Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux on September 25, 2008
Born Paul Edward Theroux
(1941-04-10) April 10, 1941
Medford, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Period 1967 - Present
from the BBC programme Bookclub, September 1, 2013.[1]

Paul Edward Theroux (born April 10, 1941) is an American travel writer and novelist, whose best known work of travel writing is perhaps The Great Railway Bazaar (1975). He has published numerous works of fiction, some of which were made into feature films. He was awarded the 1981 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel The Mosquito Coast on which the 1986 movie is based.

He is the father of British authors and documentary makers Louis Theroux and Marcel Theroux, the brother of authors Alexander Theroux and Peter Theroux, and uncle of the American actor and screenwriter Justin Theroux.


  • Early life 1
  • Literary work 2
  • Personal life 3
  • Controversy 4
  • Select awards and honors 5
  • Adaptations 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early life

Theroux was born in Medford, Massachusetts, the son of Catholic parents; his mother, Anne (née Dittami), was Italian American, and his father, Albert Eugene Theroux, was French-Canadian.[2][3] His mother was a grammar school teacher and his father was a salesman for the American Leather Oak company.[4][5] Theroux was a Boy Scout and ultimately achieved the rank of Eagle Scout.

Theroux was educated at Medford High School, followed by the University of Maine, in Orono (1959–60) and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he obtained a B.A. in English in 1963.

After he finished his university education, Theroux joined the Peace Corps in 1963 as a teacher in Malawi. A new program, the Peace Corps had sent its first volunteers overseas in 1961. While there, Theroux helped a political opponent of Prime Minister Hastings Banda escape to Uganda. For this Theroux was expelled from Malawi and thrown out of the Peace Corps. He was declared persona non grata by Banda in Malawi for sympathizing with Yatuta Chisiza.[6] As a consequence, his later novel Jungle Lovers, which concerns an attempted coup in the country, was banned in Malawi for many years. He then moved to Uganda to teach at Makerere University, where he wrote for the magazine, Transition.

While at Makerere, Theroux began his friendship with novelist V. S. Naipaul, then a visiting scholar at the university.[7] During his time in Uganda, an angry mob at a demonstration threatened to overturn the car in which his pregnant wife was riding. This incident may have contributed to his decision to leave Africa. He moved again to Singapore. After two years of teaching at the National University of Singapore, he settled in the United Kingdom, first in Dorset, and then in south London with his wife and two young children.

Literary work

His first novel, Waldo, was published during his time in Uganda and was moderately successful. He published several more novels over the next few years, including Fong and the Indians and Jungle Lovers. On his return to Malawi many years later, he found that this latter novel, which was set in that country, was still banned, a story told in his book Dark Star Safari.[8]

The Great Railway Bazaar
After moving to London in 1972, Theroux set off on an epic journey by train from Great Britain to Japan and back. His account of this journey was published as The Great Railway Bazaar, his first major success as a travel writer and now a classic in the genre.[9][10] He has since written a number of other travel books, including descriptions of traveling by train from Boston to Argentina (The Old Patagonian Express), walking around the United Kingdom (The Kingdom By The Sea), kayaking in the South Pacific (The Happy Isles Of Oceania), visiting China (Riding the Iron Rooster), and traveling from Cairo to Cape Town (Dark Star Safari). As a traveler he is noted for his rich descriptions of people and places, laced with a heavy streak of irony, or even misanthropy. Other non-fiction by Theroux includes Sir Vidia's Shadow, an account of his personal and professional friendship with Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul that ended abruptly after 30 years.

Personal life

Theroux was married to Anne Castle from 1967 to 1993. They had two sons: Marcel and Louis, both of whom are writers and television presenters. He also has an older son from a college relationship who was given up for adoption. He has been married to Sheila Donnelly since 1995. In his books, Theroux alludes to his ability to speak Italian, French, German, Spanish, Urdu, Chichewa, Swahili, and Mandarin Chinese. He resides in Hawaii and Cape Cod, Massachusetts.[11]


By including versions of himself, his family, and acquaintances in some of his fiction, Theroux has occasionally disconcerted his readers. "A. Burgess, Slightly Foxed: Fact and Fiction", a story originally published in The New Yorker,[12] describes a dinner at the narrator's home with author Anthony Burgess and a book-hoarding philistine lawyer who nags the narrator for an introduction to the great writer. Burgess arrives drunk and cruelly mocks the lawyer, who introduces himself as a fan. The narrator’s wife is named Anne, and she shrewishly refuses to help with the dinner. The magazine later published a letter from Anne Theroux denying that Burgess was ever a guest in their home and expressing admiration for him, having once interviewed the real Burgess for the BBC: “I was dismayed to read in your August 7th edition a story … by Paul Theroux, in which a very unpleasant character with my name said and did things that I have never said or done.”[13] When the story was incorporated into Theroux’s novel, My Other Life (1996), the wife was renamed "Alison", and reference to her work at the BBC was excised.

Theroux's sometimes caustic portrait of Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul in his memoir Sir Vidia's Shadow (1998) contrasts sharply with his earlier, gushing portrait of the same author in V. S. Naipaul, an Introduction to His Work (1972); events in their relationship over the 26 years between the two books colored the perspective of the later book. The two authors attempted a reconciliation in 2011, however.[14]

His novel Jungle Lovers (1971) was banned by the government in Malawi for many years, and his novel Saint Jack (1973) was banned by the government of Singapore for 30 years.[15] Both were banned because they were considered too critical of the government's leader(s), or cast the country in an unfavorable light.

Theroux has criticized Bono, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie as "mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth."[16] He has also asserted that "the impression that Africa is fatally troubled and can be saved only by outside help—not to mention celebrities and charity concerts—is a destructive and misleading conceit".[16]

Book critic John Ryle has disparaged Theroux's opinions on international aid, accusing him of ignorance: "'Aid is a failure,' he says, 'because the only people dishing up the food and doling out the money are foreigners. No Africans are involved'. But the majority of employees of international aid agencies in Africa, at almost all levels, are Africans. In some African countries it is international aid agencies that provide the most consistent source of employment ... The problem is not, as Theroux says, that Africans are not involved; it is, if anything, the opposite."[17]

Still, Theroux remains optimistic about Africa: "I'm not pessimistic about Africa. The cities just seem big and hopeless. But there's still a great green heart where there's possibility. There's hope in the wilderness ... What Africa needs is a little organization and better government."[18]

Theroux has described himself in his early 20s - when he joined the Peace Corps and went to Africa - as an "angry and agitated young man" who felt he had to escape the confines of Massachusetts and a hostile U.S. foreign policy. He says he now has "the disposition of a hobbit," and remains optimistic about most of his subject matter. "I need happiness in order to write well...being depressed merely produces depressing literature in my case," he explains.[19]

Select awards and honors





  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ [1]
  5. ^ [2]
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux, page 329, Penguin edition publ. 2002, ISBN 978-0-14-028111-8
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Famous Author Summers in Sandwich Cape Cod Today, 3 September 2008
  12. ^ The New Yorker, August 7, 1995.
  13. ^ The New Yorker, September 18, 1995, p.14.
  14. ^
  15. ^ Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, p. 320.
  16. ^ a b
  17. ^ John Ryle, "Review: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux", The Guardian, 2 November 2002.
  18. ^ Paul Theroux, "Author Paul Theroux on his final African journey", USA Today, 23 May 2013.
  19. ^ Interview with Eleanor Wachtel, CBC Radio, 30th International Festival of Authors, Toronto, October 25, 2009.
  20. ^ Lyceum Agency -- Paul Theroux
  21. ^ Maria Thomas Fiction Award for Peace Corps Writers

External links

  • Houghton Mifflin - official site for Paul Theroux
  • "Notable Former Volunteers / Arts and Literature". Peace Corps official site
  • Peace Corps biography of Paul Theroux
  • Paul Theroux Discussion Group
  • Fan site for Paul Theroux
  • Paul Theroux articles at Byliner
  • John J. Stinson (Université d'Angers, 2000)Burgess as Fictional Character in Theroux and Byatt,
  • Works by or about Paul Theroux in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Stephen Capen Interview on Worldguide, Futurist Radio Hour -- November 27, 1995
  • Stephen Capen Interview Number Two, Worldguide - September 25, 1996
  • Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
    • , May 18, 2003.Dark Star Safari interview with Theroux on Booknotes