The desire to be a writer was very strong. It was a lot of things. It was coming from a large family, yet feeling lonely, it was wanting to call attention to myself, the desire to create a personal myth.

I was a complete loner. At the age of 12, I bought a rifle and used to shoot little animals. I remember getting on a bus, and the bus driver saying: 'Is the bolt in that gun?' I said: 'No, it's in my hand, see, here it is.' And so I'd sit on the bus with the gun between my legs, and a pocket full of .22 bullets.

The books I read were always the wayward books or the wayward writers, the writers who seemed to be rebelling against literature. In those days, literature really did outrage people.

I read a lot. Someone must have mentioned Henry Miller was banned, and I would think, Ah, he must be good. Laurence Durrell was a friend of Henry Miller oh, he must have something. Henry Miller would talk about Baudelaire or D H Lawrence, and I would follow up on all references. I'll check him out, he's a rebel. I always associated rebellion with virtue.

I went to the library every day, it was a whole universe of learning, of possibilities. I'd be at the library when it opened, and I'd hear a bell being rung, it's 5.30 and they're clearing the stacks, and I'd think, where have all the hours gone?

Because I come from a family of seven children, I grew up with a strong sense of wanting privacy, but not having it, always sharing a room. So the library was an excuse to get away from my family. It seemed like running away from home.

Of course, I couldn't write at home, I didn't actually start writing for many, many years. And when my first book came out, my mother hated it, she said it was vulgar, obscene. But I didn't expect her to like it. If she had, I would have felt oppressed. My father never read anything that I wrote, although I've had about 30 books published.

When you get tremendous intellectual stimulation from a book, you begin to think of writers as magicians, there's something magic, something priestly about them. I'm totally unimpressed by a writer that I don't like. I realise the person has gone through hell and high water, but if he doesn't have the magic, he's way down on the totem pole.

I'm surprised when people ask me blunt, inappropriate questions. Sometimes people say: 'Your book about so and so, I didn't like that,' or, 'I liked this one, I didn't like that one.' I would never say anything negative to a writer whose work I admired, even if he or she wrote something that wasn't up to snuff, and when people do it to me I can't believe the gall.

I want a loyal reader, a reader who realises that this book isn't just a book in isolation, it's related to all the books I've written.

Why should I be interested in someone's negative opinion? I'm really not interested, in fact I'm genuinely irritated when people offer me criticism, I don't want to hear it.

A man said to me the other day: 'I liked The Mosquito Coast, but I hated your book about the British Isles . . .'

I said: 'The Kingdom by the Sea.'

'Yes.' I asked: 'Why?' although I wasn't interested why.

'I thought it was pretty snotty,' he said.

I said: 'I can't believe you just said that to me. I would never say that to a writer.' I went on: 'Do you think I'm going to agree with you?' He said: 'No, probably not.'

I said: 'Do you think I'm interested?' He said: 'I don't know.'

I said: 'How can I possibly be interested in your opinion? I'm only interested in your praising it, I'm not interested in any criticism at all, because if I'd thought it was a bad book, I wouldn't have published it. I think it's a witty, funny, insightful book.'

I'm not interested in a person debating the merits of my book. Not at all. If I've worked for three years on a book, and a person has read it in a weekend, they can't possibly know what I know about the book.

It's totally immaterial that he paid pounds 15.99. In fact, it's not enough, you would have to pay a lot more than that to have the privilege of discussing its merits. I'm amazed that people think I might be interested in hearing what they liked and what they didn't like.

And when I get letters, I laugh - and throw them away. I get long letters from people saying: 'I read your book and I liked this, but I didn't like that . . . .' Sometimes they begin: 'I thought you might be interested . . .' and I just couldn't be less interested.

I read letters if they praise a book. I'm sort of interested then, because sometimes they praise something in a completely mindless, foolish way, or sometimes they pick out something I admire myself. But I'm definitely not interested in their opinion: my books aren't open for debate, it is that person's intelligence which is in question.

I never tell people I'm a writer, I actually go through a lot of contortions to avoid telling people I'm a writer. When you tell people you're a writer, you immediately become the centre of attention. Writers aren't interesting people. Writers are disturbed people. They're people who are compensating for some deficiency, a loneliness or a kind of insecurity. I don't want anyone to be interested in me. I really don't. Genuinely.

I'll say I'm a writer to get a good table in a restaurant, to get tickets to a play that I might not get, in other words, when all else fails.

Sometimes it helps. 'This is Paul Theroux, the writer . . . .'

But people get far too interested in you as a person when they recognise your name, and it takes interest away from the book. The book is the thing.

Nowadays it's not enough that I write the book, I actually have to sell the book, to get out there, to Leeds and Manchester, and York and Cheltenham, going to phone-

in shows. And I think, what am I doing, selling this book, it should sell itself.

But it's all part of the big public relations exercise, which, unfortunately, the writer is press-ganged into joining because the book business is in recession.

It's hard to sell books, it is Death of a Salesman territory, stumping around like Willie Loman . . . I feel as if I'm a casualty of the recession.

'Millroy the Magician' is Paul Theroux's latest book, published by Hamish Hamilton, pounds 15.99.

(Photograph omitted)

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