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.