Interview: Paul Theroux, Author Of 'Mr. Bones' "It's only 10 or 15 pages," he says, "but still you got to get it right." Theroux's new collection, Mr. Bones, tells stories of the odd person out.

Writer Paul Theroux: The Short Story Is 'Diabolically Hard To Master'

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A master of the short story has a new collection to remind us how there's nothing short about how long a well-told story can linger in our minds. Paul Theroux joins us now from Little Rock, Arkansas. He is one of the most highly acclaimed writers in the English language. His novels include "The Mosquito Coast" and "The Lower River" and his travel books include "Dark Star Safari." His new collection is "Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories" by Paul Theroux. Thanks so much for being with us.

PAUL THEROUX: It's a pleasure to speak with you, Scott.

SIMON: The stories here range between Little Rock, where you happen to be now, and what seems to be the African bush and Italy, Boston, other places. So do you see threads, if not a theme, in these 20 stories?

THEROUX: You now, I'm wondering what the theme might be. It could be a person thinking that they met miss right and turning out that they made a horribly wrong decision. I think of my writing, generally, as being about the odd man out or the odd woman out. So it's maybe extraordinary people but maybe also fantasies that I have. A short story is often the fantasy of a writer as well as the experience of a writer.

SIMON: Well, let's begin with the title story "Mr. Bones," which I found utterly hilarious and chilling. The father of a family turns himself into a minstrel act, who calls himself Mr. Bones. Is he finally giving voice to things he wanted to say all along?

THEROUX: Perhaps. In the 1950s, there were such things as minstrel shows in suburban Boston. And the story is not completely autobiographical, but I did base it on the fact that my father was in a minstrel show. My father was kind of a jokester, but he tended to make jokes in funny voices, the way sometimes people do. So sometimes with the mask you can voice that. And I thought what if a person was in a minstrel show, put on blackface and a wig and then came home? What sort of a person would he be? Would he be the father of the family making jokes or would he be in character? You know, sometimes actors say I stayed in character for this film. And they - I don't know - they talk, walk with a swagger or they talk with a drawl, and people are sort of freaked out by it. So I thought well here's a man, a very, very quiet enigmatic man, but suddenly he's a minstrel figure. He's in blackface. What would he say? And he tells jokes, and he's a completely different person. It's kind of shocking for the family.

SIMON: A line stopped me in particular; a smile is the hardest expression to fathom. We often will end an observation about someone - the rest of us - by saying that they smiled, indicate that they were pleased or they were joking. What are you saying here about smiles?

THEROUX: Think of Richard Nixon smiling. Think of Bill Clinton smiling. Think of Stalin smiling. You occasionally do see him smiling. It is very strange, very disarming, and then you think is that a smile? A smile is often not a smile. It's ambiguous and it can be rather frightening. A smile might be more frightening than no expression at all.

SIMON: Another story in here "Nowadays The Dead Don't Die," there are two brothers who are asked to take a village elder Noah to a hospital that I think is 65 miles away. Noah dies in the car. He has no family. It's left to the brothers to leave his body for the animals to eat, which apparently is how it's handled in the village, except they can't get the animals to do that. This sets off a chain reaction of events.

THEROUX: Yes, a chain reaction, which - because the man's not buried in the traditional way. And this is a problem in India too where the animals are supposed to eat the corpse and dispose of it in this ecologically friendly way. In India, it's the Towers of Silence where the vultures eat the corpses of the Parsi's. So it can't happen. The disappearance of animals means that the body can't be disposed of. What are the implications of that? And so if the body's not disposed of, the spirit of the person is present all the time. This is kind of scary. Things change, animals disappear, they're poached out of existence. What are the implications for the culture? And the implications are profound.

SIMON: Another story I wanted to ask you about, "The First World." And with your permission, I'm going to take it upon myself to read the first paragraph. I admire it so much. Your narrator of this story says - begins it by saying number one, I'm writing this because the people on this island hate me and they don't even know me. Number two, they're bound to write the most awful things about me after I'm dead, which might be soon. Number three, I don't give a damn but the woman in question is innocent and not able to defend herself. Without giving too much away, the narrator - successful man - he falls in love or something. I think it is love, in the end, with his housekeeper.

THEROUX: That's one of the love stories, I suppose, where things go swimmingly well because he ends up happy. It is possible to be married and happy.

SIMON: When do you know when a short story collection is done?

THEROUX: I think you live your life in phases. I certainly seem to. I was writing these stories over the past five years. And I think it's done when I feel I have no more ideas and I feel as if I can sort of close the book on this. It's a very hard question to answer. When is a book of short stories done? You know when a novel's done, but not so much with short stories. And in fact, short stories is a venerable form but it's diabolically hard to master, really. There's a lot of apprenticeship in writing stories. It's not just - and sometimes a story can take such a long time to write, I mean, months and months where you say well it's only 10 or 15 pages but still you've got to get it right.

SIMON: Paul Theroux. His new book "Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories." Thanks so much for being with us, Paul.

THEROUX: Thank you, Scott.

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