AUGUSTA — Paul Theroux, award-winning travel writer and novelist, told a rapt audience Saturday afternoon that the key to his success was living among the people and in the places he’s written about.

“Write about the hardships, not the nuisances,” Theroux said.

Theroux had come to the University of Maine at Augusta’s Jewett Hall for an event capping Lithgow Public Library’s A Capital Read 2015 program.

Two of Theroux’s more recent works were chosen as the topics this year: the novel “The Lower River” and the nonfiction travel book “The Last Train to Zona Verde.”

Both deal with Africa, a continent he described Saturday as “sometimes a problem and sometimes an opportunity.”

In introducing Theroux and his works, Lithgow’s director, Elizabeth Pohl said, “We hope local readers an be encouraged to learn more about this continent.”


Theroux acknowledged that his African stories aren’t necessarily happy ones.

“Bad things happening are the very essence of a good book,” he said, getting a laugh from his audience.

Theroux’s talk was peppered generously with references to other writers, especially those with connections to Maine, including Henry David Thoreau; and to Africa, including Joseph Conrad.

Theroux also talked of Herman Melville finding his inspiration for “Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life” during the month he spent in the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia.

Theroux, who is from Massachusetts and has a home in South Thomaston, said he’s been coming to Maine since he was about 15 and spent his first year of college at the University of Maine, in Orono, in 1959-60.

“We all become travelers in a different way. … I became a traveler through reading,” he said, highlighting the importance of local libraries.


Theroux’s first real travel adventure came through his Peace Corps placement in Nyasaland, which became Malawi when it gained independence in 1964.

He encouraged people not just to travel on holiday, but to live and work among the locals, learning their language. “Find out how people really live and what they really want,” Theroux said.

He recited from one of A. E. Housman’s “Last Poems,” recalling from memory the lines, “I, a stranger and afraid / In a world I never made.”

Theroux, 74, is scheduled to travel to London to receive the Patron’s Medal from Britain’s Royal Geographical Society on Monday.

Theroux was in Augusta on Friday night also as guest of honor at a dinner benefiting Lithgow’s capital campaign help to support the $11 million in library renovations and construction currently under way.

Among the attendees Friday and Saturday was Augusta City Manager William Bridgeo, who ranks Theroux among his favorite authors.


“I stumbled across him in the 1970s when I read “The Great Railway Bazaar,” Bridgeo said as he bought one of Theroux’s books from Stacy Shea, of Gardiner, community business development manager at the nearby Barnes & Noble Booksellers.

Shea had brought copies of several of Theroux’s books to the talk. “We usually do that for all the events the library has,” she said.

Terry Buchanan and Helen Forbes, both of Augusta, not only went to Saturday’s session but also had participated in a discussion Tuesday at the library’s current site at the Ballard Center, on Augusta’s east side. Both had read “The Last Train to Zona Verde” and said there were differing reactions among those at the lively discussion.

“People loved it or hated it or something in between,” Buchanan said. “Everyone agreed it was wonderful writing.”

Forbes added, “It opened your eyes about Africa. I don’t know at this point whether I’d like to go at least to part of it.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

Twitter: @betadams

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