Travel Author Paul Theroux Discusses New Book, Deep South

The Medford native talks about his new novel, the best ways to travel, and why he keeps coming back to Boston.

Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux Photo By Steve McCurry

Paul Theroux may hail from Medford, but calling him a “local” isn’t entirely accurate. The impossibly prolific travel writer has spent the past 50 years uprooted, walking, sailing, and climbing across the world to detail its every war-torn crevice.

In Deep South, his tenth travel book, Theroux turns his attention back to home soil. It’s a thoughtful and critical narration of American low country, driving readers from Cape Cod to Louisiana as he feels the pulse of a recession-battered landscape.

We chatted with Theroux about the new novel, the best ways to travel, and why he keeps coming back to Boston.

After all these years, what’s your home base?

Right now, I’m in Honolulu. But I still like Medford; it’s my hometown. I know every building and every street…and I’ve been going to the Cape for 40 summers now. I still love Red Sox games. There are certain things you can only see in Boston.

So you’re an unequivocal northerner. What made you want to spend two years down south?

I realized, in a sort of guilty way, that I hadn’t spent much time looking at my own country. I wanted to look deeply into a region that seems to be circumscribed: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana. And the more time I spent there, the more I saw how different it was, how welcoming it was, and how poor it was. It was like a foreign land.

How was it traveling by car?

America is made for the road trip. Even if it’s hard in Boston to drive…I drove hundreds of miles from the Cape to Virginia to the deep south. About 1,000 miles in two days…and there you are, in a different place. There’s always a cheap motel. It’s very liberating. Anyone can do it.

Do you see America differently, having finished your trip?

I hadn’t realized how neglected parts of America are. The great ambition of wealthy people in the states—Bill Clinton, Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates—is to change the world, to save elephants, to rid Africa of malaria. Actually, if you look closely, there are lots of parts of America that look like the third world. They have poor health care, poor education, and little money. Even in the north, like the interior of Maine, you see these towns just sucked dry because jobs have been outsourced elsewhere.

You know, you go to other countries and their attention is towards America. Their ambition is to leave. But America is badly in need of help in the same way that other countries are. It needs just as much attention, aid, and investment.

That’s heavy stuff. Is traveling still fun, or does the history weigh on you?

I love it. It’s liberating and depressing. The world is not a happy place. Even in Boston–just a small town when I was young–everything’s getting more crowded, the poor are getting poorer. It’s melancholy. But it’s all worth writing about. Hearing people’s’ stories, who they are, where they’ve been…to me, that’s the essence of what travel ought to be.

Is that what spurred you to leave Medford?

You know, you only really become the person that you’re meant to be when you leave home. So it wasn’t that I was escaping Medford, I was leaving behind the self that went to Medford High School and the University of Massachusetts. I wanted to find out who I was, and what I was meant to do in the world.

Any final advice for people who want to travel?

Leave home, and stay away. Be out of touch. Keep going. Go further than Boston—it’s just a day’s drive to Quebec. Get a job. Work. Figure out what it is you’re meant to do.