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Blinding Light

From the New York Times best-selling author of Dark Star Safari, a novel of manners and mind expansion, about a writer literally blinded by his pursuit of the muse

"Positively dazzling . . . a sexy, gothic fable and searing social critique . . ."— Booklist

About the Book

Slade Steadman is the ultimate one-book wonder. His lone opus, published twenty years ago, was Trespassing, a cult classic about his travels through dozens of countries without benefit of passport. With his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Ava in tow, he sets out for Ecuador's jungle in search of a rare hallucinogenic drug and the cure for his writer's block.

Amid a gang of thrill-seeking tourists, Steadman finds his drug and his inspiration but is beset with an unnerving side effect — periodic blindness. His world is altered profoundly: Ava stays by his side, he writes an erotic, autobiographical novel with the drug serving as muse, and he returns to stardom, now as a Blind Writer.

He becomes addicted to the drug and the insights it provides, only to have them desert him, along with his sight. Will he regain his vision? His visions? Or will he forgo the world of his imaging and his ambition? As Theroux leads us toward the answers, he makes fresh magic out of the venerable intertwined themes of sight and insight. He also offers incisive, sometimes hilarious takes on the manifold ironies of travel and the trappings of the writer's life — from the fear of the blank page to the unexpected challenges of the book tour.

About the Author

Paul Theroux was born and raised in Medford, Massachusetts, where he was a classmate of Michael Bloomberg (both were Eagle Scouts). Initially pursuing a career in medicine, Theroux studied science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. However, the allure of travel and his gift for writing soon led him in a different direction.

Before Theroux became a professional writer he taught in various countries. His first job — and his best as a salaried employee — was as a lecturer in English at the University of Urbino in Italy. The university was housed in a duke’s palace, and all of his students were young Italian women. This was in the summer of 1963. Six months later he was a Peace Corps teacher at a school in central Africa and was living in the bush. In 1965 Theroux was “terminated early” from the Peace Corps in Malawi for “engaging in politics.” In reality, what he did was drive a friend’s car from Malawi to Uganda — unfortunately, that friend had been forced to leave the country for siding with the opposition. For the next four years Theroux was a lecturer in English at Makerere University, in Kampala, Uganda, where he met and married his first wife. In 1968 he moved to Singapore and joined the English Department at the University of Singapore.

In 1967 Theroux’s first novel, Waldo, was published. Late in 1971 he gave up teaching to write full-time and moved to England, where he lived off and on for the next seventeen years.

Theroux virtually reinvented the genre of travel writing, beginning with The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, published in 1975 by Houghton Mifflin. Since then he has dazzled critics and readers alike with books about his trips through China (Riding the Iron Rooster, Sailing Through China), Great Britain (The Kingdom by the Sea), India (The Imperial Way), Latin America (The Old Patagonian Express), the Pacific islands (The Happy Isles of Oceania), and the Mediterranean (The Pillars of Hercules). His African epic Dark Star Safari was “a wonderful, powerful book, a loving letter to the continent from a writer who has discovered that he has carried something of its essence, like a talisman, through his adult life” (Sunday Times, London). Referring to his most recent collection of short stories, The Stranger at the Palazzo D’Oro, the Los Angeles Times wrote “Theroux has rarely been in better form.”

In addition to his fourteen works of nonfiction and criticism, Theroux is the author of twenty-six works of fiction, including Hotel Honolulu, Kowloon Tong, My Other Life, and Millroy the Magician. His novels Saint Jack and The Mosquito Coast, and the novella Half Moon Street have been made into successful feature films, and he has won the prestigious Whitbread Prize for Picture Palace and the James Tait Black Award for The Mosquito Coast.

During his travels in the Pacific, Theroux came to love Hawaii. He is now married to a Hawaiian woman, and they live in the woods on the North Shore of Oahu, among many birds and geese and bees, which form Theroux's apiary — he is also a beekeeper. He spends his summers on Cape Cod, not far from where he grew up.

A Conversation with Paul Theroux

1. The theme of blindness and gained perception, one that goes as far back as the Greeks and Shakespeare, is introduced on page one of Blinding Light (in your description of the airline passengers wearing sleeping masks) and pervades the rest of the book. Was the theme the inspiration for the story of the blocked writer Slade Steadman, or did the theme follow in the wake of the plot?

My earliest conception of this novel involved self-discovery — and knowledge of the world — through blindness. Yes, it is an ancient idea — the soothsayer or seer who is blind — but I wanted to bring the whole matter nearer to my own life and to the creative process by taking the notion away from the mythical and making it real.

2. How much of the drug tour in Ecuador is based on fact? Is there a serious tourist demand for such expeditions? Is there any connection between the role of the shaman and that of the novelist?

Nabokov said that the novelist had to be a “shamanstvo” — an enchanter! I deliberately took a trip to the Orient Province in the Ecuadorian rainforest to experience this drug and the ceremonies, to meet a shaman, and to gather the background material. My own trip somewhat resembled the one in the book, though the gringos were quite different. Such drug tours are not common, but they do exist and the people who seek them out fascinate me. This first part of the book is itself like a whole book. I wanted my narrative to rest upon something very solid, the persuasiveness of this opening part.

3. What writers in the past have used drugs for inspiration? Have you? Did taking drugs do them more harm than good?

Many writers have used drugs in order to work creatively. But the results have been mixed. Coleridge was a doper with good results, so was De Quincey (who is wonderfully articulate about its effects). Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Cocteau, and the Belgian poet and traveler Henri Michaux all used drugs. I sometimes think that a certain sort of personality needs drugs to become calmer and more rational — Hunter Thompson, who killed himself in February, is a good example of that. I have tried most drugs — Try Everything Once is my motto — but what works best for me is clearheadedness — good health and a great night’s sleep.

4. As Steadman becomes dependent on drug-induced visions, he also becomes dependent on Ava, the object of his desire. How do you explain the connections between love, lust, and sight as they apply to Steadman?

The sort of blindness that affects Steadman also involves prescience, the ability to see past and future, as well as his experiencing the truthfulness of an absence of inhibition. He becomes ghostlike and more sensual. He is of course utterly dependent on Ava, who — importantly — is a medical doctor, a scientist as well as a sensualist.

5. Steadman’s renewed sense of vitality when he drinks the datura manifests itself sexually, both in his physical relationship with Ava and as the theme of the novel he’s writing, The Book of Revelation. How closely connected are his writer’s block and his fear of impotence?

I was thinking that writer’s block is like impotence — not being able to get your mojo working, I also think that all drug taking is echoed in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — not just the transformation but the later inability to control the transformation, the way Mr. Hyde is unable to change himself back into Dr. Jekyll with the potion. This dilemma is visited upon Steadman, when he cannot control his blindness, when his blindness becomes a sort of impotence.

6. Steadman takes datura as a path to creativity, but it soon becomes clear that he remembers more than he invents. How would you describe the role of memory in relation to sanity in the book?

One of the chief characteristics of a novelist — of a creative person — is a good memory. I think the imagination slumbers there. And perhaps the writer needs to create in order to give some sort of symmetry and understanding to all the clutter in the memory chamber that can be so disturbing.

7. In the book you have fun with some of the occupational hazards of authors: the risky adventures in pursuit of a subject, the big debut novel followed by tormenting writer’s block, the obsessive self-regard, the book tour from hell, the sniping reviewers. This is your fortieth book. Have you become immune to all the pitfalls?

There are worse things than being a one-book wonder, I suppose, but I think it is an American condition. We have lots of examples. This was my premise for the novel. I think in general the book tour is something to enjoy — certainly the solitude of writing and never seeing one’s readers can make the book tour pleasurable for being a change of pace. This weird processional from bookstore to lecture hall and back to the book signing is something fairly new in publishing. I tried to treat it in a new way. As for “pitfalls” — I believe myself to have lived a charmed life as a writer. I have been very lucky.

8. If there is a villain in the book, it is Manfred Steiger — Herr Mephistos — a devilishly determined, grasping, conniving scientist-journalist. How does his being a German fit your novelistic purposes?

I was playing with the idea that it is Manfred, a rather irritating and intrusive man, who helps Steadman the most. Manfred is well informed but extremely clumsy. He is a bit Mephistophelean in the way he bargains with Steadman and later shows up for a reckoning. I like describing a man who seems to be a stereotype and then undermining that image, making him subtle and important.

9. At the end of the book, Steadman returns to Ecuador. What kind of cure is he seeking? Would you describe the ending as redemptive or damning?

Drugs are both poison and medicine, the cause of illness and the cure. The only way Steadman can undo what has happened to him is to submit himself to drug again, to take poison, and, in a sense, to die. I think this is salutary. Throughout the book, I thought of the line from The Winter’s Tale, one of my favorite Shakespearean quotes: “I have drunk, and seen the spider.”

10. And of course we would like to talk about you and your life. What are you working on now? Where are you traveling next?

I am writing, as I have done every weekday of my adult life. I had planned to be traveling about now — either in the Northern Hemisphere or in Africa. But the world is at war — at least so we are told — so these are difficult times for the solo traveler, especially the American solo traveler. Even the simplest domestic airline trip involves intrusive groping and irritating questions, and we know that most travel is compounded of nuisance and delay. I am very easily persuaded to stay home. I live most of the time in Hawaii. But I sit here dreaming of places like Angola and Siberia, and one of these days I will set off, as I have before, and take a leap in the dark.

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