Books

A Writer Through and Theroux

by Michael Gross Photographed by Steve McCurry
Saturday, April 14, 2018


 


Figures in a Landscape: People and Places (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28, on sale May 8) is the latest collection of essays, literary criticism and profiles by the acclaimed novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux.  It combines dispatches from distant lands like Ecuador and Zambia with glimpses into the lives of the likes of Oliver Sacks, Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Robin Williams, and incisive looks at the work of writers as diverse as Muriel Spark and Hunter Thompson.  And all of it is framed with Theroux’ meditations on the life and craft of a great American writer.  AVENUE recently talked to Theroux via e-mail about all of that.  


AVENUE: What travel years of your life are covered in this collection of stories and what are your perceptions of how the world has changed, for better and worse? Where and how would you travel now and in pursuit of what stories.


THEROUX: These essays, portraits, travel pieces and reflections are the fruit of the past 17 years – since my last collection in “Fresh Air Fiend.” The world has contracted, but the world population has increased, now to 7.5 billion, the majority of them living in poverty. So the challenges are obvious – how to accommodate this great number on the planet, especially as the planet ‘s oceans are becoming befouled and its forests and wetlands and glaciers receding. I once traveled for pure enjoyment. These days I see travel as a my mission towards enlightenment, and to share it through my work. I am a pessimist in my beliefs, an optimist in my actions.


Paul Theroux in Alabama, March, 2013

AVENUE: As both a writer of fiction and nonfiction, you are an anomaly and have achieved success in both genres. How does one impact the other and which stories in this collection inspired one or the other?


THEROUX: Many of these essays are celebrations of books and writers – Muriel Spark, Henry David Thoreau, George Simenon, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and others. Reading made me a traveler, and travel inspired wide reading – of the places, their histories, their novels. I think being a fiction writer helped me immensely in looking closely at landscapes and people, and portraying them. A good ear and a good eye are essential in travel writing, and they are the essence of fiction writing. My favorite fiction writers also tend to be intrepid travelers – Rebecca West, Mark Twain, Greene, Maugham.


AVENUE: Is there a story that you’ve read by another author that you wish you’d written and would have put in this collection or one you’re working on? Who are your favorites or those you’d like to emulate.


THEROUX: There was a story in a recent New York Times Magazine about a Polish kayaker, seventy years old, who paddled across the pacific in his tiny boat. The reporting was well done. But I would love to have met that man and written his story.


AVENUE: How is this collection of stories different from others you’ve done?


THEROUX: I am older, more patient, and well aware that formal writing for magazines (collected here) is quite different than for the website or the blog. Magazines are folding – what will replace them? I think more rigorous standards on the Internet, better editing, less gush. The Internet is full of inaccuracies and urban myths or misattributions. I know this because I often find I am misquoted, or credited with pieces I did not write.


AVENUE: If you were twenty again, on reflection, how would you have changed your writing life or added to it?


THEROUX: I was 22 in Africa – Nyasaland (soon to be Malawi) in 1963-64. I had access to a big bulky tape-recorder, with those wheel-like spools. I greatly regret that I did not travel around the country recording the memories of people, the men and women who in their 70s had been born in the 19th Century and would have remembered a very different Africa, with a small population, and traditional skills and beliefs and modes of survival, as well as folk tales and wise sayings. They would have remembered World War One, which was also fought in East and Central Africa. Too late for that, but I am an advocate of oral histories – and this is the heart of travel writing.


AVENUE: You’ve a voracious appetite as a waterman, gardener, collector, reader. What do you love as inspiration in your life?  Do you have a muse?


THEROUX: I crave serenity and solitude, and my wife makes this possible.


AVENUE: Where do you go from here?


THEROUX: I am traveling in Mexico, for a book. And I have a corker of an idea for a novel, set in Hawaii.


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