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Meeting Paul Theroux

Paul TherouxTonight I feel very fortunate, as I met Paul Theroux, one of my very favorite authors. I'd read about his appearance in the Milwaukee Journal on Sunday and resolved to go see and hear him. This would be the first author appearance and book signing event I've ever attended, so I was very excited.

I was encouraged to go by my friend Andy, who recently met Carrie Fisher in London at a book signing event. He had his copy of her latest book signed there, and he shared his enthusiam for book events with me afterward. I guess his enthusiasm was infectous. :-)

So, on Thursday evening, my wife Gail and I headed off to the east side of town, to Harry W. Schwartz's bookshop in Shorewood. At 6:40 p.m., we walked in the door, to find the café seating area at the front of the store, completely full of chairs and people in them. I would need to do a little reconnaissance to locate a spot.

But first, I visited the register to pick up the copy of Dark Star Safari I had pre-ordered online. As I paid for my new book, the announcer mentioned that Paul was delayed — which might afford me time to locate a seat — if there was one to be had.

I left Gail to wander the store, while I found my way between the bookshelves, looking for a seat. I was fortunate to find a spot just behind the main area between other guests, with a nice view of the podium.

I estimated about 100 - 120 people in attendance, seated all around the bookshop on folding chairs or on the floor. The less fortunate stood wherever they could find a spot with a view or in the worst case, within earshot.

At 7:10 the event began, with an introduction by a Schwartz staffer. Paul stepped to the podium in a black turtleneck, burgundy corduroy pants and black rimmed glasses. I was surprised by his accent — a blend between a Bostonian and a Londoner. He sounded like a smart, yet friendly guy.

Theroux began by mentioning his happiness in seeing so many readers in attendance. This was followed by a bit of humorous Literary Trivia. Theroux asked the crowd about various imaginary places mentioned in books. Some were very obscure, and those who answered correctly, were given points.

Paul has a reputation as a cranky, cantankerous traveller with reviewers, so he addressed this straightaway. He contended that he really wasn't grouchy at all, but much more Hobbit-like, always spreading cheer. "I'm an optimist" he said. "Grouches are pessimists who prefer staying at home on the couch rather than traveling. After all, if you have a great time traveling, with no challenges, there's nothing much to write about."

Next, he announced that there would be no reading of his new book — that we were all capable of reading it ourselves. Instead, he offered us commentary and his own list of what travel writing is and is not:

• Having a miserable time during travel, lets you really see yourself. You can often see what is sometimes overlooked in your comfortable daily life.

• Location is not as important as observing. Where you go has nothing to do with good travel writing. Henry David Thoreaux went only a few miles from home to write about Walden pond.

• Travel writing is about leaving things behind: phones, computers and the rest of it — it's an opportunity to un-hitch from life and possessions.

• The best travel writing happens when you're alone. Being alone forces you to make friends, to learn the language. It also offers you a chance to take an inner journey.

• It can be good to do something you love while traveling — giving away whatever you can offer. As an example, Paul mentioned a dentist he crossed paths with, who carried novocain and a pliers, pulling teeth as he wandered across Africa.

• Travel writing is a process of leaving home and then returning. And opportunity to leave daily life behind and then see it with fresh eyes upon your return.

• Travel on the ground is best for interesting tales. Difficulty in travel leads to discovery. Going across frontiers on the ground is more engaging than simply flying over borders in a plane. Often the most difficult means of travel offer the most interesting experiences.

• The difference between a tourist and a traveller is clear: a tourist is bound by the return home — they must get back for work on Monday and fit everything within a narrow timeframe. Their time is limited.

On the other hand, a traveller can afford patience. There is no hurry to return, so exploration is the primary goal. Patience provides opportunities for observation and experiences a tourist would miss.

• Each person has a different perspective when they write about their travels. Two people on the same trip will write completely different stories. This is a good thing — we should each embrace our own travel stories.

Theroux ended with a question and answer session and then this quote:

"Fiction gives us the chance that life denies us"

A very interesting idea, don't you think? Maybe it's time for me to write some fiction? :-)

Once the talk had finished, those wanting books signed were called up, starting with the letter 'I' written on slips of paper. These were given to us at the start of the night, to help manage the signing. Why did they begin with I rather than A? I have no idea. I was a J.

After some browsing with Gail, we jumped into line, and chatted with a few other Theroux fans waiting to have books signed. The gentleman behind me had a hardcover edition of The Great Railway Bazaar from '75, and woman behind him had a hardcover edition of Kingdom by the Sea. Ahead of us, a few people literally carried stacks of his books...I had just one book — that was enough.

The line moved quickly, and before I knew it, I was standing at the table, greeting Paul Theroux. I was happy about this and also a bit dazed, realizing that indeed this was the man whose writing I sincerely love to read.

Paul offered a warm hello, so I thanked him for all of his work and how I enjoyed reading it. I shared how I'd stumbled on a book of his fiction at the library (The London Embassy), which led to the discovery of the Mosquito Coast, and finally to his travel writings — the most enjoyable of all. He seemed very pleased to hear this as he signed my copy of Dark Star Safari.

Gail stepped in after our first exchange, to mentioned my travel writing. Yep, my wife was bragging about her husband's travel writing to the very king of the genre! It was freaky and wonderful at the same time. Hearing about my own travel writing seemed to please Paul even more.

I responded to her comment with, "Yes, I do keep travelogues of my trips, for myself. They help me remember my travels much more clearly." He encouraged me to continue writing and reading, shook my hand one final time, and wished me a good evening.

Quite the evening, I must say. I was impressed with Paul Theroux in person — he certainly seems like a nice, likable guy. His talk was funny and entertaining, and I have a new Theroux travelogue to read, signed by the author.

Yes, Thursday was a great day, indeed. :-)

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