Paul Theroux Aims To Go Off The Beaten Southern Path

One of America's best-known and most prolific travel writers, who has taken his readers around the world for nearly 40 years, has yet to write about the American South. That's about to change, and Paul Theroux needs the help of Weekend Edition listeners. Theroux speaks with host Rachel Martin about his new project.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For nearly 40 years, Paul Theroux has taken his readers to many corners of the world, from Cairo to Cape Town, London to Japan, Boston to Argentina. So it may be surprising that this novelist has yet to write about the American South. That is about to change.

PAUL THEROUX: I got in my car a year ago and went down South - South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi - then I went back, back to Alabama, back to Mississippi. I've made now five trips to the South.

MARTIN: Theroux is going back again. And for his next journey, he wants your advice about places to go, people to meet. Take note though, he is not going to sightsee. Paul Theroux is looking to go off the beaten path.

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MARTIN: As part of Winging It, our travel segment, we asked Theroux to tell us why he has become so fond of the American South.

THEROUX: When you're traveling in the South, you get a warm welcome. I mean you, I go from New England, rather chilly and, you know, people barely say hello to each other in the post office. They kind of stare and think, you know, you look - they look at you as though you might be asking them not to pay their taxes or something. And, you know, in the South, I mean one of my earlier experiences was I was stuck.

I was looking in a map in my car and the woman in the car next to me said: You lost, baby? I said, yeah, I'm looking for this church. And she said: Well, I can tell you - I told her the church - she said I can take you there. Follow me. She drove three miles out of her way. I mean, we had been in a parking lot and she was going to church that morning too but not there and took me to the church. And I thought, this is wonderful, I like this.

And afterwards, I thanked her profusely. And she said: Be blessed. And I thought that's the South: Be blessed.

MARTIN: You met a lot of people during your trips. Is there someone who sticks in your mind in a different way, someone you can't shake?

THEROUX: Lots of people. The Reverend Lyles - the Reverend Eugene Lyles in Greensboro. He's a barber. He owns a soul food restaurant. He's also a preacher. He's got a church. He helped Martin Luther King make three visits to the safe house in Greensboro to speak to people there in the late '50s.

The people you meet at gun shows. You know, much - the gun show isn't about guns. A gun show is about like-minded people who feel as if everything has been taken away from them - jobs, money, pride. So, you know, the prejudice in the North is that gun shows are about a lot of gun nuts, is actually not. So that was sort of an eye opener for me.

MARTIN: You said you were not interested in sightseeing, so you would intentionally seek out places off the main roads in rural parts of the South. But what you do? You just land in a new town; you don't know anyone, presumably. Where's the first place that you go?

THEROUX: I should start by saying that traveling in the states is a bit like traveling in Asia. You need it, it helps to have an introduction - that there is a certain network. I don't drop in on people the way I might in Rwanda or Uganda or Angola for - I would show up in Uganda and, you know, and you begin asking questions and people have answers. So traveling needs to be done sort of an Asiatic way. Yes, through introductions and confidences.

In fact, I was hoping for talking to you, Rachel, that if anyone wanted to make a suggestion to me - something that they think I ought to see - not sightseeing. I don't want to see a big meteorite or a rock concert. But if there someone, if there's a community in need or someone that they thought needs attention, maybe they could write to me. You know, e-mails in care of you and don't make a list and I'll put them on my next itinerary.

MARTIN: That would be great. I want to close with something. You once wrote about the American South. You said in an interview that you thought the American South has something waiting for you there. Have you found that?

THEROUX: Yes, I found everything. I found churches, music, food, difference of all sorts. The idea that all of this, this richness, this treasure, this identifying with the roots of American culture, all of that was there all along and I was looking elsewhere. I was in China and India and I didn't realize that right in my own backyard, there it was and this. And so there's a great deal to write about.

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MARTIN: Paul Theroux is writing about the American South. And you can help him out. You can send Paul your ideas by visiting WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY @NPR.org. Just click the Contact the show link at the top of our page, or you can leave a comment on our Facebook page.

Paul Theroux spoke with us from member station WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Thanks so much for talking with us, Paul.

THEROUX: It's a pleasure, Rachel. Thank you very much.

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