Paul Theroux

Interviewed by Heather Peterson

This fictional piece reminded me of your article “Nurse Wolf,” published in The New Yorker in 1998. What precipitated your decision to revisit this story fourteen years later? What, in the story, is similar to the article and what is different? How does writing about this experience so many years later change the way you view the subject matter?

This short story was not inspired by my “Nurse Wolf” profile, though you might think so, given the predilection of the English writer in “Another Necklace” (a condition delicately known as “algolagnia”). I suppose the germ of the story arose from my own long residence in England, which was bittersweet. I liked the literary life—even well-known English writers didn’t make much money then—but I felt confined and alienated, and I was subtlely reminded all the time that I did not belong. There was in the England of the 1970s and into the ’80s a conventional mockery of American life and the have-a-nice-day pleasantries that did not exist in England. Somewhat to my surprise, many prominent English writers have taken up residence in the USA. Perhaps they discovered what we knew all along—that living in the USA is a lot of fun. The story is a portrait of one of those middle-aged writers, but a fictional one.

On a related note, you have often blurred the lines between fact and fiction. In fact, in searching the archives of The New Yorker, I found two pieces you’d written that the magazine had chosen to label as “Fact and Fiction.” In recent years, much has been made in the literary world of the difference between fact and fiction—there have been debates about what is “real” and what is fabricated, especially regarding the genre of memoir. You’ve written numerous novels and short stories, but you’ve also published a large amount of nonfiction. For you, what is the difference between fiction and nonfiction? What is the line between the two, and how do you know when you’ve crossed it? How important is it, in your mind, to make a distinction between the two genres?

Fiction is fiction, a work of the imagination; and a factual piece—travel, a profile, a memory, journalism—cannot be invented. That’s an important distinction for me, because I write travel books and it would be a cheat to make things up. Of course there is often fact in fiction. Mary McCarthy wrote a very perceptive essay on this topic “The Fact in Fiction”—and she referenced Balzac, among many others. So in my short story, “Another Necklace,” anyone can identify the Boston streets, the church where the talk is given, and layout of the city; but it is entirely imagined. I suppose I have confused things by writing a number of stories in which I, Paul Theroux, am the narrator but all the other details are fictitious.

Though you grew up in the United States, you’ve spent much of your adult life out of the country, including in England. In “Another Necklace,” the protagonist is British. He makes many observations about the Americans around him—some are impressions of Americans themselves, and some are impressions of how Americans view the British. As an American who has spent a lot of time abroad, what are your views of Americans and American-ness? What would you say the essential differences are between the British and the Americans? How much of the observations of America in this story are true to your experience, and how much are specific to this character’s experience?

This is a hard question, because an American is not one type, nor is an English person one type—and as a writer, I’d rather deal in nuances than stereotypes. But there are graspable differences in the cultures. Henry James, in “English Hours,” uses a good image to define the English, saying that every Englishman is “a tight fit” in his (or her) society. Maybe this is what the English like about America—that we have more mobility, are harder to pin down, are in fact freer. The social rules are strict in England, but the greatest difference is (as James suggests) that we have more space in America—more elbow room, socially and culturally as well as geographically. An island nation, as Britain is, sees itself differently from a vast continent—that’s obvious. No place in Britain is more than 65 miles from the sea. This fact has gone towards the making of a consciousness. Think of the great hinterland, and the mountains and deserts of the USA, and you can see how important our landscape has been to the making of Americans.

Those English émigrés I mentioned earlier—notice how they choose to live in big American cities. City life allows for differences, for anonymity, for security, and for loneliness—the city is a crowd. But when I lived in London I never felt that I was living in England. I had bought a big house in South London at a time when such houses were fairly cheap (it cost me about $50,000 in 1975 and today would be worth about $3 million). Although I was an alien (and carried an Alien Identity Card) I lived in this house happily with my wife and children, and I worked every day in my study, and I seldom went to parties. I thought: I am a resident of this house. And when my wife and I split up after 23 years I left the house, gave it to her, and flew to the USA where I have lived ever since.

Paul Theroux’s’s story “Another Necklace” appears in Subtropics 15.