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

Paul Theroux is known for both his fiction and travel writing. His books include <em>The Great Railway Bazaar</em> and <em>The Old Patagonian Express</em>.
Steve McCurry
Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Paul Theroux is known for both his fiction and travel writing. His books include The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express.

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 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: Overland From Cairo to Capetown.

Theroux's new collection is Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories. He tells NPR's Scott Simon about the book's title story and how he knows when a short story collection is done.

Interview Highlights

On the theme of his new story collection

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.

On the book's title story, "Mr. Bones," about a father who turns himself into a minstrel act

In the 1950s, there were such things as minstrel shows in suburban Boston. 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. ... 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 khow, sometimes actors say, "I stayed in character for this film." They ... 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.

On the line "A smile is the hardest expression to fathom"

Think of Richard Nixon smiling. Think of Bill Clinton smiling. Think of [Joseph] 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.

On how he knows when a short story collection is done

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 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. In fact, short stories [are] a venerable form, but it's diabolically hard to master. There's a lot of apprenticeship in writing stories. And sometimes a story can take such a long time to write — I mean, months and months. ... It's only 10 or 15 pages, but still you got to get it right.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff