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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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An Interview with Marko Fong,

Author of “Ocean in a Box”


by Annam Manthiram




AM:  I am a firm believer in the power of the first line – whether in a short story, novel, film, or poem.  The first line of your story–“Water doesn’t forget”–gets the reader oriented quickly with a complex set of ideas and emotions such as guilt, memories, the past, and moving forward.  How did you begin this story?  And if water does not forget, what do you think does?


MF:  First Annam, thanks for your interest in the story and me.  I’d honestly forgotten where this one came from, then realized it had an unusual history.  There’s a Japanese man, Masara Emoto, who has written at least one book on the way water responds to emotion and other seemingly subjective stimuli like classical music.  I’d first heard about it in a new age documentary called “What the Bleep Do We Know Anyway” (not to be confused with the William Shatner sitcom).  I’m not a new ager, but I live in Sonoma County in Northern California.  How do I put this?  My town actually has or had a store that sells nothing but crystals.  A year or two later, I was in a writing class given by a very good local writing teacher, Guy Biederman, who mentioned Emoto’s book again. Emoto tends to be more about water recording “positive” emotion, it just struck me that tears are the ultimate manifestation of the connection between water and human emotion.  Tears, like it or not, tend to be free.


For what it’s worth, one of my first stories, “The Chip,” was about a Japanese scientist who develops a transistor from the salt inside a human tear instead of silicon, which generally comes from sand.  Where the one was able to process in binary, the other was able to process emotion.  I’m convinced that my story brought Emoto into being which means that he should be paying me royalties from his book.  On the other hand, I probably owe him all this unpaid child support for his development of the idea.


It was late at night and we had a lot going on in our family that week where different events that didn’t normally connect kept spilling into each other.  I saw one of Emoto’s thirty-five dollar bottles of water in my head and my wife was in the bathtub making sloshing sounds that felt like they were directed at me.  A tear formed in my eye.  I wrote the story in about an hour.


A lot of my stories are about how fragile individual intellectual memory really is.  Our minds forget, but other parts of us don’t.  We always think of our bodies as solid, but we’re actually permeable and mostly liquid and we’re physically more or less a container for that.  Human memory is apparently really lousy, at least the mental process is, but it’s not the only means we have for recording experience.  I love those anthropologist conjectures where they found like three teeth and a couple bones then tell you how old the person was, what she ate, and how many children she had.  I’ve also watched too much “Star Trek” and “Law and Order SVU.”          


AM:  I love the narrator.  He is unapologetic, truthful, and unafraid.  What was your inspiration for this



MF: This is embarrassing.  The narrator is a very fictionalized version of me.  You’ll have to ask my parents for the answer to that one :}, though there may be a hint about that in my other Grey Sparrow story, “Tears for the River God.” 


AM:  My next question is in reference to these lines-“This was not the inevitable result of the first incident, but they connect in the same way that rain ultimately connects all the water in rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans.  They say the earth has had roughly the same amount of water since its crust cooled and the oceans formed.  The atmosphere holds it in place and each body of water shifts and shimmers in seemingly endless variations.” 


Do you think it matters whether the incident is small or large, important or not, in order for the ultimate connection be forged, or do all minutiae lead to the next event in a chain of succession?


MF: I believe almost all fiction writers believe very strongly in the latter.  A lot of novels and stories are really an argument for the notion that little almost unnoticeable events are the staging ground for the major events.  I think there’s a whole genre of “Butterfly Effect” stories within science fiction like Bradbury’s “Sound of Thunder.”  I think literary writers generally think “the seemingly smaller the event the better,” which tends to be one of the dividing lines between literary and genre.


AM:  Did you have an “Ocean in a Box” as a child?  If so, what does it mean to you?  If not, would you ever consider obtaining one and why?


MF:  I never did.  I first saw them at a store called “Dunhill” which used be off the corner of Union Square in San Francisco.  My parents would go to San Francisco each year to do their Christmas shopping.  Dunhill was an early version of Brookstone, pre microprocessor.  My mom would go to City of Paris or Macy’s to shop for clothes.  Dad would take me to Dunhill where we used to hang out in this bank vault of a cigar humidor.  There was a section of the store that had fancy chess sets and toys for office desks.  The popular one at the time was the five metal balls on swings that did Newton’s laws of motion.  Ocean in a Box I think was the next Christmas season.  The Pet Rock was a couple years after that.


Anyway, the adults would buy the Ocean in a Box, get bored with it, then give it to their kids.  The kids would always drill holes in them to figure out what made the thing look so much like ocean waves.  It was mostly a very viscous oil mixed with water by the way.  It wasn’t as bad as those fortune telling eight balls where you cracked the thing open and found this twelve sided die and a bunch of oily water, but it was really disappointing.  This is making me feel really old.


AM:  The story highlights the destructive properties, the sadness and unforgiving nature of water.  Do you feel that water within the context of the story has redeeming qualities?  If so, what specifically?  If not, why?


MF: The water cycle is fascinating.  We use water to wash things and purify them, but if I understand the science correctly, the same water keeps coming back to us which means that all that sadness and impurity is there too since it’s ultimately the same water.


AM:  I think it is telling that the only dialogue the narrator is given is when he is seven, though the story is written in first person.  He is silent when his wife lectures their daughter, he does not intervene when the daughter chastises her mother.  His only spoken words are, “I’m not afraid of water, I’m afraid of drowning,” spoken as a young boy.  How does this omission affect the story?  What does it say about the narrator?


MF: Believe it or not, that was intentional.  The reader’s supposed to feel like the narrator’s literally underwater more or less trapped inside an Ocean in a Box.  If you try to talk, you get a mouth full of oily water.  That bit at the end is sort of like his poking his head above the surface for the first time in the story’s implied present.


AM: The narrator’s son’s character is heartbreaking.  Like the narrator, he has little or no voice, keeping the molestation a secret, and after his accident and the coma, still keeping it from his sister.  Is he meant to serve as a parallel to the narrator somehow?  Are he and his father alike?  If so, how, besides what I have mentioned?  If not, why?


MF: As I get older, the more I notice that the things that make us uncomfortable about other people, especially the ones close to us, tend to be the things where they are most like us.  The thing that’s hard is that we can’t see that particular similarity, because it’s often something that we’re uncomfortable with about ourselves.  The narrator wasn’t molested, but both characters hold hurt in even when it’s unhealthy, then act out.  There’s very much a parallel intended.  In the accident, the son winds up face down in a creek and that’s how the one memory surfaces while his other memories disperse.  The narrator’s acknowledging a similarity in the way his inner world works and a fear about what he might have taught by inadvertent example in the way he’s managed his liquid self.  


AM: The last line–“What I want to know is given that, can it forgive?”  is a question almost directed toward the reader, but also rhetorical in its own right.  Has the narrator answered that question for himself yet?  Have you as the writer?


MF: I think forgetting and forgiveness are actually different things, but too often we treat them as if they’re the same thing.  Most of our world is water and that’s also one of the reasons our planet supports the earth’s extraordinary bio-diversity that includes sentient life.  Forgetting is a mental illusion or trick that often allows us to move forward.  Forgiveness is an act of the heart and an intrinsic part of that act is an acceptance of the reality of the original event and actions and an agreement to push it to the background of your interactions with that person.  Of the three major states of matter, solid, liquid, gas (water being unusual because it takes all three forms in ordinary conditions), liquid is the one that takes on the shape of its container, making it literally forgiving.  I think that’s part of why water is so soothing to many people.


I’d mention that in the story, humans are mostly liquid.  The ending was sort of the narrator, this body of liquid that’s retained all these bad events, finally asking if he could or at least begin to forgive himself for cheating on his wife in the midst of all the other difficult family events.  To be clear, the narrator’s based on me, but the story is fiction.