The world's greatest living travel writer reveals how he fell into writing travel narratives and what he loves about the genre
I met Paul Theroux in the foyer of his London hotel. He was in town to promote his new book, Last Train to Zona Verde. Casually dressed, with a tattoo of a swallow between the thumb and forefinger on the top of his right hand, he had the aura of a man who does things. Not quite a full-blown Ernest Hemingway kind of author, but definitely not a Alain de Botton, either.
We spent the first 15 minutes swapping stories about Africa. We had travelled the east coast of the continent at the same time. He travelled from Cairo to Cape Town. I went in the opposite direction. He wrote Dark Star Safari. I wrote Swahili for the Broken-Hearted.
He was particularly keen to hear my tales about Vicki Ntozini. I'd stayed in her fledgling township B&B in Khayelitsha. He had met her while researching Last Train to Zona Verde. I'd just gotten news that she'd been murdered by her husband.
'She was a bright spark,' he said shaking his head.
Eventually our conversation turned to his career as a travel author and I was able to ask the questions I had wanted to ask since being inspired to become a travel author after reading The Great Railway Bazaar. How did he get started as a travel writer. And why was he so good?
What made you want to write a travel book? You were already a well-known, established author. I think you’d had seven or eight novels published before setting off on the journey that became The Great Railway Bazaar.
I’d run out ideas for novels. I’d written Saint Jack, then wrote The Black House, I published a book of short stories. As I was writing The Black House, which is set in England, I thought, ‘I’ve written all this fiction, back-to-back, I have to keep the pot boiling.’
But I was out of ideas. And I recommend to people, if you’re out of ideas, go away. Go somewhere. Go look for a story.
I didn’t really know what I was doing. But rather than sitting and thinking, writing poetry or book reviews, I decided I was going to go out and search for a story. The idea was simple enough. I'd just leave London, take a train and just keep going. The conceit was getting on a train, then get another train, and then another.
It was as simple as that?
I wouldn’t say it was simple, but there was no obstacle. Getting to Paris was simple. To Turkey was pretty straightforward. Iran – the Shah was in Iran. Afghanistan, it was just after the king had been deposed. Everyone was taking buses and trains, it was a normal route. It went Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, Khyber Pass, Peshawar and then onward.
It was the hippy trail, fully established, lots of people on it. Every so often I met people and I’d hook up with them. It was like an old Silk Route caravan. They were looking for hashish, on their way to India, on their way to Nepal. Their destination was Kathmandu. The hippy trail ended up in Kathmandu.
I realised then that I wasn’t writing fiction. This is the roundabout answer to your question. I found myself just swept along. It was the first trip that I took with the deliberate intention of writing about it.
What I love about your travel books is that your trips are more about the people you meet, and as you’ve said before, about their ‘voices’. Was that a deliberate decision or was that something that just happened?
It was definitely a deliberate decision to put dialogue in. I had always associated travel books with summary, geography, explanations. It was a completely objective experience. Giving the population, statistics, the size of the cities, the texture of the city and so forth and I decided I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to write it like a novel. Dialogue. Description. And I’m not objective. I’m full of opinions, many of them probably mistaken. I wanted it to be more like a letter home.
Do you think being a novelist makes you a better travel writer?
It makes you a better traveller and it helps in describing what you are seeing. Novelists tend to be sedentary homebodies. They tend to be urban people, which I’m not. The novelists who wrote travel in the past wrote really good books. Trollope is brilliant. Dickens, is another great example. Naipaul too. Being a novelist mainly it helps in observation because if you are writing fiction you pay attention to what people say and how they look, the texture of life. I think that helped me.
Another thing that struck me is that you are notoriously portrayed as this grumpy kind of traveller. But to me it seems to me that you enjoy being with people, or at the very least, you enjoy their stories. You can’t be grumpy and engage with people like that.
I don’t know where this grumpy thing comes from, but you see it all over the place. You know as a traveller, if you are a bad tempered, grumpy traveller you get nowhere. If you’re in a van, and you’re sitting there sulking and saying, ‘This is pretty horrible, when are we going to get there?’ they’re going to look at you and say, ‘Who is this guy?’
You have to get into the mood of it. You need to get along with people. And I believe that I’m that kind of guy. But there’s something in writing in an ironic way, in a breezy way, having a strong opinion – and from lazy reading too – people nail you and think it’s just a continuation of the same attitude.
Would you advise people wanting to be travel writers to put themselves out there, to avoid places like Tuscany?
Yeah, take a risk. But it’s also a wicked world. If a young woman is asking the question, you don’t want to send her to Pakistan. Or a young single woman in Egypt. Probably not a great idea.
How much research do you do before a trip?
What I’m interested in before a trip are routes, how to get to a place, how to get out of a place. Where to stay is not a big thing. There’s always a place to stay. It’s rare to go and have everything booked. You don’t always know if the roads are good. You assume there’s a bus or some way of getting from one place to another. Crossing borders, it’s helpful to know about places to stay, getting lifts to the border or walking across the border and then what you do on the other side. More the practicalities of travelling that I research.
As far as reading about the history of a certain place or novels, I leave that until afterwards. I don’t want to research a place intensely, I want to discover it.
What about the practicality of writing, from taking notes through to finishing the manuscript? How do you keep notes? What is your writing process?
I have a small notebook and I make notes all day. I don’t have a tape recorder. I take notes. Then at night, I write up my notes, write up the day. I don’t dread it, but I do think ‘I’ve got to do this.’ I write up the notes very fully. On some days those notes are quite long, sometimes a couple of thousand words.
So, at the end of the trip, you’ve pretty much got the book written.
Has writing up your notes stopped you from going out at night?
No. If I go out, I just write them up the next morning. First thing when I wake up, before I leave the place, before I have other experiences.
And as far as going out at night, I don’t go out at night. There’s not much to do at night in the kind of places I go. I’m not even that interested. I mean, what are you going to do at night? In an African city there’s something happening. But in a small place, it’s just guys drinking. And you don’t want to be with a lot of drunks. So there aren’t a lot of distractions. Sometimes there might be a concert or someone might invite you for a meal, but in general there’s not a lot on.
In your later books, your trips are often punctuated with a visit to a university or a festival. Do you plan your trips around them or do they just slot in?
No, they just slot in. Say I’m going to a place, and I tell someone at an embassy or a university that I’m coming, they say, ‘Well, when you get here, give us a call. Maybe you can give a talk or we’ll put you in touch.’
When I was much younger I was just a lonely, anonymous traveller. Now, I’m an older man, so people are interested and I get invited to do things, which never happened before.
Would that be the main difference between travelling as the young, anonymous Paul Theroux and the well-known travel author?
Yeah, I guess I’m reasonably well known. You often get to places and they’re looking for people to invite to parties.
I guess cultural centres need to justify their existence.
That too. But yes, I’m lucky. I get a welcome in a lot of places. Another factor is that all the books I have written are set in all different parts of the world. And what I’ve found is that people who work in those places, the teachers, the aid workers, embassy people, tend to read my work, more than other people. I have a good readership among people who travel for work.
So I often meet them. They’re not literary people, but they may be the ambassador to wherever and they usually say to me, ‘I like your books, can I help you? Would you like to meet anyone?’ So, yes, that’s a feature of the latter part of my life.
You’ve said that truth is the key to travel writing. You say to young travel writers write the truth, write what you see. Yet in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star you admit that you met Mr Bernard at his hotel, rather than on the train as you wrote in The Great Railway Bazaar. Is there a grey line? Can you fudge?
When I wrote The Great Railway Bazaar I put everyone on a train. Most of the people I met were on trains, but if they weren’t I’d put them on a train anyway. Having said that, the line is actually a pretty strict line when it comes to accurately portraying who they are and what they said. Putting him on the train was a conceit and I probably wouldn’t do that now.
But for that book everyone seemed to belong on a train. That was a liberty that I took, but I believe you’ve really got to lay it on the line. From time to time, I guess I have taken liberties, but the essential truth of the book has to be accurately reported.
Do you think your travel books have improved?
When I first started out writing travel, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was trying to write something different and something I hadn’t read myself. Based on books that I’d read, Twain, Trollope, Naipaul, books that had dialogue, humour, strong opinions. To write a travel book that I would find interesting. To be honest, I regard The Great Railway Bazaar as a beginner’s book. I think Riding the Iron Rooster is a better book. I think Dark Star Safari is a better book. Happy Isles of Oceania is a better book. With The Great Railway Bazaar, I was trying to figure out what sort of book it should be.
Finally, what would be your main piece of advice for a young travel writer just starting out?
Be bold, be truthful and leave everything behind. This idea of disconnecting yourself is very important to me. People going to a place and phoning home, blogging, checking their Facebook, leave that all behind. Take a leap in the dark is the best advice I can give. Things will happen.