Donovan Hohn, author of the best-selling book “Moby-Duck,” recipient of the Whiting Writer’s Award and features editor of GQ magazine, had not always planned on becoming a writer.

“When I was 11 years old I had narrowed it down to three things,” Hohn said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “It was between marine biologist, poet and priest. By process of elimination I became a poet.”

After nixing priesthood and falling short in a chemistry class in high school, Hohn turned to poets and authors for guidance on living the life of a writer.

“I had this notion, perhaps because I read Thoreau’s ‘Walden,’ that I would choose to live modestly and make it work, which was idealistic and naïve,” Hohn said.

After graduating from Boston University with a Master of Arts, Hohn spent the next few years in New York City living out his “starving artist” dream and bartending at a café. When his wife decided to go back to school, Hohn applied with her and the two were accepted to the University. Both graduated from the University with Master of Fine Arts degrees. Graduates of the University’s MFA program often go on to become tenured-track professors at universities all over the United States, and many have won prestigious literary awards.

Hohn’s decision to return to school was based on his less-than-positive experience at Boston University in the Master of Arts program. Hohn felt he was too young and inexperienced for that program.

“But the two years at Michigan were transformative for me,” he said. “The exposure and the involvement that this program requires of its writers in the academic community — I loved it.”

Hohn spent the two years immersed in the culture and the intellectual world of the University, where he finally felt comfortable and at ease with the direction his writing took.

“It affected my writing in wonderful ways, and it was really here that I felt the voice that was mine and a kind of writing that was mine,” Hohn said. “It felt like a breakthrough during those two years.”

Hohn received multiple Hopwood Awards during his time at the University. Among other honors, in 2008 he received the Whiting award, which is given to writers without forewarning or knowledge of nomination. He won it while he was finishing his debut book, “Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them.” The book, a marriage of non-fiction and whimsical travel journalism, tells the story of a batch of toys lost at sea in 1992.

Inspired by authors such as Melville, Evan Connell and David Quammen, “Moby-Duck” sends Hohn on a wild goose chase.

What started as a former student’s essay on his love of rubber ducks turned into Hohn’s primary interest. He began to research the lost bunch of toys, speaking with flotsam hunters in Alaska, oceanographers whose job it is to control debris accumulating at sea and various toy manufactures who shipped toys all over the world.

Hohn did not plan for his journey through his first book to take him on an actual trip around the world. When asked about the genre of “Moby-Duck,” Hohn admitted that, considering the distance he physically and literarily traveled, it was difficult to pinpoint one style that the work took on.

“It could be thought of as travel writing, science writing and environmental reporting,” Hohn said. “For me it’s not such an unclassifiable mongrel: It is a travel narrative, and many of the books I was thinking about and influenced by use that travel narrative form.”

He added: “Like travel writing, the stories I like the most are both journeys through space and time, but also journeys of the mind where your thoughts begin in one place and end in another, which is what essays do and the book merges those two concepts together.”

Hohn discussed this and other topics on his current visit to the University as a speaker of the Zell Visiting Writers Series. The series brings acclaimed writers to the University community, providing the the opportunity to communicate with and learn more about the visiting writers.

Before joining the MFA program at the University, Hohn spent his time at Harper’s magazine as an editor, having chanced upon the position due to the large number of Harper’s members dining at the café Hohn worked at. Hohn was recently asked to join the staff at GQ, editing its long-form journalism. He plans to continue there for the time being but is already planning a second book.

“I am beginning to carefully move towards a second (book),” Hohn said. “I’ve got a couple ideas so I’m going to embark on another journey, but I hope it won’t be so much time at sea and away from my family.”

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