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.