Interview With Paul Theroux: Invisible Man on a Ghost Train

Travel Interviews: Jim Benning asks the author of "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" about his new book, aging and the challenge of disappearing in the age of the BlackBerry.

08.18.08 | 5:00 PM ET

imageFew travel writers evoke such strong reactions as Paul Theroux. Readers often find him cruel and cold or disarmingly honest and wickedly funny. Regardless, few would deny that his first travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975, gave travel writing a much-needed shot in the arm—and many insist that with it, Theroux single-handedly reinvented the genre. In chronicling that train ride across Asia, Theroux writes that he wanted to “put in everything that I found lacking in the other books—dialogue, characters, discomfort—and leave out museums, churches and sightseeing generally.” It turned out to be a formula for success and the many books that followed—The Old Patagonian Express and Riding the Iron Rooster, to name a couple—made Theroux America’s most revered travel writer.

His new book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, released today, retraces that first trip. It’s Theroux at his best, and it gave him a chance to reflect on how he and the world have changed in the intervening three decades. I dialed him up at his home in Cape Cod to ask him about it. I’d heard Theroux could be prickly and a difficult interview; I found him to be anything but.

World Hum: Near the start of “Ghost Train,” you write that “The lesson in my Tao of Travel was that if one is loved and feels free and has gotten to know the world somewhat, travel is simpler and happier.” And you also write, “After a certain age the traveler stops looking for another life and takes nothing for granted.” Can you talk about that? Is that to suggest that you enjoy travel now more than you did when you were younger?

Paul Theroux: I feel less pressure to produce something. At my age, I don’t have to write another book. I can kick back and read a book. Or if I go to a place, I don’t necessarily have to make something of it. It might be a trip that’s a dead end; nothing may come of it. When you’re young and you are working as a writer and traveler, everything has to count. I began writing with a kind of anxiety that I had to make a living at it. That was 40 years ago. The pressure to make something your subject is intense when you’re young, because you think, I don’t have a lot of time. I’ve got to turn this into saleable prose.

Strangely enough, when you get older you realize you’ve got a lot of time and a lot of freedom. I think I’m happier now, less tense, less anxious to make something of it. And so when you’re patient, travel is a different experience—when you’re not thinking, I have to go home or this trip has an end. You might think, well, I’ll stay another month; I could get to know people. The older traveler is less optimistic about things, maybe a little more skeptical when people tell him things. All of those are components in the new book, which was written, I think, in a different spirit from the first travel book, “The Great Railway Bazaar.”

In fact, there’s a revelation of sorts in the new book that when you did embark on that first trip for “The Great Railway Bazaar” you were feeling guilty about leaving your wife and children behind. And you returned to find your wife was having an affair. That relationship ended. This time you write that your wife was much more supportive. I imagine that had an impact on your outlook and perspective on this trip.

Yes it did, because you need people to support you. You need people to be very positive about the trip and assume they’re going to be waiting for you, or they’re on your side. When you feel that you’re just slogging along alone feeling homesick, that’s terrible for travel. It’s hard for writing, too. But I think it makes a good story. “The Great Railway Bazaar” is an interesting book for the amount of trouble that it took to take the trip and then to endure this strange homecoming.

Also, I was thinking how older writers write different sorts of books. Take Evelyn Waugh, for example. When he was in his 50s he felt that he was an old man, and he wrote this book, A Tourist in Africa, where he more or less said I’m through with it, travel isn’t what it used to be, the going isn’t good anymore, I’m out of it. And then, still in his 50s, he wrote his autobiography. And then he died when he was around 60, 61. He wasn’t very old. Conrad was 68 when he died. D.H. Lawrence was 44 when he died. These are guys in their late 50s or 60s who took great trips in their earlier lives and then were very old men and out of it in their 60s. I don’t feel that way. Hemingway wrote brilliantly in his 20s and 30s and then still wrote brilliantly, but he was dead at 62 or 63. I’m 67. To me a guy who’s 62 is a young man. He’s not Papa Hemingway with a white beard. Hemingway didn’t really go back to Africa after he was in his 50s. He was done. It was over. It’s amazing when you compare the age. I’m glad that I’m healthy enough to take this sort of trip and I envision taking more. I feel as if I still have the mojo to keep doing it.

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6 Comments for Interview With Paul Theroux: Invisible Man on a Ghost Train

Eva 08.18.08 | 11:43 PM ET

Great interview, Jim.

I loved Theroux’s quote about globalization, and the bit about “Go to Billings, Montana” - I used to argue with my British roommates all the time about whether there was actually “anything to see” in North America, because they felt they knew it all from TV, movies, etc. And I was like, I bet you’ve never seen Moose Factory, Ontario, on TV…

Also, the discussion about “A Journey Around My Room” reminded me of an essay that made the Best American anthology a few years back: “The Lonely Planet Guide to my Apartment.”

Sophie 08.19.08 | 12:46 PM ET

Wonderful and thought provoking. Thank you both.

In my travel writer-hack biz, the trip I got the most mileage out of sales-wise was Lubbock, Texas. I love going places other people don’t think about. Personally, I enjoy reading about Billings, Montana more than the Congo.

There are plenty of places between the U.S. coasts that are worth visiting, understanding and writing about. I could travel in the U.S. for the rest of my life and never get bored. I grew up in NYC but I’m in love with the flyover states.

JJ 08.21.08 | 9:54 AM ET

What about travel blogs? Being connected doesn’t make it natural to writeas you go, even in context?

Ketill 08.21.08 | 6:23 PM ET

This is one of the most interesting interviews with Theroux I have read. Years ago I and my wife tried to persuade him to come to Iceland. Unfortunately without success. Would be interesting if Theroux went to Scandinavia and the Nordic countries and wrote about it. Not much good travel writing about these countries the last 100 years or so.

Terry Ward 09.01.08 | 12:53 PM ET

To me, Theroux is the modern master of the genre. So cool to read this interview, Jim. I can’t wait to read his new book.

Timothy Smith 09.27.08 | 2:16 AM ET

One of the things that impresses me about Paul Theroux is his physical courage. I first got that impression when reading him on kayaking, in The Happy Isles of Oceania I believe it was. Not many writers, not many travel writers would be able to writea book such as Dark Star Safari. He alludes to this, as when praising his son, but I believe is too modest to talk much about it.

Physical courage often recedes with age. But apparently not with Theroux.

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