Travel Legends: Q + A With Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has been charming readers–and rooting out surprising adventures in far-flung places–for more than half a century. Known for his fondness for train travel, love-hate relationship with Africa, and literary panache, the veteran travel writer and novelist, now 73, continues to share his global insights with the world.

Theroux’s most recent book, The Last Train to Zona Verde, may seem like a fitting bookend to the book that kickstarted his career, but I have a feeling we’ll be hearing from this literary legend for years to come.

When Theroux stopped by National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., last year, I had the chance to ask him about his thoughts on travel, his connection to his roots, and his advice for aspiring writers. This is what he had to say:

Leslie Trew Magraw: You grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, right outside of Boston. What do you love about where you grew up? 

Paul Theroux: Being a coastal New Englander really shaped my life. I would find it almost impossible to live in an inland city or town. I simply can’t do it. I need to live where there’s the smell of the sea, where there’s water. Because of the feng shui, I suppose.

I also like the idea of forest next to a sea–like the Maine coast or the California or Oregon coasts. Where there’s sea and forest going up to the sea. That’s heaven to me.

LTM: What’s your favorite town in New England?

PT: Thomaston, Maine, has everything. It has a village green. It has lovely houses. It used to once be a sea captain’s town. It’s unprepossessing. It’s not posh, but it’s beautiful. There are a couple of nice restaurants now.

It’s at the top of the St. George River, which goes out to the sea, so you could leave Chesapeake Bay and sail to Thomaston. Every Fourth of July they have a parade, and at Christmas there are decorations. It just seems to be the quintessential New England coastal town.

LTM: What’s the best way to experience a place?

PT: Living there, I think. Living there and probably having a child in school [there]. If you can’t do that, just staying as long as possible and making friends. It’s certainly not breezing through.

The best way is to have something in common with people and to somehow see what kinds of burdens they have. Being a taxpayer in England, which I was for 18 years, taught me everything about living there.

LTM: Why do you think it’s important to travel?

PT: [Travel allows you to] know about the world, and to see how other people’s problems are closely related to your own–how other people’s lives are linked to your own.

LTM: What do you say when people make excuses for not traveling?

PT: It’s like people who say, “I don’t have time to read.” It’s just an excuse, and it’s a pretty lame excuse. I can understand why someone might not have enough money to travel to distant places, but you don’t have to go very far to travel. You can find difference, and something to see, anywhere.

LTM: What do you bring with you wherever you go?

PT: I really wouldn’t go anywhere without a book to read. Also a notebook and a pen.

LTM: Do you have a favorite travel book?

PT: I always say the same one, and it’s The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. In the process of writing The Tao of Travel, I found that there were 300 books that were worthy of quotation. That’s why I wrote that personal anthology of travel books.

LTM: What made you realize that you wanted to make travel a permanent part of your life?

PT: Going to Africa with the Peace Corps. I didn’t choose; I was sent to Nyasaland [now Malawi], and it was like going to another planet. I loved it. I was also away from my family, and that was a thrill, to be far, far away.

LTM: What’s the best road trip you’ve ever taken? 

PT: Really the greatest one I took, the most memorable, was from the southern province of Malawi–through Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya–to Uganda in 1965. There were lions in the road, Maasai warriors, road blocks, giraffes. It was about 2,000 miles of dirt roads, and it was ’65 so there was very little other traffic. It was sort of pre-safari, pre-tourist. I was just 23 years old, driving this car with another guy. Nothing can compare with that.

LTM: Is there a road trip you’d like to repeat?

PT: I’d like to return to the [American] Deep South and just circulate on the back roads. To me, that’s heaven. There’s always a place to eat. There’s always a place to stay. There’s something to see. You get a warm welcome from people.

Another one that I’m very keen to take is just going straight north from my house in Massachusetts–up through New England, Quebec, up, just up through Canada, until I run out of road. Just camping.

LTM: Do you have a dream trip in mind–one you haven’t taken yet?

PT: Every time I’ve ever wanted to take a trip, I’ve taken it.

I thought I would love to travel with a folding kayak, a tent, and a sleeping bag, and go to as many South Pacific islands as I could find. And I did it. I wrote a book about it, The Happy Isles of Oceania. I wanted to go to China and take every train you can possibly take, and I did that. So, I’m not someone who has unfulfilled longings.

My problem is, I sometimes have trouble coming up with new ones.

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LTM: We could ask our readers to make recommendations…

PT: I’d be up for it; I’m open to suggestions.

You talk about a dream trip? It would be going somewhere and teaching. Teaching in a school somewhere for, say, three or four months. Or learning to cook.

I’d like to do something–to be useful.

LTM: Do you have any advice for people who aspire to become travel writers?

PT: Read. Read everything. Read travel, read novels, read poetry, read history, read books set in a particular place, but not necessarily set in places you want to go. People don’t read enough. It’s the key to understanding.

Learn languages. Obvious languages like French and Spanish, but maybe another language, like Swahili.

Another very useful thing is to be born in a family with a lot of children. If you’re born into a family with a lot of children, you learn to negotiate. So, try to have six or seven brothers and sisters.

LTM: How many brothers and sisters do you have?

PT: I have six. The other great thing about having a big family is that it will give you a very strong desire to get away from them.

Leslie Trew Magraw is the editor and producer of the Intelligent Travel blog network at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter @leslietrew.

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