The road less travelled

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BOOK Expo America is not the sort of event one imagines Paul Theroux enjoys much. In a room big enough to hold a dozen football pitches, a human centipede of booksellers and critics weaves from booth to booth. Bagpipers greet visitors at the door, and Harry Potter smiles down on the whole affair from banners above.

If Theroux has any complaints about this orgy of mercantilism, he keeps them private. After delivering a breakfast talk to booksellers about his new novel, Blinding Light, the prickly author coasts into the upstairs press room wearing a white linen blazer, white polo shirt, and trainers. His hand grips a leather travelling satchel, from which he produces a legal pad covered in script.

"This is how I write everything," says Theroux, flipping the page upside down so that its contents remain illegible. He then slides it back to his side of the table. "When I'm in Hawaii, sometimes I go out to the beach and sit in a chair and I can write for hours like this. And no one ever bothers me."

The mixture of intimacy and withholding in this gesture is characteristic of Theroux in person. In spite of his quiet, gentle voice, there is a current of steel beneath his Anglophilic panache. America's most seasoned travel writer is not about to do a strip-tease to make a few dollars.

That act he saves for his books, of which there have been many - nearly 40 in four decades: travelogues and stories; a play; more than a dozen novels; a cringingly honest memoir about his attempt to turn VS Naipaul into a mentor. There was even a novel (My Secret History) that purported to tell the real story of Paul Theroux.

Blinding Light reveals there to be at least one corner of his life left undocumented, and it might just be the wildest one yet. Growing out of a "drug tour" Theroux took to Ecuador in 2000, the novel conjures Slade Steadman, a blocked travel writer who goes to Latin America in search of a hallucinogenic drug called ayahuasca. "The man looks for a drug, finds the drug, becomes clairvoyant from it," says Theroux in a rat-a-tat summary of the plot.

UP TO A POINT, this itinerary resembles Theroux's own journey, though his was taken, he says, with a group of travellers. With "try everything once" as a motto, and William S Burroughs' chronicle The Yage Letters as a beacon, Theroux joined a group indulging in what he jokingly calls "ethnobotany." They hired a guide and a professional shaman. "The journey Burroughs took was so much tougher," he says now, lamenting the facility of his own trip. "He was mugged, he was always walking down blind alleyways."

After trying the drug and hearing in a tent in Quito that Al Gore had won the presidency, Theroux came back to America, discovered Bush had won, and went quickly on to Africa, where he had scheduled the trip he later wrote about in Dark Star Safari. He didn't pick up the novel until nearly two years later, by which point he had also written a collection of stories.

Steadman, too, has little trouble writing afterwards, but he winds up with one striking side-effect from the drug: temporarily he becomes blind. He must rely ever more on his one-time girlfriend, Dr Ava Kalsina, to whom he dictates 'The Book of Revelation', the steamy novel that comes pouring out of him. Stories lead to fantasies which lead to reenactment, and suddenly Steadman has no problems with "slackness" either.

"I saw writer's block as the impetus," Theroux says, "and writing as a form of vitality." Perhaps it was the near miss with a Bad Sex Award in 2003 for his novella The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro, but Theroux bristles at the suggestion that this material might be labelled pornographic. "The kind of sex I'm writing about is ecstatic sex," he says. "It's not running in and nailing the woman next door. It's the ecstatic form of it, where, in a heightened state of stimulation, so many things are possible."

In preparation for the book, Theroux reread some erotic masterpieces by the likes of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and novelist JK Huysman, but there was a limit to what he could take away. "You don't learn a lot from them," he says, fidgeting with his shirt cuff to reveal a tattoo between thumb and forefinger, near the wrist. "You can only basically write your own. It's so easy to mock eroticism that you just have to hope people aren't going to pick on you."

In recent years, this is something Theroux has had to deal with more and more - both as a traveller and as a writer. The collection of novellas and stories which preceded this book was attacked in the New York Times for the anachronisms of its sexual politics. His recent book about Africa was criticised for being insufficiently respectful of indigenous culture.

But Theroux is not about to give up on what is essentially a voyeuristic mode of seeing the world. "For most people, voyeurism is a bad thing," he says in his defence. "For a writer it's essential. Standing and gaping is the role of the writer. It's why I have problems with people staying in one place. I'm not being down on any New York metropolitan writers. But I have a tremendous affinity for writers who don't just live in cities but go out and confront the world."

Although once a small club of writers, this group of globe-trotters is slowly growing - and chances are they have all read Theroux's bestselling novel Mosquito Coast, or The Great Railway Bazaar, his celebrated account of travelling by rail through Asia. There were other books about Britain, Patagonia, the Pacific, the Mediterranean and America.

And so, if Theroux continues to seize the opportunity to go where he pleases, he has certainly earned it. He began his writing career in the mid-1960s in Malawi, where he was living as a volunteer for the Peace Corps. His innocence lived and died with the independence movement there, but he remains hopeful today. "People say let's fix Africa - and I want to say, what's wrong with it?"

Later in the week, at a packed reading at Barnes & Noble, Theroux continues with this theme, becoming a kind of spokesperson for the one thing he feels utterly unashamed about - transgression through travel. "Brad Pitt is on TV now saying save Africa. What the hell does he know?" The crowd ripples uncomfortably, but Theroux presses onward. "There's this book out now that says the world is flat, which I must disagree with. There are countries out there now which are harder to get to than ever. And it's a mistake to think everywhere is the same." Theroux waves his hand at the spread of McDonald's and other multinationals. "The only way you're going to know that places are different beneath the faade is to go. Just go," he says. "Just go."

Blinding Light is published on July 7 by Hamish Hamilton, 17.99