By Rusty Birdwell
Justin Hocking on surfing, the White Death, Melville's ghost, and his new memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld which was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great Writers selection, and of which he says, "I took my cues from Moby-Dick—a sprawling, polyphonic, multivalent work that blends the personal with the political and the metaphysical."
Rusty Birdwell: How did you decide on the book’s structure? The titled sections range from one paragraph to several pages (one of my favorite sections being ‘Samsara’)—how do the short and long sections, and white space, serve the book?
Justin Hocking: Wonderworld revolves largely around my longtime preoccupation with the life of Herman Melville and his novel Moby-Dick. Writing about a classic work definitely involved some risks, and one thing I wanted to avoid was any sort of literary ventriloquism. On the other hand, I did allow myself to draw inspiration from what I found in Moby-Dick's unconventional structure, which is that all things are admissible within the bounds of a single work: short sections, long sections, fiction and nonfiction, stagecraft, slapstick humor, reportage, meditations, environmental writing, literary criticism, etc. This freed me up to digress and meander and experiment with form. I organized one of the longer, crux sections, "The City Swell," as a series of surf reports. Within the shorter sections, I was striving for a kind of economy and compression of language that we find in work by poet-memoirists like Nick Flynn. Flynn and others allow for white space and gaps in their poetry and nonfiction, in a way that trusts the reader to make their own connections, without leaning too heavily on conventional, linear narrative. Most poetry collections rely on a slow accretion of resonant images, themes and language, and that was definitely part of the effect I was hoping for in the memoir.
RB: The best books strive toward the universal and the personal; this book steps seamlessly between the two. In some ways this could occur without the larger tale of the American spirit’s dark journey. Why was it so important for you to include the political, industrial, American-spirit landscape in the book?
JH: In the narrative I took some deep dives into my own messy emotional territory, but I also tried to repeatedly bust out of the traditional memoir format. I needed to get the reader (and myself) out of my head quite a bit, to hopefully avoid the sense of claustrophobia that can sometimes plague a memoir or any first person narrative. So I did quite a lot of outward expansion and weaving in news of the wider world, in hope of rendering the deeply personal material more balanced and bearable for the reader. I also wanted to risk some of the grand, sweeping historical/political/philosophical gestures that Melville did, especially since much of the story took place at the height of the war in Iraq. I got fascinated, for instance, with the history of surfing, and how it ties in with the history of American colonialism in Hawaii and elsewhere. And the more I read Moby-Dick, the more I began noticing parallels between the historic whaling industry (which was all about whale oil), and our contemporary petroleum industry. Another chapter deals with the environmental repercussions of the this industry, specifically a massive oil spill that took place in North Brooklyn in the mid 20th Century. It was a much larger, more insidious spill than the Exxon Valdez disaster, but most people have never heard about it, even though it happened in a city populated by eight million or more people. These are all important issues to me, and again, I took my cues from Moby-Dick—a sprawling, polyphonic, multivalent work that blends the personal with the political and the metaphysical.
RB: Melville eventually becomes a physically present character, following you around, sort of torturing you or communing with you in your own dark period. From the first hint of his almost-presence on page 61 to his finding you in bed or in a bathroom stall, how did this come about in the book?
JH: I'm a big fan of literary writers who delve into the surreal—George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Borges all come to mind. I wanted to see if I could pull it off in nonfiction, as a way to lend some narrative immediacy to this sense I had, while in New York, of feeling both haunted and inspired by Melville. It was another somewhat risky move that I worried might come off as maudlin. There were a couple moments, though, where I utilized Melville's specter as a kind of stand-in or body double for some of my darkest emotions, in a way that I hope actually helped me avoid melodrama.
RB: Could you talk a bit about the L train becoming sentient and somewhat omniscient? It tells a random woman on the subway a lot about you, about some pretty deep moments of internal turmoil for you. It’s the train that really introduces us to you starting to lose your shit. Did this have something to do with the book needing narrative distance at that point?
JH: It was absolutely about narrative distance. Revealing my struggles with anxiety and phobias wasn't easy; the shift from first to third person allowed me, as the writer, a little distance and perspective. I also hoped it would give the reader some respectful breathing room while I explicated my personal problems. Utilizing the L Train voice was also another way to experiment with the surreal, and to channel some of the of chaos and noise and weird allure of New York City life.
RB: You give us plenty of examples of other writers and artists who have suffered the White Death. This is the form of obsession the book uses as a lens for all sorts of ailments of spirit and addiction. Do you consider the White Death beneficial if it runs its course without killing the carrier?
JH: During my research, I was surprised to discover how many other writers and artists struggle with bouts of the White Death, which I define as an all-consuming obsession with Moby-Dick. The visual artist Frank Stella spent twelve years creating fifteen hundred abstract paintings and sculptures, each inspired by Moby-Dick; he claims the obsession nearly destroyed him. More recently, illustrator Matt Kish made one drawing a day, every day, for all 552 pages of his version of Moby-Dick. The writer Sena Jeter Naslund grew obsessed with Moby-Dick at age thirteen; she later wrote the 666 page novel Ahab's Wife. So yes, I think the White Death is more of a creative catalyst than a disease. Probably my favorite example is the playwright Tony Kushner, who claims Moby-Dick as the single most important influence on his work, and that he learned from Melville that it's better to risk total catastrophe than to play it safe as an artist.
RB: Much of the book deals with obsession and addiction—from emotional need and drug addiction to American’s continuing petroleum binge—are these in some way, necessary first steps in a Nekyian journey?
JH: I first encountered the term "Nekyia" in a book called Melville's Moby-Dick: An American Nekyia by the Jungian analyst and critic Edward Edinger. Edinger defines the Nekyia as a kind of "night sea journey" through despair and meaninglessness that we all embark on during our development as individuals and a society; he interprets Moby-Dick as a quintessentially American version of the Nekyia. The word Nekyia derives from the eleventh book of the Odyssey, wherein Odysseus descends to the underworld to commune with the dead. These archetypal voyages often begin with a literal or metaphorical descent, and the potent darkness we encounter there is often a necessary first step in the circuitous journey back home.
RB: Overall the book seems to beg us to see dark times as first passages toward journeys that involve revelation and self-awareness. Reaching something good also seems to come out of a sense of community—deliverance through interdependence (not codependence) seems like a big theme of the book as well. Is this the best track for the deepest problems in the realms of both the personal and the social?
JH: When thinking about or discussing Moby-Dick, most people focus on the narrative of Ahab's revenge against the White Whale. That's certainly a huge part of the story, but it brings up the question of ownership. To whom does the story really belong? In my opinion, the narrative of Moby-Dick belongs principally to the narrator, Ishmael. And his is a story not of revenge, but of interconnection and survival. So I'm much more interested in the book as a survival story. Not just our survival as individuals, but also survival in a larger sense, as we continue to encounter massive, late Holocene extinction of species. And especially as we enter this new, Anthropocene era, where the entire planet's survival will require that we challenge the notions of humankind's disconnection from and dominion over the natural world.
RB: Surfing definitely brought you closer to Melville’s understanding of the ocean—can you talk a little about the process, about how surfing changed your understanding of the ocean and of your internal self?
JH: I grew up in Colorado and California, so the lack of true open space in New York was definitely a shock to the system. The one true open space I found was the coast, at spots like Rockaway Beach, in Queens. As I grew increasingly disillusioned with city life, I gravitated toward Rockaway. Surfing became my solace during an otherwise difficult time. The combination of salt water and physical exertion leaves you feeling scoured out and completely at ease in the world. Melville literally spent years at sea, whereas I only dipped my toes in, so to speak. So I don't think I came anywhere close to his level of understanding of how the ocean can connect us with a sense of primal universality. Melville wasn't a starry-eyed Transcendentalist, though; he was keenly aware of nature's tremendous dark side. As things got more emotionally precarious for me, I started taking some unnecessary risks in the ocean, and eventually had my own modest yet terrifying experience of what Melville called the "sledgehammering seas."
RB: Any trepidation about calling the book a memoir? In recent years memoirs have gotten a bad rap. Does this categorization worry you at all?
JH: Not really, because all my favorite works in recent years are memoirs: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, Lit by Mary Karr, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, just to name a few. These books all push hard against the traditional boundaries of memoir. They take big formal and emotional risks. I challenge anyone to read Another Bullshit Night or Chronology of Water and then try to tell me there's something inherently "wrong" or "bad" about the genre. Memoir has gotten a bad rap because every time some asshole like James Frey fabricates an entire narrative, people use it as an excuse to bash the genre as "failed journalism." But memoir is not journalism. To me, it's one of the most elastic and dynamic literary forms out there, especially when handled by writers who stretch its limits and expand our notions of what it can accomplish, both as an art form and as a vessel for deep communion between writers and readers.