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Interview: Paul Theroux by Eleanor Wachtel

(This week I'm covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. This event is "Interview: Paul Theroux by Eleanor Wachtel.")

Paul-theroux

Paul Theroux has long been one of those authors I feel like I should get around to but never quite have: I own a couple of his better-known books and have long harbored unfulfilled intentions to read them. After this event, I think I will.

Theroux and his interviewer, Eleanor Wachtel, started off their conversation with Tthe ostensible reason Theroux was at the IFOA–the publication of his new book, A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, although they quickly got pulled off to other topics. However, they did stay on The Dead Hand long enough to discuss Theroux's lightly metafictional use of himself as a character in the book. As Theroux explained numerous times, it's a distinctly unflattering portrait of himself, and it comes from the mind of the narrator, who meets Theroux about halfway through the book. Among other things, the narrator thinks of the fictional Theroux that he "looked older than his picture," and that he had "lost his looks, if he ever had them."

Theroux stated that he placed himself within the book in order to act as a mirror to show readers who the book's narrator/protagonist was. The scene with Theroux is the first time that readers find out the name of the narrator, and Theroux, borrowing from Stendhal, likened it to holding up a "cracked mirror" to reality.

From here the conversation was pulled into Theroux's beginnings as a writer, which he combined with his beginnings as an adult and likened to what many young adult Americans are facing now. He set out for Africa in 1963 as what he called an "angry" and "agitated" individual, "full of indignation." He had a strong feeling that the real world was somewhere other than middle class America and he "wanted to liberate" himself by being "alone and away." Theroux claimed that in many ways the '60s were a dark time for America and likened his young struggles to the anger and disaffection being felt now by young Americans.

So then what about Africa engaged him? Theroux answered that the continent had a sense of not being finished, that is was a place where mistakes could still be avoided and where someone such as himself could actually matter to society in a way he felt was impossible in a more developed part of the world. He also stated that he enjoyed the feeling of losing himself in a new language and a new culture, and that it gave him something to write about. (This last point dovetails with a bifurcation I'm noticing throughout the festival: the writers that choose to go out into the world to experience it and be inspired, and those who choose to remain within the life of their own mind and write about the world from that perspective.)

Theroux also likened his first novel, Waldo, to an act of rebellion, since he claimed that his mother hated it and that this did not bother him in the least. In fact, Theroux said he relished this feeling because it gave him license to go out and live his own life. He also contrasted this scene with that of an individual whose mother acts like his agent, in effect presiding over all of the person's writing. Theroux grew animated at this idea and stated rather categorically that this person was not a writer, that, essentially, writing and rebellion were deeply tied together.

From his first novel, Theroux moved on to discussing The Great Railway Bazaar, which was his breakout novel, and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, in which he attempted to relive earlier journeys he had undertaken as a young adult. Of the former, Theroux said that when he undertook to write it he felt like a failure as a writer, and that throughout the trip he was depressed but somehow managed to turn that into a positive energy that he could put on the page. (Generally, in Theroux's experience, depression greatly inhibits writing, although apparently not in this instance.) He also stated that his motivating idea was to write about travel in a deeply "personal" way: "above all I want to make you see." Thus Theroux showed travel as "nuisance and delay" and from a highly subjective viewpoint.

Of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, the book in which he retraced his youthful footsteps, Theroux was asked about his claim that it is "dangerous and irresistible to travel to an earlier part of your life." Theroux thought that the danger came from the shock of seeing the places you had once been as a much older person, and that in many cases it was unwise to undertake such a trip.

On that subject, Theroux also briefly discussed a novella of his that was recently published in The New Yorker. He said it was about a man whose life has generally been a failure, and who after losing his wife and children decides to return to the only place that really made him happy, Africa. When he gets there, though, he discovers that the place has changed to the extent that it's impossible to actually return to what he had there when he was younger. It sounded like an interesting plot, one that put me in the mind of writers of place and memory like W.G. Sebald.

Finally, the conversation looped back to Theroux's new novel, The Dead Hand, which Theroux compared to Philip Roth's most recent novel, The Humbling, because both novels come out of a "shutting of a door," the feeling of a writer who thinks he doesn't have it any more. Theroux stated that part of his inspiration in writing this novel was based in the freakishly prolific French novelist Georges Simenon, who himself once faced writers block–and predictably enough wrote a book about it, When I Was Old
. In the case of The Dead Hand, Theroux said that it is a letter from a woman in Calcutta who saves him from writer's block. The woman must help a boy who discovered a dead body in his room, thus drawing the narrator out of his doldrums, similarly, one would suppose, to the way in which Theroux was drawn into the writing life when he was pulled toward Africa.

Overall, Theroux showed himself to be an urbane, very well-spoken individual, and I thought his conversation placed him in an extremely positive light. The only part that was less than satisfying was toward the end when Theroux briefly discussed the device of using yourself as a character in your own book; he seemed to be completely unaware of the great body of literature–including, of course, many of the great novels of the late 20th century–that has already worked this device in so many ways. Nonetheless, The Dead Hand still sounded like an interesting variation on this theme.

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