The Assay Interview Project: Donovan Hohn
January 11, 2020
Donovan Hohn is the author of The Inner Coast: Essays (Norton, 2020) and Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea (Viking, 2011), a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for both the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction and the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. His essays have appeared in such publications as Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Lapham's Quarterly, and The New Republic. A recipient of the Whiting Writer’s Award and an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, Hohn spent a number of years editing essays, fiction, and literary journalism at Harper’s, and a few years as features editor of GQ. He has taught nonfiction in the MFA program of the University of Michigan and is now on the creative writing faculty of Wayne State University in Detroit.
About The Inner Coast: This collection of ten essays by the prize-winning author of Moby-Duck marries reflections on his family experiences in Michigan and California with explorations of the complex and often troubling histories of the land. As Hohn traces the resurgences of lost items and practices in new forms, the book follows water, changing geographies, and costal zones, exploring the spaces where place and time meet. His essays are tender, honest, and sometimes comical as they make their way through the American landscape.
Hayli Cox: I’m interested in the ways in which the title of the collection refers to both the inner landscape of being as well as the literal coastal and littoral zones you address. How did you come to this title and the ideas to which it alludes?
Donovan Hohn: The phrase “the inner coast” began rattling around in my brain several years ago. After moving to Michigan, I’d begun studying up on the history, natural and otherwise, of the Great Lakes, which together with the Mississippi River, form a navigable waterway through the heart of the continent—what I took to thinking of as the inner coast of America. But from the start, I liked the paradox of the phrase, and the metaphorical implications of it.
The title gestures toward a longstanding preoccupation of mine, with the relationship between memory and place. I think our minds—and bodies, for that matter—are more permeable than we sometimes imagine. We inhabit places, move through them, leave behind tracks and traces, but they inhabit us, leave their traces on us. I like essays that document or dramatize the exchanges that occur between consciousness and geography, mind and place. My love for littoral zones is perhaps easily explained by the hours in childhood I spent tide-pooling on the Pacific Coast, but I also love the idea of a littoral zone—a messy, ever-changing margin between two worlds. All of the essays in the book explore such margins, I think.
I noticed how, in some of these essays, the narrator rarely makes an appearance, but in others the opposite is true. Yet, I find myself equally immersed in each of them. When writing, how do decide how much of yourself to include in the narrative and which explorations need space of their own?
I love that the essay as a form can encompass the extremes here—the intimacy of the confessional or the personal as well as the impersonality of literary journalism. I like collections that include those extremes. Even in my literary journalism, I tend to favor the first-person, though it can be a highly effaced first-person, sometimes so highly effaced that you may not even notice I’m there. I’ll be present in the story, but only as interpreter or guide. Although those of us who write autobiographically sometimes get accused of narcissism, my preference for the first-person arises in part out of humility: as a reader and writer both, I distrust nonfiction that pretends to objectivity or third-person omniscience. I like to show my work, reveal my own vantage point. I also like essays that dramatize a writer’s struggle to make sense of the story being told, and such essays require the writer’s consciousness.
As for how much of yourself to include, for me that choice is largely determined by the needs of the storytelling. I love finding charismatically obsessive people to write about, and when I find them, I’m happy to recede into the shadows. But there are times when the most meaningful narrative available is the drama of your own struggle to make sense of something. Sometimes that’s the only narrative available. The book includes, for instance, a long essay about a botanist who has become an amateur antiquarian of obsolete tools, which he rescues from the foreclosed farms and condemned factories of the American Midwest. He was a fascinating figure, but not a dramatically dynamic one, and the narrative of that essay necessarily became that of my own search for the boundaries between memory and nostalgia, America and Americana.
The Inner Coast seems to artfully encompass so many forms of nonfiction, many of which are not readily classifiable. You incorporate research on and excerpts from Thoreau and other authors, personal narratives, postcolonial and ecocritical concepts, and other elements of so many varied forms. Can you talk about the process of marrying these forms and arranging these texts in this collection?
This, too, is something I love about the essay: the splendid variety of methods and forms. When I teach nonfiction, I like to bring in analogies borrowed from the other arts. We’ll think about musical forms—the nocturne, the fugue, the blues. Or the techniques of montage and collage. But one of my favorite analogies to make is between essays and the boxes of Joseph Cornell, those surrealist cabinets of wonder, those dream dioramas. There’s one Cornell box I’m particularly fond of, from 1945. At the center is a taxidermy parrot, perched on a stick. Affixed to the back of the box are a pair of tattered documents. One seems to be a page torn from a French glossary. The other appears to be an old postcard advertising an establishment called The Hotel Eden. Also in the box: a glass vial containing mysterious white cylinders the size of cigarette butts, a yellow ball poised between wooden rods, and what looks like a photographic negative of tree rings. There are within the box many visual rhymes: shapes that echo other shapes, colors that rhyme with other colors. The parrot’s eye rhymes with yellow ball and the photo-negative tree rings, for instance. Within the formal integrity Cornell has managed to conjure, there’s also much incongruity and surprise. I’ll stop myself from carrying on at length here about this particular Cornell box. What makes Cornell boxes a useful analogy for essayists is that all of the materials in them are found. Cornell didn’t stuff the taxidermy parrot or print the postcard of The Hotel Eden. In that sense, his assemblages resemble nonfiction. The artistry and the magic happen in the selection and arrangement of the materials. Any single essay can be a kind of Cornell box, and so can be—must be, I suppose—an essay collection. You need both variety and integrity, cohesion and variation.
My editor at Norton and I thought a great deal about the sequence of the essays. In any single essay, I like to introduce multiple threads in the opening sections that the essay will weave together and play variations on, and I wanted the collection to do the same. So the first essay is a brief one resembling a prose poem. It’s about something I did as a child—harvest snails from a neighbor’s agapanthus bush. Brief as it is, it introduces images that will become motifs in the longer essays that follow. Perhaps the hardest choice I had to make in arranging the essays concerned the placement of the most personal essay in the collection, “Falling,” which is primarily about my suicidally depressive mother and the mountain where I grew up. Initially, that was the opening essay—a placement determined by autobiographical chronology, but we ended up making it a kind of finale instead, and I think it belongs there, at the collection’s end.
So much of the book explores the way lost and discarded things—past lives and dreams, wrenches, methods of transportation, shipwrecks—make resurgences in new forms, haunt the present, or are "rescued" from the past. Yet this longing for rediscovery and preservation often seems to be in tension with themes of violence, capture, and stagnation. I’m thinking of the passage, “Water invites such contradictions. It purifies and corrupts, sustains life and destroys it. Water rusts and rots, and it preserves” (79). I’m curious to know more about this tension.
I really love this observation of yours. Yes, the ways in which the past haunts the present is a recurring preoccupation—one more discovered through the act of writing then charted out in advance. I think I have an elegiac imagination. A therapist might attribute that to an early acquaintance with loss—the disappearance of my mother that I write about in “Falling,” homesickness for the landscapes of my childhood. But you’re also picking up on something I have quite consciously thought about. There is in much of the writing about the natural world that I admire most—Thoreau, Dillard—a tendency to seek in nature the transcendent or the eternal. I am a lapsed Christian, but I’m also a lapsed transcendentalist. If I had to choose one adjective to classify the essays in The Inner Coast, I’d go with archeological. In the places and geographies I write about, I don’t seek or find glimpses of eternity. If anything, I find the opposite: the processes of history, traces of human influence, past persisting in the present, the present decaying into the past. (As I wrote about in detail in my first book, we’ve even influenced the oceans, which once seemed divine in their inhuman grandeur, the ultimate wilderness.) You’re right about that tension in the book. It’s one I explore without resolving. I’m reminded of a passage near the end of “A Romance of Rust.” Of the botanist turned tool collector I’ve been traveling with, I remark, “Identification is, for him, akin to benediction and salvage is akin to salvation. His cosmology, I have come to learn, is essentially elegiac. The universe he inhabits is at once wondrous and endangered. He is not a religious man. He does not believe that The End is nigh. Trained as a botanist, he does not believe in The End at all but in evolution, change without end. And yet, unlike some neo-Darwinists, Tom knows that change entails loss, and he does not confuse evolution with progress.” In writing about his cosmology I may have also been writing about my own.
In your introduction, you write “Coasts have always been contact zones between here and elsewhere” (XVIII). How does this contact make itself felt in your work and in your perception of the world?
I’m thinking in that passage of a sociological and historical phenomenon: coasts have across continents and centuries been sites of cultural as well as economic exchange. Port-cities give rise to cosmopolitanism. It’s almost impossible to be parochial or provincial in your views when boatloads of foreigners keep arriving at the docks—something Melville makes comedy out of in the New Bedford chapters of Moby-Dick. (Ishmael, when he first meets Queequeg, is terrified of the tattooed Polynesian. A few pages later, they are spending the night in each other’s arms.) I’m also thinking about water there, how rivers and ocean currents connect a here to an elsewhere. In my first book, I wrote a great deal about flotsam, so here’s one example from the annals of drift: On April 19, 2012, a couple strolling along an island in the Gulf of Alaska discovered at the edge of the tide line a soccer ball on which had been written, in impressively permanent marker, Japanese characters. The ball, swept out to sea by the tsunami of 2011, carried across the Pacific by the Kuroshio Current, had belonged to a boy named Misaki Murakami, investigations eventually determined. He’d received it, in 2005, as a farewell gift from former classmates when he’d had to change schools in third grade. Among the messages in marker was one that read, “Hang in there, Murakami!” We should all be so lucky as to receive delivery of such messages. The connections made by water are also ecological. All of us live downstream and upstream from somewhere else, and we’d be wise to live accordingly.
I found myself struck by the ways in which you were able to connect things, beings, and places across time and space within even a single sentence. You carry the reader from glaciers to gas stations and ridges, from grandfather to mother to son, and across so many synapses of time. When and how do these connections make themselves felt?
I suppose I am always seeking them out, those connections, those synapses—as if a sentence or a paragraph could also become a Cornell box. Twenty years ago, when I began working on the earliest of the essays the book collects, I’d been reading the essays of Evan S. Connell, the essays and also his two strangest books, Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel and Points for a Compass Rose. Annie Dillard described those two books as “the poetry of fact.” They made a lasting influence, as did Dillard’s own For the Time Being, as did W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, as did Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination. All of those books are in their own ways examples of what I think of as archeological essays. In the short essay on Marilynne Robinson that appears in The Inner Coast, I note the influence that antebellum American writers—Dickinson, Thoreau, Melville--exert on Robinson’s way with metaphor: “Like them, she sees, or creates through metaphor, correspondences across disparate fields, frames of reference, states of being—between cosmos and mind, or astronomy and history, black holes and the absences of stories.” For a writer like Robinson, those correspondences—or synapses, to use your excellent word—imply a metaphysics. I love her work, Housekeeping especially, but I don’t share her Christianity. Hers is a meaningful universe. Mine is a doubtful one. This semester I’m teaching a graduate course on essay collections, and one of the collections I assigned is Jordan Kisner’s Thin Places, which came out last March. It is such a beautiful book, and although we don’t have much else in common, Kisner and I do share a history of youthful religiosity. She identifies an ache suffered by many apostates—“the phantom limb syndrome of the soul,” she calls it. Such a syndrome may underly my own seeking of connections and synapses.
What body of water, or what specific coast, most calls to you?
There’s a lighthouse on the Marin Headlands—at Point Bonita, I believe. My stepmother was friends with a couple who worked there as lighthouse keepers, and when I was, like, ten years old, my stepmother would take me with her when she visited her friends. From the lighthouse, you could descend to the point’s rocky terminus. There were tide pools there, the best I’ve ever discovered. The best tide pool I’ve ever discovered in a work of prose is this one, from the opening chapter of Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea: “Under water that was clear as glass the pool was carpeted with green sponge. Gray patches of sea squirts glistened on the ceiling and colonies of soft coral were a pale apricot color. In the moment when I looked into the cave a little elfin starfish hung down, suspended by the merest thread, perhaps by a single tube foot. It reached down to touch its own reflection, so perfectly delineated that there might have been, not one starfish, but two. The beauty of the reflected images and of the limpid pool itself was the poignant beauty of things that are ephemeral, existing only until the sea should return to fill the little cave.” Reading that passage, I feel a bit like that starfish reaching down to touch a reflection. In Carson’s tide pool, I see one that I remember.
Hayli May Cox is a PhD Student of English/Creative Writing and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her stories and essays have been published in Hippocampus Magazine, Paper Darts, Crab Fat Magazine, Sundog Lit, DIAGRAM, and other places. Hayli is also a visual artist and currently serves as an assistant nonfiction editor at Sundog Lit.
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