An Interview with Paul Theroux

Credit: Steve McCurry
We had the privilege of discussing travel in the Deep South with the eminent travel writer Paul Theroux. In his tenth book, Theroux immerses himself in the incomparable world of the Deep South, writing with merciless candor. Through conversations with mayors and reverends, the working poor, farming families and many others, Theroux captures not only the unparalleled cuisine, music and history of the South, but its poverty, lack of education and staunchly conservative attitudes.

 

Longitude. Many travelers are after the "old magnolia," Gone with the Wind version of the South that you experienced at the Imperial Cup Steeplechase in Aiken, South Carolina (a culture of ball gowns, balustrades and plantations). Is there anything left of this Old South that is worth the journey?

Theroux. The cities of the South are, among other things, places of culture -- opera, symphony concerts, book festivals, ballet, banquets and much else that is admirable and an example of local enthusiasm and philanthropy. I must emphasize that I traveled in the rural Deep South, which is overlooked, neglected, underfunded, marked by poverty and unemployment much greater than anywhere else in the USA (except on Indian reservations). In a way, the poverty of the rural Deep South is a throwback to an earlier time.

Longitude. You write that "A good reason to travel is to put fiction into context" and that a handful of writers (including Eudora Welty, Mary Ward Brown and William Faulkner) get it right. What is it about the South that makes it so difficult to fictionalize?

Theroux. The fiction writer can only write truthfully about his or her own world, and that world is generally a small one -- the smaller it is the more accurate the perception. Faulkner is the greatest example of this. He said that his county was "as small as a postage stamp." Traveling widely one notices so much that has never made its way into books, and of course each person is unique, telling his or her own story. I found that the people I met made my trip memorable, for the variety of their personal histories, which I had never encountered in the Southern fiction I knew.

Longitude. Your path crosses historic landmarks of the Civil Rights Movement -- places that Dr. Martin Luther King preached and hid from the Klan, the town where Emmett Till was murdered, churches that were burned and more. Racism, in many places, is still alive and well. What did a firsthand experience of the South teach you about racial struggle?        

Credit: Steve McCurry

Theroux. Most of all, the persistence of memory in the minds of everyone, black and white, and the enduring shadow that slavery and the Civil Rights movement casts upon the present. There is a history of racism and bigotry in the North, where I come from, but I think the poverty and lack of opportunity in the rural Deep South is a reminder of how things were and have always been. Consider the devastating effects of defunded education, which you find throughout the Deep South, notably Alabama and South Carolina.

Longitude. Many Southerners, you discover, are still processing the Civil War and its windfall. Some of the white men you talk to feel economically weak and politically oppressed. As a Northerner, do you empathize with the "Southern Man" and his fall from power?

Theroux. The sense of defeat is very powerful -- old defeats such as the Civil War still rankle because the Deep South is still economically so challenged and so poorly governed. One effect of this is a sense of defiance, but another is a sense of shame. Many Southern reviewers of my book were praising and found subtlety and enlightenment in it; but some attacked it, because I am an outsider and writing about the rural Deep South they felt I was taking advantage of my welcome. Southern writers are especially proprietorial and resent outsiders, regarding them as poachers. I think, at bottom, they are ashamed and embarrassed when a traveler points out the dereliction, and they turn their shame into anger.

Longitude. Your book depends upon the excitement and freedom of the road trip, much like the "ramble" of the old bluesman. Traveling, as you did, in the stomping-grounds of Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters and Mississippi John Hurt, did you feel any kinship with them? Did your itinerancy lend any insights into the Blues?

Theroux. The Blues Highway is Highway 61 up the Delta, and it is still one of the poorest places in America, plenty of people singing the Blues in Hollandale, Arcola, Greenville and elsewhere. But I should quickly add it was on Highway 61 that I met the kindest, friendliest folk in my entire trip.

Longitude. "The South was not a conventional destination," you write, "not a place where an outsider would fit in or a traveler would linger… it was unthinkable that anyone would put down roots." If you were asked to choose, however, is there any place in the South that you would "put down roots?"

Theroux. I'm too old to look for The Great Good Place now, but I think if I had seen the Deep South when I was much younger, and looking for a community to attach myself to, and elbow room, and fine weather, I might seriously have considered some soft, green acres in the rural Deep South.        

Credit: Steve McCurry

Longitude. In many places in your narrative, you draw comparisons between the South and Russia, developing Africa and rural India. You even describe it as a "colony." In what ways do you think the South is like another country within United States' borders?  Is that changing?

Theroux. The South itself considers itself a separate place, with its own culture and a history distinct from the rest of the nation. That accounts for the coherence of much of its fiction. The serfs in Russia were liberated around the same time as Lincoln freed the slaves, and the routines and attitudes of the rural Deep South somewhat resemble the routines and attitudes you see in 19th-century Russian fiction -- many Southern writers have remarked on this. Traveling through the rural areas of the South I often felt as I did traveling through parts of the world based on agriculture, the small towns and villages still struggling to plow the land and sustain life.

Longitude. What project will you work on next, and where in the world will it land you?

Theroux. I am now working on a novel that I put aside to travel in the South.

Longitude. You attend church services in the South, in places like Sycamore, South Carolina, and hear sermons about weathering storms, with better days to come. What do you think is in store for the South? Redemption?

Theroux. I don't know, but travel in the South was an enlightenment for me -- of how things were, of how they have not changed. What the South needs is what America needs -- the belief of investors and manufacturers that we are hard-working and innovative and that all we expect is a fair day's pay. The great tragedy of the South has been the disappearance of manufacturing -- companies outsourcing to China and India and Mexico -- and the loss of jobs. Coupled with the defunding of education this has created a crisis. Self-serving politicians have contributed to this crisis. Change will come when belief is restored.