Of the fifty travel-related essays, articles, and book reviews in Fresh Air Fiend, all but one were written after the publication of Theroux's previous collection, Sunrise with Seamonsters—a humbling fact when you consider the range of geographical and thematic coverage within the new book's pages: cross-country skiing through the snowy backwoods of Maine; paddling Pacific islands; following the Zambezi River across Africa; trespassing in Florida; and reporting from China before and after Tiananmen Square, then again during the hand-over of Hong Kong.
In conversation as in his writing, Theroux pulls no punches. Having spent nearly forty years roaming the planet, living and traveling amongst whomever would have him, he's earned the right to say he's seen a few things. In fact, he's witnessed first-hand so many of the formative cultural changes of our lifetime. "I thought, I'll never write a blockbuster. I'll never write The Great American Novel," he explained. "What I'd write would reflect where I'd been and what I'd seen—what I know."
Dave: Central to a number of essays in Fresh Air Fiend is the idea of becoming a stranger, traveling abroad to escape familiar surroundings, and how that perspective relates to being a writer. When you left Massachusetts in 1963 to enter the Peace Corps, was writing already in your mind as a possible career?
Paul Theroux: Writing was in my mind from the time I was in high school, but more, the idea that I would be a doctor. I really wanted to be a medical doctor, and I had various schemes: one was to be a psychiatrist, another was tropical medicine. I thought tropical medicine would be a way of getting me to another country.
My earliest thought, long before I was in high school, was just to go away, get out of my house, get out of my city. I went to Medford High School, but even in grade school and junior high, I fantasized about leaving. Exploring, camping - I was a boy scout with that kind of sleeping in a tent fantasy, which I did. I acted on that. So I had the idea of being a traveler, of going to some exotic place, before I wanted to be a writer. Then the idea of writing began to absorb me.
I saw later, when I became a writer, how being a traveler had helped me. Joining the Peace Corps in sixty-three, going to Africa, that was a very fortuitous thing. Otherwise, I would have been a different person, a different writer. I had wanted to go to Turkey; that was the most exotic place that I could think of. Africa was much too far, outside the realm of my thinking, and when I realized I was going, my heart swelled. Just the notion of going; I hadn't thought of it. Central Africa - it was so far away. No tourists went there. People went to Nairobi at that time, to game parks, but not even many of those. I was very lucky to go, and to discover what it meant to write, what it meant to be a stranger.
Dave: When you went to Africa, originally, what was your mission?
Theroux: It was to teach school, to be an English teacher. From sixty-three to sixty-five, I was running a school, basically, in Malawi, in the bush. Later I went to Uganda, where I was an English teacher. I did that for four years. Then I went to Singapore where I was in the English department, again. All the posts were English-related.
But I saw myself as a writer early on. The first things I published were in Africa. In sixty-four, I began to write things for African newspapers and magazines. I sent stories and poetry to the States. In Uganda, I was working on stories and novels. In sixty-six, I submitted my first novel, Waldo, which was published in sixty-seven. I wrote another novel that appeared in sixty-eight, and another appeared in sixty-nine. When I went to Singapore, I was still writing about Africa. It was a continuous process.
I thought, I'll never write a blockbuster. I'll never write The Great American Novel. What I'd write would reflect where I'd been and what I'd seen - what I know. But I didn't write about myself. My early main characters were not like me. There was an Indian, a Chinese, a French-Canadian revolutionary, an insurance man, a pimp in Singapore.
Dave: You found, eventually, a kind of literary community in Africa. You mention in the book a number of writers you met while you were there. Was that because of the relative isolation, do you think? Because you were so far away.
Theroux: That's an interesting question because I never thought of it as a literary community. I thought of it as people who were also writing and who were friends of mine. I read what they wrote, and they read what I wrote. It's interesting how distinguished they were to become. Nadine Gordimer got the Nobel Prize. Wole Soyinka got the Nobel Prize. She was in South Africa; he was in Nigeria. Another man, Rajat Neogy, ran a magazine there and became a very distinguished editor. It's really amazing.
They seemed, at the time, very good writers, of course, but . . . in Uganda, very few writers came through there. It wasn't literary society. There were maybe a half-dozen writers. The most significant one was V.S. Naipaul. I met him in sixty-six. That was a very big deal for me, meeting him.
But there weren't a lot of writers. One of the virtues of the place was that there were just a few, and most of the people didn't read, didn't write, didn't care about it. Writing meant nothing. That was a virtue because I was left on my own. It wasn't like living in New York or Paris or London where everyone was writing and you'd have the sense of competition. I just felt: I'm in this interesting place, wild things are happening. It was the sixties; it was intense, politically. Tremendous good fortune, really.
Dave: Since then, you've been all over the world. Just in this book, if you were to mark the places you've been with pins on a map, you'd cover a good part of the globe . . .
Theroux: . . . there'd be a lot of pins.
Dave: And you're still traveling. How have these trips evolved for you? How far ahead do you plan? Do you find yourself in one place, yearning to visit another?
Theroux: Like that, yes. Thinking about it, dreaming about it. There are places that I've always wanted to go. First I went to Africa, and when I was there I realized there were places in Africa I really to wanted to visit: The Congo, West Africa, Mombassa. I wanted to see the deep, dark, outlandish places. In the early seventies, I wanted to go to India. I thought, "Imagine, just going up and down India on a train. Fantastic!" Ditto the Soviet Union and China.
I don't have a job. I've been able to act on impulse. And my wife was very helpful, my first wife. We had little kids, and she didn't say, "Don't go." She said, "That's your job. Do it."
This book, Fresh Air Fiend, covers fifteen years. A previous book, Sunrise with Seamonsters, covers twenty years. That's thirty-five years of traveling. It's true, there'd be a lot of pins in the map, but that's a lot of years, thirty-five years. For all that time, I've gone to maybe half a dozen places a year. 6x35. And many years I did more than that. I never did less.
I've never spent a whole year in one place without leaving. Even when I was in Singapore, where I worked for three years, I went to Borneo, I went to Indonesia and Bali, I went to Sumatra, I went to Thailand, I went to Burma. I went all over Malaysia. I traveled throughout Southeast Asia while I was living in Singapore. Took a train to Bangkok, flew to Rangoon. I had no telephone, no secretary. I was just teaching, and if I had time off I went somewhere.
How did it happen? I'm a compulsive traveler - not terribly well organized, but I was alone. I didn't care where I slept. I felt I could handle it. I didn't need a big organization; I wasn't signing up for trips. I heard there was a boat going to Kota Kinabalu - KK, they call it in Borneo. I said to my wife, "There's a boat that goes every two weeks and I'd like to get it." She said, "Okay."
Then I decided to somehow make it pay. I remember when I went to Burma the first time, probably about 1969 or 70, I thought, I should really write something. So I wrote something for The Atlantic Monthly. I think I got $300, which probably didn't even pay for the plane, but I was defraying my expenses. I wasn't making a living.
Anyone can do it, travel, but you have to resign yourself to the fact that you're not going to be networking. You'll probably never get rich. To rise in the world, you have to stay in a city. Monica Lewinsky's career is an interesting example. She networked with someone who was a fundraiser. She got a job at The White House. Then she got transferred to The Pentagon. Then she got a job at Revlon. Granted, she had a little help along the way, but she was twenty-two years old. When I was twenty-two, I was teaching in a school in Africa with no prospects whatsoever.
If you want to hang in there and "make it" - and I'm not talking about doctors and lawyers because you need education for that - you stick around powerful people and they move you along. They help. That's how it happens. You make the right friends. It's kissing a lot of butt, swapping business cards, playing golf. I've never done it. My kids haven't done it. I'd be very depressed if they did.
Dave: And yet you have met a lot of writers along the way.
Theroux: I have, but the more writers you meet, the more you think that writers are cranks, weirdos, no-hopers waiting to get invited out to dinner. As a group, writers are not big, powerful people. They look it, perhaps, because of their books, but who are they? I have great regard for them, but the average person doesn't give a shit one way or the other.
Dave: One of the really funny things in the book - you talk a lot about the general nature of writers, and you mention some of the words critics have used to describe you in various reviews: cantankerous, grouchy, sour and impatient, irritating and impolite. Reading through this collection, I don't really take that from your writing.
Theroux: I'm glad. People are constantly saying it, but I think American reviewers are lazy. Many of them, I think, don't even read the whole book.
For example, I have a reputation for being sarcastic. Well, I don't think I am. I think 'ironic' would be a better word. Ironic is a veiled kind of sarcasm, and it has a lot of humor in it. But we, as an American nation, aren't known for our irony. It looks cruder than it is, and it's a problem for some people.
Dave: I was recently in New Zealand, though, reading this book, and the reaction I always got was, "Oh, Theroux, he's the one who wrote such awful things about Kiwis."
Theroux: What happened in New Zealand, I wrote about their Governor General. I had dinner with her, and she spent the whole time bad-mouthing John Kennedy. She said, "I'm reading this book about him. He was a womanizer!" I said, "Well, I'm as interested as anyone in that kind of thing, but that's not Kennedy's whole career. He did many things. He was a leader, he was in the war. Just to say that he was a womanizer is really not saying very much. It's not the whole truth."
She said, "Well, I definitely believe that this should be published."
So I asked her, "What if it was you? What if people wrote about your personal life that way?"
She said, "I'm a politician. Let them write."
Well, we were eating all the while, and she was picking her teeth, belching. I described her saying this and the way she looked, the way she was acting at the table, all the things she was saying. She didn't know I was a writer. Kiwis didn't like it; they thought it was a low blow. I thought it was pretty funny, actually.
Dave: A reoccurring theme in Fresh Air Fiend concerns the idea of telling the truth - and I'm not referring to anything you may have written about New Zealand or any particular person, but about travel writing, in general. Ultimately, you found that you have to write truthfully about what you witness as a traveler. That's the final criterion.
Theroux: You write what you see, even though it may seem absurd or may contradict received wisdom.
For example, people write about England, and they may say, "He's so British. He's so polite." Actually, the British can be very polite, but they can also be very rude. Life can be extremely peaceful there; it can also be pretty rough on a Saturday afternoon if you wind up on a train with a bunch of football hooligans banging on the windows, breaking bottles, and puking on your shoes. That's not very "English." You can have any kind of experience in England, from the most refined to the most barbaric. But a lot of people don't want to see the other side.
When I lived there, I was always looking for Dickensian London, or refinement. What I found was the English, who are not one thing but many. That's more interesting to me. You write about it from the inside, and you tell the truth. A lot of people might not like it, but it's not my job to please them.
Dave: "Chinese Miracles," the essay in Fresh Air Fiend— to me that was the high point of the book. There was so much in there, the writing evoked those rising cities and the state of China's economic boom more tangibly than anything I've read about the subject. We're always reading in the news about American manufacturers operating plants in China, cheap labor in China, but your essay put a human face on it, contextualized it, and made it real in a way that others don't. I felt like I could see those cities rising, the half-finished scaffolding and dust blowing in the wind.
Theroux: I'm glad to hear you say that. I hope that it helps people to understand where China was when I wrote it, which was in ninety-two.
Dave: Have you been back since then?
Theroux: Not to manufacturing China, no. I was in Hong Kong when it got handed over—and I wrote about that experience in "Ghost Stories," the essay that follows "Chinese Miracles."
I haven't been back to the Special Economic Zones, but those places are all established, and there are more of them now. China is an incredibly dynamic place, but you can also see it's an ecological monstrosity. You can't put up cities and have that much manufacturing without completely destroying the agricultural base—or cutting down a lot of trees, having floods, dislocating a lot of people, having pollution. Animals die, people get sick. It completely destroys the fabric of a country when you have unlimited growth, but it's amazing in that this is what everyone wants to happen. This is development.
Dave: The collection closes with a series of essays about some of the major travel books of our time and the writers who have influenced you — Bruce Chatwin, Graham Greene, and V.S. Pritchett, to name a few. Who's doing this kind of thing now that interests you? You mention in the book that you don't read much travel writing.
Theroux: I don't read much travel writing particularly because I don't want to read interpretations of places that I want to go. I don't want someone to mediate and interpret the place for me before I see it. But I read Jonathan Raban—he's a friend of mine, and I like his work. Jan Morris is interesting. Mostly, I tend to read older books and guide books, Lonely Planet Guides and things like that.
The thing I do most is look at maps. I study them. If I'm going to a place, I get all the maps and look at them. There's a lot of information on a map.
Paul Theroux visited Powell's City of Books on May 18, 2000. Before sitting to talk about Fresh Air Fiend, we walked together to Georgia's Grocery at SW Stark Street and 12th Avenue to pick up a couple cans of Tecaté. The author was thirsty; he wanted a little beer. Who was I to stop him?
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State