Interviews March 2004

The Perpetual Stranger

Paul Theroux talks about writing and traveling—and the liberation that both provide
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book cover

The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin
304 pages, $25.

Midway through the title story in The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro, the character Gilford Mariner gains a dazzling new perspective on his life. The year is 1962, and Gil, a twenty-one-year-old artist traveling through Sicily, has found himself spending a summer in the company of a mysterious German countess. One morning, while sketching the white house fronts and the blue sea, he realizes that his own existence has become an artwork:

I even saw the painting in a gilded frame, with a title something like The Golden Age or The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro, as detailed and suggestive as a Whistler, a baroque terrace on a hot day, a man directing a virile young boy to a drawing room where an older woman, golden-haired like a countess in a Grimm story and dressed in white (lingerie that resembled an elegant gown), looked at her reflection and his approach in a mirror.

Although Paul Theroux has traveled the world, from the coast of Great Britain to the islands of the South Pacific, his work often returns to the same territory: the narrow isthmus where life becomes art. For his first major travel piece, a 1971 Atlantic article, Theroux assumed a voice that was both anonymous and masterly: a nondescript American tourist sharing vivid impressions of a Burmese marketplace. In his new collection of short stories, Theroux's characters likewise travel incognito, exploring the special kind of artistry that comes from being a perpetual stranger.

Theroux wrote The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro while traversing Africa for his 2002 nonfiction book Dark Star Safari, and one story in the book takes place at the tip of the African continent. An unnamed character tells the tale of his friend Lourens Prinsloo, a fellow author who leaves his wife and abandons his work to pursue Nolo, a beautiful and inscrutable African tribeswoman. "Nolo," Theroux writes, "was like a character in one of [Prinsloo's] strangest stories. So was he. Exactly. The sense of living inside one of his own stories roused and compelled him to look deeper."

The pieces in this collection share another common theme: three of the four deal with a protagonist who has recently turned sixty, a milestone the author himself passed in 2001. Reaching this age influences Theroux's characters in strangely powerful ways. It moves a Hawaiian lawyer to leave his perfect island home and follow a cleaning lady to Las Vegas. It inspires Prinsloo to write about a wealthy citrus farmer who, on his sixtieth birthday, acquires the magical ability "to translate what people say to him into what they really mean." In the title story, it spurs Gilford Mariner to return to the Palazzo d'Oro once again, only to discover that "at sixty..., you have no secrets, nor does anyone else."

Theroux is the author of thirty-eight books, both fiction and nonfiction. He lives with his wife, Sheila, on the island of Oahu, where he is manager and beekeeper for Oceana Ranch Pure Hawaiian Honey. I discussed his newest book with him via e-mail.


Author photo
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Paul Theroux
 

At the very beginning of "The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro," the narrator, Gilford, makes a statement about writing—he says that the authors who tell the wildest tales are actually trying to avoid telling a more fundamental story, their one true story. Have you found yourself using this tactic in your own career?

No, because obviously the elusive story is the One Key Tale that unlocks everything, and I would like to think that I am still able to make fiction. You have to remember that Gilford Mariner in "Palazzo" is not me—this is not autobiography. I was in Italy as a young man, but my experiences there were very different. I have said before that fiction gives us the second chances that life denies us. And also, I wrote this novella en route from Cairo to Cape Town, traveling alone among temptations. This maybe explains its steamy plot.

Three of the four stories in this collection have to do with a character turning sixty. Having recently turned sixty yourself, why do you think this age, rather than, say, forty or fifty, was such a milestone for you that it drew out so many stories on this topic?

Aren't birthdays horrible? (Unless you're turning twenty-one, I guess.) This book is about being sixty and also about looking back from the vantage point of sixty. I have only my own life to work with, and this birthday was an opportunity. At fifty, I wrote an essay called "Creation and Memory"—it's collected in Fresh Air Fiend. Writing is also about a sense of occasion. It's what poets do all the time—memorialize events. I do that.

There's a scene in "The Stranger" where Gilford realizes that he's looking at his life as if it were a painting in a gilded frame. I found that a very vivid description of something that often happens in travel writing—a writer suddenly steps back and looks at a whole exotic situation as though he or she were a film character or a figure in a painting. Do you think this impulse to make art out of life helps or hinders the job of a travel writer?

I wanted to memorialize the instance of the traveler/painter/writer indulging in creating a personal myth. There is a mythomania that is also one of the impulses of the traveler—compulsions, really. Detached from home, plunged into the exotic, the traveler can live out fantasies that are impossible on home ground. But in the passage you mention I was also trying to show a figure in a landscape. I do this deliberately in my travel writing—trying to help the reader to see the landscape, to hear it, to smell it. Otherwise, what's the point of writing?

When you wrote your book about V. S. Naipaul, you commented that you were "free from the constraint of alteration and fictionalizing." Do you find that inventing plots and characters is more constraining than writing nonfiction?

Writing fiction—the whole creative process—I find very difficult. Physically and mentally, it is an enormous effort of imagination. Writing a good sentence is not simple.

After thirty years, Naipaul signaled that he had no further interest in pursuing this friendship. And I realized that I had a great opportunity in writing about the course of this friendship, because it had a beginning, middle, and end. I knew I had to be scrupulously truthful—a far cry from fictionalizing.

The story in this collection that seems most literally drawn from your own experience is "A Judas Memoir." In this story, a little boy has adventures in the woods near his house and escapes to a tent in his own backyard. He says that everything tastes better when he's in his tent. Do you think the heightened awareness that comes with adventure is an illusion or an authentically deeper experience of life?

An illusion, but that does not mean it is not an intense and valid experience. Anyone who has read my novel My Secret History will recognize the time and place of "A Judas Memoir." In fact, four of the episodes in The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro form a sort of prologue to My Secret History—the same protagonist, André Parent, and a natural progression to the first chapter of that novel. It was only when I turned sixty that I realized I had not given fictional expression to my early life and the actuality of the speech patterns and social detail of the 1950s that I knew in Medford.

In "Disheveled Nymphs," the main character, Leland Wevill, is irritated by people who snoop around his house. When they ask ignorant questions, he intentionally gives them false information, telling them that a rare Japanese inro is something he picked up in India or that an expensive Watteau painting is just a cheap imitation. Do you ever find yourself responding in that way when people ask superficial questions about your writing?

No, I don't trifle with people's interest in that way. A "superficial question" is just chat, I suppose, asking for a superficial answer. I am not the best interpreter of my own work, actually—I don't feel I have the natural pedantry for it. I feel I work intuitively, so I welcome all sorts of questions and am often pleasantly surprised by them.

I recently read an interview with Susan Orlean where she discussed the experience of having Meryl Streep play her in Adaptation. In The Mosquito Coast, Harrison Ford played a character you are rumored to have modeled on yourself. If this is so, is it flattering or frustrating to watch your life being adapted by a famous actor?

Harrison Ford did not play me. He played Allie Fox, who is quite a far cry from me. This novel The Mosquito Coast is one of my favorites, because I wrote this turbulent story in London in a serene period of my life. Allie is based on many people I know—and even on Pap, Huck Finn's father. I like movies but I also despair of them. I mean, look at the density of this novel, which is a week's good reading, and compare that with the 120 minutes of this movie.

What has changed most about your life and your view of the world since you wrote that article about Burma for The Atlantic in 1971?

Thanks for remembering that thirty-five-year-old piece. I was a faculty member at the University of Singapore, with two tiny children, working on my fourth novel (Jungle Lovers) and wanted to visit Burma. It was important to me to pay my way by writing about it—thus, the piece. A year later I quit my job in Singapore and never had a salaried job again. Everything changed in my life after that, mainly for the better. Most of all I was liberated by my writing, and I still see writing as liberation.

In another interview I read, you described yourself as a king in an Elizabethan drama, wandering through the marketplace in a cloak to find out what people really think about his kingdom. Do you think that living as you have, being a perpetual stranger, has given you more insight into your own life than you might have gained staying in one familiar geographical location?

My point about the king in disguise was a point about anonymity offering access and a chance to discover the truth. The horror of celebrity is that the famous person is the object of attention. When this happens to a writer, it's terrible—the writer sees nothing, Being a stranger is essential to my life; being a perfect stranger is my mission in life.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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