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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 14, 2001

The truth according to Paul Theroux

 •  Profile of Paul Theroux

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Staff Writer

In Hilo, he's Joseph's brother. On the streets of London, he's Louis' father. And in Honolulu, he can wander about, attracting as little attention as an elegant, good-looking man of 60 possibly can.

Author Paul Theroux and his wife make this Pupukea house their home during half the year. They live in Cape Cod for the other half. Theroux has written 39 books and numerous pieces of prose based on his worldwide travels.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

What is it about Paul Theroux that makes him better known among the world's literati than on the island he calls home half the year?

With 39 books and countless pieces of prose to his name, he has enough cachet of his own — outside of his ties to a popular TV journalist (Louis) and Hilo educator (Joseph), not to mention a well-known Island resident, his wife, Sheila Donnelly Theroux, owner of a public relations firm here — to make this branch of the Theroux tributary a lode-bearing one.

Expect the subject matter of "Hotel Honolulu," which hit the local best-seller list last week, to bring him more directly into the blazing O'ahu sun. It is, writes Cambridge teacher Robert MacFarlane in an Observer book review, "a book built on a pun. Arriving in Hawaii, a blocked and impecunious writer takes a job as a hotel manager. ... There are 80 rooms in the Hotel Honolulu, and 80 interlocking stories in 'Hotel Honolulu': The multi-story building becomes the multi-story book.

"Reaching Hawaii — 'this green illiterate world' — the writer/narrator luxuriates in living an 'unsorted life,' of no longer compulsively having to pattern his experiences into words."

It's the contradictions that make people intriguing, and Theroux (pronounced "theh-roo") is no different.

While showing a visitor a few of the 20 beehives on his exquisite North Shore estate, he glides between references to English master works and Asian folk tales. But here's a guy who also can quote "The Blair Witch Project," admits to playing video games with his grown sons during his recent stopover in London and who, even with his reputation as a grump who enjoys his anonymity, gave up nearly five hours of his only free Saturday at home in months to hang out with a local reporter.

That this most literate of travel writers would do so — just after saying goodbye to a "CBS News Sunday Morning" camera crew and just before jetting off on his Mainland press tour — was above and beyond the call of book-hawking duty. (The CBS segment is to air late this month or early next month.)

Theroux, who shuns the easy route when he travels, had just returned from three months on the road — literally. He traveled throughout Africa overland, where, among other adventures, he had to duck bullets as he drove on the border of Ethiopia and Kenya in the Samburu Territory. It was, he says nonchalantly, "nothing personal;" the gunman just wanted his shoes.

The writer whom John Updike calls "the best travelled of contemporary novelists" invited our photographer to view his "crow's nest," a wooden two-story platform on the farthest point of his land, overlooking the Pacific. It's not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there. On another side of the property is the "Bus Stop," a wooden structure he built for meditation.

When he's not traveling on assignment, Theroux and his wife live half the year in Cape Cod, and the other half on these pristine six-plus acres just about close enough to hear the shouts of Boy Scouts at their camp in Pupukea.

"Rain is the writers' friend," he said, "but we don't have that excuse in Hawai'i. This is a hard place to write. You're always tempted to be outdoors. But I've trained myself to write on the beach, down there (pointing to the ironwoods). Something I never did before."

The wind through those ironwoods rumbles like an approaching semi, wreaking havoc with the tape recorder and nearly drowning out the quotes that fall, polished, from the lips of the man who gave a howlingly funny interview last summer to NPR, in which he described in detail how to coax maggots out of the skin.

"Some people remember great meals in a country, but I tend to remember the diseases I've had," he has said.

Asked what question the writer would ask himself, if he were conducting the interview, Theroux asked and answered this:

Paul Theroux usually works on his books in the study of his home. His latest book, "Hotel Honolulu," is already a local best seller.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Q. In what way do you feel misunderstood or misrepresented?

A. Like other writers who publish quite a few books, you get fixed in the popular imagination in a particular way. It's sometimes unfortunate, because a writer may choose to write many topics. There's a sort of oral tradition where you're fixed, maybe, as a cheerful person, a hard drinker, whatever it is.

Norman Mailer is coming up to 80s. When he was in the Army, in his 20s, he was a feisty guy. He drank, he smoked dope, he has nine children. As he's grown older, he's changed. I feel as if I have, too.

I feel as if one of the most unfortunate descriptions of me — I'm known as cantankerous, difficult ...

Q. "Dyspeptic"?

A: ... dyspeptic, hard-to-please, critical. Not at all. I see myself as a fun-loving, furry little hobbit, spreading joy wherever I go. I really don't see this description at all. I have lots of friends. I like being with them.

A traveler, by his or her very nature, is an optimistic person. "I'm going to keep going, there's going to be something great." It's the pessimist, the grump, who stays home. Travelers aren't grumpy people. I was trying to write about them as I write everything, as if I'm seeing it for the first time.

I'm not interested in anyone's opinion about it, telling me what it's like. I want to find out what it's like myself. With that the case, you are reinventing the place, seeing it with as clear a vision as possible.

Sometimes, because the place hasn't been written about, or places that have been written about a lot — and Hawai'i is one of them — the image of Hawai'i is sun-drenched Island paradise. With golden sand. And surfers. That's an indelible image. It's that, but it's other things, too.

The sovereignty question; it's angry people. Dietary considerations; there's a high level of diabetes here. There's landless people, there's displaced indigenous people. There's crooked politicians, there's the Bishop Estate, a complete monstrosity, as far as I'm concerned. When I came 11 years ago, people said, "This is the Bishop Estate, people earn a million dollars a year." I couldn't believe it. "Are you serious? And no one comments on this?" "Oh yeah, that's the way it is."

... A Bishop Estate trustee is found in a public restroom in an expensive hotel, having sex with his lawyer, who then commits suicide, then he attempts to commit suicide, and the upside is, he wants his job back!

And you tell me there's nothing to write about here?

It's actually so amazing and colorful and awful that people don't talk about it. It's like an Isle secret.

You start telling the truth about things you see. People are careless, and they talk about malama 'aina constantly here. How much malama 'aina is there? There are people assiduously picking up paper here. If they didn't, this place would be a monstrosity because people are constantly littering the road. There is very little aloha to the 'aina. They talk more about it than in other places, but they do a lot less. There's a contradiction. It's a state where there's many, many contradictions. So there's the stuff of writing.

Writing is a mirror. If you tell the truth, most of all if you tell the truth, you're prophesizing the future. Tell the truth and you're not only telling how things were, and how they are now, you're really describing how they will be.

If you describe a person's eating habits, in a way, you're describing how they're going to live and die, because it's all contained in that — their eating, their living and dying. The look of a place, the way it's built or overbuilt, overdeveloped or underdeveloped. Tell the truth about that, and you're describing what it will become, or what its possible future will be. That's why telling the truth is so important. It's the only requisite.

• • •

Profile of Paul Theroux

Born: April 10, 1941, Medford, Mass., to a large, Catholic family.

Education: Public schools in Massachusetts; University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Family: Divorced from his first wife, Anne, he has been married to Sheila Donnelly Theroux since 1995. Between them, they have four children, including the star of Bravo's "Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends." Paul's brother, Joseph, is a short-story writer and vice principal of Kalaniana'ole Elementary and Intermediate School; another brother is Albert Theroux, also a writer.

Books: As a travel writer and novelist, he's written more than 30 books, including "Mosquito Coast," "The Great Railway Bazaar," "Fresh Air Fiend." The most recent book, "Hotel Honolulu," was released May 9.

Film: Has writing credits for "Saint Jack," a 1979 Peter Bogdanovich movie; Wayne Wang's 1997 "Chinese Box"; two films based on his novels (Peter Weir's 1986 "Mosquito Coast," and the 1986 "Half Moon Street," from "Doctor Slaughterhouse"); and a 1987 miniseries, "London Embassy."