Medford-native Paul Theroux left his home state at 21 to become a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa, the first of many great sojourns to come for the writer. He returns to that continent in his latest travel book, “The Last Train to Zona Verde.”
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
THEROUX: I have several books on the go, one for the beach, one for bedtime, and one for traveling. One is John Gray’s “Straw Dogs,” a great book about our dismal future by an economist philosopher. I have to read that in daylight because it’s really dire, so that’s for the beach. I’m reading the newly republished “Algerian Chronicles” by Albert Camus. I don’t like reading upsetting books before I go to sleep. Although the Camus is full of upsetting details, that’s for bedtime. I have Muriel Spark’s “A Far Cry from Kensington.” That’s for my book tour.
BOOKS: Do you read contemporary fiction?
THEROUX: No. I don’t keep up with new novelists or even living novelists. I stick to great, dead writers. There’s not enough context for the living writers. For example, I read D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Sons and Lovers,” the short stories, and a biography about him. I read his letters. I’ve done that with Sparks and Graham Greene. For the great writers, there’s a whole shelf of work. Through that a portrait emerges of what that writer was like.
BOOKS: How much nonfiction do you read?
THEROUX: I read a lot of biographies about writers. Now that I’m 72 I’m curious about what other writers were doing at this age. What were they writing? What kind of travel did they do? What were their daily rituals? I recently read a good biography on Sparks by Martin Stannard and theNabokov biography by Brian Boyd, which is in two volumes. I’ve read all of Nabokov. I’m not a huge fan. He was obviously a brilliant writer but I think he’s a very bad example for other writers. He’s so flashy. His life was so weird.
BOOKS: What will you read after your current crop of books?
THEROUX: I’m reading books about the South because I’ve started to travel there. I’ve discovered writers that aren’t very well known, like Mary Ward Brown, a short-story writer. She’s 95 years old. Her stories are wonderful, wonderful because they are true, not the Southern Gothic of Truman Capote or Carson McCullers.
BOOKS: Who are your favorite travel writers?
THEROUX: People ask me that question a lot. It’s impossible to say. I could give you categories. I like travel writers with a strong sense of place, such as “Christ Stopped at Eboli” by the Italian author Carlo Levi. He was banished by Mussolini to southern Italy when the towns there were very primitive. I enjoy ones who took trips that were very difficult, almost an ordeal. I’m not interested in wine tours of Italy or having tea in England or French cuisine. I’m interested in people having a really tough time.
BOOKS: Do you always read while traveling?
THEROUX: Yes. The very best trips for reading are something like an eight-day trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the longest railway line in the world. You can’t go anywhere. You have lots of time. Out the windows, you see virtually the same things for days, birch trees and snow. You need to create a routine and reading becomes part of that. When I travel I don’t take a book related to that place. I think if you are traveling in Africa it would be great to have Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” for example, something unrelated to the place you are in so that you can find refuge in the book. Sometimes when you are traveling a place gets on top of you, and you need to retreat into a book to ease your mind.