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The Interview: Paul Theroux on The Tao of Travel

Paul Theroux. Photo by Steve McCurry


By Everett Potter

You might call The Tao of Travel (HMH, 2011) the perfect match – Paul Theroux, America’s foremost travel writer, chooses his favorite passages from the world’s best travel writers and issues them in a slim, highly readable tome. Theroux, of course, is more than a mere editor. He is one of our best novelists, a writer who is exceptionally well-traveled, extraordinarily well-read, and notoriously opinionated. He brings the experiences of a lifetime to selecting and organizing these texts into bite-size and highly readable selections.

It’s one thing to find noteworthy selections of the travel wisdom of Robert Louis Stevenson, Evelyn Waugh and Freya Starck, for example. But it’s another matter entirely for Theroux to thematically organize his excerpts in a truly meaningful way – “English Travelers on Escaping England,” for example, or “It is Solved by Walking” and “Writers and the Places They Never Visited.”

Theroux’s own prodigious output is featured here – The Great Railway Bazaar, The Happy Isles of Oceania and Dark Star Safari are among the best travel books of the last half century –  but so is the work of Peter Mathiessen,  Somerset Maugham, Eudora Welty, Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Graham Greene and Dervla Murphy, among many others. The latter’s rules of travel – including “Be self-propelled or buy a pack animal” and “Travel alone or with just one prepubescent child” – is advice that you’ll rarely receive from a travel agent.

I recently met Theroux in New York and  took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about The Tao of Travel.

Everett Potter: The Tao of Travel clearly distills years of reading. But the choices – such as deciding which sentences of Evelyn Waugh or Jonathan Raban to quote – must have been agonizing at times. How difficult was it to assemble this book?

Paul Theroux: The hard part was the 80-mile round trip to the University of Hawaii library every week to look for out-of-print or hard to get books. The reading was enjoyable, btu I have no secretarial help, no interns, no grad students working for me, so I did all the copying out, all the typing myself. In other words, the mechanical and physical parts of the business were arduous. The actual reading and discovery of quotable material was fun.

EP: Ideally, this book will send droves of people to their local library or Amazon as much as it will inspire actual journeys. Of all the books you’ve read and presumably reread for “The Tao of Travel,” which ones stand out as your favorites, tomes you’ve come back to again and again?

PT: The simple answer to this is ALL the books I quote from. I compiled this personal anthology to avoid over-simplifying the list of great and favorite books.

EP: One of my favorite selections in The Tao of Travel is from your own book, The Kingdom by the Sea, where you say, “Travel is so often an experiment with time. In Third World countries, I felt I had dropped into the past, and I had never accepted the notion of timelessness anywhere. Most countries had specific years. In Turkey, it was always 1952, in Malaysia 1937; Afghanistan was 1910 and Bolivia 1949. It is twenty years ago in the Soviet Union, ten in Norway, five in France. It is always last year in Australia and next week in Japan. Britain and the United States were the present – but the present contains the future.”

That was published in 1983. How might you revise those dates for the same countries in 2011?

PT: I think most are pretty much the same, except that Turkey has modernized quite a bit, and Afghanistan is now looking ever more backward, like 1885, a tribal people at war.

EP: Of all the writers you’ve quoted, who do you think deserves a wider audience?

PT: Really, all the writers I quoted deserve a wider audience, because I was scrupulous about quoting the classics, the very best – and it is a delusion of many literate people that they have read more than they actually have. I find that the most obvious writers are neglected – like Twain, R L Stevenson, Melville.

EP: Bruce Chatwin is quoted in these pages and some of his letters to you appear in Under the Sun, the newly published collection of Chatwin’s correspondence that I’ve been reading. Chatwin was praised as a genius but later scorned by some readers because he allegedly fictionalized characters in his “non-fiction” books. How common do you think such embellishment is among travel writers?

PT: This embellishment, which I deplore, is fairly common. It was recently revealed that Steinbeck’s Travels With Charly was heavily embroidered upon and in parts fictionalized. I noted  this in my book, because I’d also read Steinbeck’s letters and found vast discrepancies between those and his travel book.

EP: I had either read or was familiar with nearly all the author’s in The Tao of Travel, but the one that leapt off the page was Gardner McKay. Gardner McKay? I recall him only as an actor with Kennedy-esque matinee idol looks who was the star of  Adventures in Paradise, a TV series about sailing in the South Seas that I dimly remember from my childhood. I had no idea that he was an author.

PT: He wrote quite a good thriller called Toyer and a memoir, in which I found that nice line  [“I came to realize that I traveled best when I traveled no faster than a dog could trot.” -from Journey without a Map ] .

EP: You list 10 alluring places that you’ve “never seen and always wanted to visit”  — Alaska, Scandinavia, Greenland, Timor, Angola, New Britain Island, Sakhalin, the Darien Gap, the Swat Valley and the American South.  Have you made plans to visit any of them in the near future?

PT: Yes, I have made plans, but have not managed to put these plans into action.

EP: And your next book?

PT: A novel, called The Lower River, set in Africa, which will appear next year.

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