Paul Theroux's turning point in Singapore

A three-year stint in Singapore was the turning point for American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux.

When he arrived here in November 1968, at the age of 27, he was still "looking for a role to play in life," he told a rapt audience at the School of the Arts Drama Theatre on Saturday.

The author, now 73, was in town for the Singapore Writers Festival, where he sat on a panel discussion, conducted a meet-the-author session, and delivered an hour-long lecture, The Roads I Travelled.

Although he spent only three years teaching with the English department of the National University of Singapore, Theroux said that he left Singapore with a sense of purpose.

The 1960s was a time of turmoil - the Vietnam War was raging, the American civil rights movement had taken off, and China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution - and he felt a need to make sense of it all.

"I decided that my mission as a writer was to see things as they are, and to describe things as they are, not as I wanted them to be, or as people told me they were," he said.

Throughout the talk, he spoke fondly of Singapore, not just because she was backdrop for some of the formative years, but also because his second son, broadcaster and journalist Louis, was born at Gleneagles Hospital.

Singapore was also the setting for Saint Jack (1973), his novel about the seedy side of Singapore, which spawned a 1979 film. The film was banned here from 1980 to 2006.

Instead of regaling the crowd with tales of his travels, Theroux spoke about what motivates him and why he travels.

He was born in Massachusetts, and grew up with six other siblings. For him, travel was a way to achieve personal growth. "When you leave home and go away on your own, then you find out who you are," he said.

"When you're at home, someone will ask you to get a haircut, get a job, get your feet off the sofa...but there's psychic process that takes place when you travel."

In response to the question from the audience, he also said that there is "a very sharp distinction" between going on a holiday and travelling.

"As a tourist, you have a time constraint, you know where you're going, and you know what you want to see. A traveller has no idea. A true traveller has no idea where he or she is going," he explained.

Fielding a question from moderator Yeoh Siew Hoon, founder and editor of travel website Web In Travel, Theroux admitted that he did not know how to describe Singapore today.

"What you see in a Singapore is what you see in a city. A city is all surfaces, it's tall, it's beautiful, it's new, it's rising," he said.

"But you don't understand a place through its architecture, you understand it through its people."

Ms Yeoh also asked him what he would like his epitaph to say.

"It would say something like I produced two healthy intelligent children who helped change things," said Theroux, whose two sons are now in their 40s.

"I'm very friendly with my children, and they tease me. I love being with my children and I love writing, but rather than write, I would take a road trip with my kids any day.