WRITERS ARE UNBALANCED PEOPLE. Paul Theroux is an American novelist and travel writer known for his highly personal award-winning observations on many locales. Over 50 works of fiction and travel writing include modern classics The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, My Secret History and The Mosquito Coast. Theroux’s recent book, Burma Sahib, explores Eric Blair’s years as a British Raj police officer in colonial Burma that transformed him into the anticolonial writer, George Orwell.

You can listen to the podcat of thi interview  here.

Paul Theroux, you live between your house in Cape Cod and your house on Oahu. How is Hawaii?  

Paradise. But we have 10 million tourists a year, so, in a way, Paradise Lost. I live in a very rural area, raise geese, chickens, exotic bamboo. I’m on the North Shore where the big surf hits. It’s lovely, but full of visitors. One of the secrets of happiness is to have two houses. I have a little farm in Hawaii and I have a house in Cape Cod, and go back and forth. It’s made me very happy. The idea of living in the same place for 12 months of the year is dispiriting to me.  

Why Hawaii? 

I fell in love with a local woman. Hawaii doesn’t have the usual deficits of a third world country. It’s an archipelago of islands and it’s Polynesia but it’s also Main Streat USA. It has very good hospitals, good schools, a perfect climate, the local people are very friendly. I’ve lived here 35 years.

A novelist speculates, and that’s my role in life: to invent, to imagine, and to create the person”

Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux, are you a slow or a quick writer?  

Very slow. Writing by hand, you can only write slowly. It’s like a plastic art, like sculpture, when you’re writing by hand. When you’re typing it’s a mechanical act, and you can you can do it very fast. Simenon typed. Henry Miller was a very fast typist. I know that when I’m typing, I’m writing too fast. I’ve written a lot, but I write steadily and I need to write slowly. I just write all the time. I don’t have another job.  

What is your procedure? 

When I lived in England I bought a detached house in a poor district in South London because I needed to live in a house, where it’s quiet. The weather was so bad, and as soon as the house was empty, my children went to school, my wife went to work, the house was in total silence. I could sit down and work all morning. I had lunch, then I went for a bicycle ride in the afternoon. I sometimes worked in the evening before my wife and children came home. I could only work uninterruptedly. Here in Hawaii, I do the same. When my wife goes to work, I sit down and write. I need absolute silence. I can’t bear people talking to me or the phone ringing.  

Are you happy when you write? 

The act of writing is to me joyous. The process of writing can lift your spirits. I’m never happier than when I’ve had a good day writing. At the end of the day, if I’ve written something. One paragraph. One page. Two pages. If it’s felicitous, if it’s memorable, if it’s the best I can do, I’m happy and then I go to the beach and go swimming.  

Are you always working? 

For 60 years, there’s never been a period in my life when I wasn’t working on a book. I wake up in the morning with something to do. The problem is how to resume. I try to get into the mood and to stimulate that. My writing life could be compared to one of my favourite writers, Georges Simenon, who wrote a book and then wrote another book and then he wrote another book.  

Was your relationship with the British writer V.S. Naipaul very significant to you? 

It was a major event in my life. My lower middle-class parents read books, but I never knew a real writer till I met Naipaul in 1966, in Uganda, Africa. He was a great writer. He was a very flawed man. He was crazy in some respects. He was very depressive, probably bipolar. In his early life he was angry, difficult, explosive, sadistic to women. Later, he got over that. 

What happened when you met Naipaul? 

The greatest compliment you can pay to a writer is to read his or her books, and when he came to Uganda he had published five books. I read all the books, so when I met him we were talking and he said, “Have you ever read anything I’ve written?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “What?” I said, “I’ve read everything you’ve written.” And then he tested me. He said, “What about this? What about that?” I’ve described him as like an army drill sergeant that would terrify a recruit: “At ease!” “Attention!” “Stop!” “What are you doing?!” “What is your major malfunction, numbnuts?” I liked it. It showed he took me seriously. 

Did Naipaul like what you wrote? 

When he read something I wrote, he would analyse it and say, “Why did you write this? Why don’t you do this?” But he liked what I wrote and when I quit my job in Singapore in 1971 my then wife was English and I said, “Let’s go to England. Naipaul’s there. I can live in the country. I can work, and I will have a friend.” My only friend, really. We fell out. It’s a long story, but Sir Vidia’s Shadow explains how I became a writer and my relationship with Naipaul. When it was published, people said, “How could you be so cruel to this man?” And then his biography by Patrick French was published, and people said, “Oh, I see, he’s worse!”  

But you reconnected with Naipaul? 

Yes, in 2011 at the Hay Festival. He died in 2018, so I knew him for the last 7 years of his life, and was at his deathbed in the hospital. He is a very important figure. At the end of his life he couldn’t walk very well, but that Naipaul is a much kinder, mellower person than the Naipaul that I knew earlier. He was never easy, but the last 10 or 15 years of his life he calmed down. He was married to a very kindly, motherly woman, and was a happier man.

The writer is defining himself or herself with each book

Paul Theroux, in your new book Burma Sahib, your main character Eric Blair is a policeman in Burma? 

Yes, the unusual thing about George Orwell is that he was born Eric Blair. For five years he was a student at the best school in England, Eton College. Very expensive, very exclusive, extremely privileged. Blair’s father did not go to Eton, he was an opium agent in India, and Blair was born in Moti Hari in Bengal. After Eton, his father said go to Burma, you have family there. His mother’s family, called Limouzin, were from Limoges. French shipbuilders, teak merchants. Orwell was half French, and his family still lived in Moulmein in Burma and he thought, ‘I want adventure. I like Rudyard Kipling. My father was in the British Empire. I have family in Burma and I don’t know what to do and I’m 19 years old. What shall I do?’ He became a policeman.  

Eric Blair became a colonial policeman? 

Yes, whipping people, flogging people, hanging people, shooting an elephant. He talks about how he used to hit his servants. I lived in Central Africa and I had servants and I never would have hit my servants, but he said he used to punch them. So much for Eric Blair. It was a testing time. Octave Mannoni wrote a book called Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization, and Orwell lived that experience of a colonial officer who wasn’t really up to the job, who had a slight inferiority complex. Like a lot of colonial people he was coarsened by the experience, but at the same time improved himself socially. All of this was very confusing to Eric Blair, who after five years realised he had made a huge mistake and was part of a racket, the colonial system.  

What did Eric Blair/George Orwell do then? 

He went from Eton to five years in the police in Burma to being a dishwasher at a restaurant in Paris. An amazing trajectory. He wrote a book about being a dishwasher, Down and Out in Paris and London. Then he wrote a book about Burma called Burmese Days. He changed his name and his profession. If you read a biography of Orwell, the shortest chapter is the chapter in Burma, because biographers don’t speculate. A novelist speculates, and that’s my role in life: to invent, to imagine, and to create the person that he was.  

You had your own experience of colonial life? 

I had actually lived in a British colony, Nyasaland, in 1963. I was there when it became independent Malawi seven months later. When I was in Africa, The Mosquito Coast and all my books were banned in South Africa under the white government. When Nelson Mandela became president and  the country became independent, my publisher in London called me and said, “I’ve got some good news. We have an order for 100,000 copies of The Mosquito Coast. It’s going to be a schoolbook.”  

Why did you do the trip from England to Japan that you described in your 1975 book The Great Railway Bazaar?  

Because I had lived abroad for ten years but I never wrote a travel book. I didn’t even like travel books. The first sentence of Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss is, “I don’t particularly like travel books. And here I am writing one.” My book Saint Jack set in Singapore was successful and sold moderately well, but The Great Railway Bazaar sold a million copies. That’s a bestseller.  

How did you write The Great Railway Bazaar?  

I read The West Indies and the Spanish Main by Anthony Trollope. He described his method, and he said that every day, at the end of the day, he wrote about what happened to him that day – in Cuba, in Jamaica, in Trinidad, in Nicaragua. He wrote on the ship, so when the ship arrived back in England his book was done. I thought, I’m going to do the same thing, every day I’m going to write what happened to me, dialogue, description, everything. I had 4 or 5 big notebooks, and I wrote in them and I carried them with me.  

How long did the trip take?  

Four and a half months. Too long. I came back to a broken marriage, an unhappy wife, children who barely recognised me. It was just terrible, one of the worst experiences of my life. When I left, my wife’s boyfriend had moved into the house. What do you do if you come back to an unhappy house? You write a book that’s full of life. You turn your back on that and you say, “I’m going to turn this into gold. I’m going to be an alchemist.” The writing the book wasn’t difficult because I had the book in notebooks. I put my notebooks down and typed the book. The book took me less than three months to write. It’s not a great book, but at the time it seemed to be an unusual book because no one was doing it. The book was successful and that helped my morale a lot, and then I thought, ‘well, I’ve done that once. I can do it again,’ so I wrote a book about China and I wrote a book about England.  

You did trips from Boston to Argentina, the South Pacific, visited China, went from Cairo to Cape Town. You also you went through Mexico by car and wrote about that in On the Plain of Snakes?  

Yes, that was fun. I had learned that you can write, and I still somewhat despised travel books, but I kept learning how to do it, how to travel. You take a trip. What’s the itinerary? I want to go to this place. How can I do it? How can I see it at its best? For my Africa book I went from Cairo to Cape Town overland. I took a bus, a train, a taxi, I walked. I never took a plane. I stayed on the ground all the way: down the Nile, through the Sudan, and I ended up in Cape Town. That’s one of my favourite books. It was physically difficult. It was dangerous, but if you have a lot of incidents of difficulty, trouble, near-death experiences, there’s the book. That’s what you want to do, take a risk.  

You wrote The Old Patagonian Express and then a book with Bruce Chatwin called Patagonia Revisited. How is it for you to write with someone else?  

Usually it’s terrible, because a person has a different method. I liked Bruce Chatwin a lot, but he was a very difficult person, very excitable. He got in touch with me and said that The Royal Geographical Society wanted us to give a talk as we had each written a book about Patagonia. The lecture was in a hall, and I’m not exaggerating to say that it was one of the high points of my life to be with Bruce, standing at a podium in the dark and pictures of Patagonia, penguins, Magellan, giants, the landscape of Patagonia, being projected on the screen and he and I taking turns talking. The hall was full of eminent explorers and travelers, and we were there an hour, an hour and a half. Then we did the small book Patagonia Revisited together and I saw him a lot afterwards.

Paul Theroux

Most of my books are about a person, usually a man somewhat like myself, that needs to solve a problem”

Paul Theroux, do you communicate with many writers?

I’ve written a lot of letters to writers. I would much rather write a letter to a writer than spend time with him or her in person. Writers are unbalanced people. No one was crazier than Naipaul. William Styron was suicidal, very difficult to be with. But write them a letter and get a letter back, that’s wonderful.  

How was it working with Steve McCurry? 

Steve McCurry is a great photographer, but I don’t enjoy travelling with a photographer. We travelled through the South USA and I wrote a book called Deep South, but we only spent maybe a week at a time and then he would leave, and I was very happy on my own. To write well, I can only travel alone. 

Do you read much?  

Every day. I’ve just read a biography of Frantz Fanon called The Rebel’s Clinic by Adam Schatz. Prior to that I read the Mannoni book a propos of Burma Sahib. I read at the beach. I have a special chair here in the house that I read in. Reading made me a writer. Reading made me a traveler. Travel made me a writer. I came from a big family. You find privacy in a big family by reading. You go in a corner and you retreat to a book. So I started my life reading. One of the pleasures of my life is that the writers that I read and loved as a schoolboy like S.J. Perelman I eventually ended up meeting,. I read Graham Greene, then I met Graham Greene. I read Angus Wilson, then I met him.  

Why were you interested in Graham Greene?  

If you come from a little family outside Boston, you think the ideal life is a life of writing, combined with travel, combined with a degree of celebrity. It’s no longer the case, but when I was growing up a writer was a power figure, partly because they were an outlaw. They were slightly dangerous, because their books were banned. I grew up in a period when you couldn’t buy Henry Miller’s books. Graham Greene’s books were banned by the Vatican. They said The Power and the Glory is a bad book. The idea of becoming a figure who was powerful, notorious, well-travelled and successful, appealed to me a lot. But in fact Graham Greene’s was an unhappy life. He was miserable. He also had a bipolar personality, and he had Catholicism on the brain. Graham Greene hated to be alone. When he travelled he always travelled with someone else. 

Did you like Hemingway?  

I hated Hemingway, and I still dislike Hemingway. His writing style you can mimic easily. I could write like Hemingway. That’s just silly, and he’s writing about people I’m not interested in. I went to Africa, but Hemingway doesn’t know anything about Africa. I could speak grammatical Swahili. When you read Hemingway’s Swahili, he’s like a man who has a couple of servants who can talk to your cook. He’s a white hunter. He’s got money. He kills animals. I’m not interested in that. Hemingway’s Africa is a fraud. Hemingway himself was a very unhappy and demented person and his books were wildly overrated.  

And Georges Simenon? 

When you read Simenon, you realise that Simenon has something that Albert Camus attempted to have but doesn’t have. La Veuve Couderc (The Widow) is as good as L’Etranger (The Stranger). There’s an aspect of Simenon that’s much better than Camus. Camus was also a compromised person, an Algerian against Algerian independence. He fell out with Sartre because of Algeria. Camus was on the wrong side, on the side of the colonialists. Name a character in La Peste who’s an Arab. There are no Arabs in this book.  

Did you read a small book by Ezra Pound called How to Read?  

When I was a student I loved Ezra Pound. Jack Kerouac mentioned Ezra Pound in On the Road. Ezra Pound was alternately brilliant and crazy. I’ve mentioned a lot of mental conditions of writers, but they do have mental conditions. People who read occupy a special category in my life. Readers have a special language that they can use, that no other people have. I live in Hawaii. No one reads here. When I go to the mainland I meet people who read, and I’m speaking to them in a different way. But there was a man here called Leon Edel, who wrote the five-volume. biography of Henry James. I used to have lunch with him 30 years ago. He had read everyone. Edmund Wilson, Turgenev, obviously all of Henry James. We used to talk, and after he died there was no one to talk to. I can have conversations with people, but it’s like talking in a different language.  

Why don’t you live in a place where people read?  

Cities are nasty places. You have to live in an apartment. There are people all the time. It’s noisy. It’s interrupted. I can only live in a quiet place with good weather. It’s true that when I go to New York or Paris or London, I meet writers and I can talk to them, but I wouldn’t live in a city. It’s a compromise that you make. I’m not the only person who did it. Robert Graves, one of the most intellectual and also a very prolific writer, lived in Majorca with tourists on the beach.  

Graham Greene was in Antibes and Capri, and Somerset Maugham in Cap Ferrat.  

Yes, Somerset lived in a mansion, in the Villa La Mauresque, the house of King Leopold’s priest. It was nice and quiet. He had servants and it was all fine. He was also a very influential figure. Travelled. Made money. His books were very successful, he wrote plays. He seemed to be someone to emulate, a lucky man. But he wasn’t happy at all. When Somerset Maugham travelled, he always travelled with someone else. I must travel alone. I like other people, but you can’t write with other people. If you travel with someone else, your conversation is just with your companion.  

For you, writing is not compatible with anything else? 

At its most productive, it’s a solitary, inward monastic calling. If you are a monk in Tibet, it’s not compatible with being with anyone else. It’s a form of prayer, a form of meditation. I won’t be able to go from our conversation to my desk very easily. I might sit down but I won’t be able to write. My head is full of all of our conversation, which is very pleasant, but the human voice is also interruptive. I’m sure as a writer you understand that.  

How would you define yourself as a writer?  

The writer is defining himself or herself with each book. The nature of writing is introspection. I also happen to be very lucky. I was born in 1941, and after World War Two the world changed. Europe had to rebuild. America had to cope with the modern world. The 1950s was an explosive period, where writers like Jack Kerouac or Henry Miller were experimenting in a very interesting way. The luck of my life was that I came of age in the 1960s, at a time when countries in Africa and elsewhere were becoming independent. The de-colonisation of countries arrived at the same time as my coming of age, as the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966 to 76, as the explosive events in France. All of that was part of my early life when I was becoming a writer in my 20s, and that was really wonderful.  

You are a product of the 1960s? 

Yes, but also a product of America in the 1950s. De-colonisation was very important to me. I’m always thinking of people being liberated and then also of the contradiction. I lived through a period where countries became independent and then became dictatorships. That has been my subject in a way, but my real subject is a man alone. Most of my books are about a person, usually a man somewhat like myself, that needs to solve a problem. The Mosquito Coast, The Lower River, Burma Sahib, all men with a problem. This problem solving, this emergence of a self, is something that has become my subject. My problem was I felt alienated in my family and I wanted to get away and have my own life. And so I did.  

Are you starting a new book?  

My next book is a book of short stories called The Vanishing Point. And I would like to write about my ancestor, a pre-revolutionary French peasant who came from Toulouse in 1693 and was recruited by King Louis XIV’s men and sent to New France and to what was to be Quebec. Inshallah, if I’m spared, I’d like to take a road trip in Canada, so a travel book. As a traveler, I’ve been interested in the stories that people have to tell, and so if I wrote about Canada, it would be to listen to people, to meet people, and hear what stories they have and about their lives. I don’t know whether I’ll do it. I’m talking about this as though it’s a fait accompli, but it’s not, it’s just an idea. But I’ve done the research about my ancestry.  

I wish you good luck, and say thank you.

Portrait of Paul Theroux by Steve McCurry.

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