Writer Paul Theroux has been almost everywhere, seen much and disliked a lot. He tells Alexander Bisley he's happiest at home.

Paul Theroux found driving in Mexico to be enlightening. He said earlier criticism of former New Zealand Governor-General Dame Cath Tizard was "well put".

"To make you hear, to make you feel," Joseph Conrad wrote, "before all, to make you see."

Reading Paul Theroux's immersive classics like Fresh-Air Fiend and The Happy Isles of Oceania evokes all the senses. In Figures in a Landscape, the world's best-selling travel writer is again slashingly vivid on places, people and things. As in Dark Star Safari, Theroux is terrific on Africa. Further highlights include an Ecuadorian drug tour, and Hawaii. Ever a lively conversationalist, Theroux discusses Fiordland hiking, his portrait of Dame Catherine Tizard, his beef with Australia, and what's next.


What might surprise New Zealanders about Figures in a Landscape?
Paul Theroux: A reader in New Zealand might be surprised to see that in my long piece about living in Hawaii I analyse the complexities of living on an island, the notions of distance, of micro-climates, the Us and Them, the overwhelming thought that no outsider ever comes to settle on an island with a pure intention — to bring something great, but always to be parasitical, or subversive; or to take something away. I am afflicted with nesomania — an insane love of islands.

In your 1992 book The Happy Isles of Oceania, you talk about the Routeburn Track. Do you still think about the track's lonesome majesty?
PT: Some of the happiest days in my life were spent hiking on the Routeburn, the Greenstone and the Kepler tracks. But that was almost 30 years ago and the trails were empty. I can imagine the paperwork now, the crowds, the queuing to set off, the well-trodden paths. But I'm sure the kea still call out their distinctive cry overhead and the small birds follow hikers who scare up insects for the birds to seize. Of course, the fate of the great wildernesses of the world is that they are so intensively visited that they are overrun — not only Fiordland but every other place I know on Earth. Hawaii now has 8 million visitors a year. Paul Bowles had the last word on this: "Everything gets worse."

"I hate rugby," Dame Catherine Tizard, then Governor-General of New Zealand, told you during an odd Fiji dinner. "I think it is violent and that it inspires violence. That's one of the reasons New Zealand is such a violent place. I'm sure rugby ... causes a lot of rape."

What the hell?
PT: My Happy Isles portrait of Dame Cath was inspired by her denigrating our much-loved President Kennedy. In the course of a meal, she talked endlessly about a book she was reading that depicted him as a womaniser and a cheat — and I listened and listened and grew ever more umbrageous. I said to her, "How would you like to be written about like that?" and she replied, "I don't give a toss," or words to that effect — Dame Cath is not always quotable in a family newspaper. So I wrote down everything she said, and I paid close attention to her eating habits, and I thought: Okay, I am now painting a portrait of you of the sort you're reading about John Kennedy, turning the tables. The mocker hates to be mocked. I have noticed that your neighbours, the Australians — so robust and cruel in much of what they write about others, are thin-skinned and easily offended when written about in the same spirit. See my Aussie chapters in The Happy Isles — ha!

You had some cutting lines about Dame Cath: "She seemed in the end rather silly and shallow and unimaginative, as well as bossy, vain and cunning, but principled in a smug and meddling way. And a New Zealander to her fingertips, worthy of the Queen's Honour List." Anything to add?

Dame Cath Tizard. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Dame Cath Tizard. Photo / Brett Phibbs


I often read something I wrote a long time ago and it seems as though it was written by someone else. But also think: This is rather well-put.

I remember you had some entertaining criticism of Christchurch, too.
PT: I have travelled in New Zealand a number of times. When I was gathering material for The Happy Isles, my marriage was falling apart and I was miserable and this misery coloured my view of New Zealand. I said so in the book. I went back last year for example and loved being there, loved especially the incomparable Pacific artifacts in Auckland's Museum. But I am not a lover of cities, or of large bungaloid excrescences of the suburban sort. I am inclined to the sheep farm and the rural cabin and the glacier and the hidden cove.


"I don't trust the French at all," Tonga's late King Tupou IV told you in a captivating, vivid interview. What do you think of France's role in the South Pacific?
PT: How many thermonuclear devices did France explode in the Tuamotus? Was it 150, or more? Do you need to know anything to conclude that they were a blight? I think your former PM, David Lange (whom I met in the Cook Islands) had it right in his book, Nuclear Free: The New Zealand Way. I should add that the UK and US took turns blowing up various islands and atolls in the 1950s and 60s. Do the chickens come home to roost?

Yes, they do. The Micronesians from those poisoned atolls are arriving in droves in Hawaii, where they are straining the social services and many of them living on the streets of Honolulu.

Figures in a Landscape has a fascinating essay on Hawaii, one of your two homes. What's your advice to travellers thinking of visiting?
PT: My advice is spend a lot of money, and don't stay long. The usual islander view of wash-ashores.

"For [Graham] Greene, Africa also represents visceral excitement, freedom, 'the life one was born to live'," you write. For you, too?
PT: Yes, but Graham Greene did not spend much time in Africa. He took a short walk in Liberia, and was for a year or so a spy in Sierra Leone. By contrast, I was a poorly paid school teacher in the Malawi bush, and an English lecturer in Uganda, for six years; and a repeat traveller — overland from Cairo to Cape Town. Greene was sentimental about Africa (he met the love of his life there — his longtime mistress, Yvonne Cloetta) and it gave him romantic notions. I feel sad when I see how overpopulated, badly governed, and cynical Africa has become. Go to any classroom and say, "What's your ambition, kids?" and every student will raise a hand and say, "I want to leave this country and go to yours."

Anthony Bourdain told me: "Free time is my enemy. I recognised early on I'm not a guy who should have a lot of time to contemplate the mysteries of the universe. I need to stay busy … That's just the nature of my demons." Agree?
PT: He is just a wonderful guy: tough, clever, handsome, knowledgeable and widely travelled. I had a memorable lunch with him. But I don't agree. I love having free time and being idle. I must add, though, that I hate vacations. I hate having holidays. My guilty secret is that I am happy at home.

"One of the worst aspects of travelling with wealthy people, apart from the fact that the rich never listen, is that they constantly groused about the high cost of living — indeed, the rich usually complained of being poor," you write. What is it with rich people?
PT: I think great personal wealth makes rich people impatient, overbearing and overconfident. And very annoying to be among, unless you're satirising them, which can be a lot of fun.

What still motivates you? Is writing still the kind of high your terrific Hunter S. Thompson piece concludes on? Can writers' retire?
PT: Do poets and painters retire? I don't think so. But all accountants retire at some point.

I am motivated by restlessness and curiosity, chronic nosiness. The Hawaiian word is "niele", nosy. For the past two years I have been travelling in Mexico, driving my own car.

Dangerous? Yes, a bit. Enlightening? Very much so. I discovered the joy of road trips when I wrote my Deep South book. I got sick of bad roads in Africa but Mexico has all sorts of roads, good, bad, ugly, and risky.

Figures in a Landscape, by Paul Theroux, is out now.
(Hamish Hamilton, rrp: $38)