Jones is an associate editor of Traveling in Style

Ever since childhood, when I lived within earshot of the Boston & Maine, I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it."

With that single opening sentence, written more than 14 years ago, Paul Theroux dramatically changed not only the course of his own career but perhaps the direction of American travel literature.

The lonely whistle that he heard as a boy in his hometown of Medford, Mass., echoed down the years and eventually led to "The Great Railway Bazaar," Theroux's 1975 tale of a rail journey through Asia.

Since then, Theroux has interspersed his novels with five other travel books, most recently 1988's "Riding the Iron Rooster," a revealing account of the 12 months he spent exploring China by train. Reading the book today, backlighted--figuratively speaking--by the fires of Tian An Men Square, it is astonishing to realize how on target Theroux was in capturing the mood of the country. The seeds of the coming upheaval are scattered throughout its pages.

Earlier this year, in an article he wrote for the New York Times, Theroux described how "Riding the Iron Rooster" had caused him to re-evaluate what it means to write about travel.

"The job of the travel writer," he wrote, "is to go far and wide, to make voluminous notes, to tell the truth. There is immense drudgery in the job. But the book ought to live, and if it is truthful, it ought to be prescient without making predictions.

". . . A great novel may express the soul of a country. A travel book has the capacity to express a country's heart--and perhaps the heart of the traveler, too--but only as long as it stays away from vacations, holidays, sightseeing and the half-truths in official handouts; as long as it concentrates on people in their landscape, and it includes the discomforts as well as the pleasures, the dissonance as well as the melodies, the contradictions and the vivid trivia. . . ."

Theroux expanded on this theme during a recent interview in Los Angeles.

Question: If you were to meet yourself on one of your rail journeys, how would you describe yourself?

Answer: It depends on the trip. On a lot of them I would be a very, very watchful person in a rather inconspicuous place. I would be the man in a corner seat, by the window, with something in his lap--maybe a book, maybe a notebook. You wouldn't be able to know what it was.

I would not initially be talking to anyone. I'd be very watchful. I would be looking out the window, and then when someone got on the train, I'd be looking at the person. If someone sat next to me and I began talking to him and the person wasn't particularly interesting, I would probably make my excuses and leave.

In other words, I would look like someone at work but not obviously at work. Maybe you would mistake me for a Jehovah's Witness or an insurance salesman or a CIA agent or someone from the embassy. You wouldn't say 'this guy's a tourist' or 'this guy is on a package tour.'

Q: Do you have a definition for travel?

A: It means leaving home, with all that that implies. It means leaving home and knowing that you're leaving home and not expecting necessarily to find a version of home where you're going. It's getting away.

Leaving home can also be going down the street. It can be just taking a tent and going a mile away and pitching it if you're doing what Thoreau did at Walden Pond. And it can also mean going to Arabia, the Andes, the Himalayas or the Arctic. It's getting away. And I think it has something to do with being solitary.

Q: Norman Lewis once wrote that for him "travel came before writing" and that there was a time when all he wanted from life was "to remain a perpetual spectator of changing scenes." Which came first for you, the love of travel or love of language?

A: It's a tough one, which came first? Certainly the desire to get away, to leave home, was very, very strong in me because I came from a large family, I came from a family of seven children. And although I was very secure in the family, I wanted to make my mark. It's a combined thing. One is going away and the other is proving that you're not escaping, that you're not just running away. That you're going away to do something.

So I think the idea of travel is bound up with the idea of writing. I could never justify going away without turning it into something. And although that sounds like rationalization, it's actually the way I felt.

I used to want to be a doctor, and in fact I was a pre-med student. I used to think, 'I'll be a doctor of tropical medicine,' but only because I thought that was a good way of justifying going to the tropics. I come from a very puritanical household where travel for its own sake would not have been accepted. So it was very much (a case of) having to justify it.

Q: Lewis also said that for him travel was "an addiction." Is it for you?

A: No, I don't think so. I'm being perfectly honest with you. I don't think it is. The more you travel, the more you realize how much trouble it is. How much travel is bound up with delay, with nuisance, with discomfort, with expense and with places that have been completely spoiled.

You go to what you consider to be a distant, romantic place and it turns out that it's a place that's been invaded and violated. So there's a lot of disappointment in travel, and if it's an addiction, then it's a sort of sick addiction.

My addiction, my obsession, let's say, is with snooping. I have a deeply nosy nature. . . . When I was in England I used to egg people on to show me the family album. I love looking at family albums. If they had books, I used to note the titles. I used to look in drawers. In China, when people would open a handbag, I would look in.

Of course, it's a terrible thing to admit. I'm not necessarily proud of it, but I'm saying that my real obsession is with searching things out, with looking, and not necessarily with travel. It's to go to a place and find the secret life of a place, to look more deeply into a place.

"I also have--it's not an obsession and it's not an addiction--but I have a Boy Scout mentality. I love self-sufficiency. I like camping, I like making things, I like the idea living off the land, catching fish, paddling a canoe, cooking over a fire. I love it. One of the problems in the United States is that a lot of campsites are just filled with other tents, but the idea of doing it alone is something I'm very, very interested in.

Q: V. S. Naipaul said that travel was "a necessary stimulus" for him because it made unsuspecting demands on him as a person and as a writer. How important has travel been to your development in that light?

A: I certainly wouldn't have been the person that I am if I had stayed where I was born. If I had stayed in the town where I grew up, I probably wouldn't have become a writer. I would have been very frustrated, too.

So a combination of the writing and the traveling has made me very happy. I've found it very, very fulfilling. I'm not boasting and I'm not gloating, but I know that I needed to get away.

Q: It's become a way of life for you now?

A: In a way, yes. But I think that now the idea of long, very arduous trips is not one that appeals to me. If you go to Hawaii, for example, and you see how many empty, very, very pretty places there are there, you begin to think that someone like Robert Louis Stevenson probably had the right idea. I mean he spent the very early part of his life searching, looking. He went everywhere. He crossed the United States, sailed to Australia. But then he found the right island and he never really traveled much after that.

I don't know if I'm going to do the same thing, but it's something that appeals. Certainly, flying to New York or going to Europe or heading for Brazil or whatever doesn't have as much appeal as perhaps finding a beautiful place and staying there and being happy.

I don't even know what would happen to my writing. I was driven, I think, in my early life to write. I used to think about it all the time. I published my first book in '66 and I've published 28 books. That's an awful lot of work to do. Again, that's not a boast but it's a comment on how I was very single-minded.

I don't feel single-minded any more. For example, I was asked to write an article a few weeks ago. I didn't find the deadline congenial, and I went off and was practicing Eskimo rolling with a kayak. I got much more satisfaction doing Eskimo rolling than I would have writing that article.

Q: In "Riding the Iron Rooster" you wrote that "one of the pleasures of travel is being anonymous."

A: That's definitely true. If you're conspicuous and people keep noticing you, they're responding to you and you're not seeing them. The traveler shouldn't become the focus of anyone's interest. He should be invisible, ideally. Particularly if he or she is going to write about it.

Q: You also wrote: "When I travel, I dream a great deal. Perhaps that is one of my main reasons for travel." Does that have to do with creativity?

A: No, I think it has to do with not sleeping in your own bed. It has to do with the motion of travel. I dream a lot on trains. Because of the motion, you're constantly waking. And when you're suddenly awakened, you're aware that you've been dreaming. If you've had a long good night's sleep, you're not always aware of it.

Obviously, I don't sleep as well if I'm on a train or on a trip and in some strange bed. I think you're more aware of your dreams. All your secret life is in your dreams, all your desires. You begin to see what they are; you begin to understand them better.

Q: You wrote that: "Sightseeing is one of the doubtful aspects of travel."

A: Yes, I think it is. I think sightseeing is like if you go to a person's house, a very interesting house, and they say, 'You must see our collection of porcelain frogs.' So you sit down and they show you their porcelain frogs. And they say, 'Have you seen the bathroom? Doris just had it retiled.' And you see lovely tiles.

It (sightseeing) is like being taken through someone's house. It's not like opening drawers, or going to the attic, or going to the cellar, or going into closets. It's like being taken through and shown things. So it's a highly selective and not-always-revealing and not-always-very satisfying way of seeing a country.

Also--and maybe it's just me--most sights that you're taken to see strike me as being fake. I don't know why--maybe I'm cynical--but they always look fake to me. The Taj Mahal's not a fake. I have a feeling that the Pyramids are not a fake. The Eiffel Tower's not a fake. But in China, lots of parts of India, and in South America, I don't know. You're taken to see something, and they say, 'This is a very old temple,' and it looks as if it's been repainted, regilded. And you say, 'Well, what about the Cultural Revolution?' and they say, 'Oh, yes, it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.' So what are you looking at?

Q: You hold tourists in commendable disregard, almost contempt, I think. For example, when talking about the Great Wall you compared them to "fleas on the back of a dead snake." Is there any hope for tourists at all? In other words, can they be turned into travelers?

A: Yes, there is hope for them. Don't write them off. I think that to a large extent tourists have a bad rap. Maybe they have a bad rap from me, I don't know. They're doing the best they can. It's in the interests of travel companies to get money out of them. The way you get money out of people is by controlling them. You ship them in on a plane, put them in an expensive hotel, prevent them from wandering away; you put them on a bus, take them to the museum, then take them to a few sights. Then you take them to a shopping center, and, because you're a national tour guide and you perhaps get a cut, you take them to this curio shop or that one.

They're the tools. They're being used by the people who are running the industry. Then you put them back on the bus and you ship them away and you get a new shipment in.

No country likes the independent traveler. An independent traveler is not a person who's going to buy a lot of stuff in the country. He or she is going to be wandering around, not spending a lot of money. It's a very inconvenient thing to have. No one likes them. They're definitely dangerous because they meet people, they ask questions, they're in the way, they're uncontrollable.

Most governments want to control the tourist population. So I think that tourists do the best they can. They're not allowed to do very much.

Q: It was (Aldous) Huxley, I believe, who said that "Tourists are, in the main, a very gloomy looking tribe . . . one wonders why they came abroad."

A: I think it's true. First, they're very tired because they're being shuttled around; they're not keeping their own hours. They're treated like sheep. It's unfortunate. I hate to be in a position of bad-mouthing tourists. They get a lot of criticism, but I've come to believe that they can't help it.

There's also a question of time. In order to see a country well, you need time. A tourist never has time. I don't have a job, so that's why I don't like to be in the position of being too contemptuous of people who don't have the time to do it. They might have three weeks vacation a year and they're doing the best they can.

Q: Naipaul said that travel and the decisions made during a journey can be "as creative and imaginative a procedure" as the writing that comes later. Do you agree with that?

A: I think that's true. In order to take a worthwhile journey you have to devise an itinerary, and devising an itinerary is a highly creative thing. You're dealing with maps; I read books about places and try to figure out the most revealing route through a particular place. It's not just asking people, 'Where do you think I should go?' Which is what a lot of people do.

They say, 'Do you know any people in Port Moresby?' and they make a list of people and then they fly to Port Moresby and they visit them and say, 'Where do you think I should go?' And the person says, 'Well, I'm going to the jungle tomorrow, do you want to come with me?'

A lot of books are like that: I met old so and so and he said 'I'm going to the highlands to see a circumcision ceremony.' 'Oh, that's a good idea.' And you go along.

I would like not to depend on local people but to look at a map and say, 'Here's a river. This river seems to connect to that river, which connects with a railway that goes over the mountains. I think I'll make that little connection.' You look at it on the map and it looks feasible. Sometimes you get there and you do it. And people say, 'Gosh, I never thought of doing that. No one's done that lately.'

Q: Graham Greene, in a preface to a later edition of "Journey Without Maps," wrote: "I can now look back with a certain regret at the hard words I used about Freetown." Have you experienced the same misgivings yet regarding places you've written about?

A: Yes, lots of them. But I think that when I've had hard words to say about a place, I was being as truthful as possible to what my feelings were at the time. A travel book has to be personal and partisan. You're not writing a geography book. This is not for sixth graders to find out about the rainfall in the Andes. It's your own response to a trip; no other book will be like it.

Q: How would you distinguish between travel literature and travel writing? I mean, what makes a travel book suddenly become a literary work. It's a difficult question, I know . . .

A: It is, but I think you could ask the same question about the novel. Will Stephen King's books be read 50 years from now or 100 years from now? There were many people who were writing very, very popular books in the 19th Century at the time Dickens was writing, and we don't know their names. Their books have long since been put at the bottom of parrot cages.

Q: But there is such a thing as travel literature as opposed to travel writing? People are still reading (Charles M.) Doughty or (H. M.) Tomlinson or (Norman) Douglas or Fleming now, to a certain extent anyway.

A: Yes, but I think that when they came out--and the same with (Evelyn) Waugh--they were reviewed simply as travel books.

Q: What sort of relationship do you have with some of the other authors writing in the same field today--Jonathon Raban, Redmond O'Hanlon, and so on. Are you close to them? Do you have any feelings about them and what they're writing?

A: Living in London, I see these people quite a lot. And they're all doing something different. O'Hanlon genuinely likes to travel and is an adventurous spirit. Raban hates traveling but likes writing, he's much more of a writer. He's sort of looking for a subject; O'Hanlon's looking for trouble. There are a lot of women who are very, very good travelers--Dervla Murphy and Christina Dodwell, for example--but they're not particularly good writers. I don't read them (other travel writer) for the same reason that I don't read novels, or don't keep up with novels: It's very distracting to be too aware or too self-conscious of what your contemporaries are doing.

Q: But as a group, do you think they're as strong now as, say, the Waughs and the Greenes were in the '30s, or the Tomlinsons and Douglases earlier on? I mean is the genre itself just as strong as it was?

A: It's a good question, but it's a very tough one to answer because you'd have to think of the (individual) books. The books of the '30s, for example. Three of Evelyn Waugh's travel books are wonderful. Graham Greene's two, on Africa and on Mexico, are very good. Peter Fleming's are slightly facetious. "Brazilian Adventure" and "Travels in Tartary" are very, very good. Robert Byron. There are lots of very good ones.

But the thing is, it's not a competition. It was a different world and it's not competitive. Only time will tell if the people who are writing now are writing anything of value. But it's a combination of two things: where these people went and how it was written about. Is it funny? Is it alive?

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World