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.”