Paul Theroux Photo Credit: Steve McCurry/©Steve McCurry

Lessons from traveling theDeep South

With the publication of "Deep South: Four Seasons on the Back Roads" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) last year, Paul Theroux introduced a region of the U.S. that might in some respects seem as alien and exotic to some of his readers as the remote parts of Africa or Asia about which he has previously written. Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann spoke at length with Theroux about traveling through the Deep South and other aspects of his life as a traveler and writer.

Travel Weekly: Sixteen of your nonfiction books can be found in the travel essay section of a bookstore. Is that where you want "Deep South" placed?

Paul Theroux: It's where my books are found. It's very odd how we categorize travel, because some travel is just going on a cruise, having wonderful meals and going on the waterslide. And other travel is more difficult, an ordeal: mountain climbing, near-death experiences. And it's all on the same shelf, more or less.

Mine is not an ordeal, and it's not a vacation. I think travel literature is the most difficult to sort out of any. So a potential traveler has to decide.

They really need a lot of advice in choosing books and choosing the right ones. They might be going to Africa and going on a safari, and someone will say, "Oh, you should read Hemingway," or "You should read Paul Theroux, who went from Cairo to Cape Town." If they're going on a safari, they really should have a book about the animals.

TW: Was part of your intention in writing "Deep South" to inspire people to travel there?

Theroux: Yes. I think I offered a kind of itinerary. I described the roads that I found the most rewarding, the towns, lots of people. And the people are still there. If I'm describing a barber, you can go to him and get a haircut. If I'm describing a restaurant, you can go there and get a meal. I didn't stay in any great hotels. I didn't eat in any expensive restaurants. I stayed away from the big towns. And, to my mind, the South is not in the cities, it's in the small towns, the villages, on the back roads. That's where the "Deep South" resides, the one with the deepest roots and the greatest traditions and the best stories.


TW: The travel industry has been working to meet the demand for cultural immersion; "authenticity" is a big buzzword in the industry today. What advice would you have for a travel adviser that could be passed along to a client wanting an immersive experience in the Deep South?

Paul Theroux enjoyed traveling the back roads in the Deep South, such as this one in the Ozarks near Lamar, Ark.
Paul Theroux enjoyed traveling the back roads in the Deep South, such as this one in the Ozarks near Lamar, Ark. Photo Credit: Steve McCurry/©Steve McCurry

Theroux: That's a good question. And it's a hard question because a lot of my travel is improvisational and not the result of a lot of preplanning. I think [an adviser] ought to give guidance on distances, where to stay and suggestions about where to eat. I just went ad hoc. I ate when I was hungry and found a motel at the end of the day.

But I think a travel agent would be serving a client by offering an itinerary. Perhaps the [Mississippi] Delta. It could start in Natchez. There are lots of good restaurants there, and hotels and so forth. And then suggest driving to Vicksburg, You'd see antebellum America. Very, very poor America: the Mississippi Delta, the blues. Then they would end up, let's say, in Memphis, with maybe a side trip to Oxford, Miss. They would have a good experience of Mississippi, and it might take a week, 10 days. Two weeks would be perfect.

TW: Do you have a relationship with one particular travel adviser?

Theroux: No one in particular, but lately I've been thinking about going to Christmas Island. I've been to Christmas Island twice. There used to be a flight there, so I went to a travel agent. There was no way that I could find out what the hell was going on, how to get there, on the Internet. I didn't know whether the hotel I had stayed in was still in business, so I went to a local travel agent in Honolulu and talked to them. I found that very helpful because agents are clued into these things, and they make connections between hotels, airlines, cars and whatnot.

TW: When you were traveling in the South for the book, did you do any things that could be classified as "touristy"?

Theroux: I went to a lot of battlefields. They're partly touristy and partly part of our national history and heritage. I always go to museums. I go to churches.

I didn't write about them a lot, but if you sit in a barbershop and the barber's telling you a story about his life, that's worth writing about. If you go to Vicksburg, the Siege of Vicksburg was very big and the battlefield is all over the town, and it's very well preserved. But that's not news. Anyone can find it, and many people have been there. There's nothing that I can add. But most visitors won't have met that interesting man in the very, very small-town barbershop or grocery store or gun show.

I think the revelation for an American traveling in the South is to see how different it is and, in some respects, how much it is the same. The great open spaces, the way the South has fed us and cotton has clothed us. The [Mississippi] River is great, the football games are exciting. Just the vitality of the Deep South is really remarkable.

And so, for someone who's traveled in Europe and they say of the Rhine, "It's a great river," or "We had a battle here," well, we have a great river. We have battlegrounds. It's amazing how wild, how wide, how expansive rural areas are.

Also, it's a lesson to find out how poor America is. People think poverty is something that happens in third-world countries. They say, "The schools are bad in India" [or] "People are struggling in Africa and Brazil." A lot of these challenges exist right at home; people hear about them, but they don't see them. When you actually see it, you think how much work there is to do and how much politicians are responsible.

We can give money to good causes to help underprivileged people in other places, but we have plenty of those people here. I'm not suggesting that people take a tour of poor America, but rather that's something that you see between the great cities and the great restaurants. It's true in the North, too; there are a lot of hollowed-out towns in Maine and Illinois and other places. But the South has a peculiar texture of neglect, and that's something to see.

TW: Would you be interested in writing books about every region in the U.S.?

Theroux: I think it would be hard. There's a common consciousness in the South. There's a sense of identity in the South, of being a Southerner, which is partly the identity of people who feel that they've been defeated, victimized by the federal government. They lost the Civil War. The civil rights movement left a mark on them. There's a white story, there's a black story and then there's common ground.

People from different parts of the South have a lot of the same stories about their past — the schools they went to, how they fed themselves. You find lots of big families in the South talking about the challenges they had feeding a big family. The South has all the wonders of America and a lot of things that are unexpected.

I don't think you'd find the same thing in the Pacific Northwest. I don't think you'd find it in the West. I don't think you'd find it in the upper Midwest.

There's no sense of being a Northerner. There's no sense of being a New Englander. People might talk about it, but they don't really mean it. And I'm speaking as someone from Massachusetts.

TW: Toward the end of the book, you write about travel as being a way to defeat a creeping sense of aging. Could travel industry marketers learn from that and craft that into a message to incent people to travel?

The windows of this old house in Greenville, Miss., are filled with pictures of President Barack Obama.
The windows of this old house in Greenville, Miss., are filled with pictures of President Barack Obama. Photo Credit: Steve McCurry/©Steve McCurry

Theroux: I think so. I saw people in various hotels, and there'd be a large group of older people, but I don't think it'd be much fun, old people traveling with a lot of older people. It's a shame to think of all old people as, you know, just in a bunch: This idea of getting a lot of old people on a bus, going somewhere, isn't the solution.

The thing that makes you feel young is a sense of discovery. And it's perfectly safe. Lots of people said to me, "Wasn't it dangerous? Wasn't it difficult?" No, not at all. We have the best roads in the world. We have the best facilities for travelers in the world. You can take your time on the back roads.

And a travel agent or travel company can say, "You don't have to go to an airport. You're not going through a metal detector, and no one's frisking you. No one's reminding you you're at risk. You don't need a passport. Just get in a car, and here's how to do it." Offer itineraries, maybe with a driver or going with a small group. It's a wonderful way to feel a sense of belonging and feel a sense of liberation, even with guides. And there are cruises down the Mississippi.

The greatest freedom that you'll have, as an American, is traveling. We have thousands of miles of roads with no roadblocks, no armed policemen stopping you and asking you for your ID. The back roads are the best roads.

And when you're traveling, no one knows you. At home, everyone's bored with your stories, but when you're traveling, no one's heard your stories. You go to a place, and suddenly everyone's listening, and your jokes are funny. And you listen to their stories, and they're telling you a joke.

The two limiting things in travel — one is money, and the other is time. Retired people, older people have more time. All my life I've been traveling sort of open-ended, you know, a week, a month, a year. I spent a year in China, I've spent months and months and months and months traveling in Africa. I remember setting off from Cairo thinking well, maybe it'll take two months, maybe it'll take three months, maybe four months. I didn't know how long it would take to get to Cape Town, but I just slogged along. And it took about five months.

And after five months, you're ready to go home.

TW: I found that over time, your writing — and it's evident in "Deep South" in particular — has become more sympathetic and empathetic toward the people you meet. Was that due to the character of the Deep South or to your own character changing?

Theroux: Well, I'm getting older. I don't know whether I'm getting mellower, but I'm getting older and more grateful. When you get older, every day is a blessing. So there's that. Also, in my early life, when I was travelling in the 1960s, the '70s, the '80s, these were very difficult times to travel. "The Great Railway Bazaar" trip was 1973; it was very difficult. I went through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, down the Khyber Pass, Pakistan, and I thought, "Oh my God." Yeah, so I was bad-tempered and grouchy and being pushed around by Afghans with guns and, you know, sneered at by Iranians. And there were a lot of really fanatical people and Iran was a very, very backward, dusty desert country. Talk about the hinterland of religious fanaticism.

TW: You've lived in, and traveled through, former colonial countries that are still struggling to get over a past sense of defeat. Did you find parallels traveling through the South?

Theroux: I think there's a sense of that; you get that somewhat in the South. They feel there are insiders and outsiders, there's an in group and an out group. A lot of times I was treated as an interloper, an intruder, an agitator. I'm someone from the outside. And that's an interesting experience given the fact that, you know, I'm an American and a lot of what you see in the South is the result of people from all over the country paying taxes. You see a bridge, a road, and you know, I helped contribute to that, so I'm part of it.

But there are people there who feel that they were pushed around by someone. We're talking about the Civil War, which is, you know, 150-odd years back. But still people feel it, feel damaged by it, changed by it.

I feel as if a lot of it is the dishonest complaining. Lots of people in the North fought and died. Every New England town has Civil War cemeteries and memorials, hundreds of them in New England, but no one talks about it. But in the South, they do. That's a factor. The memory in the South for a lot of people [relates to] the memory, or the theme, of slavery, the way it's affected thinking, history, names of places, behavior, all that. It's our national disgrace, but its persistence in the South is something to reckon with.

TW: So for some, feelings related to defeat never end.

Theroux: I thought that at a gun show, that it was very much that was a kind of an expression of "You've done everything else to us, but you'll never get our guns." It's not that they want to shoot someone, but it's just it's a symbol of something that the federal government can't [intrude upon]. They do feel the federal government had them integrate the schools, and they could say that Washington was against them in the Civil War. That particular texture of the South is not all bad. It makes for stories and songs and a kind of spirit, too. People hold those feelings to varying degrees. You know, some people violently oppose [perceived government intrusion], and other people just talk about it as a fact of life.

But I did find it very inspiring. [laughs] I'm a writer. I'm travelling. I'm just looking and listening. And when people have stories, when they have strong opinions, those are the very texture of a book. That's what I want to hear. I want to hear what people have to say and their stories. Human architecture and a person's story is, to me, much more interesting than a museum or a church. And I think most travelers, if asked "Did you see such and such?" would say, "Yeah, but I met the most amazing guide, and he told me this story." That's the thing that stays with you.

TW: Technology, particularly the ability to communicate while on the road, has changed dramatically since you began traveling and writing. Has this helped you as a traveler and writer? Has the ability to be "in touch" with the world been a positive?

Theroux: This is the age of being in touch, there's no excuse for being out of touch. Everybody has their phone with them all the time, so there's no excuse.

When I lived in Africa, I didn't have a telephone at home. And then I lived in Singapore for three years; I didn't have a telephone at home. The "Railway Bazaar" trip took four and a half months, and I made two phone calls: one in Delhi and one in Tokyo. Delhi was a failure. Tokyo, I actually managed to get my wife on the phone. But the rest of the time, some people wrote me notes, a letter "care of" embassies or whatnot. I picked up a few, but basically for four and a half months I was out of touch. There's nothing wrong with that.

And I don't think I suffered. I actually think that as a result I had to be 100% in the place that I was in. I had to learn the language, and I had to sort of cope and learn how to cope with the people I was with. I didn't have the split consciousness of half my consciousness in the place and the other half sort of still at home, you know, still in touch.

It's very good for the parents, they're reassured. They find out, "Oh, my son or daughter's doing well." But it's created a different sort of travel and a different sort of consciousness. People go back to their hotel room and call home or they use the Internet cafe, but when I was traveling and even when I travel now, at the end of the day I don't call home. I do something else. I meet someone, write my notes, whatever it is. But it's not part of my mission to stay in close touch with my wife or children or anything like that. My mission is to find a story, and I need to reassure my wife that I'm safe and all that, but it's a strange consciousness that we're in such close touch.

I don't think we know each other any better for it; we're not happier as a result or better acquainted or anything like that. It's just sort of this little ping saying, "Yeah, here I am, and everything's fine."

TW: You must see differences in the types of people who now visit developing countries vs. the people you may have met while traveling earlier in your life.

Theroux: I meet lots of people, older people, people my age, who are very committed travelers. They travel, and they're very adventurous, very intrepid. And there are people who are very dilettante-ish about travel. You hear about someone like Chelsea Clinton who takes 10 days on a humanitarian trip to Africa to help people and then she comes home. Or, I don't know, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. They go to Africa and they're just dropping in and then going home. They don't speak the language, they don't really have any experience of village life, and they never had that experience of it getting dark — where they're alone and it's dark.

They really don't know anything about the places that they're in. Whereas a lot of older people — more modest people — take a trip or join the Peace Corps, they're more humble about it. And I think they're to be commended for it. But I don't really have a lot of time for people who make red carpet visits to poor countries.

Massoud Besharat, who was born in Iran, owns a granite quarry in Elberton, Ga.
Massoud Besharat, who was born in Iran, owns a granite quarry in Elberton, Ga. Photo Credit: Steve McCurry/©Steve McCurry

TW: You write in "Deep South" about people who have moved to the region from other countries, particularly people from India who settled there to start hotels. Has their inclusion in society made much impact?

Theroux: We have a long, complex and very interesting history, and every so often I would meet someone in the South, someone who hadn't been there very long -- maybe from Pakistan, maybe from India, maybe from Africa, maybe from Brazil or Mexico -- and they were living in a place where great things had happened, where really amazing things had happened, and they didn't have any idea. They didn't have a clue. It would be near a Civil War battlefield or maybe it's part of the Civil Rights movement, maybe there was some amazing forest or a natural wonder nearby or an amazing person — a writer, a historian, a photographer or someone — had lived nearby. And they had no idea.

I think there is the danger that we will lose touch with our history. My fear is that we'll lose that, lose our link with the past. We need to know where we've been as a country, as a people. I'm not anti-immigration, but I think one of the problems about inclusion, about diversity and all that is that you get people who attach themselves to the country — they get jobs, their kids go to school and all that — but they really don't know where they are. They've saved themselves from the dire poverty of the place that they fled from; they're refugees. They need to know English, but especially they need to know the history and the literature of our country. I'm not talking about nativism or exclusion or xenophobia, but I think it's something that everybody needs to know.

TW: Looking at it perhaps the other way, the way that world culture is impacted due to the growing influence of Western culture: Where do you see the greatest changes in other societies?

Theroux: The simple answer to that is they're all changed. The whole world has changed. You know that everyone wears a T-shirt and shorts and rubber flip-flops or sneakers and wears a baseball hat. People that used to wear interesting hats and coats and shoes now just wear Chinese-made clothes. The cultures of the world have been deeply affected by cheap clothes and Western music and Western goods. And when I say "Western," most of Western goods are made in China or India. The clothes are made in China or Bangladesh.

In the 1960s I remember traveling through Iran, and blue jeans were very much in demand. People would say "Sell me your blue jeans, sell me your blue jeans." I remember in Mashhad in northeastern Iran I sold a pair of blue jeans for $10, and a guy I was with, a hippie, said "You could've got more." Ten dollars seemed an awful lot of money. I mean, they hadn't cost me $10, and they were torn and used, but in the '60s and even early '70s clothes were expensive, and they only became cheap when they started to be made in other countries; you know, in sweatshops.

So then, suddenly, no one's wearing traditional clothes. Very few people are wearing traditional clothes in places where they had quite elaborate clothes. I mean, Indians still wear saris; that's kind of a rare thing, but elsewhere they don't. In Tibet, in Nepal, they always had kind of interesting garb; in Afghanistan, the same thing. Now they're not. In my lifetime, there's been a profound, complete change in outlook. It's Western culture, but it's just "other culture."

In 1990 and '91 I was traveling in the Pacific [for the book "The Happy Isles of Oceania"]. There was no Internet, there were no cellphones, and there was no television in most of the places that I traveled in. All those islands now probably have TV, they definitely have Internet, and they probably have cellphones, and I would say they're all different. At night they would do dances, they'd tell stories, they'd sing songs. I'm sure now the people are at an Internet cafe all day, watching some stupid video; that wasn't the case when I was there.

TW: Yet part of what you write about in "Deep South" is how an American region managed to retain a distinct culture, one in which the church remains a strong institution, despite other influences.

Theroux: The social culture of the South is very much tied to the church; that's been the case for generations, and it hasn't changed. I think that's because the church offers so much to people: it offers welfare, it offers hope, friendship. People network, they get food, and I think that the church does a lot that the local government doesn't do. And to a large extent, what is essential to their culture is the church and the family.

But culture is a lot of things. The main aspect of culture that tends not to change is language, and in other countries, even countries where clothes are different and the outlook is slightly altered, if they still speak their language, they still have the culture. When you lose your language, you've lost it. And Southerners have this peculiar way of expressing themselves and describing themselves.

We asked Paul Theroux to write for Travel Weekly about how he prepares for a trip when he's writing a book. As you'll discover, his approach and goals are quite different from a typical client seeking advice from a travel adviser, but you'll also discover that his approach could serve any travelers hoping to better understand and appreciate the places they visit. Read "Planning the spontaneous" here.