Paul Theroux: ‘The hardest place to write about is home’

May 4, 2021

Paul Theroux turned 80 in April, but he’s still behaving like a writer keen to make a name for himself. Last Train to Zona Verde, which he published in 2013, may have been, as the subtitle has it, his “ultimate African safari”, but it wasn’t his last travel book. Since then, he has driven through the southern US for Deep South and through Mexico for On the Plain of Snakes; in between, he delivered an essay collection, Figures in a Landscape, on people and places.  

  His latest book, Under the Wave at Waimea, is his 56th. It’s a work of fiction about a man who has done some travelling himself, but who never reads: Joe Sharkey, a big-wave surfer on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, who is struggling to come to terms with the dimming of fame and the advance of age. 

  Driving back drunk one night to his home on the north shore, Joe kills a homeless man on a bicycle near Waimea, and his own life takes a turn for the worse. Then his new girlfriend, Olive, an English nurse, intervenes. She makes Joe confront what he’s done and help her establish the dead man’s identity. In the process, Joe pulls himself together and gets back on his board. Under the Wave at Waimea is about the joys of surfing (“a rush, a feeling, a dance”), about living a lie, and about the unseen life of Hawaii. I talked to its author about fiction, travel and the post-pandemic future.

Paul Theroux: ‘We’ll never get back to the way it was. Just as 9/11 was a defining moment in travel, so the pandemic is a defining event.’ Picture © STEVE MCCURRY

One of your characters in the new book, when asked why someone else came to Hawaii, answers: “For the specific purpose every haole [white person] comes… to chill, to smoke pakalolo [marijuana], to catch waves.” Why did you move there?

Love brought me here. I fell in love with a woman from Hawaii and moved here, and then fell in love with the place. I had lived in Africa, I’d travelled in the Pacific, South-East Asia. There are pluses and minuses to all those places. In rural Thailand, I thought, “Great — but is there a hospital; how would you function?” But this is Polynesia with all the American amenities. It’s Polynesian people, the landscape, the waves, the volcanoes, all of that, the lifestyle, the food. But it’s also Main Street USA. And the laidback lifestyle: it’s like Middle America. It’s Middle America in the Pacific, and there’s something very fetching about that. 

How has it been over the past year? Has Coronavirus made a difference?

To me, not very much. I’m not locked down in a flat in a city. I could go to the beach. I spend the summer on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. End of November, I drove coast to coast from Cape Cod to Los Angeles: six days, 500 miles a day. Some people were wearing masks, some weren’t, all the motels were empty, traffic was very light. That was a salutary trip, to see the condition of the country in the middle of a pandemic.

In LA, I got tested, and flew to Hawaii. I hadn’t been to Hawaii since last June; from June to November I was in New England.

If you’re a writer, you’re familiar with being locked down: you’re going to your desk every morning. But the pandemic did prevent me from taking a trip I really wanted to take, to Central Africa, where I had lived. I first went there in 1963. I was a teacher at a school, in Nyasaland, which became Malawi, and I wanted to go back just to see what had happened — to the students, the school, the country.

If you’re a travel writer, you can’t go anywhere. But any American can take a road trip. No one’s saying that you can’t leave your home. If you’re in Albuquerque, New Mexico, you can drive to the Mexican border; if you’re in New York you can go to New England. No one’s stopping you. 

This is your second novel set in Hawaii [after Hotel Honolulu]. You’ve said you don’t think you’ve written any successful non-fiction about the islands. Why is that?

In Under the Wave… I’m writing about a very specific place, about 10 miles of coastline, where the waves are. And every wave has a name, every little cove has a name, every piece of water has a name: Banzai Pipeline, Waimea, Chun’s Reef, Pua’ena Point.

The hardest place to write about is home, and one of the most complex places is an island. An island isn’t one place, it’s many. There’s the windward side, the leeward side, the wet side, the dry side; there are  micro-climates. There are Mormons over there, Filipino descendants in that town, Waipahu, wealthy people in Kahala, Hawaiians in Waianae, middle-class white people on the windward side, in Kailua. Every place has an identity. 

As I’m writing about where I live, which is the north shore [of Oahu], the waves, the surfer culture, I’ve kind of grasped that. But if someone said, “What goes on in Kailua?” — on the windward side, mainly middle-class people in bungalows, the seaside thing — I wouldn’t have a clue.

Sharkey can’t understand people who find “some strange squirrelly indoor comfort in books”, but you seem entirely at home in his world. How’s that? Do you surf yourself?

I’ve lived among surfers in Hawaii for more than 30 years, like an anthropologist among a remote and amazing people with great skills that I noted in detail. As a kayaker and a paddler (outrigger single canoe) I often accompany surfers offshore on their boards practising their paddling (they lie flat and paddle for seven or eight miles along the coast). I am in frequent conversation with them — particularly about their travels — and have many surfer friends, including Garrett McNamara, who surfed the biggest wave in the world. But I haven’t climbed on a board. I can surf a small wave with my outrigger, but I’m not as skilled as the guys I paddle with — Hawaiians in canoes who routinely surf head-high waves. 

As Sharkey is about to touch down in Cape Town, you say: “as always, he looked for surf when the plane banked towards the city”. What do you look for? What draws you to a place? I’m thinking of Norman Lewis, in an interview shortly before his death, saying, “Generally speaking, it has to be a bit horrific.”

Two thoughts. Whenever I arrive in a place, I think, “When it comes time to leave, how will I get out of here? Is there a train, a bus, a road? Can I rent a car?” Even though I might be planning to stay a long time, that’s my first thought.

Sharkey looks for waves; when I was writing The Happy Isles of Oceania, I looked [down from the plane] for a beach where I could launch my boat — where there weren’t a lot of waves.

The other thought — the Norman Lewis thought — is: who am I going to meet here? Where are they? Where are the stories? How am I going to find them? I don’t look people up. I tend to bump into people, buttonhole people. These people are overlooked, they have a story to tell; what’s their story? My issue is always: who am I gonna meet?

When I wrote Deep South, about travelling through the American South, I would introduce myself at the church… And often people would say, “Come over tomorrow, have a cup of tea, have a coffee, have a drink with us.” And I would go to this very poor place — usually — and bring some food, and we’d sit on the porch and they’d talk about their life, how it was, their parents’ stories — black or white. They all had a story to tell, about picking cotton or hard times. 

Allandale County [in South Carolina] is one of the poorest counties in the United States. [It] looks like Zimbabwe: very beat-up, there’s nothing happening. I went to a number of churches there, introduced myself, talked to people. After the book came out, maybe two or three years ago, one of the people I talked to, a black social worker, who runs a place fixing people’s houses, emailed to tell me, “A great thing just happened. A woman in San Francisco sent us some money.” Sent them a big cheque… 

So I emailed the woman. She said, “I read your book. They need some money. I love giving money away to good causes.” You know, that’s one of the best things that ever happened to me as a writer…. 

 You’ve long alternated novels and travel books. Would you agree with Jonathan Raban that “The writer’s working conditions tend to drive him to travel, just as they often drive him to drink”?

Yes, I agree with that. Funny you should mention him, as Jonathan is one of my best friends, and reads virtually everything I write before I publish it. We trade manuscripts… 

You become chained to your desk. You’re living in Clapham, sitting at your desk, and you finish a book and you think, now what? Well, I think I’ll go to India. I’ll get a train to Istanbul. Or Istanbul, and then Teheran and then Pakistan and I’ll write The Great Railway Bazaar. How hard is it? You just take the train to Victoria, and then the world is your oyster.

Or leave your house, take a train to Margate and start walking, circumnavigate [as Theroux did for The Kingdom by the Sea].

I often used to walk the Thames Path [which runs for 180 miles along the banks of the river, from Woolwich in south-east London to Kemble in Gloucestershire]. I’d do it on successive weekends, sometimes with my kids, sometimes with my wife and sometimes alone. I’ve done the whole thing — not all in one go. But every bit of it is interesting: Putney, Kingston, Hampton Court, Marlow, Stanley Spencer’s area of Cookham. It’s fantastic.

I used to have a rowboat or a kayak, so I used to paddle, often, up the Thames. I kept the boat in Putney and I used to row. Or sometimes I would kayak downriver. And then you realise it’s a tidal river: it ebbs and flows, it changes, there are different boats going by. Amazingly various. 

You get further along and you find it’s very bucolic, but always beautiful. My dream was to have a house that backed on to the Thames… Edna O’Brien lived in a house in Deodar Road in Putney, and I thought, “I could live in that house.”

You have that experience of the restfulness of looking at water. And I seem to have a theme in my life: I loved living in England because I was near the sea — I’m a coastal New Englander; I always lived near Boston or Cape Cod. I moved to Hawaii; I’m near the sea again. The idea of living in Arizona or, I dunno, Colorado, never appealed to me. Or even in the middle of France. Marine sunlight is something special. So I would always choose to be near the water.


‘Either you’re writing fiction or you’re writing travel.
You can’t put fiction in travel’


Years ago, when I commissioned an experienced journalist to write his first travel piece, he said to me: “Tell me, when I’m filing for your pages, am I on oath?” Do you regard yourself as being on oath when you write a travel book, a work of non-fiction?

To write travel? You can’t invent. You must not invent. You can change people’s names, but you don’t invent episodes. You know who used to do that? Bruce Chatwin. He was never on oath. If you’d said to Chatwin, “You’re going to Patagonia, but you’re on oath,” he would have said, “Oh, no, no, no, I’m not interested in that.” I said to him, “You’ve gotta come clean.” He said: “I don’t believe in coming clean.”

But he was furious when The Songlines [inspired by the “tjuringa lines”, or “dreaming tracks” of the Aboriginal people of Australia] was nominated for the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and demanded that his publisher withdraw it. [According to his biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, Chatwin said: “The journey it describes is an invented journey, it is not a travel book in the generally accepted sense.”]

He said that his books were a type of novel, a type of fiction. Actually, either you’re writing fiction or you’re writing travel. You can’t put fiction in travel: “I met this beautiful woman, she swept me away, and by the way that was my experience in Venice and Venice is lovely and you should stay at the Cipriani.” If the love affair didn’t happen, you’ve broken your oath.  

You have to be truthful in fiction, too. It’s a different sort of writing; it’s a way of telling the truth by inventing. But the traveller who invents is being dishonest, misleading. And he’s especially misleading the readers, because the readers may want to go there, and if they don’t have that experience, they’re going to be disappointed.  

Olive notes early on that Sharkey has been everywhere, but he tells her he’s now “cured of travel”. Are you similarly cured, or are there places you still want to go, to write about?

It would be a long bucket list. I especially want to go back to places that I’ve lived in. It’s one way of seeing the way the world is trending; the way the world is or isn’t improving. I lived in Africa in the 1960s, and it was then a very hopeful place. It got less hopeful and more dominated by dictators; by foreign interests, too.

Do you think we’ll travel in a different way post pandemic? Or will we return to boarding planes as carelessly as we used to?

No, we’ll never get back to the way it was. Just as 9/11 was a defining moment in travel, in air travel, so the pandemic is a defining event. Although I’ll say this: when I first went to Africa in 1963, I had a passport and I also had the yellow WHO [World Health Organisation] card. In every country I went to, I can remember showing the card and saying, I’ve had a yellow-fever shot, a diphtheria shot, a sleeping-sickness shot, a polio shot. And they had to be up to date.

So the vaccine passport is a thing of the future. I think that all travel will be predicated on being vaccinated, having the proof and having it up to date, just the way it used to be. That’s the old normal, that somehow got eliminated.

That’s the first thing. The second thing is, will you really want to go to a place that’s been very badly infected, where they haven’t got it under control? People will be selective, and some countries will really lose out. And unfortunately they’re going to be poor countries. 

You’ve done a lot of your travelling by train. Is climate change a consideration in your plans? Would you think twice about flying?

I live on an island where, if you drive 20 miles around the island you come to a town called Kahoʻolawe, or Kahoolawe, and the road is being washed away because of rising sea levels and because of a different climate pattern. Even nearer here, people have houses on the ocean, and they’re losing them; they’re being washed away. Every winter, houses get lost here. On Cape Cod, the same is true. Houses are built on dunes. So I’m keenly aware of the effects of climate change. But I still fly. I don’t think, “I’m flying to India; this plane is using a lot of fuel.” Somehow that’s not part of my plan… Maybe I can justify it, dishonestly, by saying “I’m a writer. I’m gonna write about it.”

The new book [in which the fictional Starkey strikes up a friendship with the writer Hunter S Thompson] sent me back to one of your own essays on Hunter S Thompson, of whom you said: “He seldom dealt with books; he was no reader… you need to be able to sit still to be a reader.” Do you think that’s becoming harder? Is new technology making many of us less attentive, less able to immerse ourselves in a book than we once were?

Yes, I do. We live in a very nervous age. The pandemic has made it more agitated… It’s all about looking at a screen. And this nervousness is not conducive to reading. People think of  themselves as readers, but they’re really not readers. It takes an effort; reading is a creative act. You really need to concentrate; you can’t be nervous or agitated. 

Writing is the same thing. I write in longhand. People say to me, “Is that a lot of work?” And I say, “Well, writing is a lot of work.” It’s really a lot of work, and you can’t write well if you don’t write carefully… 

Now and then someone comes to me and says — and this also applies to the agitation, or the nervousness, or the impatience; it’s an impatient age — “I wrote a story, Paul, Mr Theroux; would you read it?…

I read the story and I say, “What do you think?”

“Well, I’m not happy with it.”

And I say — this is a 5,000-word story — “Well, why don’t you copy it out in longhand? And I guarantee you it will be better…”

And invariably the person says — younger person — “That’s too much trouble. I couldn’t do that.” 

Well, I do it.

From writing to reading: can you think of any travel books you’ve read recently that you’d recommend?

I don’t read a lot of travel, but someone asked me recently to read a great passage from a favourite book, and I remembered one from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West. I found the passage, and then I started to re-read the book. It’s maybe half a million words, half a million well-chosen words. A real chunk, but a fantastic book about Yugoslavia. The travel was done in the late 1930s; her book was published in 1941.

And I’ve just finished Horizontal Vertigo, by Juan Villoro. It’s the best book I’ve read about Mexico City, bar none — better than Octavio Paz, better than Carlos Fuentes.

I know The Worst Journey in the World [an account of Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic], by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, is one of your old favourites. Maybe, given how few of us can do any travelling, that’s one for these times…

Yes. It will keep you at home, keep you away from Antarctica and make you count your blessings — and marvel at the ability of this young, near-sighted English fellow to write such a magnificent book. 

* Under the Wave at Waimea by Paul Theroux is published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton at £18.99.
A shorter version of this interview appeared in print in the travel section of
The Daily Telegraph on April 24 and is also online.