Bestselling travel writer Paul Theroux was in Bangkok this week to deliver the key note speech for the 2009 Southeast Asian Writers Award at a royally attended gala dinner.
On Saturday, October 11th, I bumped into Mr. Theroux in Kinokunya at Siam Paragon, one of the city’s larger book stores. Mr. Theroux was there to sign books, but he wasn’t in a rush, so there was time for a brief conversation.
I asked the jovial 68 year old writer how hard it was, after all these years in the business, to begin a book, once back from a journey.
Mr. Theroux was non-plussed and answered (I paraphrase), “When you write a travel book, you already know the end. I take a lot of notes. So I may procrastinate a little, but I know where I am going, so there’s not much hesitation. When I get home, I have a huge pile of notes that form the basis for the book. In a way, it is already there. It is very different when I write a novel, it is a journey into the unknown and the outcome is uncertain.”
Mr. Theroux continued to explain how he recently wrote three novellas (published in 2007 as the Elephanta Suite), while he was on the road researching his travel book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, an overland journey from London to Asia by train, in the footsteps of his seminal The Great Railway Bazaar, which I referred to recently in my piece on David Carradine.
Writing a book while writing a book is what I’d call professional.
Mr. Theroux was most gracious, open-minded and friendly and happy to linger over questions, no matter how trivial…and some of them were trivial…
The ‘world’s most perceptive travel writer’ (according to the Daily Mail in the UK, one of the least perceptive papers in the business – though in this instance they got it right) was also kind to Bangkok. To paraphrase again, “Bangkok at the top level is all fine dining and aristocracy. That’s incredible. But underneath, the city has many, many layers. And you can get anything here. This total availability is what makes it different from other cities.”
To take the sting out of that rather accurate statement, Mr. Theroux laughed, “You think the traffic is bad today, you should have been here 35 years ago.”
To wrap up, Mr. Theroux spoke about his long career (I paraphrase again). “I wrote my first book in the 1960s. It was not a huge success, but I got it published. Since then I have managed to write and publish a book every year, more than 40 titles. I figured that I could make a living like that. I have no boss, no one tells me to get up in the morning, I make my own schedule. I am my own boss. Writing books has enabled me to avoid getting a job.”
Portrait of Paul Theroux by Aroon Thaewchatturat.