Paul Theroux

The travel writer and the author of the bestseller, The Great Railway Bazaar, finds traditional Asian societies turning into rapacious consumers
Paul Theroux's travel books are full of encounters with strangers who tell him a striking story
Paul Theroux's travel books are full of encounters with strangers who tell him a striking story

OT In The Elephanta Suite, you examine the lives of visitors and tourists to India. Why did you choose to look at the outsiders

Paul Theroux I chose Americans as the central characters in these stories because I cannot pretend to know much about the inner life of Indians. I have made the dramas of Americans abroad one of my obsessive subjects, and in this sense I am a great fan of the writing of Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky and many other works) and Graham Greene, whose characters are English but in alien surroundings.

OT You have travelled through India and Asia several times, including long train journeys. Could you tell us about your most unusual experiences

Paul Theroux I live and travel in the hope that I will meet someone &mdash a trader, a desperate youth, an enigmatic woman, an Ancient Mariner, who will fix me with a glittering eye and say, "A strange thing once happened to me..." My travel books are full of such encounters. A man in Cambodia said to me last year, as an opening, "I did something in Siem Reap that I&rsquove never done before in my life..." See my new book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, for the whole story.

OT So that&rsquos the revisit of your classic The Great Railway Bazaar, retracing your steps through the countries you wrote about

Paul Theroux Yes, it is a revisiting. It was a tremendously enlightening experience. I was startled by the changes &mdash in many countries, and in myself. I was also startled by the changelessness of, say, Burma. What is most striking is the materialism in India, Southeast Asia and China &mdash places that, 35 years ago, were traditional societies, scraping along, are now countries full of rapacious consumers not a happy sight, but perhaps inevitable. Where will it lead Ask me in 20 years.

OT Have you seen any great travel writing from India

Paul Theroux Vikram Seth&rsquos From Heaven&rsquos Lake and Nirad Chaudhuri&rsquos Autobiography of an Unknown Indian both have a powerful sense of place and time. But much of Indian writing that I&rsquove seen is concerned with family life and seems to me more a sort of anthropology.

OT And any great travel writing about India

Paul Theroux The obvious books are by Naipaul, Forster and others, but these describe surfaces and are probably very irritating to Indians &mdash as irritating as books by Indians on American life, which, to me, are full of howlers.

OT You&rsquove just led a workshop with travel-writers-in-the-making at Chennai. Do you often do that kind of thing

Paul Theroux I seldom do this sort of thing, which is why I volunteered. I wanted to meet unpublished writers and read what they&rsquod written. A lucky teacher learns from his or her students and when they stop learning it&rsquos time to find a new job.

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