Interesting Things to Do When You're in Hawaii

‘I don’t think there’s genius in my writing’Observer: What is Hotel Honolulu about?Theroux: 1 see it as a book about a place which is very difficult to write about. There are two places that are hard to write about. A place like Britain, England in particular, which has been written about by everybody, and then the place that’s never been written about. I’ve tried to find a form that would accommodate the place that I’ve been living in for 11 years.

Obs: Is it the first attempt to make a literature of Hawaii? Theroux: I don’t know of any other book. There are books about Hawaii, such as James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t like it. He thought it was silly, full of missionaries and uncomfortable. He didn’t like the weather and then he took off to Samoa. Obs: And the book’s also about you, of course.

Theroux: Let’s say a version of me. I wanted to write about a writer who had stopped writing, a person with writer’s block. It’s something that interests me a lot because – knock on wood – I’ve never had it. It’s about a man who is suffering through this period of 10 years of not writing anything, whereas in the last 10 years I’ve actually written 10 books. Obs: You seem to be wanting to say in your work generally, but in this book more than ever before, that all fiction is in some way autobiography and that all autobiography is fiction.

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Theroux: Well, I think that’s true. Everything is fiction. You only have your own life to work with in the way that a biographer only has the letters and journals to work with. Obs: What’s fiction for? Theroux: For telling the truth. And I think it’s a version of the truth which is made up of… Obs: Lies?Theroux: Speculations more than lies, but it really is the most truthful thing at its best. That’s why people still read it and why we still need it.

Obs: The narrator says: ‘I used to be a writer.’ There’s a lot of self-criticism, almost self-loathing in the book. Is this your Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold?Theroux: There is a Gilbert Pinfoldish story here. It’s not self-loathing; I think it’s like exorcising a fear, a fear of not being able to write. It’s also taking the curse off the evil eye. One of my fears is not writing. I don’t know how to do anything else. Obs: Did you always want to be a writer? Theroux: No. What I really wanted to be was a ‘useful person’. I wanted to be a doctor; I even did pre-medical.Obs: How did you switch?Theroux: I was actually on my way to medical school. That’s what I was reading at university – Science, embryology and chemistry. Obs: When you were growing up, who else did you read?Theroux: Travellers and people who had two strings on their bows. The writer-doctor, the explorer-doctor, the explorer-writer, the painter-writer. Obs: Like who?Theroux: Well Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, Greene and Edward Lear. I loved Lear and still do. In the end, partly because of Vietnam, I thought I want to just leave the country and hide and not be in the army, so I went to Africa.Obs: You were in Africa, then London and now you’re in Hawaii. Are you a natural expatriate?

Theroux: I’m not as much an expatriate as you might think. When I began to make some money, I really wanted to have a home. Obs: Which you had here, surely? Theroux: Yes, but I felt like an alien. I felt like someone off a rocket ship, like ET, anyway. So when I made some money in the mid-Seventies I bought a house in Cape Cod, near where I grew up. I always considered that home. Yes, I was an expatriate but I could pop on a plane and go home. It’s not like being Rimbaud in Ethiopia who had given up writing. Rimbaud abandoned everything. I was never in that position. Obs: But the ‘T’ in this book, the Paul Theroux figure in this book, actually makes a point of saying he’s abandoned everything. Theroux: All his bridges are burnt. Obs: You like to self-dramatise, don’t you? Why is that?Theroux: That’s how I feel sometimes. Obs: How did you feel when you first went to Hawaii ?Theroux: I was really out on a limb. If you look at a map you see that Hawaii is in the middle of nowhere. It’s 17 hours of straight flying from London. It’s very far away and sometimes you feel as if you’re on another planet. But I like that. Also, that’s ideal for writing. Obs: You write: ‘One of my first pleasures in Hawaii was that my past did not matter.’

Theroux: Yes. You’re just a white guy, a ‘howlie’. Howlie technically means ‘of another breath’. You’re just a ghost, a wraith. In most societies, a stranger is just a ghost. I like that. Obs: But you’re also a very literary person. You’re steeped in literature, you’re very well read and I remember you in London being deeply involved in the literary world. Don’t you miss that?Theroux: No, I really don’t. When I was living in London, I had a very happy home and I was living in the bosom of my family. I liked that much more than being a member of literary society. I knew, and still know, most of the writers in London and literary London is a very friendly place in the sense that people know each other very well. I wrote a piece about Bruce Chatwin’s funeral. At Bruce’s funeral, everyone came together; everyone knew Bruce and everyone knew each other. His funeral was the high watermark of that decade’s creative activity. It was also the day that Salman Rushdie got the fatwa. After that, I felt: ‘Well, this is it, time to go.’ Obs: Your marriage broke up or was breaking up?Theroux: Well, yes. It didn’t so much break up as… this is a very difficult thing to talk about, but I was kind of leaving. I think the problem wasn’t my wife at all – it was me. I felt very restless in 1989 and I felt superfluous. I had these years of feeling the superfluous man, like Oblomov. I had one of those periods of questioning what I was doing and wondering about life. Obs: So you went to Hawaii?Theroux: When my wife and | split up, I went to the Pacific. I spent months and months travelling around islands. I recorded that in The Happy Isles of Oceania. It wasn’t the total answer but it helped. If you have something on your mind, it really helps to be alone and be among total strangers in a completely alien environment.

In the global village, it’s not that easy because people have cellphones. Obs: Do you have a cellphone? Theroux: No, I don’t. I draw the line there. I think that would be death for me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person having a serious conversation on a cellphone. It’s like a kiddie thing, a complete time waster. Obs: Do you have email?Theroux: Not when I’m travelling, but in normal life I do. Obs: There’s a lot of sex in Hotel Honolulu. Theroux: I’ve been told there’s a lot of sex in everything I write. Obs: There’s a great deal in this novel – of all kinds. I wondered whether you’re reflecting something about Hawaii or whether it reflects something about you. Theroux: There’s maybe more sex than usual because hotels are just bedrooms. It’s also true in a place like Honolulu with so many visitors. I think it’s true to the place, true to the hotel and true to Honolulu.Obs: Is the hotel a real hotel? Theroux: No, pure invention. By some stroke of fortune, no one’s ever called a hotel Hotel Honolulu. Obs: There’s a bit at the end here: ‘The only place that can truly be hell is the one that was once paradise.’ Is this what you’re saying about Hawaii?Theroux: Yes, because it’s an Eden that’s been invaded by traffic and mobile phones.

Obs: So, you’ve gone all the way across the world and you’re in hell?Theroux: Not hell, but a place that’s been disfigured by people and the people who have gone there. Obs: What will the Hawaiians say about your book?Theroux: They probably won’t like it. People who don’t read books a lot are threatened by books. If it was reviewed in Hawaii, it would be universally panned. The idea of being written about is threatening. There are certain recognisable people in it, but most of them are dead. Obs: And, of course, you’ve got Leon Edel (the biographer of Henry James] in the story. It must have been a great relief for you to find him there. Theroux: Amazing. I used him in the book. It wasn’t quite like that. The way I wrote about it was as though we were two aliens from a different planet. Meeting him was wonderful. Obs: So the Edel story is a fictionalised version of the truth. That wasn’t true of Sir Vidia’s Shadow, though, was it?Theroux: Sir Vidia’s Shadow is everything that I could remember about my friendship (with V.S. Naipaul] and knowing him. This was a masterservant relationship. People who know Naipaul tend to be very nervous around him, saying the wrong thing, serving the wrong wine, or just saying the wrong thing about his books. When he finally left André Deutsch, Diane Athill said: ‘I was delighted when he left; it was such a sense of relief, I almost wept with joy. I never had to be nice to him again.’ So it’s a sense of relief. It’s like selling your yacht.

Obs: But that book is not just about relief. Theroux: You can’t write about a friend, you can only write about a former friend. I thought I can write the book that I’d been narrating in my head all this time To me, it’s one of the best books I’ve written. I think it’s a very satisfying book because in my life – this is the reason I can’t write biography – is I take too many liberties, but there are no liberties in the book. Obs: You painted yourself in a pretty unflattering light. Theroux: Well, unsparing. I tried very hard because I couldn’t do it to him and not to myself. Probably the book’s about me and not him. There was a kind of spurious furore about it but it will settle down. The great thing about a book is that it goes it’s own way. Hype helps maybe for a month or so but in the end if a book is good, the book will look after itself and that’s definitely true. That’s a Naipaul lesson, actually. And that’s why it’s the fairest profession, because if you write something well, it will be printed. If it’s good, it will be absolutely deathless. Obs: Stevenson’s words are as fresh now as when they were written. They still speak to us across time and distance. Theroux: He’s completely original. Obs: Are you following in his footsteps?Theroux: I don’t see the footsteps. He died young; he wasn’t there a long time and he’s a true genius. You can see there’s genius in his writing. I don’t think there’s genius in my writing. Talent maybe, not genius. Paul Theroux’s books include The Great Railway Bazaar, The Family Arsenal and The Mosquito Coast. His new novel is set in Hawaii, where he now lives

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