Jeff Chapman comments on Colin McKay Miller’s “The Ocean Thief” and asks him a few questions about the story.
What would happen if the ocean’s vanished? What would we do with all that sand? What would become of fishermen? Look no further than Colin McKay Miller’s “The Ocean Thief” (The Midnight Diner, Volume 3). In Miller’s tale, a man somehow puts all the oceans into a book. No one knows who he is or how he did it, because no one was watching when he did it. Miller’s story reads like an allegory with a tone somewhere between a fairy tale and an essay salted with bits of understated humor.
Naval forces disbanded. Fishermen went back to being men. The desert of the ocean was a popular vacation spot until people realized they didn’t need any more deserts (p. 71).
As expected, people learn to muddle through with much less water, but the Ocean Thief–the name he assumes via popular usage–remains a mystery. Some think he’s God. Some think he’s stupid. No one can tell where he is from. He speaks many languages but all with a foreign accent. He travels a great deal but no one can explain how he gets around. He refuses to answer any questions, preferring to sit on park benches and “read” the book of seemingly blank pages containing the oceans. The evidence seems to point to God, but the story’s ending suggests otherwise.
Miller’s story is baffling after the first read. The story asks many questions but does not provide ready answers. Is the man with the book really a thief? Who owns the oceans? Will the oceans disappear if we don’t take care of them? Can mankind persevere through any catastrophe? More details float to the surface with each reading, but like the Ocean Thief, the answers remain elusive.
Colin kindly answered a few questions about “The Ocean Thief.”
JC: The tone of this piece reminds me of Herman Hesse’s fairy tale “The City.” Did you have any literary models in mind when writing “The Ocean Thief”?
CMM: While many books have influenced my writing—Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live, A.L. Kennedy’s Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, and The Bible (seriously, people have been trying to recreate the power of those stories forever)—influences that I’ve been trying to bury deeper so that they’re not so overt, one of the things I like about “The Ocean Thief” is that it doesn’t read like what I usually write, and thus feels fairly uninfluenced. Never read Hermann Hesse though; I’ll have to look him up.
JC: What inspired the idea of capturing the ocean in a book?
CMM: Here’s an uninspiring answer for you: For some odd reason, I just plucked the title out of nothing—“The Man Who Put the Ocean in a Book”—and wrote the story off what that would actually look like if it happened in the world tomorrow. Then those cruel, cruel editors at The Midnight Diner wanted something shorter, punchier, and since they were kind enough to publish me, “The Ocean Thief” seemed like a fair concession.
I actually discussed this very story in an interview a couple of years back: http://craigwallwork.blogspot.com/2009/07/interview-with-colin-mckay-miller.html
JC: You record the Ocean Thief’s interaction with two other characters, a German strongman and a small American girl. What is the symbolism behind those two characters and incidents?
CMM: About halfway through the piece, I realized that it would come across as allegory, so I figured I better actually put some meaning in there. It’s one thing if people read into things, but if you intentionally place no meaning into what looks like it should have meaning, well, that just seems like cheating to me.
The young, American girl covers a couple of angles: You could argue an American sense of entitlement, but more than that, as a young girl who is invited to dip her arm in the ocean book—not being forceful, not really earning it—it’s more about the heart of the man who put the ocean in the book. As for the German strongman who likes to pull great things with his teeth, I just love that character. His full story, “Queasy,” appears in Sideshow Fables #1. In “The Ocean Thief,” he serves as the antithesis to the young, American girl. With his brute strength, it appears as though he could take the book, but it’s the young, powerless girl who is invited in instead.
JC: The lingering mystery is the Ocean Thief’s identity. He has some superhuman abilities but dies a strange death. How do you hope readers will interpret him?
CMM: Oh no’s, spoiler alert! Why don’t you just tell everyone about Vader’s family while you’re at it?
Power is an intriguing element. We see how other people waste or misappropriate it, but somehow assume we’d be different if we had that same power. Gangbangers love “Scarface,” but a lot of their admiration seems to miss the fact that Tony Montana dies when the power he’s wielded for so long is seized by other men wanting to be on top. Likewise, many people think that if they won the lottery, they wouldn’t go broke or that their problems would all disappear, yet I constantly come across interviews with broken down, strife-riddled lottery winners who assumed they’d be different, too. So if you’re powerful enough to put the ocean in a book, you should be able to control every angle, yet we’ve seen throughout history that people can’t handle the power they take.
In Judges 9, Abimelech was a dude who killed all his brothers so that he could be king, yet it was only a few years before people followed his example to do whatever they wanted, too. “Scarface” ends with Tony Montana’s sister cursing him and shooting him in the leg; Judges 9 ends with Abimelech forcefully trying to hold onto his power, only to have a woman smash his skull with a grain-grinding stone dropped from a tower (not even a weapon from someone equipped to fight). And “The Ocean Thief”? Well, it ended how I wanted it to end. I think the man who put the ocean in a book is a more favorable character than Tony Montana or Abimelech, but he (obviously or maybe not so obviously) couldn’t wield the power he took.
Jeff Chapman writes fairy tales, fantasy, and ghost stories and hearing the expression “just a fairy tale” rankles him. His works have appeared in various anthologies and magazines. He lives with his wife and children in a house with more books than bookshelf space. To learn more, stop by his blog at http://jeffchapmanwriter.blogspot.com/.