Paul Theroux

The Mother Land

Written by Jamie Brisick | Photographed by Dave Homcy

It’s hard for me to be objective when it comes to Paul Theroux. He is the author of some of the world’s most excellent travel books, among them The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, Riding the Iron Rooster and The Happy Isles of Oceania. He was awarded the 1981 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel The Mosquito Coast, which was adapted for the 1986 movie of the same name. His short stories and essays run the whole gamut of human experience.

But for me, he is a companion who helped me survive my late teens and early 20s. Not Theroux, exactly, but his books: specifically The Family Arsenal and Chicago Loop. I was a surfer kid who ran in philistine circles. The characters in Theroux’s fiction got at the depths of what it feels like to be human in a way that no one in my world had the faculty to address. There was the testosterone-fueled, knuckle-dragging milieu that I inhabited, and then there was that literary, interior, sentient place that I found in Theroux’s books.

I have been reading Paul Theroux’s work for more than 30 years, and he continues to educate and enlarge me. His most recent novel, Mother Land, explores a family held together and torn apart by its narcissistic matriarch. The book is by turns hilarious and horrifying, and I couldn’t help but wonder how closely the characters resemble his actual family. I called him on the phone and asked him exactly that.

PT Mother Land is a novel based on my life, and it bears very strong resemblance to my family, but in the book the narrator is at his wit’s end. His career is kind of over; he’s had a girlfriend, a possible fiancée, she dumps him; his books aren’t doing particularly well; he’s been kind of sabotaged by the family; he lives in a rented house on the Cape. Compare that with my life: I’m happily married, my books are doing very well, I own a house in Hawaii and one on the Cape. The big difference is that it’s a book about a guy who’s the victim of his family, and failing, and only at the end of the book do you think, well, maybe he’ll be OK. Well, I like to think I am OK now. There are significant correspondences with my life and my family, but there are also big differences. I always wanted to write something about my family, but I never really understood it. I didn’t really understand it until I was much older. Most young writers setting off really have no material except the life that he or she has lived up to that point, so very often the first novel is about childhood and family life, probably the great example is Thomas Mann writing Buddenbrooks. I didn’t write that book. My early writing is all about the experiences that I had after I left the bosom of my family, and it was going to Africa, living in Southeast Asia, living in England. My first six or seven books were all based on the travels that I had done, and none of them mentioned my family. But when you turn 70, it’s kind of vantage point for looking back. I had the sense that I wanted to write about the way a family operates as an independent unit. A family is like a nation in a distant land with its own language, its own rules, its own customs, and no one understands it, but if you grew up in it, you understand it. People who come from a big family will relate to the book.

MM Did writing it help you to understand your family better?

PT Yeah. The way that all writing does. Writing is a way of making sense of your world, of your life. It doesn’t solve problems, but it shows things in a peculiar light. Writing makes you examine a situation, makes you examine a relationship. And if you’re scrupulously truthful about what happened, and you write it the way it happened, the puzzle begins to be solved, and you begin to see connections in relationships that you hadn’t seen before. You can go all day inventing characters, but some of the oddest, greatest characters are people who are living with you, they are there in your life. And they are the real people; you see them in the round. And that’s the other revelation: The raw material is all there, but it takes a degree of maturity to write about it.

"The raw material is all there, but it takes a degree of maturity to write about it."

MM From a young age, travel has been a huge part of your life. How much does that feed your fiction writing?

PT There are two mechanisms that trigger it. One is reading. Reading made me a traveler. And traveling made me read more and turned me into a writer. If I hadn’t left home, I would never have become a writer. I know that I consciously sought experience; I went as far away from home as possible. And when you insert yourself into another country, another life, another culture, things happen to you. You’re very conspicuous, so you become a kind of magnet for experience—people want to know you, people want to borrow money from you, people want to use you. All of that becomes the kind of experience that you then transform into the drama of fiction. Things happen to you, and you try to understand it through fiction.

MM You’ve written 50-odd books—a pretty massive output by any standard. What is your writing routine like?

PT My first novel was published exactly 50 years ago this month. It was called Waldo. For 50 years, my day has been the same. I get up in the morning, I read the paper (used to read the paper, now I look at the news on the Internet), I sit down at my desk—not bright and early, but say 9 or 9:30—and I write. I’m usually done by one o’clock. I very rarely work in any dedicated way in the afternoon. But I sometimes work in the evening. In Hawaii, wild horses couldn’t keep me home on a sunny day, so I often go to the beach and sit in a beach chair, and I either read or write something, you know, woolgathering. I’m not writing with the same dedication that I would in the morning. So, my days are taken up like that. I very rarely take a vacation. I don’t find writing arduous. It’s slow going, but it’s steady-going for me. And I’ve always had something to write.

MM Has your writing changed in the last, say, couple of decades?

PT I think so. For example, my early travel books were very personal, very subjective: I’m having a good time, I’m not having a good time, I had a good meal, this funny thing happened to me. They were very autobiographical. I would account for every day, every strange day that I had. I think that they’ve changed. I thought, I’m really not that interesting, but other people are interesting, and other cultures are. So they’re different now. The focus is different. My travel is now less on me than the places I’m in. In terms of fiction, I’m determined not to repeat myself, although it’s inevitable that you do. You write for 50 years, and you’re going to repeat yourself. But I’ve tried not to. I’ve tried to come up with something new. I suppose, to examine motives more clearly. So, to that extent, my writing has changed. But I can say honestly, candidly, a writer is not the best judge of his or her book. We can’t be our own reader.

MM A writer friend once told me that she feels she can get at the truth better through fiction than nonfiction. Do you find this to be the case?

PT I think that fiction is the way to the truth. Not me but someone once said you feel intimate with a fictional character, you feel you know a fictional character better than a member of your own family. The classic portrait, Madame Bovary or Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield or Ishmael or Hamlet—compare what you know about these characters and how you respond to them with what you know of a friend or a member of your own family. That’s where the truth comes from. In fiction you can get inside a character’s head in a way that is not possible, generally speaking, with the people we know in real life. And maybe this is why, instead of writing an autobiography or a memoir, I chose to take my experience, my family, and treat them as fictional characters—and my life, too—to use them to write a book and understand them better, and to understand myself better. A lot of my writing is done to give me pleasure. I write actually to stimulate my imagination and think, hey, I wrote this thing. What do you think of it? Did you like it? That’s the whole thing. First I’m trying to please myself, then I’m hoping that I can please somebody else.

Holly Bieler