiction work.


Why did you choose to write the book as nonfiction, rather than as a novel for instance?

I wanted to take down the veil that keeps suicide in a closet. If I wrote the book as fiction, I would still be hiding behind a veil. In a novel a reader might believe the “felt” emotion, but not necessarily the experience.


What has been the most rewarding aspect of publishing History of a Suicide?

I have taken satisfaction in hearing from readers who have been moved by it. I receive emails daily. The book is hitting a nerve. It doesn’t surprise me since suicide takes the lives of 30,000 people every year, if not more since many suicides are not disclosed. If 30,000 people commit suicide each year imagine all the lives that have been affected. I have heard from parents, siblings, friends and lovers who have lost people they care about to suicide. I have heard from readers who have been suicidal themselves or struggle with depression. I have heard from readers who are simply interested in reading about a subject that in one way or another impinges upon all of us. One of my favorite letters was from a twenty-year old college student. She wrote that after reading my book she realized that we are all more similar than we assume and that we share thoughts and struggles. That touched me.


Do you write books to touch your reader?

Yes.


Any last thoughts?

The irony of featuring an excerpt of History of a Suicide on a site called The Nervous Breakdown has not escaped me.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn.

Author photos: Beth Chimera

Copyright © 2011 by Donovan Hohn.


At the outset, I felt no need to acquaint myself with the six degrees of freedom. I’d never heard of the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch. I liked my job and loved my wife and was inclined to agree with Emerson that travel is a fool’s paradise. I just wanted to learn what had really happened, where the toys had drifted and why. I loved the part about containers falling off a ship, the part about the oceanographers tracking the castaways with the help of far-flung beachcombers. I especially loved the part about the rubber duckies crossing the Arctic, going cheerfully where explorers had gone boldly and disastrously before.

At the outset, I had no intention of doing what I eventually did: quit my job, kiss my wife farewell, and ramble about the Northern Hemisphere aboard all manner of watercraft. I certainly never expected to join the crew of a fifty-one-foot catamaran captained by a charismatic environmentalist, the Ahab of plastic hunters, who had the charming habit of exterminating the fruit flies clouding around his stash of organic fruit by hoovering them out of the air with a vacuum cleaner.

Certainly I never expected to transit the Northwest Passage aboard a Canadian icebreaker in the company of scientists investigating the Arctic’s changing climate and polar bears lunching on seals. Or to cross the Graveyard of the Pacific on a container ship at the height of the winter storm season. Or to ride a high-speed ferry through the smoggy, industrial backwaters of China’s Pearl River Delta, where, inside the Po Sing plastic factory, I would witness yellow pellets of polyethylene resin transmogrify into icons of childhood.

I’d never given the plight of the Laysan albatross a moment’s thought. Having never taken organic chemistry, I didn’t know and therefore didn’t care that pelagic plastic has the peculiar propensity to adsorb hydrophobic, lipophilic, polysyllabic toxins such as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (a.k.a. DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (a.k.a. PCBs). Nor did I know or care that such toxins are surprisingly abundant at the ocean’s surface, or that they bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain. Honestly, I didn’t know what “pelagic” or “adsorb” meant, and if asked to use “lipophilic” and “hydrophobic” in a sentence I’d have applied them to someone with a weight problem and a debilitating fear of drowning.

If asked to define the “six degrees of freedom,” I would have assumed they had something to do with existential philosophy or constitutional law. Now, years later, I know: the six degrees of freedom—delicious phrase!—are what naval architects call the six different motions floating vessels make. Now, not only can I name and define them, I’ve experienced them firsthand. One night, sleep-deprived and nearly broken, in thirty-five-knot winds and twelve-foot seas, I would overindulge all six—rolling, pitching, yawing, heaving, swaying, and surging like a drunken libertine—and, after buckling myself into an emergency harness and helping to lower the mainsail, I would sway and surge and pitch as if drunkenly into the head, where, heaving, I would liberate my dinner into a bucket.

At the outset, I figured I’d interview a few oceanographers, talk to a few beachcombers, read up on ocean currents and Arctic geography, and then write an account of the incredible journey of the bath toys lost at sea, an account more detailed and whimsical than the tantalizingly brief summaries that had previously appeared in news stories. And all this I would do, I hoped, without leaving my desk, so that I could be sure to be present at the birth of my first child.


But questions, I’ve learned since, can be like ocean currents. Wade in a little too far and they can carry you away. Follow one line of inquiry and it will lead you to another, and another. Spot a yellow duck dropped atop the seaweed at the tide line, ask yourself where it came from, and the next thing you know you’re way out at sea, no land in sight, dog-paddling around in mysteries four miles deep. You’re wondering when and why yellow ducks became icons of childhood. You want to know what it’s like inside the toy factories of Guangdong. You’re marveling at the scale of humanity’s impact on this terraqueous globe and at the oceanic magnitude of your own ignorance. You’re giving the plight of the Laysan albatross many moments of thought.

The next thing you know, it’s the middle of the night and you’re on the outer decks of a post-Panamax freighter due south of the Aleutian island where, in 1741, shipwrecked, Vitus Bering perished from scurvy and hunger. The winds are gale force. The water is deep and black, and so is the sky. It’s snowing. The decks are slick. Your ears ache, your fingers are numb. Solitary, nocturnal circumambulations of the outer decks by supernumerary passengers are strictly forbidden, for good reason. Fall overboard and no one would miss you. You’d inhale the ocean and go down, alone. Nevertheless, there you are, not a goner yet, gazing up at the shipping containers stacked six-high overhead, and from them cataracts of snowmelt and rain are spattering on your head. There you are, listening to the stacked containers strain against their lashings, creaking and groaning and cataracting with every roll, and with every roll you are wondering what in the name of Neptune it would take to make stacks of steel—or for that matter aluminum—containers fall.

Or you’re learning how to tie a bowline knot and say thank you in both Inuktitut and Cantonese.

Or you’re spending three days and nights in a shabby hotel room in Pusan, South Korea, waiting for your ship to come in, and you’re wondering what you could possibly have been thinking when you embarked on this harebrained journey, this wild duckie chase, and you’re drinking Scotch, and looking sentimentally at photos of your wife and son on your laptop, your wife and son who, on the other side of the planet, on the far side of the international date line, are doing and feeling and drinking God knows what. Probably not Scotch. And you’re remember ing the scene near the end of Moby-Dick when Starbuck, family man, first officer of the Pequod, tries in vain to convince mad Ahab to abandon his doomed hunt. “Away with me!” Starbuck pleads, “let us fly these deadly waters! let us home!”

And you’re dreaming nostalgically of your former life of chalk boards and Emily Dickinson and parent-teacher conferences, and wishing you could go back to it, wishing you’d never contacted the heavyset Dr. E., or learned of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or met the Ahab of plastic hunters, or the heartsick conservationist or the foulmouthed beachcomber or the blind oceanographer, any of them. You’re wishing you’d never given Big Poppa the chance to write about Luck Duck, because if you hadn’t you’d never have heard the fable of the rubber ducks lost at sea. You’d still be teaching Moby-Dick to American teenagers. But that’s the thing about strong currents: there’s no swimming against them.

The next thing you know years have passed, and you’re still adrift, still waiting to see where the questions take you. At least that’s what happens if you’re a nearsighted, school-teaching, would-be archaeologist of the ordinary, with an indulgent, long-suffering wife and a juvenile imagination, and you receive in the mail a manila envelope, and inside this envelope you find a dozen back issues of a cheaply produced newsletter, and in one of those newsletters you discover a wonderful map—if, in other words, you’re me.

That title. What were you thinking?

Yeah, the subtitle is really long. I wrote it early one morning after a seasickening deadline bender. I’d just finished the last chapter and was supposed to deliver the manuscript by the time Viking’s offices opened for business. It was already around 8 and I’d been up since 4. The working subtitle was “An Accidental Odyssey,” and I still kind of like that one, but I knew it was too coy, insufficiently expository. No way was I going to get to keep it. So I started playing. And I had in mind these 18th and 19th century shipwreck narratives. They were so popular they constituted a literary genre, Naufragia, from the French for shipwreck. They had subtitles the lengths of paragraphs. You can see for yourself. I quote one in full on page 251. I still wasn’t sure whether Viking would let me keep my own long subtitle, but god bless ‘em, they did.


No. Not the subtitle. The title. What were you thinking? I mean, Moby-Dick is this epic masterpiece, and you, my friend, whatever you are, are no Herman Melville.

It started as a kind of joke. I chose the title before I wrote a single word, which is unusual. Once I committed to it, I had to take the joke seriously. I knew that my voyage had to be a grand one. I often wished that for my first book I’d chosen a smaller project, a nice little monograph of an essay on oh, I don’t know, the pleasures and perils of bicycling in New York. But I love Moby-Dick, love the so-called informational chapters as well as the action sequences. I think most of all I love the dynamics in Melville’s prose, the swells and troughs, the storms and calms, how it mixes the high and the low, the philosophical and the naughty. I used to tell my students to look out for the fart joke in chapter 1, “Loomings,” (hint, it has to do with the pythagorean maxim). Then, too, Ishmael is an insular Manhatto, like I was, a former schoolteacher as I was. I couldn’t resist. I carried a tattered, annotated copy around with me during my travels and kept it on my desk and sought inspiration in its pages. It sustained as well as daunted me. Frankly, I’d almost to prefer to talk about Melville’s book than mine.


Sorry. That’s not what The Nervous Breakdown asked for. I will let you quote a favorite passage, so long as it’s not one of the many that appear in the pages of your book.

So hard to choose! But when my hypos get the better of me, I find particular solace in these two. First a long, gorgeous, voyage of a passage:

“Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: — through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary?”

The “pondering repose of If”! Then, secondly, an aphoristic one:

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”


I said “one.” No more Melville for you. Back to the ducks. Do you collect them?

No. But people have started giving them to me. For well-intentioned reasons. And I feel kind of obliged to keep them, but I really would  rather not acquire any more. I would say, however, that duckie collecting is, like most things, more interesting than you might think. On a trip that didn’t make it into the book, I visited the woman who owns the Guinness record-setting duckie collection, Charlotte Lee. She turned out to be this smart, interesting sociologist who’d written a sociological study of duck collectors.


Quick. One image that you remember from your travels that you didn’t manage to find a place for in the book. First thing that pops into your head.

The old part of Guangzhou. Back streets like corridors in a maze. On a window grating someone had hung out heads of lettuce, presumably to dry.


Are you working on something new?

The dread question. The answer is yes, but I’m going to be evasive by being facetious. One review called my book “the Moby-Dick of drifting ducks,” which is a nice way to describe it, but which if you pause over it makes “drifting ducks” sound like a literary subgenre. My wife said, “Next you can write The Lady Chatterly’s Lover of drifting ducks.” We made a kind of parlor game of it, coming up with the other books in my burgeoning franchise: The Duckameron. Duck Quixote. My personal favorite: Duckleberry Finn.


There’s much about fatherhood and childhood in the book. One of your two sons even turns up as a kind of recurring character. What does he want to be when he grows up?

His plans keep changing, of course. Recently, he’s decided to be the host of a televised cooking show. But once he told me that he was going to be a scientist so that he can go to Antarctica and bring things back for me and his mother. Another time, god help him, he said he wanted to be “a papa and a writer.” He even had a great book title picked out.


What was it?

The Frogs of Australia.