My last cover story for Express, which appeared exactly a year ago. I thought I had lost the links to all my pieces because the Express website has been revamped. But to my great joy, I found the links are still there. Ah, those were the days! Here goes:
Must travel, will write
First Published : 24 Feb 2008 12:00:00 AM IST
“Well, I sell soaps for a living.”
“Me? I am a student. Physics.”
“I teach the Indian martial art, kalari.”
“Hi, I am a software engineer.”
“I used to work at a call centre.”
As perky young women and men introduce themselves in the multi-purpose room of the US consulate in Chennai, you realise you are standing in a small, select bazaar of aspiring writers who are presently waiting for the greatest living merchant of travel writing, the author of The Great Railway Bazaar.
But Paul Theroux would not find it very flattering to be identified with just that book. During the two hours he spent interacting with the wannabe writers, he did not even mention the book once. In fact, he did not mention travel writing at all.
Clearly, he is seeking his place in the sun as a writer rather than being classified under a particular genre, and understandably so, because his works of fiction outnumber his travel books.
In a literary career spanning over 40 years, he has produced nearly as many books, which means an average of one book a year, including the autobiographical Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which he describes his three-decade old relationship with friend and mentor V S Naipaul and how it ended.
Presently Theroux walks in, wearing a white T-shirt and a white waistcoat. At first you don’t even realise it is him: as a travel writer, he has given a face to exotic places but has himself remained faceless unlike his contemporaries. He looks like the kind, elderly neighbourhood ‘uncle’ who you run into during the morning walks or in the elevator. At 67, he does not look a day older than 47 — the result of a slow biological process that reflects in the title of another of his travel books, Fresh Air Fiend.
“So how do we go about it? Should we discuss my work or yours?” he enquires gently. (The participants of the workshop had already sent in samples of their work). Since there is silence, Theroux settles down to discuss Monkey Hill, a novella he wrote for the New Yorker and which happens to be the opening story — the story of an American couple spending time in a spa in the Himalayas — of his latest book, The Elephanta Suite. (Link to the online New Yorker version of Monkey Hill was emailed to the participants in advance).
His first advice to aspiring writers: write your story in long-hand before you type it out. Writing with a pen, according to him, makes you think and rethink what you are about to write. While on the computer, on which writing happens very fast, every sentence seems final. To illustrate his point, he reads out the first line of Monkey Hill:
They were round-shouldered and droopy-headed like mourners, the shadowy child-sized creatures squatting by the side of the sloping road. “Now, you can’t write that on a computer. I can see this being written very slowly,” he says. “Each of my books has at least four versions. I believe in revision. You have to persuade the reader that your story is great.” He cites the case of Ernest Hemingway, who rewrote the first page of The Old Man and the Sea 19 times.
One of Hemingway's four wives once told Theroux (for a moment he can’t recall whether it was wife no. 2 or wife no. 3) how Hemingway hated writing. “He found writing very difficult, very slow. What he really liked was drinking with his friends and fishing. He loved to fish, and the old man in the book is clearly his alter ego,” Theroux tells his audience. He then tells the young Chennai crowd how they should be able to relate to the ‘old man’ because the beach is just down the road where fishermen are waiting for their stories to be told.
“You could go meet one of them and write about him. They are battling the elements all the time, just like Hemingway’s old man.”
For budding wordsmiths, he also recommends Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. He even recommends a short story by Khushwant Singh, whose title he recalls as Rape, and then proceeds to ask with genuine curiosity, “Is Khushwant Singh still alive?”
Then more advice: “Don’t worry about publishing. Think about expressing yourself, about giving it your best.” And: “Get a job and get away from home. At home, they will always ask you uncomfortable questions, like ‘What are you doing?’ You’ll say, ‘I am writing.’ Then they’ll ask, 'What are you writing?'"
He should know. Theroux, who was born and raised in Massachusetts (he and the current New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, were classmates), discovered writing only after the travel bug bit him into going to Malawi, in central Africa, in the 1960’s.
He took up the job of a teacher. "I became a writer by leaving." That was the time when the Vietnam War was beginning. "I am the same age as Dick Cheney," he reminds an awestruck audience in Landmark, Chennai’s leading bookshop, later in the day. "While I was carrying placards in front of the White House, Cheney was applying for jobs. He is my evil twin. Or maybe I am his evil twin. Today he is the Vice-President of America, and here I am, talking to you. But he has a pacemaker, while I am healthy because I love fresh air."
While in Malawi, Theroux wrote Waldo, his first (and naturally autobiographical) novel which, in hindsight, he rates as bad. He then moved to Uganda, where he wrote for Transition, a magazine edited by a Bengali migrant called Rajat Neogy. “The magazine was very famous those days. Nadine Gordimer, Chinua Achebe, V S Naipaul — they all published in that magazine.”
That was the time Theroux met Naipaul, who was nearly ten years older, and the three-decade long friendship began. “He believed in me as a writer. When someone who is impartial believes in you, it means a lot. He was hard to please, his criticism was brutal,” he says. His association with Naipaul helped him hone his skills.
“Writing ain’t easy. It’s a test. You need to extract the story from your imagination and suffer over it,” he says. And that’s just a part of the problem. The biggest challenge, according to him, lies in achieving the 'breakthrough’ — something he has seen Naipaul struggling for even for days. "He would write a sentence, say, 'George came to the room.' But what after what? He would write a sentence, then strike it off. Write another sentence, then strike it off. He would spend the whole day worrying. You need to sit down and suffer and make a breakthrough."
The end of their friendship, in the mid-1990s, coincided with Naipaul’s second marriage to Nadira, a vocal Pakistani woman. Whether Nadira didn’t like Theroux, or whether Theroux detested Nadira for replacing him as the person closest to Naipaul — questions like these shall never be answered conclusively. But Theroux has made peace with the breakup. "Friendship is mutual. When it is over, it is dead, unlike a love affair which might be rekindled."
So while he acknowledges Naipaul as his mentor, he also makes it amply clear that Naipaul is not his God. In fact, he even goes to the extent of levelling the mentor-student relationship. "There was a time when I was doing very well and Naipaul was not doing very well. I had just published The Mosquito Coast, while Naipaul was a lowly writer — I mean an ordinary, salaried teacher who did creative writing. Today I am just Mr, while he is Sir Vidia.”
He hastens to add: "I speak without envy. That's part of life’s rich tapestry." And that he is relieved that the friendship is over. "He was a problem man. He had become hyper-critical. He thought E M Forster was terrible, he thought Somerset Maugham was terrible. And now he thinks Nirad Chaudhuri is terrible. I was really relieved when I wrote the book (Sir Vidia's Shadow)."
And then he goes on to quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward to say how governments always like second-rate writers; and that how some of the truly great writers, such as James Joyce, Henry James, Borges and Graham Greene, did not win the Nobel. "The Nobel prize is not a measure of anything. It is all about whether the Swedish Academy likes you." Point noted, Mr Theroux.
And you, Mr Reviewer: you grabbed Mr Theroux’s collar when he wrote Sir Vidia’s Shadow. But show us another man who could write a book like The Great Railway Bazaar, or The Old Patagonian Express. Theroux is the First Free Spirit of the world, and it wouldn’t be wrong to presume that he got more out of the people he met in Chennai than those people got out of him.