When he hit rock bottom, DIY zine-maker and literary adventurer Justin Hocking started taking evening jaunts from New York City to Rockaway Beach, where he surfed the waves under the moonlit sky. He defied death; he navigated trauma; he searched the shadows of his soul. This period of self-exploration launched a new journey: the writing of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, a surfing memoir and a personal exploration of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. On Wednesday, April 2, Justin Hocking will be reading from his memoir at the Tattered Cover Colfax. In advance of this appearance, Westword spoke with Hocking about the book.
See also: Bruce Weber on bicycling, mortality and Life is a Wheel
Westword: Talk about your work as a writer and the work you do in the DIY publishing world.
Justin Hocking: I was born and raised in Colorado and really got my start as a writer in the MFA program at Colorado State University. Since the late '90s, I've also been involved in zine-making and other DIY pursuits. I'm currently the director of a Portland-based nonprofit called the Independent Publishing Resource Center. It's a unique organization that combines elements of a DIY publishing company, a book arts center, a creative writing school and an artists' collective. Talk about The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld.
The book's central thread is my ongoing obsession with Herman Melville and the novel Moby-Dick. There are endless ways to read and interpret Moby-Dick, but I'm interested in the novel as a kind of archetypal guidebook for surviving the night sea journeys -- or dark nights of the soul -- that we all encounter at various points in our lives. I was robbed at gunpoint in 2006, and went into an emotional tailspin in the wake of this trauma. I was living in New York City at the time, and started spending more and more time surfing out at Rockaway Beach, taking some dangerous risks, paddling out by myself way past sunset. Looking back, I realize I was in the midst of my own night sea journey. This dark voyage is what comprises the memoir's core trajectory. Why a memoir?
One of several items I lost during that 2006 robbery was my laptop computer, containing the files for a novel I'd been working on for several years. I had some of it backed up elsewhere, but not all. It was a devastating loss, but I figured it was also the universe's way of redirecting my creative energy. The day after the robbery, my stepfather said, "Well, at least you have something interesting to write about." I hated him for it at the time, but he was absolutely right. I find that creative nonfiction comes much more naturally to me. The memoir genre sometimes gets a bad rap, but in my opinion some of the most exciting and affecting literature is being created in this form, by writers like Nick Flynn, Mary Karr, David Shields and Cheryl Strayed.
Read on for more from Hocking.
What about Melville excites you?
When writing Wonderworld, I was inspired by what I found in Moby-Dick, which is that all things are admissible within the bounds of a single book: fiction, nonfiction, history, literary criticism, nature writing, adventure yarns, stagecraft, lists, etc.... It freed me up to dive deeply into my own story, but to also expand way beyond myself by including relevant digressions about the history of surfing, my seafaring uncle's harrowing escape from Scientology and the stories of other Melville-obsessed artists like Jean Michel Basquiat, Junot Diaz and Jackson Pollo ck.
What has surfing done for you?
When I relocated from Colorado to New York City in 2003, I was overwhelmed by the city's lack of open space. The one place I found a literal and metaphorical horizon was at the coast, specifically Rockaway Beach in Queens. Discovering that there was a designated surfing beach within New York City limits -- and that you can get there via subway -- was a revelation. Surfing helped me through some challenging times; it also immersed me in a network of deep and sustaining friendships.
You talk about your work in the context of "hitting the bottom." Would you care to elaborate?
I've always been drawn to the metaphorical theme of descent that's so common in literature, for example,in Dante's Inferno, the Orpheus myth, and even Moby-Dick. I see it as a potent metaphor for the way so many of us descend into darkness via drugs, relationships gone bad, depression, trauma, etc.... What interests me about hitting bottom is the subsequent crawling toward the light, this kind of gritty rebirth theme that I find in contemporary works like Lit by Mary Karr or Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and that I aspire to in my own work.
What can audiences who show up expect?
I'm thrilled to read again at the Tattered Cover; it feels like a bit of a homecoming. I'm planning to read a chapter entitled "All I Need Is This Thermos." It's the harrowing yet humorous account of the robbery incident, which didn't actually take place in New York, but while I was on vacation in Denver, of all places.
What advice do you have for budding writers?
Take risks, and don't be afraid to get lost -- some of the best writing arises from uncertainty, from stumbling around in the dark. I don't advocate for intentional suffering, but the beauty of the writing life is that you can transform traumas and difficulties into art. This profession also requires a special combination of sensitivity to the world and people around you, alongside pretty hardcore grit and perseverance.
Hocking will read from his book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 2 at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue; for more information, go to tatteredcover.com or call 303-322-7727. Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris