Paul Theroux: Travel is a desire to flee and to pursue

Paul Theroux. -- PHOTO: YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK
Paul Theroux. -- PHOTO: YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK

Travel writer Paul Theroux believes there is no story to tell if one travels by first class. He has also never used the Internet or mobile apps to research a place before visiting it.

"No, I have no faith in them. I want to experience such places first-hand without prejudice," the 73- year-old American author writes in an e-mail interview ahead of his appearances here at the Singapore Writers Festival. He quotes the late China chairman Mao Zedong's essay On Practice: "True knowledge arises out of direct experience."

Theroux has written 32 works of fiction, including the just released collection of short stories, Mr Bones. But he is best known for his 14-odd travel narratives, notably The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), about train journeys he made across India, South-east Asia and Japan.

His advice to those who want to recapture the spirit of adventure in their travels: "Don't go to a city, new or old. Leave the city and go to the most remote part of that country and try to make friends."

He also says: "The greatest writing describes difficulty, hardship, crisis, awkwardness, oppression, despair - you get the point.

"I don't think I have changed much in believing this, though when I was in the middle of Angola and was having a very hard time, I asked myself: 'What am I doing here?' That is a chapter in my book, The Last Train To Zona Verde."

In The Last Train To Zona Verde (2013), he writes about his anxiety that he might die in some backwater and his gloom on seeing even more corruption and bad government in Angola than during the trip he chronicled in Dark Star Safari (2002). Also described in last year's book are the ravages of identity thieves in Namibia, who charged about US$48,000 (S$61,000) to his credit card.

No wonder he needs some comfort when writing about his arduous journeys, including "silence, a warm room, good light, no interruptions, a large cup of green tea - either Japanese or Chinese tea".

Married and with two sons from a previous marriage, Theroux began his travels after graduating from the University of Massachusetts in 1963, partly to escape a large family. He was one of seven children. "Travel is both a desire to flee and a desire to pursue," he writes, adding that he wished to find his "place in the world".

He has lived and taught in Italy, Singapore, Uganda, Malawi and the United Kingdom, though of late, he has been travelling intensely for the first time in the United States, exploring the Deep South.

"Travel arises out of curiosity - about what exists and what has ceased to exist. When I was travelling in Africa, I kept thinking how deeply I was involved in Angola and how little I knew about the Deep South of my own country. That led me home, to another book," he writes.

"I find travel stimulating, but writing about a trip is an account of a past experience - the trip. On the other hand, the writing of fiction is like groping in the dark and both stimulating and exhausting, in all ways a process of discovery that is highly illuminating - but slow work."

Three of his novels have been made into films, including The Mosquito Coast (1986) starring Harrison Ford. His novella set in India, The Elephanta Suite (2007), was optioned for a film last month.

He writes: "First question in my mind: where's the money? Will the cheque clear? Of course, it's exciting to see a book become a film, but inevitably, a great deal is left out in the transition from book to screen. I'm also curious to see what is left out."

One of his appearances at the festival is before a screening of the 1979 film Saint Jack, set in Singapore and banned here until 2006.

"I was dismayed that it was banned because banning is silly and unnecessary in a place where the population is well-educated and sophisticated - I am speaking of Singaporeans. I was happy to see the ban lifted, of course," says Theroux, who taught in the English department of the then University of Singapore from 1968 to 1971.

"I can't remember the last time I saw it - long ago, I'm sure. What fascinates me about the film is the depiction of Singapore as it looked in the 1970s."

Akshita Nanda