Interview: Paul Theroux on Travelling

What draws me in is that a trip is a leap in the dark. It’s like a metaphor for life. You set off from home, and in the classic travel book you go to an unknown place. You discover a different world, and you discover yourself. The traveller is an ancient figure – a stand-in for mankind – finding his or her way. Ideally, in a travel book the traveller is alone.

Interview with Paul Theroux as part of The Browser‘s FiveBooks series, also published in Salon in 2012.

Paul Theroux discusses his early life in Malawi and Africa, how travelling gives a perspective on home countries and what it means to travel alone properly and how that intensifies the personal response to a physical journey.

He explains why he chooses not to read travel literature and how he chooses what books to take on a  journey, revealing views similar to Graham Greene:

What books to take on a journey? It is an interesting – and important – problem. In West Africa once I had made the mistake of taking the Anatomy of Melancholy, with the idea that it would, as it were, match the mood. It matched all right, but what one really needs is contrast (The Lawless Roads)

Setting out his five book choices, Paul Theroux explains how each of them helped make him want to write a book himself, how we are drawn to stories about stories about suffering and people being tested and how the length of time a writer spends in a place can affect how they respond to and write about it.

Theroux gives an insight into the difficulty of treating travel writing as a strictly non-fiction literary form.  He highlights that three of his five choices are novelists (“a novelist should be a good traveller”) and explains the value of fiction techniques for travel writing (“the ability to write fiction…is helpful to someone writing a travel book”).  

This resonates with the views of Jan Morris, who resists not only being called a travel writer but also “the idea that travel writing has got to be factual.”  As if to make Theroux’s point about the closeness of travel writing and fiction, Morris recalls Theroux once saying to her that he “liked writing travel books because they gave him a plot; he didn’t have to think one up”.   However, as both authors point out, this does not simply mean making it up even though some travel writers haven been criticised for doing just that.

As for what the five books were? You can read those in the interview.



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