A photo of Paul Theroux, author of Under the Wave at Waimea, on a yellow-tinted background with the interview title, 21 Questions, beside him.

‘I’ve learned something new every time I’ve read Heart of Darkness’: 21 Questions with Paul Theroux

The travel writer and author of new novel Under the Wave at Waimea on his early love of adventure, the genius of Anton Chekhov, and his absolute blast of a hobby.

As literary lives go, American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux has lived a multitude. Raised on books about travel and exploring the globe, Theroux joined the Peace Corps after university, and was sent to Malawi and spent time in Uganda, Singapore and the UK before finally resettling in the United States. The majority of his published oeuvre – from his acclaimed novels to now-classic travel guides – is inspired, in part or directly, by his life’s many global adventures.

Theroux’s latest novel is Under the Wave at Waimea, whose themes regarding privilege and mortality were inspired by Theroux’s run-in with a surfer who seemed remarkably untroubled by his involvement in a recent hit-and-run. To mark its release, we asked Theroux our 21 Questions about life and literature, in which he shares a more complete story of his novel’s inspiration, his love of Joseph Conrad, and a weekend job from his youth that was absolutely, um, fowl.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

This is a very hard question, because so many candidates come to mind (Melville, etc). But, all in all, I would say Anton Chekhov, for many reasons. He was first of all a provincial, from a hard-up family, who became a medical doctor, one of the greatest short story writers in any language, a brilliant playwright, and a traveller – his book about the penal colony in Sakhalin is brilliant. He was also very witty. All this, and he died at the age of 44.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Set in England, it transported me from my little chair in Medford, Massachusetts.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – and I know I am not alone in this. It is a much-loved book and reflects all the misery and angst a teenager feels, but with plenty of humour and transgression.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

'The Catcher in the Rye was my favourite book as a teen – and I know I am not alone in this.'

Not any particular book but a whole slew of them, describing travel in Africa - books by Henry Morton Stanley, Joseph Conrad, Hemingway, Laurens van der Post, and even such books as Bring 'Em Back Alive – about capturing big game – by Frank Buck.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

As a student, with very little money, I worked every Saturday and Sunday on the chicken farm at the University of Maine, in the dead of winter – a huge chicken farm, and my job was to work the high pressure hose against the accumulated droppings that were frozen on the roosts, and when they were soaked they swelled and began to stink, and then I spent hours shovelling the whole business into crates for fertilizer. This represents for me an apt metaphor for anyone in the working world.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

“Copy the whole thing out again in long-hand.”

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

I'll tell you two books. The first is Heart of Darkness by Conrad, the nearest thing to a perfect novella, and I think I’ve learned something new every time I’ve read it. The second book is The Structures of Everyday Life by Fernand Braudel, a history of cultures, habits, travel, food, drink, dress. When did men begin wearing trousers? When did the English begin using forks and drinking tea? What about coffee? Is women’s fashion a great thing or frivolity? (Braudel says, a great thing.) I have read this book many times with pleasure. It is about everything.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

I still have not finished Nostromo, and as you see, I love Conrad.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

I studied to be a medical doctor but didn’t finish. I often wish I had done so.

What makes you happiest?

Speaking with my children, in person, on the phone or, ideally, in a car, on a long trip. I have never failed to learn something new from them, and they know how to make me laugh.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

Please don't be shocked: I own a few high powered guns – rifle and handguns – and although I do not hunt, it is lots of fun to shoot at targets in a gun range. I have done so since I was a Boy Scout, aged 11.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

Ideal writing day: very bad weather outside, pleasant in in my study, good light, complete silence, the whole day ahead of me without any interruption.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

'My job was to work the high pressure hose against the droppings frozen on the chicken roosts'

In the spring of 1962 I was in Amherst, Massachusetts, riding down the road on my Moto Guzzi motorcycle, and I saw a familiar figure plodding along. It was the great poet Robert Frost, then about 87 or 88 years old. I saw that he was heading into the town library. I parked my bike and ran into a nearby book store and bought his latest book, In the Clearing. Then I ran into the library and (breathless) asked him to sign it.

He was startled and angry. He shouted “Do not pursue me!” and walked away. But a friendly librarian (and friend of Frost’s) said, “He just wants a signature.” Frost said, “I signed a hundred of them in New York last week and they cost fifteen dollars each!” After a while he settled down, signed my book and dated it. He died the following year. I still have the book.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Samuel Beckett. No food – just Irish whiskey, which he was fond of, and although he could be taciturn, a lot of whiskey would loosen him up. I’d ask him about his life, James Joyce, his role in the French Resistance, his work, his immense reading.

What’s your biggest fear?

Being confronted by a boy with a gun. It has happened to me three times in Africa and it was terrifying.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

To be in two places at once.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

The New Meaning of Treason by Rebecca West.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

What a silly idea!

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Chinese green tea (Lung Ching Chai) in the morning. Coffee (grown in Kona, Hawaii) after lunch.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

For all sorts of reasons, I would have to say The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard. A very young (22), near-sighted fellow joins Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition and lives to write about it, about Scott (strange man) and Emperor penguins. The writing of this book is just magnificent. But your question is a cruel one.

What inspired you to write your book?

My new book, Under the Wave at Waimea is about an older surfer with a serious problem. It was suggested to me by a man I know. I noticed that his car was seriously damaged. I asked him what happened. He said, “I ran into a drunk homeless guy.” I said who was it? He said, “I don’t know.” I asked him what happened. He said, “He died.” And then he changed the subject, saying, “Hey, the surf's up.”


Under the Wave at Waimea by Paul Theroux is out now.

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