Paul Theroux—travel writer extraordinaire, author of more than fifty books, genius storyteller behind The Mosquito Coast and other movies—is an original. You can’t travel for months alone to dozens of wayward countries unless you have nerves of steel and a constitution to match. That he writes at the highest skill level makes every one of his books a “must-read.” So you can count us thrilled that he agreed to headline this week’s Foreword FaceOff.
As we learn in the following interview with Managing Editor Michelle Anne Schingler, Theroux’s latest book, On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, was inspired by President Trump’s 2015 reference to Mexicans as rapists and murderers. Disturbed, Theroux proceeds to drive the full 1,954 mile Mexican border, through cities large and small, and countless backroads seeking to learn more about the country in order to shake loose the stereotype. And. Yes. He. Does.
In her review of On the Plain of Snakes in the September/October issue of Foreword Reviews, Michelle notes that the Mexican people “welcome Theroux wherever he goes. The resultant impression is of a nation both vibrant and determined—at once subject to the whims of neighbors and strong all on its own.”
With the help of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Michelle and Theroux got together for this lively phone conversation. Afterward, she had nothing but praise for his gentlemanly warmth and kindness.
Michelle, take it from here.
How much planning goes into your trips, and why do you choose to travel that way?
I do quite a lot of advance preparation. I look at maps, I read a lot of the national literature. When I decided to go to Mexico, I read lots of Mexican novels, books about Mexican culture, Mexican life, histories—I plunged into them. And I looked at maps, all to figure out how best to write about Mexico. I also thought that I wanted to improve my Spanish, and I needed a message.
I had gone on a road trip to the Deep South (for my Deep South book, published in 2015)—to Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama and so forth, and I thought I’d also take a road trip to Mexico, and drive my own car. That posed a problem: people were saying “Don’t do it … It’s not a good idea.” You just disobey them; that’s what I did. I’d figure out how to do it. There were problems, obviously, but I worked out a method.
My motivation was Donald Trump saying that all Mexicans are rapists and murderers and that the border is strange and awful. I wanted to look at it myself. I want to destroy the stereotype. And to do that I read books, talked to people, drove my car, improved my Spanish.
When I set off, I was prepared, but I was also prepared for any random thing that could happen. I was driving alone, so if someone made a suggestion—“Go here, see that”—I changed my plan in an instant.
Which you seem to do quite a lot in your books, adding rich experiences that people would not necessarily have if they just stuck to the plan.
That’s true. You need to be open to experiences, you can’t have a schedule that will prevent you from doing things impulsively.
In your travel writing, you prove unafraid of showing yourself as vulnerable or humble, as when you show yourself searching for the right word in Spanish class, or when you talk about being sick for two days. Why do you include those moments?
I think you need to show that you’re a human traveler: that you have feelings, that you get upset when people insult you or they compliment you. You can’t be disembodied. It’s not so much vulnerability, though I sometimes felt my age. At other times I thought that, although I’m an older person, no one is treating me that way; I was being treated with respect, which was very nice.
When I started off writing travel books, one of the things that I felt could be improved on, that I hadn’t seen in many travel books, was dialogue. Normally a travel book would have long, long paragraphs of description. Or summaries. Or indirect speech: “He told me I should go down the road. I agreed with him. I went down the road; I saw another man; he said ‘my house is over there.’” Rather than someone writing “‘Go down the road,’ he said. And I said ‘Why?’”
I was looking for the sort of exchange that improves the human aspect, that gives a human angle to a book that is otherwise grey or prosaic.
What do you think travelers lose out on when they don’t have those sorts of exchanges with local people?
Well, they miss a lot. But also: are you traveling to report or write? Often, when I’m traveling just to read a book or see someplace, I don’t talk to a lot of local people. I like my solitude. I sit, I meditate, I go for walks, and I don’t seek people out.
But if you’re writing a book, you need to talk to people. You need to seek them out. You meet people randomly, or find someone who looks interesting, and you ask questions. That’s the essence of a travel book. I’m doing it deliberately.
If you’re trying to get into the deep structure of a place, the heart of a place, you need to know what people’s lives are like. And, yes, you could read the newspaper, but if you talk to people, you learn: they’re sending their kids to school, they’re saving up money, they’d like to buy something, they’d like to go somewhere, they have problems with their relatives or with the government … if you show that you’re respectful, they’ll open their hearts to you and they’ll tell you things that you won’t hear officially.
This is why, for example, if you talk to Bill Clinton about his trips to Africa, he’ll tell you about all of the prime ministers and presidents who thanked him for being there and told him what they needed and what kind of problems they had. It’s the classic official visit, the red carpet visit. The same is true for Obama or George Bush; they meet officials, they meet “important people.” I don’t meet “important people.” The important people I meet are ordinary folks who don’t always agree with the government, which is quite helpful.
I had a conversation with Clinton about this. He said, “You’re a writer, where have you been?” I said, “Africa,” and he said Hillary had recently been to Uganda, where I used to live. He said, “Uganda’s doing great!” And I said, “You know, Mr. President, with all respect, Uganda’s not doing great.”
“I know because I lived there for four years; I was a teacher there. I worked for the government there and it’s not doing great. They were doing okay, but then Idi Amin came in.The economy is not doing as well, the population has grown, inflation is bad, the cost of living is high.” I went through the whole list. And he said, “No, no! Uganda is doing great!”
But he’d been talking to the prime minister. I had been talking to people who I met randomly, or who were friends of mine. And there was quite a difference of understanding when you’re talking to people who are under the radar, who are overlooked.
I think it’s the under-the-radar people who Donald Trump was talking to. Who no one listens to. He said, “I feel your pain.” And he talked about things they cared about but that no one else seemed to. I’m not saying I agree with what he says! But he found a way of talking to people who had not been listened to.
And you foretold that in Deep South when you were talking to people in Arkansas, where Bill Clinton is from, and who felt like Bill Clinton should be concerned with them, should be listening to them.
Yes. In Arkansas, people were saying, “Times are hard, but I see Bill Clinton on television saying ‘Let’s save South Africa!’ or ‘Let’s build schools in Kenya!’ What about our schools?” It’s a reasonable complaint. And may be the reason that Donald Trump won in Arkansas and Hillary didn’t.
This discussion of what people need and what government officials in charge of aid give them ties into your discussions with migrants in Mexico, many of whom were coming from countries that receive US aid or missionary attention, as well as your experiences of aid in other countries.
Where’s the disconnect between the aid people receive from governments and missionaries and the aid that they need and want?
A lot of missionaries do great work—they run schools, they run hospitals. I knew many missionaries when I worked in Africa. But there’s another type of evangelical missionary that is mainly interested in saving souls, whose work is quid pro quo: if you declare yourself for Jesus and are born again, I’ll get you to a dentist. That’s a different story, but it’s always been the case.
Think of David Livingston, who was a missionary, though he didn’t make many converts (didn’t make any, actually), but was sponsored by the Scottish Missionary Society as he went down the Zambezi River (“God’s Highway”). I’m not on board with this: if you give, you have to give altruistically. If someone has a dental problem, you fix their teeth, irrespective of whether they’re Muslims or Hindus or if they worship tree trunks. The idea that people have to convert in order to get help is not fair.
In your conversation with Marcos, he mentioned that missionaries come, but they might not give the help that’s needed. They’ll build a school, for example, when that’s not the people’s immediate concern.
Yes, they’ll say: a library is very nice, but the people might need a well, they might need water, they might need a doctor. A library might not be high on the list of priorities.
In On the Plain of Snakes, you bring up the fact that a lot of the problems we’re seeing along the border are long standing; they have to do with NAFTA and the drug trade and not just our current hostile foreign policy. It becomes clear very early on that a lot of the problems that Mexican people face are rooted in American decisions. What kind of action do you hope such realizations spur?
I hope people approach the border issue in a rational way. An open border is not the answer. I’m a liberal Easterner, but I’m not saying “Let everybody in.” Some people are waiting in line for years to become American citizens, so someone just coming over and getting help—maybe deserving, maybe undeserving—is not the answer. I agree with the people who say we need more border security; many of the people who come over are from Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China … they’re not necessarily coming from countries that are oppressing them (India is the world’s largest democracy; the idea that someone is being oppressed in India is hard to process. They can vote, so they can vote someone out). It’s different if someone’s coming from a cruel, dangerous part of Central America.
We don’t need a wall. A wall is very easy to imagine. You can picture it in your mind, you can think “Oh, that will solve the problem.” At the border, you see that a wall won’t work.
Tens of thousands of Mexicans cross the border every day to work. They mop floors, they fix cars, they cook, they work in insurance companies, they sell cars; then at night, they go back. They get in their cars or they walk across. They do this because Mexico is cheaper to live in. So you can’t close the border.
A more sensible, rational approach to border security is necessary, as well as a closer look at who is desperate. If 150 Nigerians come across—are they desperate, or do they just have the money to get themselves to Mexico and across the border, and should you then take them in, or should you ask them why they’re here?
I’ve been up and down the border and I’ve seen what the problems are. There are people, worthy undocumented people, and there are also unworthy people.
When people emerge from your book, who do you want them to think about first when they hear the term “Mexican people”?
The woman who motivated the trip, who gave me heart for the project, was Maria. I met her in Nogales in a migrant shelter. She tried to walk across the border. She left three children in the care of her mother in Oaxaca. She was middle-aged. All she wanted was a job in a hotel in Denver or somewhere; she just wanted to make beds, make money, send it back, and go home.
She’d been caught crossing the border with two other women, though. They roughed her up and put her in detention; they kicked her out.
Hers was like Sophie’s Choice: she had three children whom she loved and wanted to support, and so she came across the border.
Not everyone is in the same boat, but when you meet people on a person-to-person basis, you realize there are complexities. People should be interviewed, examined—where do they come from, what do they want?—and helped, either to leave or to stay. That can be done.
When I met Maria, I thought “this is a good person,” but she was desperate and poor. She reminds you of the people who came over in the nineteenth century from Ireland after the famine: desperate, didn’t know what to do, but they came to the states and got jobs, often menial, manual labor jobs.
I found Mexicans to be the hardest working, the most worthy people. When Trump said they were rapists and murderers, I thought: that’s the opposite of the case. Firstly, the number of Mexicans coming over is diminishing, but the people who are coming over are doing the most difficult, dangerous, dirty jobs. It’s not the same situation as that of a migrant from another country who gives $50,000 to a cartel member to be led through a tunnel into the US, who I’d say is someone we don’t want.
Your interactions with the Zapatistas were fascinating to read about. You talk about how Marcos differs from other revolutionaries; what can others learn from their example?
The main thing that people should learn is what the IRA in Ireland did not learn, what ETA in Spain did not learn, and the Red Guard faction in Italy and Germany did not learn, what Che Guevara did not learn: it is a horrible thing to kill civilians.
Other revolutionary groups terrorized people. Five thousand people were killed in the bombing campaigns in Northern Ireland and England—in bars, in pubs, in clubs. And that’s a wicked thing to do.
The Zapatistas are quite different. They build schools, they have clinics. It’s kind of a postmodern revolutionary group. They’re not the answer to Mexico’s problems, but they’re a very decent bunch of people. And I found that they listened to me. They were interested in me, a foreigner visiting Mexico. They weren’t saying “go away,” they listened. They were interested in my views on the border.
I felt very inspired and energized by the Zapatistas. You see so many abuses in Mexico—from the police, the schools are expensive. When you meet a group of idealistic people, it’s different. They’re working in a place where there are Indigenous people who’ve otherwise been ripped off for five hundred years. I liked their work.
I was also impressed by how many years of preparation preceded their public introduction.
There was a lot [of preparation]. They learned the language, they found out what the people needed, what they wanted. It wasn’t like the Cuban Revolution, which came out of the mountains and took over the government; there was nothing patient or studious about Castro. The Zapatistas aren’t like that. Marcos is not Che Guevara; he’s not walking around with a gun. He’s got a pipe, he’s got books, he talks to people, and he lives in the jungle—a wet, cold, remote part of it.
To meet idealistic people, particularly on a trip when you see so many other abuses and things wrong, it’s a good thing. It’s good for morale.
You also mentioned that a lot of people make the mistake of writing Marcos off as a romantic, but you did not view him that way.
No, not at all. Originally, I was going to study the Zapatista language; they have language classes, but they didn’t fit in with my plans. It didn’t work, but I’ll tell you something: I’ve taken a lot of trips. This was my eleventh travel book. I’ve been to China, India, the South Pacific, South America: you name it, I’ve been there. And I would say that this trip to Mexico stands out as a trip that I hope never ends. I made friends, I would like to go back, there’s more that I want to see; there are endless possibilities. Rather than just a trip with a beginning, a middle, and an end, it was more than a book; it’s become part of my life.
You criticize Latin American magical realism in your book. Can you speak about that?
I think now it’s an affectation. I think that, apart from a few brilliant magical realist writers, especially Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it’s imitation. When I was growing up, people were imitating James Joyce and writing in stream-of-consciousness style; they were trying to be like Hemingway with short, declarative sentences. Imitation may be something you do on your way to becoming a writer, but you need to write in your own voice. You can’t affect a literary school of thought. I think magical realism is a dated literary movement; it leaves me cold. It no longer comes from something deep within the writers doing it. It’s an affected posture.
I understand why people might write magical realism, in Mexico and elsewhere. I lived in Africa a long time; the village I lived near had a burying ground that they felt there were spirits around, beings casting spells. No one wrote about it, but people talked about it a lot. The appeal of the unseen. But magical realism goes somewhere else, into the realm of fairy tales or fantasy. It’s now studied, so people try to write that way to become famous or talked about … though once it’s studied, it’s essentially dead. I think that about rap music sometimes, too. There are classes in deconstructing rap music; to me, that means it’s over.
You mentioned in Deep South that there’s a hip hop chair at Harvard.
Yes, there is. It’s become so that a lot of education is a business. Students are treated like clients, parents like customers. Market forces affect higher education, unfortunately. Schools are struggling to make it, so they have to have a business plan.
The business model part you touched on in Deep South, especially in Tuscaloosa, where college football becomes very much like a religion.
Yes, sports are gigantic business. They attract many more viewers than anything else.
Your descriptions made me think of home games at Fenway; we always joked that it was the biggest church in Boston.
That’s true. Even when the team’s not doing that well, people show up. In fact, the Red Sox aren’t doing that well right now, but every seat is full. If only the book business were like that.
Regarding On the Plain of Snakes: what else would you like readers to know?
I don’t want to give the impression that Mexico is a safe and salubrious country. There’s a lot of violence, and I listened to people when they said to avoid specific places. I don’t want to give the impression that you can go to Mexico, drive around idly, and have a great time. You have to be very careful. Mexicans would say don’t drive at night, so I didn’t drive at night. Some places, like Guerrero state, where Acapulco is, are not places you want to drive around in alone. I drove around alone, but I’m a lucky traveler. I had the best time of my life, but I would still warn: you have to be careful. You can’t take anything for granted.
You were shaken down a couple of times for money …
Four altogether. But always by officials. Never by someone with a gun or a knife; always by a cop. That was surprising: the people who are supposed to be protecting you are the ones shaking you down.
The downside is you lose money. The upside is you have something to write about.
Michelle Anne Schingler