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‘I’m still at it’: Author Paul Theroux talks Hunter S. Thompson and ‘Under the Wave at Waimea’ for Northwest Passages Book Club

UPDATED: Fri., April 16, 2021

American travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux joined a virtual gathering of the Northwest Passages Book Club to discuss his career and his novel, “Under the Wave at Waimea,” with The Spokesman-Review editor Rob Curley at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Theroux’s novels, all 52 of them to date, are based on his extensive travels.

“You’re looking at a very fulfilled, happy guy,” he said. “I turned 80 the other day … and I’m still at it.”

Theroux’s latest novel, for example, is set on the north shore of Oahu in Hawaii, where Theroux has lived for the past 30 years.

“Under the Wave at Waimea” tells the story of big-wave surfer Joe Sharkey, who, now in his 60s, finds his age catching up to him. His young surfer friends still idolize him, but his sponsors are less loyal.

“One night, while driving home from a bar after one too many, Joe accidentally kills a stranger near Waimea, a tragedy that sends his life out of control. As the repercussions of the accident spiral ever wider, Joe’s devoted girlfriend, Olive, throws herself into uncovering the dead man’s identity and helping Joe find vitality and refuge in the waves again.”

Northwest Passages Book Club / The Spokesman-Review

Jumping right in, Curley asked what drew him toward writing about surfing culture.

Theroux explained that living where he lives, he could hardly avoid the subject. The notion of spending a lot of time in the water alone is enough inspiration.

The ancient Phoenicians, he explained, believed that every day you spent on the water was not deducted from your life.

“So I’m not as old as I look,” he said. “I’ve deducted all those days off.”

Whether in Hawaii, Cape Cod or England, Theroux has lived near water nearly his whole life and, much like the book’s main character, never passes up a chance to jump in.

“The worst thing about being a writer is that you’re kind of a hostage to your desk,” Theroux said. “As soon as my work is done, I go to the beach.”

Theroux spoke at length about his writing process and the different amounts of time it has taken him to write each novel, depending on the number of breaks he takes between and during his projects. One of his most famous books, “The Mosquito Coast,” which has been adapted for both film and television, took him two years. But others have taken less.

In the middle of writing “Under the Wave at Waimea,” for example, Theroux took several months off to write another novel based on his time spent exploring the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I write what I feel is necessary to write,” he said. “And I’ve been writing seriously since about 1963, so I have a method.”

An audience member asked what Theroux thought of the 1986 film adaptation of “The Mosquito Coast” starring Harrison Ford.

“I thought it was very good,” he said. “The script varies somewhat from the book itself, but not in a bad way.”

He appreciated the new elements that director Peter Weir added, emphasizing the foil to Ford’s character, the Rev. Spellgood (Andre Gregory).

Theroux added that he appreciates the way films encourage audiences to go back and read the source material, which in turn inspires authors to keep writing.

“It’s inspiration and it’s income, so I don’t know why anyone complains,” he said.

Turning back to “Under the Wave at Waimea,” Theroux discussed the choice to insert American author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson into the story as a major character.

“I knew him,” he said, explaining the long friendship he shared with Thompson. “He loved Hawaii and he loved surfing. He was the perfect friend for the man I was writing about.”

He spoke at length about the importance of traveling, even if only in your own country. And if you can’t travel, you can always read one of Theroux’s books.

Despite his decades of traveling, Theroux’s bucket list is hardly complete.

“There’s nothing I like better than meeting people who read, having conversation with them and finding out about how they’re living their lives … and I look forward to Spokane.”

“Under the Wave at Waimea” is available at Auntie’s Bookstore.

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