The Art of the Travel Writer: Q&A With Paul Theroux

travel verb \ˈtra-vəl\ : to go on a trip or journey: to go to a place and especially one that is far away -- Merriam Webster Dictionary

travel verb \ˈtra-vəl\ : to proceed or advance in any way --

travel verb \ˈtra-vəl\ : a desire to flee as well as a desire to pursue -- Paul Theroux

There are some people you've never met but feel you've known forever. You’re familiar with them through their work, their actions, their thoughts and their observations. Author Paul Theroux is one such person for me.

I was a 19 year-old when I first picked up a copy of The Great Railway Bazaar, perhaps Theroux’s best known work of travel writing. Yes, I read it on board a train, and no, I have sadly not traveled around the world on trains like he did…at least, not yet. I found the book equal parts inspiring and frightening: The idea of traveling by yourself, meeting new people every day and not knowing what would happen next was very appealing. Living the unknown was -- and still is -- addictive to me.

So when I was given the opportunity to meet him at the Singapore Writers Festival, I jumped. Theroux spoke of his years as a professor in Singapore during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the observations he has made while traveling through America's Deep South during the past two years and of course, writing.

(For more on the Singapore Writers Festival, see The Written Word Finds Festival Joy in Exotic Asian Locales.)

Theroux: People pretend that writing is difficult. ‘I get up every morning and there’s a blank page I have to fill …’ You know what’s really difficult? Picking pineapples in the hot sun. That’s difficult. Being a rubber tapper. That’s difficult. Being away from your family in the army. Fighting a war, that’s difficult. Being in Afghanistan, being in Iraq, being blown up. But writing, that's not difficult.

How has travel changed since you wrote The Great Railway Bazaar?

Theroux: The world is getting fuller and fuller of people. Once upon a time, there were parts of Singapore where there were empty streets after 11 pm at night. That’s not the case now. When I was writing this book [The Great Railway Bazaar], I went through Afghanistan and Peshawar. In the book I mention how I thought I could live in Peshawar. Just sitting there, having a cup of tea, watching the tonga carts going down the road. Peshawar is now a terrorist center. The market where they used to sell leather saddles: now they sell AK-47s. This [The Great Railway Bazaar] is like the world before the fall and now it’s the loss of innocence. Everything changes. Whatever you write about, if you write about it truthfully, it’ll be interesting. Because I can guarantee you that in five years it will be different.

How do you decide where to go?

Theroux: I think I just decide out of curiosity. Do you remember the big earthquake in Haiti? Everyone was going to Haiti and bringing money to Haiti and trying to help people there. Have you read anything about Haiti recently? No, it has disappeared. Did they get help? No, I don’t think so. People forget. Remember how some 200 girls were kidnapped in Nigeria? And Michelle Obama went on television and said, ‘bring back our girls.’ So where are the girls? The girls seemed to have disappeared. God knows what happened. No one’s saying bring back our girls now. That’s just kind of gone. Events come and go. But if you’re a travel writer or a journalist, you keep these things in your mind. You ask yourself, what happened to the girls, what happened to Haiti. A lot of [where to go] has to do with just instinct and curiosity.

Is discovery still easy or has it become hard?

Theroux: That’s a very tough question to answer because there’s all kinds of discovery. The classic discovery is you’re the first person to see this. It’s called first contact. It has happened all over the world. The other is a discovery that’s entirely private. It’s exciting, it has never happened to you before. Yes, it’s still possible; it’s just a rarer event.

If you’re not making a discovery, there’s no point in traveling or writing. Writing should be based on making a discovery. Let’s say you’re writing a short story or a novel. You get up every morning and you’re writing. And you’re making a discovery in the course of writing; this sentence has never been written before and you write this sentence. And you write another one and another one and another one. You’re inventing the whole time. That’s a form of self-discovery.

What have you learned about yourself as an American in the past two years with your journeys down in the Deep South?

Theroux: What I’ve found is that our problems are just like everybody else’s problems and that we haven’t solved them. We are attempting to solve the world’s problems, particularly developing countries’ problems. And we have the same problems of development: water, infant mortality, literacy, productivity, labor. Americans think of themselves as special, gifted, the chosen ones. But actually we have the same problems. So that’s what I’ve learned.

I’ve also discovered how much I enjoy traveling in the hinterland of a country. What I discovered was how much I loved leaving home and going into the open road. I’d leave from Boston and I’d just go. There would be fewer and fewer cars and I’d just see a big empty road and I realize how much I love that as an expression of freedom. One day, I was staying in a motel in the South and I left at 7 am and I just drove. I drove a thousand miles, just listening to the radio. I arrived home at 2 am. Just driving all night. It was such fun.

What did you see of politics in the South?

Theroux: People are disgusted with politics, not only in America. Name a country and they’re disgusted. People there will feel they’re not represented, they think they’re overtaxed; they think politicians live privileged lives, which is true. What does the average person have? A job, taxes, family limited space … everyone knows there’s a big divide in America. Do people talk about politics? Only in a disgusted way.

When Obama got elected, people were very hopeful, now not so much. People feel that not enough has changed. They’re not exactly discouraged, but they’re more cynical then they were. That explains the [November 3] election results.

I like Obama. I met him once in Hawaii before he ran. I met him in 2006. I was in restaurant having a hamburger with Pico Iyer. I said to Pico, that’s Senator Obama over there. And I went over and introduced myself. I said (to him), 'will you please run for President? I will vote for you and I’ll give you some money. I think you have a shot.' And he said he didn’t know. I loved this guy. He’s smart, he’s funny, and he’s friendly. But when you’re President, things change. A man with power and a man without power are two different individuals. He’ll be there another two years, and I don’t know where it’s all is going to lead.

Any thoughts on what will happen next?

Theroux: What’s going to happen next? We’d never thought this was going to happen. When the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union broke up, everyone thought, ‘oh, this is the end of history.’ Everything is going to be great after this and it’s not. But it makes life interesting. You want to stay alive just to see what’s going to happen. Aren’t you curious to see? Because you know that everything changes, so what’s going to happen? The unexpected is what is going to happen.

Paul Theroux is an American travel writer and novelist. He has published numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, some of which were made into feature films.

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