Paul Theroux

By Dwight Garner
Published September 9, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Paul Theroux, like most writers, is far uglier in person than he is in
photographs. For one thing, there's the matter of his bluntly-cut toupee, which
tilts noticeably from side to side as he shifts in his chair. For another, there
are Theroux's teeth, which are so badly stained they seem to be carved from the
driftwood that dots the nearby Cape Cod shoreline. Never mind his unpleasant
habit of hacking up massive gobs of phlegm, which he then expectorates into the
Persian carpet at his visitor's feet.

None of this is true, of course. I've never met Paul Theroux, and have no reason
to believe that he wears a toupee, or has rotten teeth, or likes to spit into his
carpet. But he has encouraged me, over the course of several telephone
conversations, to make things up about him.

"Go ahead," he said via telephone from his Cape Cod home. "Make things up about me. Pretend you visited me. Write about me puffing on my pipe, or walking on the beach, or whatever you want."

Theroux wants me to equivocate for two reasons. For one, he's busy working on a new book and he doesn't want to be interrupted by pesky interviewers. For another, though, he's hoping to illustrate the central theme of his provocative new novel, "My Other Life" -- a book about the wildly shifting nature of identity.

"My Other Life" is a book that, a bit like Theroux's earlier novel "My Secret History" (1989), artfully blends fact and fiction. "My Other Life" is about a fictional character named Paul Theroux, who has led a life that's quite similar to the author's own. This "fictional" Paul Theroux has written books called "The Great Railway Bazaar" and "The Mosquito Coast"; he has spent time in Africa and taught in Singapore; lived with his wife and two children in London; is now divorced and spends his summers on Cape Cod. But for the most part, the "truth" ends there.

Theroux wrote "My Other Life," he says, in response to critics who derided his earlier "My Secret History" as being little more than thinly veiled autobiography. "My Other Life" has already become controversial among readers who aren't quite sure where the novel's facts end, and where its fiction begins. In one already notorious chapter, for example, Theroux's doppelganger is invited to have dinner with the Queen. After describing the Queen as "muffin-faced" and "slightly hemorrhoidal," among other things, he fantasizes about fondling her royal mammaries.

In an hour-long telephone interview, Theroux talked about the problems (and pleasures) of combining fact with fiction, and his lengthy career as a travel writer.

No one ever seems to utter your name -- or mention one of your books -- without attaching words like "prickly" or "irascible" or "doesn't suffer fools gladly." I imagine that, by now, you must take this as a compliment.

Dyspeptic is another one they use... I don't know how to take it. But I think that what people call grumpy, prickly or dyspeptic is really a misunderstanding of irony. Because a lot of irony looks like dyspepsia. Irony looks like prickliness. But actually it's just another form of humor, isn't it? It's veiled sarcasm. I think that the people who read my books and like them, and there are plenty of them, wouldn't read me if I was merely a bad-tempered person. In fact, I think of myself as a pretty good-tempered person. I think that, particularly in travel writing, we are used to sweetness and light. I decided very early on -- more than 25 years ago when I published my first travel book, "The Great Railway Bazaar" -- that a lot of travel writing was merely like a postcard saying: "Everything is fine. Wish you were here." But what I realized is that a lot of travel is misery and delay.

The chapter where you dine with the Queen -- in which the Paul Theroux character farts while shaking her hand, among other things -- was printed in The New Yorker under the heading "Fact and Fiction." What kind of response did it provoke in Britain?

I was in Hong Kong when the piece appeared, and the Chinese newspapers in Kowloon had pieces about it -- with my name written in Chinese. Was there interest? Yes. Particularly in the Commonwealth -- in Canada, in Australia, in New Zealand -- where the Queen is held in great reverence as a sort of goddess. I think the question everyone wants to know is: Did I meet the Queen? Did it really happen? The simple answer is: Yes, I met the Queen. And No, it didn't happen (laughs). But I still think it's an interesting speculation. The book is really a hypothetical life. It's a "What if?" life. The question is not, "Did it happen?" It is: "Did it convince you? Did it hold you until the end? Did you like it?" Rather than, "Is it true?" If all the other things happen -- if you read it, like it, remember it, dream about it -- in a way it doesn't matter if it's true or not.

Well, it doesn't matter to me if it's true or not. But it probably does matter to people like your former wife, Anne Theroux, who appears as a fictional character in one of the chapters. You quote her -- in a piece that was reprinted in The New Yorker -- saying unkind things to Anthony Burgess over dinner. She has written a letter to The New Yorker saying the event never happened.

It becomes problematic if you use the names of real people. As a matter of fact, my ex-wife thought her letter was really amusing. Really funny. She thought it was a witty riposte. But most people took it as kind of a horrific possibility of a libel suit. So (The New Yorker) printed the letter very promptly. But when I spoke to her, she said: "Did you see my letter?" And I said I did, and said, "I think it was funny." And she said, "That's how I intended it." But she also said, "I wanted to set the record straight."

I enjoyed the moment in the new novel in which the Paul Theroux character meets a woman whom he had described cruelly in "The Great Railway Bazaar." And she is very angry with him, saying, essentially, "How dare you."

First of all, that chapter is merely a story. I wrote a chapter about a woman whom I glimpsed briefly in a train in Iran in 1973. Then I fantasized about meeting her again, and about her being very angry with me. So the net result was that I really described her twice. I described her in "The Great Railway Bazaar," then I describe meeting her again. And each time I'm kind of having it my way. She's complaining that I'm describing her, and I'm describing her complaining that I'm describing her badly. So it's just a conceit. I suppose if the book is about anything, it's about how very different art is from life, and how very different the writing is from the writer.

But the book is also about how tangled life and writing can be. Do things like this happen to you in real life, where you bump into people you've described in your books?

Every now and then a person will write and say, "That was me." Or, "Do you remember me?" Every so often. It happened in Australia, because Australian newspapers are very energetic in the pursuit of news. Anything that happens in Australia they really track down. I wrote about a man I met in a place called Cooktown. They found the man, and interviewed him. And he said, "Well, it didn't happen quite that way." He said, "I sold Paul Theroux a gun. But he wasn't doing this and doing that. We did this instead." He wrote to me somewhat abjectly and said: "Did you see the piece?" And I said, "It's interesting that you mention all these details which were sort of irrelevant. Because I didn't mention, when I wrote about you, that you were doing this that and the other." I mean, one of the things he was doing was kind of... it involved money changing, of a dubious sort, gun-selling, various things that I thought I wouldn't write about. His divorce. And I said, "You notice how I protected you, but you didn't do the same for me." But I also said, "That's all right, my friend." But it was true: I didn't bust him.

He's an example of someone who has written to me. I've made friends along the way, I may say. In every book I've written there has been someone. In one case, my book about the Pacific, while traveling around the Pacific I became very friendly with a village in the Trobriand Islands. And I send them things. They write me letters. I try to help them out, and visit them from time to time. It's become much more than a friendship with one person, but a friendship with a whole village. That's a very, very nice part of travel.

Is your new novel a reply to the critics of "My Secret History," who considered that book merely thinly veiled autobiography?

Yes, it is partly that. When I wrote "My Secret History," people said, "Oh, you're just writing about your life." As though I sat down and simply recalled a few incidents from my life. But anyone who reads the book can see that each part of it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Each part of it is self-contained and very carefully constructed in a way that life never is. One's life is a much more complex, random affair where you only really understand it at the very end. And I thought that "My Secret History" was very artfully constructed, and most of it was made up. And people said, "Well that's your autobiography." So I thought, Well I know what I'll do. I'll write a book and call it an autobiography. But it will be all lies. And in fact "My Other Life" is a pack of lies that looks like it amounts to a sort of truth. And I suppose it does. Because even when you're making up a lie, you're making up the lie. The writer is making up the lie. It's his or her lie. So it's a very individual thing, lying. And if you tell enough of them, I suppose you reveal a great deal.

You've said that you loathe books about writers. Is "My Other Life" your way of putting the genre into a kind of funhouse mirror?

One of the problems I have with books about writers is that, when the writer is writing about himself or herself, it's usually a kind of "Mein Kampf" -- a struggle, about how difficult it was to get a book published. They're very very self-regarding, these writer-type books. And I'm very anti-that. Because I think that writing doesn't come out of a literary background. It doesn't come out of literary experience. A person becomes a writer because they're deficient. They have problems. They're crazy. They have unhappy families. They're eccentric. And not because they've read a lot of books necessarily, but on the contrary -- maybe they haven't read enough books. There's a strong irrationality about the writing life. Often a writer writes just to maintain their sanity. The way an addict needs to perform a certain ritual of mainlining, a writer kind of has to do it in order to keep his or her head on straight.

You're now in your mid-50s, which is not old but not particularly young either. How strong a pull does travel continue to be for you?

Very strong, very strong. As a matter of fact, I'm planning a trip now. I'm planning a trip to Africa pretty soon. I was in Hong Kong earlier this year. The idea of travel -- the pull -- is very powerful. But also as you get older, you accumulate possessions, you have a house, you begin to refine the idea of what home is. You have a favorite chair, and the light is right. Your books are there. The temptation to stay home is very strong. When I was younger, I felt more portable. And I was looking to see what the world was like. I feel less of a traveler now than when I was younger, but I still don't feel that I'm very old. And I enjoy the challenge of travel.

In general, travel is awful, though. I mean, I think any sensible person would admit that the experience of travel, no matter what kind -- whether it's plane, train, bus, boat, car -- it's awful. It's uncomfortable. It's tedious. It's repetitive. And in order to achieve the epiphanies of travel -- the vistas, the experiences -- you have to go through an awful lot of hell and high water.

Serious travelers are always complaining that the world is shrinking, that there are fewer places that feel remote and unspoiled. Sort of a Disneyfication of the world. Do you agree?

Yes. I think that's a cliche -- but there's more than a grain of truth in it. There are a lot of far-off places where everyone is going. People are going to Antarctica, parts of China that were off limits before; everybody and his brother is going to Katmandu. On the other hand, there are plenty of places that travelers are avoiding. There are dangerous places. Parts of South America, parts of Africa, and parts of Asia are really difficult. I noticed in the Pacific, when I was there, not that many people go to the Solomon Islands. There are 700 Solomon Islands. And not many people go to New Guinea. New Guinea is pretty dangerous. Vanuatu in the New Hebrides. So the world is certainly shrinking. But some of it is not being visited.

Does danger appeal to you?

No, not at all. Danger does not appeal to me. But I think the nearer you get to a place, the easier it is to judge just how bad it might be. It's no good asking someone, "What's Zimbabwe like?" -- or Western Zambia, where I'm going pretty soon. You really have to get on the ground and talk to people there, and see what's it like. Sometimes it's worse, and sometimes it's better. Last year I published a book about the Mediterranean, and I found that some parts of the Mediterranean are very peaceful. I mean, Syria has a coastline on the Mediterranean. And Turkey. Lebanon and whatnot. I didn't have a lot of trouble in those places. But everyone told me, "Don't go to Algeria." To the point where I was convinced that Algeria is a country to avoid -- a very dangerous, bad place. So I didn't go there. And I think I was wise not to. The next time someone says: "There's nowhere in the world tourists haven't gone, there are tourists everywhere," ask that person what's the last time someone he or she knew went to Algeria. No one goes there. It is the most dangerous country in the world.

How many times in your life have you felt you were in mortal danger?

I suppose a half a dozen times in my whole life. That's not many. But once is too many. Once is bad. I've never felt in danger from animals. Occasionally from the elements. Of those six times, I would say that two were from the elements and four were from people who've stuck a gun in my face.

You grew up in a large, middle-class family outside of Boston. Growing up, you've said you were more interested in reading the L.L. Bean catalog than books. How did you decide to become a writer? How did the idea crystallize in your head?

I'm not sure how it crystallized. But I think it had something to do with the fact that I was reading. And also that I found it a great consolation when I wrote something. I felt that I had eased some part of my consciousness, and given order to the world -- my little world. And I didn't find it painful. I didn't suffer doing it. It seemed like a natural act.

I think that large families do produce writers. People are clamoring for attention. And you're looking for solitude, you're trying to get away. A big family isn't just a nest of love, it's like a whole society that's contending for attention.

You're fairly prolific. Yet there are many moments in the new book in which the Paul Theroux character agonizes all morning on one sentence, then knocks off and goes to the pub. Does writing come easily to you?

No, it doesn't always come easily. But even if you wrote a paragraph a day, at the end of a year you've done quite a lot of work. Even if you write a few sentences a day you've done quite a lot of work. If you don't do anything else. The fact is, I've never done anything else since I resigned from my last teaching job in 1971. So for 25 years all I've had to do is wake up in the morning and sit down and write something. So willy-nilly, something gets finished. I'm very careful about doing it every day. I don't take days off. I sit there and even though nothing comes, I just sit there and do it. Because I usually have something to write. If I have nothing to write, then I'm just as happy going swimming.

You're at work on a screenplay. How is working on that different?

A screenplay is not a writing mission. A screenplay is really, I think, a problem of constructing in images. It's written in the crudest possible way, really. I was working on two screenplay projects. One was adapting a book, and the other was writing an original script. But it really isn't a writing problem. It is a big problem writing a screenplay -- it's not a simple thing. But it's mainly to do with construction, with visual construction. I find it very different from writing a novel or from writing almost anything else.

You don't seem to be particularly fond of interviews. Why not just say no?

(Laughs) Because first, an interviewer might be persistent. Secondly, a publisher kind of insists on your cooperating in the publishing of a book. I would much rather say no, to tell you the truth. I would love to be J.D. Salinger. On the other hand, J.D. Salinger is not publishing any books. If he were, his publisher would be saying, "Jerry, you're going to have to make yourself available." And Jerry would probably say, "No I don't want to." And they would get mad at him. It's become part of the selling mechanism of a book, unfortunately.

But some writers say no. And at this point in your career it seems like you could become one of them. Your audience is somewhat established.

I don't know. I'd like to say no, but I wouldn't want people to think... I mean, what do you think of sports stars who sell their signature? Or people like Dionne Warwick, who refuses to sign anything? Name a movie star who refuses to sign things, who sells her signature, who refuses to be interviewed. I think you would say they're pompous asses. And they're a pain. They have a certain obligation to make themselves available -- they're public people.

If I don't have a book coming out, I'm pretty unavailable. If you have a book coming out, that's perceived as an event, so you cooperate. What I dislike most about being interviewed is not the intrusion into my time, although it is an intrusion. It's the fact that in an interview I'm describing feelings and events and books in a highly simplified way. I wasn't put on earth to describe things and give speeches. I think if I have any mission it's to write. Writing has as its primary objective being as true as possible to the thing that's being perceived. Being subtle, and not oversimplifying. So talking about something is the antithesis of writing about something. That's the problem I have with being interviewed.

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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