Exclusive: Paul Theroux Discusses Culture and History in the Deep South

Among our most prolific writers, Paul Theroux has published more than 30 novels and 19 books of non-fiction, many of them travel books, which have brought readers from London to Tokyo, from Panama to China, from Croatia to Kenya, from Burma to India, and to many points in between.

deep south paul therouxHowever, his latest book, Deep South: Four Seasons on the Back Road (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; September 29, 2015), kept the author closer to home. Theroux spent four seasons on rural roads throughout the southern Unites States. He visited gun shows and small-town churches and spoke to laborers and people who still call the farm up the road “the plantation.” He spoke to the working poor and farming families, social workers and reverends, people who left the area and returned, and people whose deeply set roots never let them stray far from the region.

His book paints a portrait of an area rich in culture, yet still wrestling with issues such as poverty and racial strife that have plagued the area for generations. “Anyone who strikes up a conversation there or wanders a little can sense the crack that runs through the South from one end to the other,” Theroux writes, “a crack that began as a hairline fracture in the distant past and widened through its history into an abyss.”

Recently, BookTrib had the chance to ask Theroux about his book, his travels through the Deep South, and the people he found there.

BookTrib: You wrote that the Deep South made you feel like “a fortunate traveler in an overlooked land.” To what extent did you feel as if you were a “foreigner” in the Deep South? How did the feeling compare to actually being in a foreign country?

Paul Theroux: I was always aware that I was a stranger in the South—the emphatic expressions of hospitality were a reminder of that. I always felt that I was welcome and that is becoming rarer in the wider world—in Africa and elsewhere, where the lives of people have become harder. The hospitality of the South is a tradition that endures.

BT: The Deep South seems to have a bond with its own past that’s unique among regions in the country. Why do you think this is so?

PT: The past in the Deep South is full of conflict, but because the roots of families are deep, and memories are strong, the sense of history is powerful—except among new immigrants. I think also that the South has suffered defeat—in war, in economic terms, at the hands of the Federal government—and these defeats are not forgotten.

BT: The region is deeply and seemingly permanently entrenched in its views on many issues (race, religion, guns, etc.) What do the cultural divisions between the North and the South mean to the future of the country? Do you think the North and the South can ever “align” culturally?

PT: The South actually has a definable culture—an ethos—that is as apparent to any traveler as the battlefield and the monuments and the flags. The North, for all its virtues, has nothing similar, no sense of the sort of nationhood that unites so much of the South. Where I come from—Boston—when people look to the past they might hearken back to the American Revolution, but seldom to the Civil War. It would be very pleasant if Northerners greeted each other in the manner of people in the South, the hello and “How you doing?” Say hello to a stranger in the North and he or she will think you’re drunk.

BT: Toward the end of the book, you mention that the Southerners you met had “a keen awareness of themselves as stereotypes.” To what extent did that present a challenge to you as you wrote the book? How difficult was it to write about people who seemed to embody living stereotypes?

PT: Some Southerners in the presence of a stranger might exaggerate the stereotype, as a sort of camouflage or protective coloration to erect a barrier or highlight a difference. But in general I felt I was dealing with individuals who were eager to help me understand and were exceedingly generous and patient in ways that made me grateful that I was among them. The travel for this book, and the writing of it, was a joy. I kept thinking: What took me so long? I should have come here years ago!

 

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