Making Waves: A Conversation with Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux tells me he can’t surf. He’ll paddle a kayak or his outrigger canoe on the North Shore of O’ahu, and occasionally will glide down a low wave or what he describes as a “bump of water.” But he can relate to surfers, in no small part because he has been observing them and the monster waves they ride in this idyllic corner of the Aloha State. And he can relate because we all face challenges in our lives that are not unlike waves. Unemployment is a wave, a health ailment is a wave… even COVID-19 is a wave. “So, we are all surfers,” he says. “We’re negotiating these waves and trying to figure out how to get across and get to shore safely.”

And in Theroux’s latest novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, aging big-wave surfer Joe Sharkey faces his greatest wave after he accidentally kills a stranger near Waimea Bay. The book – a gripping tale of narcissism, privilege, mortality and redemption – was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on April 13, 2021, just 3 days after the acclaimed author’s 80th birthday.

In his prolific career, launched in 1967 with his debut Waldo, Theroux has penned more than 50 books. His body of work includes award-winning novels like The Mosquito Coast and Picture Palace, as well as groundbreaking non-fiction travel publications The Pillars of Hercules, The Great Railway Bazaar, Dark Star Safari and On the Plains of Snakes. To celebrate his latest milestones, I sat down with the esteemed writer for an exclusive interview, where we discussed the themes of his new novel, Hawaii’s iconic surf culture, and his upcoming travels with Silversea.

Under the Wave at Waimea, by Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux’s latest novel, Under the Wave at Waimea/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Is the release of Under the Wave at Waimea the perfect gift for your 80th birthday?

It’s the best. More than I’d hoped for. When I was a college student, I used to publish the university newspaper. So I had a column, but I never thought then that I’d be here all these years later; you never know what’s going to happen. Back then, you have no idea what your life is going to be, you have no notion. But when I started publishing, I used to think, ‘I hope I can keep doing this, because I really don’t want a job.’ I would like to make a living doing this. And it’s very hard now for someone to do this. If someone in college would tell me now, “I want to be a writer,” I would say, I hope you have another job, because we live in a different world now. Publishing is different, magazines are different, newspapers are different. But when I started doing it, it was still kind of old-fashioned. But I knew I could only do it if I kept writing and I did it well.  So, I never turned any work down.

What draws you to surfing?

The grace, the bravery and the athleticism of surfers is fascinating. Most of my friends here surf – the plumber surfs, the electrician surfs, the guy that does the roof, they’re all surfers. And when the surf is up, they don’t show up. And I understand that. Surfers are possessed by this desire that if there’s surf, they’re on it. They just live for it.

The epigraph of the book is by famous Hawaiian surfer Duke Kahanamoku, that says: “Out of the water, I am nothing.” These guys, they’re supposedly amphibians. But not really, because when they’re on land, they don’t know what to do! They’re just waiting for something to happen.

And the surfing group is very tribalistic. A lot of surfers, local guys, will say “this is our wave,” just like you’d say this is our neighborhood, this is our turf. That territorial aspect is very interesting.

How did the story come about?

I wanted to write about a surfer, but I couldn’t just write about a surfer getting old and complaining about younger people. I wanted it to give it some drama. Something where it has such a traumatic effect on him in the first part of the book that he almost drowns. Things just keep going wrong in his life. As though it’s karma or a curse, or something in his unconscious mind is seriously bothering him, preventing him from living his life. That’s when his girlfriend comes in and says we’ll figure this out. And that’s the essence of the book: he has to care about something else other than himself.

But Joe Sharkey is also an older guy and that’s another important aspect of the novel. As you get older, you love doing something, but there’s a point when you say, “I can’t do it anymore. My body isn’t what it used to be.” And you wonder when your age starts to show. That’s Joe Sharkey. He recognizes that he’s actually got nothing going, only surfing and his fame.

Paul Theroux rowing in Maine
Paul Theroux enjoys many water activities, like rowing, canoeing and kayaking/Courtesy of Paul Theroux

Do you also draw parallels between yourself and Joe Sharkey?

Yes, because I’m growing old too. But getting old is very interesting; the people look at you differently, you look at other people differently. Sharkey talks about the great surfers of the past, but it’s a past that no one knows about. And that’s also how I feel: as if I remember a time that no one else remembers. I used to drive to New York City, park in Madison Avenue, put my money in the parking meter, do what I had to do, and leave. It was easy to find a parking spot in any city in the 1960s, even into the 70s. But now it’s impossible.

Who would you cast as Joe Sharkey?

There’s this guy who lives down the beach, he’s a friend of mine who comes around occasionally. You might have heard of him: Sean Penn (laughs). He recently got married to actress Leila George, who is in her 30s and he’s about Sharkey’s age. He’d be perfect, and she’d be perfect as Olivia, Sharkey’s girlfriend. I’m not good at casting movies, but I did send him a copy of the book. He’d be great because he’s tough, lovable, funny… he just has that persona. He also does martial arts, so his physical condition is right for the role. It would please me a lot if that were on the cards. He’s a terrific actor and also a great director. And he’s a good writer, too.

Jeff Bridges could be a good choice, too. But he might be too old, and a bit too nice, actually. But I love Jeff Bridges… The Big Lebowski is right at the top of my top ten all-time favorite movies.

“Getting old is very interesting; the people look at you differently, you look at other people differently. Sharkey talks about the great surfers of the past, but it’s a past that no one knows about. And that’s also how I feel: as if I remember a time that no one else remembers.”

Paul Theroux

Sharkey’s relationship with American journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson is fascinating. Is that anecdotal?

That’s all true, you can’t make that stuff up. Hunter used to come to Hawaii every year to report on the Honolulu Marathon, and he was also one of these people — a sports reporter — who idolized surfers. Knowing Sharkey is a thrill for him. Hunter sees Sharkey as a hero and Sharkey sees him as this amazing guy who’s just a freak. In the book and in life, Hunter Thompson would talk about meeting Clinton or Jimmy Carter or Johnny Depp. But Sharkey had no idea who these people are. I don’t know surfers who watch baseball or football. Mainland stuff is something foreign. They know about surfing around the world, they know all the surfers and all the surf breaks. But everything else — politics, art, literature — that’s another world. They’re not interested in that or they don’t know anything about it. But Hunter Thompson is like a man from another world who idolizes what Sharkey does.

Incidentally, there is another anecdotal experience. The local guys that I paddle with are maintenance workers for the military here. One of them found me on internet and told me: ‘You’re a famous writer. You’ve written a lot of books!’ So I gave him a book and he was so delighted to get it. And the others, they’re kind of amazed. I tell them that they don’t have to read my books nor am I going to give them a quiz.

Paul Theroux in Mexico
Paul Theroux’s latest novel comes 3 days after his 80th birthday/Steve McCurry

In the book, Sharkey says he doesn’t read because he has no need for it; the waves provide all he needs. Do you find that to be true among locals?

Partly, yes. Reading is a very difficult thing for anyone to do. It requires your full attention. So there are plenty of readers here in Hawaii, but there are also plenty of people who don’t need it. They just… it’s not part of their upbringing, and they can live their life without doing it. I don’t want to judge Hawaii by either people who read or don’t read, but in the case of Sharkey, he’s very innocent of books. I wanted to portray him as someone who sees a book as a problem, as a burden. What do you need to know, how do you survive, how do you become a surfer, how do you live here… are you going to find those answers in a book or from of local knowledge?

So he’s survived against the odds. He was bullied at school, but he gets to a point where he’s The Shark, he’s a big deal. And he achieves that by coming up through the anecdotal, vernacular, tribal aspects of the surfer culture.

Speaking of tribalism, the descriptions of places outside of Hawaii from Sharkey’s point of view are portrayed as oppressive and harsh. Is that a common view?

That’s true, people from Hawaii do think this is the center of the Earth. This was the garden of Eden; it was spoiled by original sin, and original sin was other people coming here. But here people say: “We are where it’s at.” The only complaint people have here is the high cost of living. But apart from that, people say we have the best weather, we have the best waves, the nicest people, the best culture, the most beautiful flowers, the most beautiful women, we have hula dancing, music, soft breezes. It’s never too hot, never too cold.

They say it’s paradise but it’s obviously paradise lost, we know that. It was corrupted by colonialism, imperialism, agricultural interest, politics… The narcissism of being in Hawaii is very strong. Hawaiians go to California, and say there’s too much traffic, too many people, I hated the weather. They go to New York City and say the buildings are nice, but it’s cold, people are not friendly, it smells. People are very sensitive about smells here because we have no smog. So Joe Sharkey goes to South Africa and it’s a terrible place. He goes to the mainland, to Arkansas, and it’s like hell. It’s dark, it’s cold, the houses are different, there’s no water, no waves.

In Sharkey’s view, you go to a place, you surf the waves and you come back, because there’s no place on Earth like Hawaii. That’s the Hawaiian thinking. In the book, Sharkey says that everything bad in Hawaii came from another place. Cement, plastic toys, fiber glass, whatever it is; and he includes himself, too. All the great things about Hawaii were always here and all the bad came from elsewhere. And that’s a very island way of looking at the world.

And although he’s accepted in the surfing tribe, Sharkey is still an outsider?

He’s a haole. That doesn’t necessarily mean white person. It’s just the way that the natives interpret someone from the outside. Haole means “of another breath.” Because when Hawaiians greet each other, they go nose to nose, they kind of breath in. They don’t rub noses but slightly they touch. So haole means you’re not a local; you’re someone else.

You, on the other hand, are part of the Silversea ohana, or family…

Yes, it’s very special. I think that because of Manfredi (Lefebvre d’Ovidio, former Chairman of Silversea Cruises), who was like the father of the family, people have a lot of good relationships with one another. I feel that I’ve been welcomed in that aspect. And I’m looking forward to the World Cruise 2022, where I’ll be one of the Tale Tellers on the first segment (Fort Lauderdale to Callao). To travel the way you travel with Silversea, it’s like a dream. Previously I participated on the World Cruise in 2019, and came back with a wonderful story from Madagascar.

And your nephew, actor Justin Theroux, will star in the new Apple TV+ adaption of your 1981 award-winning novel The Mosquito Coast

I was surprised that my nephew is in The Mosquito Coast. But then I thought, you know, he is going to be 50 years old! I still think of him as a kid; I don’t think of him as the father in The Mosquito Coast. He’s my nephew… he’s a kid (laughs). But he’s not a kid anymore; he’s a guy. I’ve seen the first three episodes and they’re very good. I have a role as executive producer, but that just means I read the scripts and I talk to people… it’s not a big deal. The main writer is Neil Cross. He wrote Luther, a very successful detective series in England starring Idris Elba. He’s also one of my readers, so he knows my work very well. The series captures the spirit of the book without being the book. It’s a different narrative from the 1986 movie and the book. It’s very watchable.

As we await for Paul Theroux’s new travel adventures, including his participation in Silversea’s 2022 Tale of Tales World Cruise, stay tuned for more articles from my conversation with the author.

Paul Theroux in Costa Rica
Paul Theroux’s next adventure will be onboard Silversea’s 2022 World Cruise/Steve McCurry