Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, June 24, 2001


Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux
turns spotlight
on Hawaii

Amateur writers encouraged at real 'Hotel'

By Tim Ryan

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, Paul Theroux joined several travel writers for dinner at a luxury Big Island hotel. The writers were on a junket -- that means free -- to learn and hopefully write nice things about the renovations at the hotel.

In a pleasant tone that carried a knife-to-the-heart message, Theroux posed a question: "How can you possibly write something objective about a place when you're essentially being paid to visit? I know I couldn't."

The room fell silent as most of the writers lowered their heads.

Theroux is not afraid to speak his mind and does so in such a honeyed tone that a person might have to think twice before realizing the putdown. If Mike Wallace showing up on your door step is a bad omen, Theroux writing about you would be very revealing.


Mauka Makai cover

Which brings us to Theroux's latest, "Hotel Honolulu," set in Waikiki. The novel is narrated by the manager, a writer who is fascinated by his guests and witness to their contrasting, and sometimes shocking, lives and stories.

Theroux owns a home, Oceania Ranch, on Oahu's North Shore. He has just finished a 21/2 month trek through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town by cattle truck, train, ferry, bus and foot. He talks gleefully about being shot at in Kenya, a country where he taught some 38 years ago.

"I had never traveled that continent before and it was a very lonely trip. I don't know what I will do with the information."

One reason Theroux, who is married to a Hawaii public relations executive, made the trip was because of his pending birthday.

"I didn't want to spend it anywhere else but roaming through Africa among strangers," he says in true Theroux style.

He celebrated "the big round number" in South Africa.

The Star-Bulletin caught up with Theroux as he was finishing a book tour in England.

Question: Why did you write a book abut Hawaii?

Answer: I think of it as the challenge of the century: how to write a novel set in Hawaii which represents all the communities, the strangeness, the friendliness, the conflict, the division, and the utter absurdity of life there occasionally.

Q: So how did you decide to do that in terms of structure?

A: I thought the ideal way of dealing with Hawaii was as a hotel -- an island is like that -- with 80 rooms, 80 episodes, 80 stories, all linked through several story lines. The complexity of life in Hawaii is best represented in this structure.

Q: It seems the book is at least semi-biographical what with the main character being a writer, and someone who's a beekeeper.

A: The main character is a writer who gave up writing, a writer with writer's block -- 10 years of writer's block. It's definitely not autobiographical. In the 11 years I've lived in Hawaii I've written 11 books. The main character also is married to an island cutie with a precocious little kid.

Q: Why did the main character have to be a writer?

A: I wanted to make him a keen observer of people's lives and the subtleties of things. Henry James used to say you have to be the sort of person on whom nothing is lost. You can't miss anything, you mustn't miss a trick.

Q: Is this a book for people living in Hawaii or more for outside observers of a place people think of as paradise?

A: Oh definitely for people in Hawaii and everywhere else. People who live in Hawaii will remember their recent history, the present and the past, which is always a good guide to the future.

Think of the larger-than-life characters who inhabit the islands. Bruddah Iz is in a story, the Bishop Estate/Kamehameha Schools, everyone makes an appearance. I think local people will see it the way Irish people see "Ulysses," which is their local history, and full of good, good jokes. They don't see the scholarship and the braininess in "Ulysses."

Q: Why did it take you 11 years to write a story about Hawaii?

A: I haven't written anything substantial about Hawaii, just smaller stories set here. I think it's presumptuous to just parachute in and write a novel about Hawaii. I'm not a writer on "Baywatch" after all, which is what they do, and I think it's insulting to see Hawaii just as sunny beaches and beautiful babes ... Hawaii has nerds, lawyers, thieves, weird politicians, rapacious people, nice, invisible people. ...

Hawaii has a whole invisible aristocracy, invisible famous people. Think of all the well known people who live there anonymously like a George Harrison or a Tom Selleck.

Q: And a Paul Theroux?

A: OK, I suppose there are elements of me in every book because I only have me to deal with. I am the only person I can really figure out. I'm in there the same way some painters do self-portraits, putting themselves in funny clothes or as John the Baptist. If you've written as many books as I have, inevitably it will begin to look like a self-portrait.

Q: What's your goal for "Hotel Honolulu"?

A: I believe the book is like nothing I've read and really describes the place. See, Hawaii really doesn't have a social structure. Because of the randomness which society is arranged, it's very, very hard to write about. You can write a Hawaiian novel, or a novel about AJAs, or about haoles from California who sleep on the beach, or sumo wrestlers, or colorful kama'ainas who wear straw hats, but then what you've done is only have a tiny slice of society.

Q: You're saying Hawaii has no social structure like many places on the mainland?

A: There's a social ladder in Hawaii but no one can really climb it. You're either on it or you're off it. And even if you're on it, who cares? It's a restricted social ladder: There's a kama'aina social ladder, a malihini social ladder, a Chinese social ladder, all these ladders all over the place.

Q: You live in Hawaii for several months a year. Are you concerned about negative reaction to some portrayals in the book?

A: Of course some people are going to object to it, but other people will love it. Some people will look at it and say, 'Yes, there I am,' and see it as recent history because novels are history.

The hardest thing to write about is the place where you live because it's too close to you and you don't see it in black-and-white terms.

Q: Were there other reasons you didn't write a book earlier about Hawaii?

A: I never thought I would live there continuously. When I first got to Hawaii I loved it but I never knew how to live there. I found Honolulu too crowded. It's very hard to write when you can hear the people next door all the time. I could even smell what they were cooking. When I got to the North Shore, I said this is a place I can live, with the space and solitude and an interesting community. Haleiwa is a country town and I like living in the country.

Q: When did you decide to write "Hotel Honolulu"?

A: When I started meeting these people who were so vivid in life that I never saw represented in the newspaper or books. And I found a lot of writing over-sentimentalized Hawaiian life without writing about the conflicts.

Q: Are you saying Hawaii isn't the paradise of travel brochures?

A: A lot of Hawaii is very violent. People in Hawaii are very territorial, they worry about their space. I eventually realized that there is less aloha than people claim there is. Sometimes I think there is more malama aina in Mississippi than Hawaii. Come on, there's no bottle bill in Hawaii, so consequently you find more beer cans at the side of the road than in middle America. It's a hypocrisy.

Writing should be a mirror. "Hotel Honolulu" is a mirror and I want people to find it familiar and funny.

Q: "Hotel Honolulu's" main character says he never tells people he's a writer. What about you?

A: Very seldom. It makes people self-conscious and they look at you a different way. They start worrying that you're looking at them to write about them. When I travel in Africa, which I just did, it's hard to get a visa if you say you're a writer. I say I'm a teacher. And, in fact, that is what writers do.

Amateur writers encouraged at real 'Hotel'

There was a real Hotel Honolulu once, although it's relationship to the tony world of high literature was tenuous at best.

The establishment at 376 Kaiolu St. in Waikiki for a time was the city's only gay-owned and operated hotel. It closed a few years ago.

According to Freddy Jordan, editor of Odyssey magazine, each of the Hotel Honolulu's rooms was outfitted with a diary where guests could write detailed accounts of their stays.

"Some were really explicit," said Jordan, who also remembered the hotel's penchant for theme rooms (e.g., the Oriental, the Hollywood, the Santa Fe).

Jordan would love to get a look at the old diaries again; among other things, they were accidental histories of Honolulu's gay scene from days pre-AIDS. But he's far from optimistic. "God only knows where those books are now."

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