Travel writer Paul Theroux

Legendary travel writer shares stories from his latest book, The Tao of Travel.

Paul Theroux has spent 50 years globetrotting and sharing his adventures with his readers. The legendary travel writer gained notoriety with The Great Railway Bazaar, an account of his train travel between London and Japan, and has also written numerous novels, some of which were made into films. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he's taught school in Africa and now divides his time between Cape Cod and Hawaii. Theroux' latest text, The Tao of Travel, has been described as "a unique tribute to the pleasures and pains of travel in its golden age."


Tavis: Please welcome Paul Theroux back to this program. The renowned travel writer is the author of many notable books, including “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” and “Dark Star Safari.”

His latest is called “The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road.” Paul Theroux, good to have you back on this program.

Paul Theroux: It’s nice to see you again, Tavis.

Tavis: The framework on this book as compared to your others is what? The layout.

Theroux: This is an anthology, but it’s a personal anthology. I wrote it. So I went to the library, read books or re-read books that I had read earlier in my life about travel and tried to find the classics of travel and also explore the themes that make travel books, the ordeal, strange food on the road, how long did a traveler stay on the road. The book’s about a sense of place. Great feats, discoveries, exploration.

Tavis: I want to ask two questions in order here, Paul. The first is what makes a good travel book. Then I want to talk specifically about what become a classic in the travel category. What makes a good travel book?

Theroux: A travel book is a book that puts you in the shoes of the traveler, and it’s usually a book about having a very bad time, having a miserable time, even better. You don’t want to read a book about someone having a great time in the South of France, eating and drinking and falling in love.

What you want to hear is a book – what you want to read is a book about a guy going through the jungle, going through the arctic snow, having a terrible time trying to cross the Sahara, and solving problems as they go – getting very thirsty and finding an oasis, getting very hungry and then finding a camel and knocking and eating the camel, whatever it is, eating the dogs, and then getting through it.

Because life is like that. You’ve written a book about failure, and in a way, travel is about failure or overcoming obstacles, overcoming failures. When a traveler is having lots of good luck, that is not a happy book. That’s a book you say, well, I don’t need that. I want a life lesson. I want to find out – I want a journey that reflects my life.

Tavis: I see the point you’re making, Paul, and I can see how what you’ve just suggested is true, that a book where everything goes perfectly and swimmingly well isn’t as interesting as a text where the traveler encounters and overcomes. I get that.

But does that kind of text inspire one to want to travel to that particular region, to that particular area? Don’t we want to go to places where we think we are going to have fun and it’s going to be a great time and there will be no drama? If we wanted drama, we could stay at home. We have drama every day, which is why we take vacation, we take holiday, to get away from the drama, yes?

Theroux: Yes, but sometimes people read a book in order to not go on a trip. You read a book instead of going on the trip. And so the travel writer is doing the traveling for you. So you’ve always wanted to go to the South Pole. It’s expensive, it’s hard, in the winter it’s pitch dark there and freezing cold.

So you think, I want to read about the Antarctic. There are many books. One is called, “The Worst Journey in the World.” “The Worst Journey in the World.” It’s about an horrendous trip.

So there’s books that are about places we will never go, and then there’s books that inspire us to go. I think the books – I was in the Peace Corps in the ’60s. I was inspired to join the Peace Corps by books. I wanted to go to Africa because of the books I’d read about Africa – not just Joseph Conrad and Hemingway, but little-known books. There’s a book called “Venture to the Interior” by Laurens van der Post that happened in the country I was in, Malawi. It was in Nyasaland when I went there.

So yeah, travel books also inspire us. But travel books are all sorts – some are autobiographies, some are about falling in love. Some are about having great meals, some are about suffering. There are as many different kinds of travel books as there are novels. People think a travel book is one thing. It’s many things.

Tavis: If you were going to recommend, then – I know there’s a long list here, but just a few, and I think you’ve intimated a couple already – but if you were going to recommend just a few travel books that are classics, that are must-reads, on that short list of a few of those would be what?

Theroux: The book I just mentioned, “The Worst Journey in the World,” by an English guy with a funny name – Apsley Cherry-Garrard. They called him Cherry. It’s about the South Pole. He was looking for the emperor penguins, went in the winter. “Worst Journey.”

There’s a great neglected book about a man called Felice Benuzzi. Benuzzi wrote a book called “No Picnic on Mount Kenya.” He was in a prison camp. He was Italian in a British prison camp. It’s a very inspirational book, really. He was in the prison camp with his mate, they’re all Italians, during the Second World War, and they were near Mt. Kenya, and he said to his friends, “This camp is driving me nuts. Let’s break out and climb that mountain.”

So they said, “Well, we don’t have any clothes.” So they got their clothes together and they got equipment – they made equipment and they hid it, and then they broke out of the prison camp, climbed Mt. Kenya to the top, to the peak, then came back and turned themselves in and said, “Okay, we’re back.”

Oh, they let a note saying – (laughter) they left a note at the top of Mt. Kenya saying, “We were here,” and they left a note when they left, saying, “We’re off. We’re climbing the mountain.”

It took them about six weeks to climb. They climbed through bamboo groves and then through the snow. There were animals everywhere. Just the idea of breaking out of a camp to climb a mountain – great book.

Tavis: When you went to put this one together, Paul, “The Tao of Travel,” your new book, did you know the kinds of travel books, the kinds of travel stories that you were going for, or is some of this stuff that you discovered in the research?

Theroux: A lot of them are books that I had read a long time ago. Some are books that had been mentioned to me. I’m very interested in books written by people who’ve never been there. Edgar Rice Burroughs never went to Africa and wrote the Tarzan stories. So the version of Africa that people read in Tarzan, Burroughs never went there.

Saul Bellow wrote “Henderson the Rain King,” which is about a man going to Africa and becoming king of a village, like a chief, and he won the Nobel Prize. He never went to Africa. (Laughter)

So his Africa, so when I read those books I thought, I don’t get it. It doesn’t reflect my experience. So a lot of the reading was in a library, not googling, not the Internet, but actually getting books off the shelf. When you go to a library you find a book here and then you say, “Oh, there’s an interesting one and there’s an interesting one.”

I ended up – I live in Hawaii, so every week I went to the University of Hawaii library and I’d come back with a big bag of books, read them and then type out the relevant passages and then go back. So reading is also a journey. It’s a process of discovery. So in the process of reading I was discovering these books, so that’s how that came about.

Tavis: For a guy who travels around the world repeatedly, what for you is the value – or maybe that’s the wrong word – the joy of living in Hawaii? You’ve been everywhere, so you could choose to settle down anywhere. Why, for you, Paul, Hawaii?

Theroux: Well, first I fell in love with a woman who lives in Hawaii, so love.

Tavis: Enough said. (Laughter)

Theroux: Love.

Tavis: End of story.

Theroux: Yeah, love. But also, it’s a place apart. Our president came from Hawaii, and he comes to Hawaii every year. Hawaii is a very unusual place, the 50th state. It’s an archipelago, it’s not one island. It’s a bunch of islands together, and each island has its own identity. It also has an indigenous culture. There are people who’ve lived in Hawaii for 1,500 years and they have a culture, they have a language, a real language that’s taught in schools, as a matter of fact.

So I can’t say anything bad about it. Yes, it’s far, but when a place is far away and hard to get to, it sometimes retains its identity.

Tavis: I think you and I, in your last appearance on this program, started to broach this subject; how deep we got into it, I don’t know, but I come back to it now because it’s still on my mind and I think it’s more relevant now than ever.

To your earlier point, it is true that books allow us, whether the author went there or not, books allow us to travel around the world.

The Internet, for that matter, these days allows us to travel around the world without ever leaving the comfort of our home or our office. That’s a beautiful thing.

The downside to that is that most Americans, as you well know, most Americans do not own a passport. They do not own a passport. I happen to be going to China in just a few days and I wanted to, after my first experience there, I wanted so many of the folk who work with me to experience China, particularly, as you know, because China is growing, it’s burgeoning.

It’s got its own issues, but if we’re going to be – that is to say the U.S. of A. – if we’re going to be in this dance with China for however long we’re going to be in this dance, I think the people who work with me should understand this country better.

So I arranged to take about 30 people on my personal staff with me on this trip to China, and I was amazed – and I love them all – but I was amazed at the number of persons on my staff who were getting their passports for the very first time.

That’s indicative of the American people at large. Most of us do not own passports. What say you, then, about this global world that we live in and the fact that most of us in America never get outside of these shores to see any part of that world?

Theroux: I don’t think that’s necessarily – of course, if you don’t have a passport you haven’t seen the world. There’s a certain limitation. But I would be more surprised and more dismayed if the people that you’re talking about had not traveled in the United States.

The United States is a world unto itself. We have mountains, we have deserts, we have a river that equals the Yangtze River, that equals the Nile. We have the greatest cities in the world – among the greatest cities in the world. We have a large population. We have challenges. We have an indigenous population.

America is a world unto itself. So if the people that you’re talking about say, “You haven’t been to China,” but I’d say, “Well, you haven’t been to China, but have you been to Montana? Have you been to Mississippi? Have you been to Arizona? Have you been to Florida? Have you been to the Maine woods?”

Henry David Thoreau, who’s quoted in this book, said, “There’s a greater wilderness in New England, in the Maine wilderness, than anywhere in the world,” and he said that when Herman Melville went to the Marchesa Islands in the Pacific, he said, “Well, he just went to the Marchesas, but I went to the Maine woods.”

So reading liberates you. You could know about the world through reading, and this book, “The Tao of Travel,” is a way, is a guide to reading, to finding the right books. So not having a passport doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t dismay me. But people who don’t leave home – there’s a chapter in this book about people who stay home. They just stay home.

Thoreau stayed home most of the time, Emily Dickenson never left her house. There’s a book, “Travels Around My Room,” by a Frenchman, De Maistre, he just wrote a book about traveling around his room.

So it’s people who don’t leave home, that’s a worry. So leaving home is important. Leaving the United States, it helps, but I would be – American history, American landscape, there’s so much to know that it’s very daunting, and –

Tavis: I guess the question is is it either-or or both-and? I take your point, I take your point. Is it either-or or both-and? The reason why I ask that is because I just think that even when you travel inside the country, as I’ve done extensively, I think there’s a great benefit that cannot be underestimated or undervalued in getting outside of our shores and looking back.

I think you appreciate the country –

Theroux: Well, that’s true.

Tavis: – when you get outside of it and look back. You can appreciate it and you can even critique it in a more serious way from the outside looking in as opposed to looking at it from the inside.

Theroux: Well, the main thing is when you travel you realize how small you are. Flaubert said that – “You’re small.” You need to be humble. You can’t be a big, brash American. You think you have problems. You leave the States and you see people have bigger problems than you, much worse problems than you.

They have nothing to eat, they have no water, they have no shelter, they have a terrible government. So you realize we complain about the government, we complain about food, whatever it is, and go somewhere else and you think, “Now I realize,” you say, “Why people want to come to America.

So yeah, you find out a lot, but mainly, you find – you were talking about having a point of view, having a perspective. You go back and looking at America – I was in Africa throughout the 1960s. I was looking at the war in Vietnam, mainly, and people were saying, “Well, you’re bombing in Vietnam,” and I’d say, “Yes.”

And I realized these were all people who were thinking about being bombed themselves, and they’re thinking, we’re going to be invaded, we’re going to be bombed.

So looking at war or pestilence or famine from the point of view from someone in a Third World country is quite different from looking from it here. It gives you a perspective, yeah.

Tavis: We agree on that. “The Tao of Travel” is the new book from my friend Paul Theroux – “Enlightenments from Lives on the Road.” Paul, congrats on the text. Good to have you on this program.

Theroux: It’s a pleasure, Tavis.

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Last modified: May 27, 2011 at 5:56 pm