Interviews March 2004

The Perpetual Stranger

Paul Theroux talks about writing and traveling—and the liberation that both provide
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
Photo credit

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?

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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