Friday, December 3, 1982

A Conversation with Paul Theroux

One of the most momentous meetings of my life: December 3, 1982.  I interviewed Theroux at his London house for Geo magazine. This was my second journey for them. I was barely 25. (The short-lived U.S. editionit still exists in French, German, and Spanishwas the top of the bill. They paid $2500 for an article, $2000 for an interview.) Theroux was everything I thought a great writer should be: worldly, confident, modest, and affable, with the rangy ease of somebody accustomed to physical discomfort. He was also a fund of knowledge about books and writers. He knew Naipaul, he knew Pritchett, he’d known Jean Rhys and S. J. Perelman. He’d taught in East Africa and Singapore. His accent was a mish-mash of American consonants and British vowels (now it’s called mid-Atlantic). 

Though Paul Theroux’s name is synonymous with the literature of train travel due to two bestsellers, The Great Railway Bazaar (London to Japan) and The Old Patagonian Express (Boston to the tip of South America), most of his twenty books are fiction. His new travel book on Britain, The Kingdom by the Sea, has just been published. His most recent novel, The Mosquito Coast, was a 1982 bestseller. Like much of his work, it deals with people displaced—an American family building a gigantic ice machine in the steaming jungles of Honduras. This sense of displacement inevitably leads to self-discovery, in the fiction as well as the travel books.

Because of his travels, Theroux has staked out a fictional territory very much his own. Many of his books are set in parts of Asia, Africa and South America that for most Westerners are out-of-the-way places. He also has the capacity to make the ordinary seem foreign, understandable and new. His fiction is vivid, flexible in style and experimental in range, yet at heart Theroux remains a traditional storyteller.

He is fascinated by outsiders, like the American consul stationed in a dusty Malaysian outpost for the short-story collection The Consul’s File and now transferred to Britain for the recent The London Embassy. And there are the former insiders turned outsiders again: in a much-overlooked masterpiece, The Black House, an elderly British couple who  have spent their lives doing anthropological work in a remote part of Africa retire to a small British village.

Theroux currently lives in London with his wife Anne, and two sons, Marcel and Louis, who are entering their teens. Born near Boston in 1941, Theroux has spent most of his adult life abroad. As a young man he taught English literature in Malawi, Uganda and Singapore. He is an affable man with the relaxed air of someone who has been in uncomfortable places. His accent is a bizarre mixture of British vowels and American consonants. A constant train of thought runs through his conversation: that there is still much out there to see if one is willing to open one’s eyes and undergo a bit of risk and hardship in order to see it. As he wrote years ago, “All travel is circular—the Grand Tour is just the inspired man’s way of heading home.”

AW: There’s a tradition of a grand tour, a journey that exposes a young person to the important cultures of his time. What should today’s grand tour be?

PT: A person should travel not only to find out about the present but to find out about the future. A grand tour today should be the opposite of what it was in the past. It should avoid museums, cathedrals, castles, and ruins. It should go where human life is, to places that throw you images of the future. It should be an intense experience of time, but not historical time, not high culture. Not an experience of opera, museums, and clever talk. It should be the more human experience of seeing the underside of life, because we’re closer to it now than we have ever been. I think that by looking closely at New York, or conversely at India, Laos, or parts of Chicago, you see the pattern of what the future holds for us: a society that is unsafe, difficult, lacking in distribution of things like water, fuels, food; a society in which transportation is bad and security a little shaky. The future has already arrived in Burundi; it also has arrived in Japan. It’s a hundred years ago in Burundi, and perhaps it’ll always be that; it’s tomorrow morning in Japan. There’s a date you can assign to all places. Maybe in Malaysia it’s 1956. In Afghanistan it might be 1910. In Tokyo it might be 1983—or 1984. Travel should be an experience of time. Not an evasion of reality but a confrontation with it. The trouble with most travel today is that it’s done by the very old, people who are retired, on whom it makes an impression but who won’t make much of a difference.

AW: You don’t think young people travel enough?

PT: No, I don’t, and I don’t think they go to the right places. A young person of today should go to the wildest, deepest, most remote, most difficult, most poverty-stricken place he can think of. He should go to the wilds of Asia, Africa, South America. A person should go to as many places as he can, because these places are closing up and in time they’ll become impossible. Only a few years ago I went to Afghanistan, and I walked around looking through a pair of binoculars. If you did that now, they’d shoot you. The other area a person has an obligation to travel is the same sort of area within his own country. In the States, places like Detroit, parts of Chicago, parts of New York, parts of Boston, areas that are a kind of terra incognita, the equivalent of the Congo Basin. A lot of New Yorkers have been to the hinterlands of Chicago but never to the South Bronx.

AW: How has travel changed over the years? What’s wrong with the way people travel?

PT: People have always traveled in two ways. There have always been explorers and there have always been vacationers. The first vacationers were Greeks, Romans, Spaniards, English—people from great civilizations and great empires. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries America became a great “empire”—a place that was large, powerful, rich, and felt itself a kind of conscience and morality for the world, a standard by which the world could measure itself. Americans are now traveling the way the British did in Victorian times, with tremendous confidence and with the authority of a civilization behind them. But in general Americans are not very intrepid tourists; we mistake vacationing for travel. We’re very horizontal tourists—to go to a place merely to lie on a beach is not travel. People today are either doing it on their backs or doing it the way Lady So-and-So did, carried through Arabia in her sedan chair. Our equivalent is the package tour. People get to the upper reaches of the Yangtze without ever standing up. They can actually just sit the whole time. Sit on a plane, sit on a bus, sit on a boat. But the tours are so expertly organized that they can miraculously get very lazy, infirm, chain-smoking, drunken people all the way to the Galápagos. The explorer has a different instinct, the instinct of Columbus, Robinson Crusoe, Adam—to be the first person to see something, or the last. That instinct is very strong in the discovering mind, the exploring mind. Only explorers will tell you this, but it’s a fact: there are many, many places on earth where no one has ever been. One of the comic aspects of the twentieth century is our addiction to science fiction—that kind of stupid, slavish love for other planets and the idea that our future is somehow bound up with space travel. So maybe a dozen people go to Mars, what difference does that make to the rest of us? None. It makes no difference. NASA is the cargo cult of the present, thinking there’s something up there that will deliver us. We’re like New Guinean savages. They have their stupid airstrips in the jungle, and we have NASA. The fact is there are tributaries of the Amazon where animals will walk up and lick your hand, otters will climb into your boat, because they’ve never seen a human being. And it’s the same in Borneo. And Africa. So there’s a fatigue and world-weariness in thinking the planet’s all mapped, everyone’s been everywhere, that there was a time in the past when the going was good. For the intrepid person who has money, time, alertness, and health, the going is still good, and you can see things as strange as Columbus ever saw.

AW: What does it take to be a good traveler?

PT: Courage. Curiosity. A traveler has to be alone. He has to take risks. And he has to be among many things vastly different from those he has come from. You see, a lot of people who travel are merely looking for an idealized version of home. I mean, what is the south of France? The south of France is Florida with slightly better food, except it’s harder to find a parking place in Cannes than in Ft. Lauderdale. So the difference is not very great. People travel to find home plus better food, home plus more sunshine, home plus easier parking, home but no crime, home plus the possibility of romance—a fling with a native, no social diseases. The point is, they’re not looking for much. They’re not looking for the foreign, the strange, the really outlandish. People travel thousands and thousands of miles in order to feel at home. That’s why wars are fought in places that are idealized or dream versions of the countries waging war. To be specific, Vietnam struck me as just that sort of place the French would want to colonize and keep. Saigon and Hanoi were idealized versions of Paris. Delhi and Calcutta were idealized London, London the way the English wanted it to be. Empire and warfare never happen in a complete wasteland. People want to annex a country either because it reminds them of home or because it enhances their version of what they want to be. Americans always saw Vietnam as a horrible place. Vietnam is a very beautiful place, with extremely nice, gentle, civilized people who would, if they had the money, buy IBM computers, toilet paper, and everything else. And they would become perfect colonials if there were a God in heaven, let’s say, and General Westmoreland were in charge. These people would be one of us. There was an American soldier of fortune, William Walker, who became the president of Nicaragua for a year, just before the Civil War. He took over, kept slavery going and changed the language to English. He just assumed it would be part of Dixie. This is Nicaragua. He was shot, actually, but he was president for a year. He was five feet tall. And yet Nicaragua, in Walker’s terms, is just like Alabama or Mississippi. It’s not a banana republic, it’s a place where you can smoke a cheroot, sip a mint julep, and watch people harvest cotton. His plan didn’t work, but it makes you think twice about what the motives for empire might be. So imperialism and tourism are parallel. Maybe they’re lines that never meet, but they’re very close.

AW: You need the first in order to have the second.

PT: Definitely. But exploration is completely different. Tourism is inward-looking. Tourism is hunting for New Canaan with palm trees, Westchester with balmy breezes. Exploration is bitter cold, terrible heat. It’s malaria. It’s the Mato Grosso rather than Manaus. It’s discovery. It’s finding you know nothing, that you are completely naked and completely vulnerable—and so you offer yourself. You have to be humble enough to say, “Teach me your language, let me live among you.” And arrogant enough to think you’re not going to be killed. The combination is very rare.

AW: You’ve traveled to many of the poorest places in the world and lived for a time in some of them. Does one become hardened to poverty?

PT: Well, no. It’s hard to see poverty and not feel that there’s an oppressor and an oppressed. V.S. Naipaul once wrote, “Hate oppression; fear the oppressed.” Poverty is a relative concept. It’s not really a question of money, it’s a question of what the expectations are. Some poverty does nothing to some people. There are a lot of Africans or South American Indians who’d tell you they’re as rich as Croesus, and they’re subsistence farmers. You see, the people who’ve become aware of their poverty are the people who are observed; their poverty is witnessed by other people who remind them that they’re poor. That didn’t happen in the past; there was a kind of benign neglect. People who go to Lima or Bombay make the poverty worse by commenting on it.

AW: What are some of the great travel books?

PT: Kinglake’s Eothen is one. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta is another, and so is Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques; Hudson’s Idle Days in Patagonia; Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle; and South, by Shackleton. And then there are books that are not about great trips, but they’re written in a tremendously interesting way: American Notes, by Dickens; Twain’s A Tramp Abroad; Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps—I’m looking at my travel shelf here—Fermor’s The Traveller’s Tree and A Time of Gifts; Stanley’s In Darkest Africa; V.S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage and An Area of Darkness.

AW: Your train books make clear the advantages of slow travel over quick travel. Wouldn’t the best way, then, be simply to walk?

PT: Walking is the ideal way to travel in any country, and if I had the time, if I didn’t have to make a living, that’s definitely what I’d do; I’d just walk. Twenty miles a day on foot is the ideal rate. You leave a place in the morning, have lunch in another place, and sleep in another place. And you keep moving. This is what I’ve just done, actually, for my new travel book. I’ve walked around the coast of Britain—not just England but Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland. If it was raining I took a bus or a train, but it’s such an easy country to travel in that you constantly have to slow yourself down. I went on the assumption that there was a coastal path that went entirely around Britain. And what I want to do now is write about Britain as it’s never been written about before. More books have been written about Britain than about perhaps any other country on earth, but it’s still very much an unknown place because of people’s received impressions. People come looking for Dickens’ England, Thackeray’s England, cookie-box England. In order to write well you have to rid yourself of accepted notions of a place.

AW: What reaction do you want from readers?

PT: I want people to burst into tears, I suppose, or be thrilled. Or to give the book to someone else and say, “Read this book, I hope you like it as much as I do.” Because offering a person a book is like offering him a destination. You say, “Take this and you’ll be happy.” We’re all trying to find something that will give the world a sense of order. And that’s what fiction does. In the case of my travel books, if a person says to me, ”Your book made me want to go there,” that always makes me feel I’ve failed. He should say, “I’m glad I read your book, now I don’t have to go there.” That’s an important distinction. In a sense the travel writer is traveling for the reader. The book should be an intense experience of the place, and the reader should receive the experience as freshly and directly as I have.

AW:  in The Old Patagonian Express, you describe yourself in passing as a feminist. Could you comment?

PT: I like treating women as equals, and I like to be treated as an equal. The good thing about feminism is that it actually allows men to be free; it liberates men. It’s sickening, boring, and I think, backward-looking to regard yourself as either the protector of women or the seducer of women. I think women in a job should be equally paid. I believe in equality of the sexes as far as raising children goes. I don’t believe in alimony. There are a lot of things that disgust me about the rigid ways men regard women and women regard men. Many women aren’t liberated and yet want to be treated that way. Many women would insist on having doors opened for them or being called up—the cliché roles. And if you’re writing, unless you have some liberated sense of women and men, you’re writing about a dead world, a world in which women are being sold short and men, too, for that matter. This is parenthetical, but I suppose feminism led me to think about myself as a spouse, with no more rights in choosing a place to live than my wife.

AW:  Why do you live in England?

PT:  When I stopped teaching and started to write full time, almost twelve years ago, my wife said that she didn’t want to stop working. Since for all our married life she’d lived in places I wanted to live in—East Africa and Singapore—I said, “We’ll live where you want to live.” Being English, she chose England. She’s a radio producer for the BBC. At the same time, I have a very strong homing instinct. After I’d lived here for three or four years I began to think England was not a country I felt very passionate about. I can’t vote here, I can’t run for Parliament; I pay taxes but I’m an alien, and I don’t like being alien, I don’t like not having roots. I’m not an exile or a refugee; I come from a big, strong, friendly country, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t have some claim. So when I got the money I bought a house in Massachusetts, and that’s where I call home. So I live here as an alien, not as an Anglophile. In fact Anglophiles don’t last very long here if they believe in Britain as Merrie England. This is an expensive, rough, decaying, semibankrupt, difficult, inward-looking, frugal, not very pretty society. A very backward-looking, very pessimistic and even very cynical place. The English are not a romantic people. They’re practical, and romance comes to people with optimism, with a sense of possibility: yes, you might fall in love; yes you might get rich. Something good will happen to you—that’s romance. Americans have it, most Europeans don’t. The English definitely don’t. It’s interesting, and hard, to live in a society that’s in decay, but it’s not inspiring, and it doesn’t make you feel at home. I live here in the same way I lived in Uganda, looking at people the same way, feeling a tremendous sense of detachment, feeling that if my future were bound up with theirs I’d throw myself off a bridge. My spiritual inspiration is that I have a house in the States and I can go there anytime I like.

AW: Are there any trends that you see in American reading and writing?

PT: I think there’s a tendency among serious American readers to think that reading has something to do not with enjoyment but with study. But reading shouldn’t be something you have to delve around in or study in order to enjoy; the experience should be direct, immediate and vivid. All reading should be pleasurable in the way that all travel ultimately, in retrospect, should be pleasurable. The trouble with a lot of American writing is that as Americans we think we’re only doing the work of writers when we’re inventing a language. You notice that a lot of American writing is a conscious attempt to forge a new language, to find a new narrative technique and to invent a new idiom. I think it’s one of the blind alleys of the American tradition, this feeling that we have to create a new language out of the sense of inadequacy in the face of British writing. The main road should be a very simple one. It’s forging the uncreated conscience of the race, yes, but in standard English. It’s actually writing clearly, but not plainly, in one’s own voice. It’s more difficult to write clearly than in a mannered way. Only mediocre writers adopt a style: you either have it or you don’t. We don’t write as we want to write, we write as we can. I read a lot, but if I thought I was reading something that encompassed the world as I knew it and the experience I’d had, I wouldn’t write. I would be content to go on reading. I think that’s true of most people: they tend to feel that their experience is unique and inimitable. You have to start with that arrogant confidence. Actually, although I’ve had my ups and downs, I’ve been very lucky as a writer. I’ve gotten, I suppose, much more than I deserve out of it. Writing made me a free man. No other profession could have done that. When you think that writing is something you do by yourself, that you’re making something out of nothing, it’s like a conjuring trick in one sense—there is nothing like it. Except, I suppose, painting, composing music, the other creative professions. All of those make you free. They free you from dogma, they free you from every sort of earthly constraint, they give you a tremendously vivid dream life, and they add to your sense of joy and liberation. And that’s the only point of going on living, being able to feel that as your time on Earth progresses you’re becoming steadily more free. You can’t feel as if you’re subject to someone else’s will. I suppose that’s why rich people buy an island or a jet plane. In a material sense they want to be free, and they’re trying to do it with money. But it is possible with the imagination.

AW:  Which of your own books are your favorites?

PT: That’s a hard question. I like the books that I still find a little difficult to understand, that I’m not quite sure which imaginative reservoir they drained out of. For example, The Black House, Picture Palace, The Mosquito Coast. I know where The Great Railway Bazaar came from. I know how it arose, how I planned it and what the trick was. I still wonder about The Black House. And then sometimes I begin a story in a different voice and it's almost like ventriloquism, like doing a funny accent and then somehow believing in the accent and saying something I wouldn’t have said in my own voice.

AW: Do you know where you’re going next?

PT: I don’t, but I find that encouraging. I’ve been skirting around it, but what we’ve been talking about, actually, in writing and travel, is an experience of the unknown. And that awaits discovery.

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