WHO IS PAUL THEROUX?

Fans call him the best travel writer of his time. Critics think he's been going downhill for years. His brother reckons he's `an egotistical, unsettled eccentric'. All of which begs the question:
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Paul Theroux is notorious for mixing fact and fiction in his books and refusing to say which is which, but this is nothing beside his slipperiness in interview. The morning we met he weaved around so adroitly, ducking questions with such finesse, I was left gasping at his performance. Had he not ordered kippers I would have been tempted to toss him a fish.

His main trick, on being asked a personal question, is to say: "I once wrote a story..." and off he goes, jaunting down his yellow brick road of fantasy-fact that is so impossible to disentangle. He offers his tales so hopefully, so winningly, it is very hard not to get diverted. There is always a bit of bait enticingly dangled within them, which, if you dodge it the first time, he will produce again with a flourish and a reminder that you missed it.

I fell for this little technique when I asked about his life in Hawaii, where Theroux, 56, lives with his Chinese second wife Sheila. After the obligatory bit of ducking and diving, he said: "I'm a beekeeper, I have beehives, sunshine, avocado trees. Rather like Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson took his mother to the South Seas. Can you imagine? All these people doing hula dances and he took his mother?"

"He took his mother?" I repeated, off guard, and he replied, turning a quick back flip of satisfaction, "Yeah, and his ormolu clock, and all his furniture from Edinburgh."

Another time I asked if he was still a Catholic and he said: "Did you read My Secret History, the first part of my book, did you read that? The first part is called `Altar Boy'. The first line, when I eventually rewrite it, is going to be: `When I was young, I often used to bring my gun to church.' It's a good opening, isn't it? Much better than the one that's there?" And he looked at me with delight, like a little boy offering a present.

He is far more interested in fiction than fact, probably because he thinks the real Theroux will bore people. I began to notice this when we were talking about the furore last year over his imaginary autobiography My Other Life, which Theroux described in an author's note as "the story of a life I could have lived if things had been different". In it he attended a private dinner party with the Queen and reported her remark that the prime minister of Papua New Guinea had "fuzzy wuzzy hair". This was taken to be true and almost caused a diplomatic incident. The book is so exceptional, it was unfortunate this controversy overshadowed its brilliance.

Anyway, we were talking about the very nasty review it prompted from his older brother Alexander, and Theroux cheered up and said he'd rehearsed an answer at the time that he'd decided not to use. Did I want to hear it? I said I'd rather hear his real answer. "Oh, the real answer is it's not a Valentine and it's ridiculous and dreadful to my mother." But he was disappointed I hadn't got to hear his fictional answer and later reminded me: "But you never heard it. Don't you want to hear it?"

The one time I thought I'd got him was when I asked the age of his much younger second wife, and he was momentarily thrown, the ball left teetering dangerously on his nose. "I beg your pardon?" he said. "How old is she?" I repeated. "How old is she? I can't tell you. She's Chinese." "Well, thirties? Forties?" "I can't even tell you that. They don't - I once, I didn't ask the question, but I wondered aloud about the age of her parents and there was a dead silence."

I wouldn't say he warmed up particularly during our hour over breakfast at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, but nor was he a grouch. Because he is so rude about the foreigners he meets on his endless travels, people assume he will be horrible in person. In fact he is perfectly pleasant and, much better than that, full of the lurking mischief so evident in his books. He has a strikingly agile and intelligent mind which sits oddly with his male-model looks - soft brown eyes, square jaw, sculpted mouth.

He was keen on telling me that he hadn't always been famous, emphasising that in his London years between 1971 and 1981 he struggled, "writing a novel with my right hand and everything else with the left hand - travel books, reviews, I really worked very hard those years." He started to tell the names of the books he wrote at that time like beads on a rosary: "It was just nose to the grindstone. In 1971 I published Jungle Lovers, which I'd written in Singapore, then Saint Jack, Sinning With Annie, The Black House, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Family Arsenal, The Old Patagonian Express, The Mosquito Coast which came out in 1981, oh, and two Christmas stories, so basically 10 books in 10 years. That period ended with The Mosquito Coast which, in my mind, was everything I wanted to do. That was something that really freed me. For the rest of it, I just kept doing the same thing..."

There is a view amongst his readers that this is precisely Theroux's problem - that he has done the same thing, but less and less well, for the last 30 years. He must know this, because he pays great attention to his reviews. He is also a close reader of his interviews and, like everything else in his life, they provide material for his somewhat pitiless craft. His intelligence is so palpable I imagine he finds them torture to do. But he got his own back in a story called Traveller's Tale, which should strike fear into the heart of every journalist sent to meet him: "These interviewers squint at me and then rush away and describe me in their newspapers as relaxed... ivy league... horn rims... candid... evasive... polite but distant... friendly but formal... younger than I expected... taller than I expected... shorter than I expected... middle-aged... very fit... somewhat pale... ill at ease... bumbling... transatlantic.... But I often think: I should do a profile of them. I would be better at it and they, too, would feel self- conscious when I mentioned how they clawed their hair and dropped their notes and spilled their drink and got my titles wrong..."

I TOO got one of his titles wrong, but then some of them - particularly those of his so-called imaginary autobiographies My Secret History and My Other Life - are forgettable and easily mixed up. Similarly, Paul Theroux's life and fiction are so cross-fertilised that people find it hard to distinguish between them, particularly as he often charts the adventures of a character called "Paul Theroux". I noticed this confusion extended to Theroux himself, who would frequently start out telling me something about his life and, by the end of his answer, have ended up in the plot of one of his books.

When we talked about this Theroux conceded that "elements are drawn from experience in my autobiographies. But I've also drawn from experience in my new novel Kowloon Tong. There are elements that are bound to be true." Surely he must know one way or the other, I suggested, and he said vaguely: "Well, in everything you write there's something..."

But later he was more honest: "Even though when you're writing you might appear to be concealing something, everything is revealed. For example, I'm going to see Dr Anthony Clare this afternoon. He's going to psychoanalyse me. But I could just stay in this hotel and have a cup of tea. All he'd have to do is read all my books and he would know everything about my life - everything! He could put them on a computer and he could run a word check on the names and he would find certain names repeating: they might be people who have driven me crazy in my life. Sexual obsessions - food - I have a lot of meals in my books..."

It is ironic that Theroux is so obsessively open about his life on the page, yet is so ridiculously private about it in person. He obviously has some boundaries somewhere, although one wonders how he determines them: to write in such excruciating detail about a fictional character having an affair when married, for example, as he did in My Secret History, or about his therapy sessions (My Other Life) calls for a certain amount of emotional iconoclasm.

Presumably his nearest and dearest, who play a significant part in his tales, know which bits are true. Others don't, and this can make them very angry. They think they are being toyed with and somehow betrayed. Alexander Theroux exemplifies this school of thought. In his review of My Other Life he accused Paul of sins large and small, but the crux of his complaint was that his brother should "simply and manfully tell us precisely where the real faces end and the grimaces begin".

The review, in Boston Magazine, was such a magnificently petty piece of work it is worth quoting at length. According to his elder sibling, who is also a novelist, Paul affects a "fake British accent", is a "possession snob", a "grumpy and oddly fussy traveller", has "bowel worries", eats prunes for breakfast and "once made enquiries to me about platform shoes". He is "a writer of venomous letters, an inveterate magpie, a rumpled dresser, an egotistical, unsettled eccentric, extremely critical, occasionally funny, a sometime friend and all-time know-it-all".

Paul can be a terrible enemy, but a much worse friend, Alexander claimed, although one imagines the same could be said of him. "He has skewered a former sister-in-law, lampooned his former in-laws, his own children's grandparents, and, never without loud exclamations of denial later, undisguisedly mocked in print even members of his own family.

"Nobody I know has written so many books (20 novels, 10 travel books) with so little serious critical recognition to show for it... We in the family don't mind his affected gentility, his smug and self-important airs, his urgent starfucking insistence that he's a friend of lords and ladies, and only laugh at the fame he courts."

Although Theroux initially tried to laugh it off, he admitted that when the review came out last October it made him "really angry". He clenched his fist as he said it. But his preferred line is that the review says more about his brother than him, which must be at least partly true. "He's an excitable guy," he added rather patronisingly. "He was used by a magazine editor."

For the record, had Theroux met the Queen? "No, I haven't actually met her." Then he changed his mind: "Well, I've been introduced to her." Had he talked to her? "No. I've met her though. I've had dinner with Princess Anne. Prince Charles came to the screening of [the film of his book] The Mosquito Coast and I had lunch with Princess Margaret. That's pretty good." He watched me as I scribbled this down, and repeated helpfully: "Lunch with Margaret. Dinner with Anne. Screening with Charles."

So what was the Queen like? "Just the way I imagined her in the story." Which is inspired - the story, that is. There's a lovely bit where the Queen is seated at dinner and her neighbour is talking to her energetically about horses. "Quite," says her Majesty. "Oh?... Yes." Theroux added that he didn't suppose she had read it, and I said it was quite likely she had. He seemed to like this idea but continued to deny the possibility in the way people do when they would like to believe they are wrong.

EVEN MORE than he loves his make-believe privacy, Theroux adores his secrets, as is obvious from a glance at his books. His new novel, which was published by Hamish Hamilton this month, is called Kowloon Tong and the middle-aged main character's only bit of independence from his mother is the fact that he secretly sleeps with prostitutes. In My Other Life Theroux observes that the problem with being a writer in therapy is that "of course you failed, because you needed your secrets".

In this spirit Theroux waved away questions about his childhood in Boston, although he did let slip that he was one of seven children and never had any privacy. In the past he has also admitted to being a loner who liked to shoot small animals - an interesting tendency often shared by serial killers. His father was a leather-goods manufacturer, then a shoe salesman. Theroux told me he went to a big school with "a lot of dangerous people" in it and that he had been "a nerdy little guy". This was one of many intriguing titbits I tried to pursue, but he had whizzed off. "There was this tough guy who would see me and say: `What you lookin' at?' I'd say, `Nothing', and he'd say: `What you lookin' at?' When I was growing up in that school I was dying to leave, to go anywhere - Africa, Singapore, Catford"

Really? Why? "I wanted to get away from my town, my school, my family. I wanted to live my own life, I didn't want people breathing down my neck, saying, `What are you going to do with your life?' all those questions from the Fifties. So," - and at this point he segued seamlessly into his washed-up alter ego in My Other Life - "at my lowest point I come back miserable and found an invitation to meet the Queen, head of the church, Defender of the Faith! And I thought, `Let's think about this for a moment!' It was funny..."

He once wrote a story about returning to his home town and hanging out with a group of drop-outs at a tattoo party. Would he go back in real life? This prompted an unusual silence. "My town?... Maybe... But, as I said in the story, returning to your home town and living there, it's failure." And he didn't want to fail? This was ignored. "It's not such an awful place. But if you stayed there you'd never write anything..."

A recurrent theme of Theroux's books is this sense of being an alien, on the outside looking in. He mentioned this as soon as we met, in the context of the previous night's general election. He'd watched the television coverage with his eldest son Marcel, 29 (who is soon publishing a novel himself), and said that, of course, he was just a spectator because he couldn't vote. Part of the point of Theroux is that he deliberately puts himself on the outside: by being a classic Henry James-style American in London during his 20-year marriage to his first wife Anne, a World Service producer, and travelling so relentlessly abroad. Now he is in Hawaii, of course, which I suppose is as good a place to be an alien as any.

Fans of Theroux will have followed the story of his marriage to, and messy divorce from, Anne. I can't throw any light on this beyond the fact that the split is still "painful". (It would be nice to think that, as in My Other Life, a parallel interview was going on somewhere in which he answered all my questions.) A couple of years ago Theroux was in Anne's bad books for putting her in one of his stories in the guise of a reluctant hostess at a dinner party for the writer Anthony Burgess (Fact? Fiction? Who knows?). This prompted her to write to the New Yorker pointing out that the "very unpleasant character with my name said and did things I have never said or done". But, Theroux says, they are back on good terms and he had dinner with her the other night.

Now he is inhabiting the classic fantasy of living on a desert island with - presumably - a nubile younger woman. It's impossible to tell if this makes him happy or not, although he reports that he is in love with his wife, who is, ironically enough, in PR. ("Why did I marry her? That's a silly question. Why did you marry your husband?")

Would they have children? "I think my child-rearing days are probably over. We're thinking of buying one. I heard a story about that, about a couple who went to buy a child -" "But would you really do it?" Grrr. He looked cross at the interruption and curled up like a snail. "No. I have children and I'm very happy with them. One of the joys in life is having children when you're young and watching them become great skiers and then having no interest in skiing with you."

Hmm... What did he want to achieve in the rest of his life? This was my last question and it produced such a very Paul Theroux answer it is worth reproducing - he told me about 15 stories like it during the interview, and got irritated if I tried to interrupt them. "I don't know, I just hope there's a lot of it. One of the things about travel, this is an honest reply, is that I often think - do you know Thomas Merton, he was a Trappist monk who'd been in an American monastery for 40 years? No? He was a Trappist who became kind of Buddhist, and he took a vow of silence, obedience and chastity. He wanted to go to a Buddhist conference in Bangkok, so he went to the abbot of his monastery and asked permission to leave, and he did. But when he got to Bangkok he had a bath and switched on a fan - the room was very hot - and electrocuted himself and died. He was a brilliant writer, a wonderful poet. I often think that's what's going to happen: I would like to avoid it. In travel, what happens, you walk down a street in China, there's a big gaping hole in the ground and you might drop in. Or you're on a bus in the mountains and the driver doesn't have a licence and it might crash. There's an exposed wire in your room and you touch it and electrocute yourself, or you eat something in India and get cholera and die. The idea of dying in a meaningless way in a far- off place, dying like a dog - I'd like to avoid the meaningless and unfortunate accidents that befall travellers. Bruce Chatwin said he was bitten by a bat."

During this long and morbidly amusing answer (of which I have quoted only a part) a girl from his publishers arrived to pick Theroux up. He rose, regarding me not very warmly. "A cheeky reporter," he mused. "Divorce. Marriage. Your questions were really so audacious. People don't ask me such audacious questions." Probably because they couldn't get an answer, I thought. "Well you've managed to avoid them brilliantly," I said brightly, and the juggling ball finally toppled off. "I know," he said with satisfaction, and I half expected him to clap.

That was then: Theroux - who now lives in Hawaii - pictured with his first wife, Anne, a BBC World Service producer, in London in 1984

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