It's the Hawaii of countless picture-perfect postcards, the Hawaii most people would recognize. But, in writer Paul Theroux's creative mind, Waikiki and its comforting trade winds offer none of the intrigue of the low-rise world of Honolulu's side streets, the setting for his new novel, "Hotel Honolulu". Correspondent Jerry Bowen reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.
After a nearly four-decade career, Theroux remains a prolific and (some argue) contrary writer who has spun out a story much in the spirit of his life's work: more than 20 novels, 10 travel books, and one very controversial expose of his mentor.
In short, "Hotel Honolulu" is not likely to please the Hawaii Tourist Board. Not only is there lots of erosion and litter, says Theroux, but also, "There are very, very creative murders here. There's weird goings on in hotels by public figures. Not the stuff of the Hawaii tourist board. But they happen and they're more interesting to me than hula girls. There are very few hula dances in this novel."
Theroux always includes some autobiography:
"I find it very, very hard to write anything without being self-referential," he says. "In the past 10 or 11 years, I've had a very big transition in my life. I started off in the states. I traveled around the world. I lived in various countries. I remarried and I have, you know, different life. To understand it, I find I had to write about myself inevitably a lot."
The Hotel Honolulu is a fictional place but very much the kind of hotel Theroux likes to stay in during his travels - a place with character and characters passing through. At age 60, Theroux is still driven by an insatiable curiosity and a lifelong case of wanderlust.
Says the author, "The travel experience is always different, according to...who's running the show. Some countries are not ready for prime time. In general, those are the places I'm interested in."
And he always goes it alone, as he did on his recent trip down the African continent by bus, train and cattle truck. He recalls, "I was shot at. I was stranded. I got sick. And every day, for two hours at least, I was writing something. I would have been the worst traveling companion."
When he's not on the road, Theroux is at home in Hawaii. A frequent visitor to the islands, he finally moved there 11 years ago. He lives on a six-acre compound on Oahu's north shore, a tropical retreat where he grows herbs to cook with and keeps bees for honey that he sells to a local restaurant.
He works in a newly built lower house amidst artifacts from the South Pacific, at a special desk:
"This where all the action takes place, or rather, inaction," he explains. "This desk was made in Singapore, at a time when I found it very hard to write in 1969. I had sort of writer's block, I guess. So I said, 'If I hd the right desk, I can do it.'"
He hasn't really had to deal with the curse of writer's block since. His curse, if it is that, is writing what he thinks of everything he sees.
He walloped the Tongans in his 1992 travel book, "The Happy Isles of Oceania," for their reputation as thieves. And he blasted China's government as cruelly authoritarian in his tale of a cross-country train ride.
And nearly 20 years ago, when he was still living in England with his first wife and two sons, and Sunday Morning's Martha Teichner first profiled him, Theroux exasperated the British with unsparing observations in his travel book, "The Kingdom by the Sea," writing things like: "They smoke on buses. They drive on the left. They spy for the Russians."
Some people say he writes wicked things about every place he goes.
"Yeah," says the author. "The truth is wicked. Telling the truth, for me, is never a problem. And if you do, you come up with something wicked, startling, original. But it's the truth."
His 1998 book, "Sir Vidia's Shadow," was called worse than wicked. It brought an abrupt end to Theroux's 30-year friendship with his mentor, V.S. Naipaul. Theroux's account was termed a betrayal, a warts-and-all memoir that criticized Naipaul for everything from his literary value to his big nose.
Is there anything he won't write about?
"The taboo would be against the weak, writing about people who are weak, who can't defend themselves. People, writing about people's frailties - that's tough," he says. "But I wouldn't do it. I think I would draw the line there. But everything else is fair game."
And, at game's end, when yet another book is out to be sold and autographed, Theroux says he's not worried one bit what readers may think, because, he says, there are so few of them.
"The reading public is small. They're like early Christians, you know, like
a little devout flock," says Theroux. "So, in general, people think they read a lot. But they really don't read. So I never have any fear about anything that I've written, 'cause I assume it doesn't travel that far, really."
As for Theroux, he's just as content these days to be back among his bees in Hawaii, because, finally, he has found a place that feels just right; a place that feels like home.
"In my writing, I seem like the Flying Dutchman, uh, just drifting, going across," he observes. "But nothing is greater than loving the place that you're in. And I feel at home here. And home is wonderful. Home is just wonderful. People say, 'Where would you like to go?' They often say, 'What's the ideal place?' I always say, 'Home.'"
Read an excerpt from "Hotel Honolulu."
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