Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .
Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux
photo by Greg Martin

See the Bibliography listing for Paul.

An interview by John Coyne
PAUL THEROUX (Malawi 1963-65) has produced some of the most wicked, funny, sad, bitter, readable, knowledgeable, rude,Printer friendly version contemptuous, ruthless, arrogant, moving, brilliant and quotable books ever written. In doing so, he has been in all regards the most successful literary and commercial writer to come out of the Peace Corps.
     For those not familiar with Theroux’s life, he was born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1941, one of seven children, and studied premed at the University of Maine before transferring to the University of Massachusetts and taking his first creative writing class from the poet Joseph Langland. He graduated in 1963 from the U. of Massachusetts and went into Peace Corps training at Camp Radley, Puerto Rico in October of that year and finished his training at Syracuse University before departing for Malawi (then called the Nyasaland Protectorate) where he taught English at Soche Hill College.
On the Edge of the Great Rift

On the Edge of the Great Rift: Three Novels of Africa (contains Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play and Jungle Lovers)

My Secret History

My Other Life

     His successful writing (i.e. getting paid for what he wrote) began in the Peace Corps in 1964 and his early published works were about the experience of being overseas in Africa. Three of his early novels are set in Africa: Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play, and Jungle Lovers. He has written directly about his Peace Corps experience in My Secret History and My Other Life.
In an article I wrote for our newsletter and website, I detailed Theroux’s fight with the U.S. Ambassador to Malawi over the anti-Vietnam war editorials that Paul published in the Peace Corps newsletter, and Theroux’s involvement with a failed coup d’etat which led to him being declared persona non grata by Malawi Prime Minister, Hastings Banta, and his termination from the Peace Corps.
     Kicked out of the Peace Corps and Malawi, Theroux went to teach English at the famed Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Here he met not only his future wife, Anne Castle, but also V.S. Naipaul. His first son, Marcel, who is today a novelist, was born in Uganda in 1968. It was at this time that an angry mob at a demonstration threatened to overturn the car in which Anne, then pregnant with Marcel, was riding, and Theroux made the decision to leave Africa.
     But in many ways he has never left the continent and has written often about Africa and has traveled back several times to write travel pieces. Now he has written a wonderful travel book about Africa and a trip he took two years ago, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town.
     When the book was published in England several months ago, I contacted Paul in Hawaii, where he spends half the year, and we corresponded by email for several weeks. This interview is the first one Paul has done for a Peace Corps publication and it gave me the opportunity to ask some of the questions I have been wanting to ask him for years. Paul was quick to reply.
  You've written that you had trouble being cleared by the FBI when you applied for the Peace Corps. Do you know why they had a hold on you?
    Yes, they told me — Get this: In the summer of 1961 I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I worked at the Caribe Hilton and I put this fact down on my PC application. FBI agents in San Juan checked out my employer and also went to my old address in San Juan, where the landlady innocently reported that I was living with a woman upstairs. This irregularity meant that I did not meet the PC standard of morality and my application was turned down. I got a phone call. “Too bad, Paul.” I said, “May I write you a letter?” The man said okay, and I did, and was accepted at the last moment.
   What was your Volunteer assignment?
My group was “Nyasaland III” — altered to “Malawi III” after independence. I was a teacher in a rural school.
When you stepped off the plane in 1963, what was your first reaction to Africa?
Great happiness, intense excitement, boundless hope.
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