In 1975, Paul Theroux reignited the travel-book genre with The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia. Some 40 books later, his new novel, Blinding Light, is about a writer whose book similarly revived the field. But Trespassing is protagonist Slade Steadman’s sole opus, and though it’s made him rich, he’s been tortured by writer’s block and heads to Ecuador for curative doses of sex and a rare hallucinogen called ayahuasca. Daniel Asa Rose swapped e-mails with the irascible Theroux, who was on a yoga trip to India.
Steadman, the narrator of Blinding Light, is famous for traveling light. How many bags did you bring to India?
I am in Ananda, twenty miles above Rishikesh in the lower slopes of the Himalayas, with one carry-on bag and a briefcase with books in it—Bandits by E.J. Hobsbawm and the complete Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford.
Your own books suggest that you have grown disgusted by your travels. Do sex and hallucinogens offer more rugged terrain?
As I have gotten older, I think I have developed a taste for risk. I am bewitched by the experience of ecstatic states. I don’t trust drugs at all—nearly all of them are dirty—but there are benign psychotropic drugs, and ayahuasca is one of them.
Does travel still excite you at all, then? I have one great worry: that someone in, say, Angola will do to me what we have been doing a lot of lately—arrest me, deprive me of sleep and kick me in the head, and then send me for interrogation. The United States government, by violating ethical codes of war, has made the world unsafe for travelers like me—and you, too.
Steadman has “no close friends.” You yourself had V.S. Naipaul, before your notorious falling out—do you have close friends today?
Enough, I suppose—this is an impertinent question. My experience with Naipaul was salutary, though, since even a moron in a big hurry would have seen him as a complete wanker and somehow I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
You’ve never laid your sexual nature out like this before. Why now?
Excuse me—not “my sexual nature,” but that of the people in my book. I want to emphasize the ecstatic nature of sexuality, not the cork-in-bottle variety.
Steadman is annoyed when he sees travelers reading his book. How do you feel when you come across someone reading yours?
Delighted and riveted. I once spent an hour in an airport watching someone read a book of mine—watching him turn the pages and chew his lips.