Northwords 2017: Discovering Paul Theroux
By Katie Bausler and Amy O’Neill Houck, 49 Writers Board Members
“All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.”
~Mao Tse Tung (as quoted by Paul Theroux)
Before we signed up for the North Words Writer’s Symposium, held the first weekend in June in Skagway, neither of us had read Paul Theroux, the keynote speaker. We registered as fan-girls of Sherry Simpson and her work on, well, anything; of John Straley’s novels and haiku; of Tom Kizzia’s investigative nonfiction. We wanted a weekend away to re-invigorate our writing practices. We wanted immersion with words.
Upon meeting Paul Theroux, we are struck with his complexity as a human and as a writer—he’s awkward but engaging, he’s opinionated and outdated, he’s gracious and proud. He dismisses women writers like Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood while acknowledging first world causes of colonialism and climate change. We buy his books at the Skagway bookstore, start reading, find more contradiction and compelling craft.
On the last day of the conference, we sit on a bank along an expanse of buttercups and dandelions. To our backs, the train tracks of the old White Pass Railway. Before us, mountains and blue sky. Beside us, the weathered and dapper Paul Theroux. At seventy-six, he’s tall and tanned, wearing jeans, a brown leather car coat, and a pork pie hat. Theroux has written more than fifty works of nonfiction and fiction over the past 50 years. His latest novel, Motherland, was published in May.
We’re on a field trip, having embarked on an early morning train from Skagway for a 45-minute ride along the gold rush era Chilkoot Pass. We hiked to a cabin and then beyond to the Laughton Glacier. At the foot of the glacier, Theroux, unable to contain his excitement, moved at mountain goat speed shouting, “Take my picture,” while handing his phone to Alaskan writer and journalist Tom Kizzia. They chatted about the landscape, the retreating ice, the difference between terminal and lateral moraine.
Now, as we wait for the train to take us back to Skagway, we interview Theroux, who is known for his train books, including The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, and The Last Train to Zona Verde. The route we took to get here, winding through steep, forested drop offs and sheer granite promontories, looks much like the cover of Theroux’s 2011 compendium of travel writer’s quotes, The Tao of Travel. On the train here, conversation amongst writers roared above the clatter on the tracks. Theroux read the New York Times.
He asks a lot of questions for someone being interviewed. On today’s hike to the glacier his answers were succinct, and with each one, he turned a question back. Are you married? Do you have children? It might seem like he’s politely making conversation, but you get the feeling what you say to him is potential fuel for his literary fire. The proof lies in vivid encounters retold in his travelogues. Yesterday, we bumped into Paul in front of the Skagway Public Library. He bubbled with conversation, pulling us in for a photo. He asked more questions. What do we love about this place? Why do we live here?
The conference opened with a panel titled after one of Theroux’s favorite lines, “Gawping at the Exotic.” The discussion included Theroux, Sherry Simpson, and Tom Kizzia. Sherry and Tom worried about the challenges of writing without cliché about natural grandeur, whereas Theroux had the bright eyes of a newcomer. The top of the Inside Passage and the gateway to the Yukon is Theroux’s introduction to Alaska.
In Skagway, where the tourist season is in full swing and “madams” lead tours through town, even the normal Alaskan detritus seems like a set piece. An old TV has become a planter in a yard where a chandelier hangs from a tree. We walk everywhere. The lilacs are bursting into bloom, and we slow to breathe them in. Theroux is charmed by Alaska, his amazement is infectious. He says of his travelling state of being, “I’m fully awake.”
Theroux has gone seemingly everywhere, and made a good living writing about it. He muses about Alaska and its landscape. “I was unprepared for the scale of it. Countless peaks. Do they have a name? Are they climbed, who lives there? You get this impression that it’s still being examined, or unexamined, or discovered.”
Over the past few days we’ve heard Theroux’s trademark unequivocal, unapologetic takes on writing, reading, and living. A running theme: he thrives on a sense of discovery.
“One of the things I’d like to say about this trip. This was done for me. I feel somewhat inadequate in that someone bought me a train ticket. Someone made me a sandwich. Someone pointed my way to the glacier. I did not do this on my own. That diminishes the experience for me. The experience is much greater when you find your own way. So, if I ever came back to Alaska I would do it as a road trip—hiking, camping, paddling a kayak.”
Throughout the conference, Theroux thinks aloud, stumbling, drawing out his words in a cross between a British and a Boston accent. He considers the massiveness of Alaska, concluding it puts our individual significance in perspective. He misquotes Flaubert, saying “Travel shows us how small we are.” “But in Alaska,” Theroux continues, “we’re nothing. We’re ants.”
“How do you write, undaunted, about a daunting landscape?” we ask. “The reader needs to see the experience and the physicality of the landscape,” he replies. “You’re bound to think of the cliché but you have to consciously rid your mind of it. The problem with the cliché is it offers no clear picture or vivid metaphor.” Theroux is known for his unexpected images in describing, for example, sunrise on a kayak trip from Cape Cod to Nantucket.
Sunrise was a messy reddened eruption out of the sea, and it kept spilling garish light everywhere, draining the redness into the water as the sun rose like a squeezed blood orange. A cloud the shape of a huddled animal soon smothered the brightness, and the sea turned the blue-white color of skim milk.
~Paul Theroux “Dead Reckoning to Nantucket”
“You cannot be a writer if you are not a reader, and you have to be a more diligent reader,” he intones in the closing night keynote. The proclamation came after reciting lines and quizzing us on the names of the famous writers. To a person, we came up blank and felt like failed English majors. Theroux has little patience for writers who don’t read classics of western civilization, what he considers “real writers” (the whiter, the deader, the better). He urges us to read deeply, not broadly, taking in an entirety of an author to fully know them.
Theroux rattles off the names of several in attendance and mentions their stories—he’s been paying attention. Learning us. Alaskan stories that might sound like adventure to folks from Outside. Perilous journeys, encounters with wild animals. He says, he has only one critique of us as a group—“You’re too modest.” Later, at the bar, Amy counters that as a population, we’re not modest, we’re understated. In fact, in reading Theroux’s essay, “The Maine Woods: Camping in the Snow,” it appears he’s encountered and understood this understatement before. He writes of running into hikers who have recently summited Mt. Katadhin. They sum up their week-long trek saying, “We had a nice view from the top.”
At that meeting in front of the library, Theroux told us that despite his job as a travel writer, he loves being home at his farm on Oahu. He waxed on about his chickens and geese, he showed us a photo of the AK47 he uses to handle the wild boar that have a habit of invading his yard and eating his crop of non-invasive bamboo. But in his next breath, he tells us he’s heading to his second home on Cape Cod, which will serve as base camp for his summer travels.
No doubt Theroux will continue to “gawp at the exotic,” even when it’s in his own backyard. Just like the rest of us.
Amy O’Neill Houck and Katie Bausler live in Douglas, Alaska and serve on the 49 Writers Board of Directors.