When a young Paul Theroux set out on a four and a half month train trip across Asia, he did so with the objective of writing something different. He wanted to create a travel book that dealt with the elements of a journey that interested him.
The resulting book, “The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia”, was published in 1975 and is recognised as a classic in the genre. At a recent event in London, the writer, now 72, was asked what advice he would give to anyone looking to follow in his footsteps.
Leave home (physically and mentally)
If you have your heart set on becoming a travel writer, it is safe to assume that you are expecting to travel. However, in addition to leaving your home in a physical sense, Theroux recommends temporarily cutting ties with family and friends. During The Great Railway Bazaar, he called home just twice, and as a result was able to approach new environments and people with an open mind.
Don’t think you’re interesting
In Theroux’s opinion, one of the faults of The Great Railway Bazaar, is the level of detail he shares about himself. Travel writing should be about the places you see and the people you meet, not the author.
Record conversations as soon as possible
Theroux’s travelogues often stand out due to the fascinating conversations he has throughout. The characters he meets, regardless of whether they are locals, tourists or businessmen, often provide a unique insight into the surrounding environment. For him the key to successfully transcribing these encounters is to write them down as soon as possible. This ensures the essence of the character gets through to the reader.
“Most people want to tell a story, getting them to stop is often the problem”
Bring a novel you can take refuge in
Many travel guides provide a list of recommended reading made up of books related to the destination. Paul Theroux disagrees with this approach. During his travels he likes to bring along novels that are completely alien to his surroundings. In short, if you are going to Africa bring a copy of Madame Bovary.
The world is full of places that haven’t been written about
Travel writers have navigated the globe, meticulously documenting locations ranging from major cities to secluded islands. Theroux alone has written extensively across six continents. Despite this much of the world remains unearthed. In addition, a fresh outlook, or an updated look at a well-travelled spot can provide new information. Theroux himself has relived several of his earlier journeys. In 2008’s “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star”, he follows the route he took for The Great Railway Bazaar.
Don’t take photos – or at least don’t rely on them
Theroux had a camera with him during the writing of The Great Railway Bazaar, but hasn’t taken one on a trip since. In his opinion someone who relies on photographs does not give foreign environments the level of attention they deserve. Writers who rely on their memory are forced to work much harder to remember details and as a result are able to produce more visceral descriptions.
“If you take pictures you tend not to look very hard”
Write about what you see not what you expect
Theroux has been criticised for expressing his opinion. 1988’s “Riding The Iron Rooster”, challenged the view of many in the west that China’s social policy was rapidly developing in line with western nations. Reflecting on this, Theroux feels the events at Tiananmen Square were hinted at in his book, although he himself did not understand this at the time.