Paul Theroux may be the most accomplished travel writer alive. Beginning with The Great Railway Bazaar, published in 1975, Theroux has taken readers on train trips across Asia (multiple times); on a kayak around the South Pacific; along the British coast by rail; on a tour of the Mediterranean; down the length of Africa; and to Afghanistan, Argentina, Vietnam, India, Hawaii, Maine, and many other places besides. In his new book, The Last Train to Zona Verde, Theroux returns to Africa for a farewell voyage 50 years after his first stay there, traveling 2,500 miles up the continent, from Cape Town to Angola. Andrew McCarthy, the author of The Longest Way Home, is a travel writer in the Therouvian mold. (He is also an actor and a director who has appeared in dozens of films.) Recently, Theroux and McCarthy sat down at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C., and talked about travel, writing, acting, bad reviews, and the trouble with nostalgia. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Andrew McCarthy: The first book of yours I read was The Old Patagonian Express. It opened my eyes to a way of traveling I hadn’t conceived of—the idea to go alone, go far, get out of touch, open your eyes, ask questions. It had a profound effect on me and began my own traveling life. So I owe you a debt.
Paul Theroux: That’s nice of you to say. A reader does have a debt to the writer, and in a quiet way, you’re influenced. Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus, Graham Greene—they influenced my life to a profound extent.
AM: Let’s talk about your new book. Early on, you say: “The window of Africa, like the window on a train rushing through the night, is a distorting mirror that partly reflects the viewer’s own face.” That to me is something the traveler is always wrangling with. What’s real versus what do I want this place to be? In this book you seem very invested in trying to capture the difference. I need to see the truth, you seem to say. I need to see clearly.
PT: I think because I’m older, I felt on the trip that I wasn’t going to do much more of this. The 10-hour bus trip to nowhere. One horrible city after another. I felt as if I wanted to get it right, because this is in the nature of a farewell. I’d also say, this idea of looking out the window and seeing your own face as well as something out there—that’s not an experience you have when traveling in other places.
AM: You’ve had quite a personal investment in Africa.
PT: I’ve been going for 50 years. In ’63 I was a teacher in southern Malawi—before it was Malawi. So 50 years of, to use your term, investment. Investing hope, interest, money, time, effort. And I’m thinking, I really want to know what’s happened.
Travel magazines are just one cupcake after another. They’re not about travel. The travel magazine is in fact about the opposite of travel. It’s about having a nice time on a honeymoon, or whatever. But that’s the opposite of what I’m doing, and it always has been.
AM: Well, they’re selling vacations, and you’re talking about traveling.
PT: Exactly. I hate vacations. I hate them. I have no fun on them. I get nothing done. People sit and relax, but I don’t want to relax. I want to see something. Sit down and have a massage, have a spa, have a cupcake—I go nuts. If I want to relax, I go home.
AM: You once said, “Nothing happens until you leave home.”
PT: I was raised in a large family. The first reason for my travel was to get away from my family. I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t want people to ask me questions about it. What are you going to write? Where are you going to publish? Who’s going to read it? How are you going to make a living? Those tough questions that you don’t have the answer to when you’re 22. I joined the Peace Corps to get away—also to do something useful, because I would’ve been drafted and gone to Vietnam.
AM: That reminds me of my own experience when I discovered acting. It was so important to me, I didn’t tell a soul for a long time.
PT: I think it would be harder to tell someone you’re going to be an actor than a writer.
AM: My father said, “No son of mine is going to be a fucking thespian.”
PT: That’s straight out of Eugene O’Neill! My nephew Justin is an actor, and he didn’t get a lot of encouragement. Everyone needs encouragement. I think you need someone to say, at some stage, particularly someone not in your family, “I read you” or “I saw you onstage”—whatever it is. “Good going. You’ve got it.”
AM: Who did that for you?
PT: V. S. Naipaul. He said, “You’ll be fine.”
AM: That’s enough.
PT: Yeah. He used to say, “I hope you don’t make a lot of money before you’re 40. You’re going to be fine, Paul. I worry about myself. I have no audience.” But he said, “You’re going to be fine.” And actually, hearing it from him, someone I respected as a writer, and a very prickly guy, very sparing with praise, meant a lot.
AM: Have your reasons for traveling changed?
PT: I probably have totally different reasons now. I’m happily married, I have grandchildren I like visiting. Why would I want to be away? Well, one reason is curiosity about places I haven’t been. The other is to see how places have changed, because when you see how a place has changed, you understand how the world is changing.
AM: Also how you’ve changed.
PT: Absolutely. It’s finding the changes in yourself. You’re also testing yourself. It’s going away to find out who you are, what your place is in the world. I’ll give an example. When I wrote The Happy Isles of Oceania, I was staying in a hotel in Sydney. Every day I used to take the bus to Bondi Beach. I didn’t know exactly what I was going to write until I got there. You need to get to a place to discover that thing you’re looking for.
AM: I’d just gone through a breakup when I read The Happy Isles of Oceania. I thought it was really about your divorce, and then finding love.
PT: It is, very much. It’s getting yourself back together after a breakup. And about being independent. The Happy Isles of Oceania got pretty bad reviews. People say, “Oh, are you affected by bad reviews?” Initially you are. Iris Murdoch once said, “A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.”
AM: You in essence reinvented the travel genre. But what’s interesting to me is that you disclose a great deal, yet you reveal very little. I’ve discovered more about you personally from your novels than from your travel books.
PT: Earlier in my life, I never wrote about myself in an intimate way. I can’t remember who said it—it might have been W. H. Auden—that when you only write about yourself, you’re spending your capital. In a way, that’s true. I have a big David Copperfield in me, which I’ll write someday.
AM: In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman talks about feeling “kind of temporary about myself.” I read that when I was 20, and I’m still haunted by it.
PT: There’s also a Russian expression that my son passed on to me, the idea of being superfluous. Not temporary, but the “superfluous man.” It’s a 19th-century concept that you don’t really matter. You’re just drifting, like a ghost figure.
AM: You feel that way when you travel?
PT: I feel that way when I’m not writing. When I’m traveling, I feel small. You see how big the world is, how small you are, how you don’t really matter, how you can’t effect much change, you can’t bring something back. When I finish a book or I’m between things, I’m sitting around thinking, I feel superfluous. If I don’t have something that I’m writing, something to think about, something to direct my attention, then, yeah, I feel temporary and superfluous.
AM: You don’t seem to be a nostalgic person; you certainly don’t treat Africa nostalgically in The Last Train to Zona Verde.
PT: It’s fatal to be nostalgic. But you live longer, you get curious, you say, “Okay, I think I’ll go back and look.” I can go back to Africa, to my school that I taught in 50 years ago. The school and the bush in Malawi keep changing. It’s a long trajectory. There’s a reason to travel, to verify which way the world is going.
AM: You have a line in the book: “My only boast in travel is my effort.”
PT: I’m glad you remember that, because you can’t boast about really anything else. At least I can say “I put in an effort and I tried to see it.” To see things as they are makes you free—to see things as they are, not nostalgically, not as you wish they were. Just to see them.