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Under the Wave

An interview with Paul Theroux.

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The author of 29 novels, 12 travel books, and five other works of nonfiction, it’s not hyperbole to say that Paul Theroux is one of our greatest living writers. I first encountered his work in the late 1980s, when I read The Family Arsenal (1976) while on a surf trip to the southwest of France. I didn’t know that he’d also written The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia (1975), or that he’d lived in Africa, Singapore, and England. But his voice carried strong notes of a traveler: He was an astute observer who thrived on tossing himself to other cultures. I became a massive fan, reading everything by Theroux that I could find.

When I became the editor of Surfing in 1998, one of my goals was to get a piece from Theroux in the magazine. I’d heard from my friend John Orr that Theroux lived part-time on the North Shore. I got his address and wrote him a note. “I am not a surfer, but a paddler,” he wrote back. He said he was busy working on a novel and unable to write a story for Surfing, but that I should look him up next time I was on Oahu.

That winter, we met at Coffee Gallery in Haleiwa and talked loosely. With stories of teaching school in Malawi, paddling a kayak around the isles of Oceania, and riding in a helicopter with Elizabeth Taylor to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, Theroux was the smartest and most interesting person I’d ever met. He spoke Italian, Spanish, Swahili, a Central African language called Chinyanja, and decent German. I was struck by his humility. He referred to his celebrated writing career as “this thing I do.”

A couple years later, I ran into Orr at the Pipeline Masters and asked after Theroux. “I know where you can find him,” he said. “He writes every afternoon at a nearby beach.” 

The following day, I rode my bike to that nearby beach and, sure enough, there was Theroux, seated in a beach chair, scribbling furiously into a notebook. He’d pause, look out across the sea for a few beats, then turn back to the page and continue. I started toward him to say hello, then stopped myself. What was more important: a shallow little greeting that was ultimately an interruption, or to leave him be and later read whatever he’d been working on? I learned a lot about writing that day.Theroux’s latest novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, features surfing in a big way. Set on the North Shore, the protagonist, Joe Sharkey, has tackled some of the world’s hairiest waves. Now deep into midlife, he tackles an even hairier one. To say much more would give it away, but it’s on the Jaws scale and not an actual ocean wave. I was excited to read it. To see how Theroux handled surfing in his story was both a joy and a lesson.

Sure, certain masters of prose have benefited from holing up in some dark and decrepit bunker to churn out their work without outside distraction. Theroux, on the other hand, prefers an embedded approach, and has spent his nearly 50-year literary career on a nonstop set of jaunts around the globe. Pictured here taking notes in Tahiti, 1991. Theroux’s latest novel, Under the Wave at Waimea, is similarly derived—born of  three decades of  close observation at its titular surf break. Photograph by Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images.

JB What inspired you to write Under the Wave at Waimea?

PT You might laugh, but I remember the day and time when I made the decision. I was riding my bike from Haleiwa along Kam Highway one hot day and came to the small bridge near Laniakea. The road is narrow there, so I decided to walk it, staying close to the rail of the bridge. I looked down at the creek bed under the bridge and saw a woman lying naked on a surfboard in the sand, her legs parted, and a naked man frantically making love to her. The woman’s face was contorted in ecstasy. I wanted to linger, but I figured they needed their privacy. And I thought, Wonderful—they’ve spent the morning surfing together, and now, as a culmination, they’re rutting like mad. This sort of summed up the consuming passion of surfing.

JB Tell me about your relationship with surfers and surfing.

PT After 30 years of living on the North Shore, virtually everyone I know goes surfing. A guy will tell me he’ll fix my plumbing problem tomorrow, but if the surf’s up I won’t see him. All the workmen I know surf. I admire the older surfers especially. They’re surfing for fun, they’ve been doing it since they were kids, they are happy in the water, and they pay attention to the wind and weather. Surfers are alert to sea conditions and have tremendous understanding of the sea—from experience, not out of books. Most of the surfers know I’m a writer. And like people I knew in Uganda and Malawi long ago, they have a lot of respect for a writer, books being magical objects. I really value their friendship because they have such an attachment to nature and a fearlessness, too. I should say also that surfers travel a lot, and some of them have told me they relate to my travel books.

JB The North Shore is a small place, and surfers are inescapable. I’m sure you hear dialogue everywhere, whether at Haleiwa Joe’s or in the produce aisle at Foodland.

PT It’s true they’re everywhere on the North Shore, and I overhear the talk. But many of the surfers I know, I have long conversations with them. I’ve known Jock Sutherland for more than 30 years, because his mother, Audrey, and I often went kayaking together. Jock is one of the most articulate surfers I know. Also, the painter Ashley Bickerton, who grew up in Honolulu and surfed all over the island, is another good friend and a great observer. The Willis brothers, Garrett McNamara, and many others—all good friends and informants. And most afternoons, when it’s too sunny to sit inside and write, I spend at the beach—Waimea, Haleiwa, Pua‘ena Point, Ali‘i Beach, Chun’s, Three Tables, Shark’s Cove. I sit and write on my clipboard, then go for a swim when I’m done, and I am always in sight of surfers.

JB Was Joe Sharkey based on anyone in particular?

PT Though I’m not a surfer, I think of the book as autobiographical. I’m an older writer and aware that there are much younger writers making a reputation and getting attention. That’s great, but they don’t know where I’ve been or what I’ve done. The older surfers and the older writers have a sense of history. They remember the past, when there were fewer surfers in the lineup and life seemed purer. And we all have waves in our lives—some of the waves are humongous—and we’re challenged to surf them. To me, a book is a wave. But this novel has a plot. Something goes wrong in Joe Sharkey’s life. And his life starts to deteriorate. He needs to fix his life by solving this problem. Fortunately, he has a girlfriend—a lover—who happens to be English, a nurse, and pretty tough. She’s the woman I saw naked that hot day under the bridge, and Joe Sharkey was making love to her.

JB How did the writing of Under the Wave at Waimea go?

PT I started this book about seven or eight years ago. I wrote much of the first part, and then my mother died. So I turned to a novel that was unfinished, Mother Land, and wrote the ending of it. Then I resumed my surf book. While writing it, I heard Donald Trump make disparaging remarks about Mexico and Mexicans. So I decided to take a year off and drive up and down the border, and then into Mexico as far as Chiapas. I also checked out surf spots in Oaxaca and Baja. When I finished my Mexico book, On the Plain of Snakes, I resumed the surf book again and vowed to finish it, which I did early in 2020. This novel was improved by my not rushing it—by taking my time and understanding what it was about. I don’t write quickly, but I write steadily, and have done so for 50-odd years. 

JB What’s your average workday like?

PT I should say that routine and monotony are the friend of the writer. I hate interruptions, surprises, calamities, and people talking. So I try to preserve my equilibrium by talking as little as possible when I wake up, having breakfast, and heading to my study—a separate building. I fiddle and reflect, but I have something to do: a book, an essay, whatever. I work until lunchtime. If I’m in Hawaii, I go to the beach in the afternoon and either read or make notes, and then swim. On Cape Cod, I sit by my pool and do the same, or I might go boating—sailing or kayaking. I tend not to do much on weekends, which are great for gardening or driving somewhere. Your supplementary question would be: What about travel? Yes, I travel—often for months—but part of every day is reserved for writing, no matter where. And it’s more crucial to write when traveling because impressions mount up and you need to make sense of every day—every landscape, every person, every conversation. 

I am by nature a loner and a solitary traveler. So a man on a wave really does mean everything to me and often seems a metaphor for the way I’ve lived my life. 

JB Has your relationship with writing changed over the decades?

PT Not really. My great desire was to make a living by writing, and though in the beginning I applied for a Guggenheim grant, I was turned down. Never got any free money! Never had a desire to be a writer in residence! So I was on my own. I never turned down a reasonable offer of writing, and, luckily, I’ve always had a book in mind.

I should add that at a very early stage, around 1973, I had success with my fourth novel, Saint Jack, and it became a movie.

I’ve achieved my goal: I have never had a real job. Compared to the sort of jobs most people have—construction, soldiering, waiting tables, harvesting crops, cleaning houses, factory work—writing is pretty pleasant. I want to scream when I hear writers complain about their hardships scribbling. Someone once said, “Art is easy; life is hard.” I agree.

JB When did you first encounter surfing and surf culture, and what did you think of it?

PT I first encountered surfers in Bali in 1970, when it was a quiet island and very cheap. I was tempted to simply drop out and stay there. But I had a wife and two children, and I sobered up. I was amazed seeing what surfers did on the waves, and I was fascinated by the culture—the way they traveled light, lived like gypsies, and drugged themselves silly. At the time, I was an English teacher in Singapore—my last job. But I never forgot the surfers—Aussies, Americans mainly—in Bali. It wasn’t until I got to Hawaii in 1989 that I really began to understand the surfing passion. I must add that as a kayaker, big surf kept me on shore, so I was admiring of watermen who longed for large surf.

JB What initially inspired you to travel? How has it enriched you? 

PT My great ambition was to get away from home and leave my big, nagging, competitive family and live my own life. So I went to Italy, and in Italy I got a letter saying that the Peace Corps wanted to send me to Central Africa. Great! Travel has given me everything: freedom, enlightenment, challenges, romance, and, most of all, something to write about. Yes, some writers simply stay home. I don’t relate to them at all. My model was Graham Greene, who wrote novels and traveled everywhere. But he was afflicted with religion, which I’m not. And I discovered that he needed a traveling companion. I am by nature a loner and a solitary traveler. So a man on a wave really does mean everything to me and often seems a metaphor for the way I’ve lived my life. But if I used the word “metaphor” in Hawaii, a local surfer would laugh and say, “You fucking haole!”

JB And the waves—i.e., the traveling and the writing—continue.

PT I have been doing this—scribble, scribble—my whole life, and am still doing it. I spent yesterday morning writing, and yesterday afternoon kayaking in a pretty high wind off Hyannis, and I thought: The perfect life. But I also thought, How long will I be able to do this? Most writers don’t produce any great work in old age. I keep telling myself I’m not old, because I don’t feel it at all. That’s why I love seeing old leathery surfers crossing the road barefoot at Chun’s and paddling out.

JB Waimea Bay figures prominently in your novel and is in the title. What’s its significance for you?

PT In the mid 80s I traveled around the Pacific for the first time—Australia, New Zealand, and Tahiti—and I was blown away, as everyone is, by the beauty of the islands. I didn’t see Hawaii on those trips, but I spent quite a bit of time in French Polynesia. One day I took a boat to Mo’orea, and when I saw Cook’s Bay I was dazzled and had that “I could live here for the rest of my life” feeling. Oddly enough, a very pretty Tahitian lady, Mimi Theroux, was married to one of my cousins there. Anyway, I left Tahiti, and a few years later I made my first trip to Hawaii, and when I had my first glimpse of Waimea Bay on the North Shore, I was struck by its similarity to Cook’s Bay: lovely beach, wide lava shoreline, lush valley behind it, volcanic peaks above it, and an ancient history of Polynesian settlement. Plus monster waves. I thought, I’m not leaving. At my earliest opportunity, I moved with my wife to a house nearby. That was 30 years ago. I could add more detail, related to its moods and what Hawaiians would call its “mana,” but that’s in my novel.

Illustration by David de las Heras for The Surfer’s Journal.

For an excerpt from the novel, click here.