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Author Paul Theroux on Why the Story of The Mosquito Coast Endures

Town and Country logo Town and Country 5/11/2021 Klara Glowczewska
a man standing in a field: "It's the most American story you can think of. People who have trouble with their country, and go too far," Paul Theroux says of The Mosquito Coast. © AppleTV+ "It's the most American story you can think of. People who have trouble with their country, and go too far," Paul Theroux says of The Mosquito Coast.

To say that Paul Theroux, the acclaimed novelist and travel writer, author of 57 books of fiction and non-fiction, is having a moment is an understatement.

His 14th novel, The Mosquito Coast, published 40 years ago, has just been adapted into an AppleTV+ series, which premiered on April 30. It stars Justin Theroux, Paul's nephew, and both Justin and Paul are executive producers. The adaptation was written by Neil Cross, the British novelist and scriptwriter who created the multi-award winning BBC crime series, Luther (starring Idris Elba).

The book has not been out of print since its publication—an authorial dream. It was also made into a feature film, in 1986, directed by Peter Weir and starring Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren. And it's had another, exceedingly rare accolade: Banned in South Africa during apartheid, it was un-banned by Nelson Mandela after his 1994 ascent to the South African presidency and in 1995 selected by South Africa's department of education as a "set book" for all secondary school students in the country. "My publisher called to say they'd just gotten an order for 250,000 copies," Theroux tells me.

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There's more. On April 13, his latest novel (the 30th), Under the Wave at Waimea, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Its central character, Joe Sharkey, is an aging Hawaiian big-wave surfer who despite some serious trouble around which the plot revolves, has fundamentally not lost his mojo. Theroux turned 80 on April 10 (it's been quite a month in Therouxland). The comparisons between character and creator are impossible to avoid.

text: Under the Wave at Waimea © amazon.com Under the Wave at Waimea

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When I suggest during our late-April Zoom interview that this new book, too, should be made into a TV series, Theroux, ensconced in his study on Oahu, where he spends half the year and has views of palm trees and the Pacific, shoots back: "I sold the film and television rights two weeks ago. To a great California production company, Stone Village. The idea is that they will make a 10-part series in Hawaii."

Also in April, Theroux reached the 100,000-word mark on his next novel. "I started on April 1, 2020, superstitiously. It was going to be a short story for The New Yorker. I thought I'd write it for as long as this pandemic lasted. I'll finish it this summer, probably. But I can't tell you what it's about."

Fair enough. We have a lot to talk about already. I want to hear his views on the longevity of The Mosquito Coast and why it's becoming something of a classic.

But I 'm curious, before we begin: Does the fact of the current TV series, and now the promise of another, change anything about how he's approaching the novel-in-progress?

"Not at all. It changes nothing. Though I 'm thinking of buying a new bike."

The novel The Mosquito Coast tells the story of a brilliant, self-regarding, but also paranoid inventor and idealist named Allie Fox, who, disillusioned by an America he sees as gridlocked politically and socially, awash in rampant capitalism, conformity, and injustice, takes his wife and children to live in the Honduran jungle—a supposed tabula rasa where, he dreams, they will start over, yet where his utopian obsessions instead lead the family into extreme danger.

a group of people walking up a hill: The Fox family crossing the desert from California into Mexico with the help of a coyote in the AppleTV+ series, The Mosquito Coast. Paul Theroux applauds this change from his novel: "The irony of someone sneaking into Mexico!" © Courtesy of AppleTV+. The Fox family crossing the desert from California into Mexico with the help of a coyote in the AppleTV+ series, The Mosquito Coast. Paul Theroux applauds this change from his novel: "The irony of someone sneaking into Mexico!"

In the TV adaptation, Central America has been replaced by Mexico, an ironic reverse migration, and the impetus for the family's departure is bigger than just Allie's obsessions. There is a mysterious, deep-state layer: The US government is after Allie. The reasons are left tantalizingly unexplained in season one (but almost surely have to do with something much bigger than his latest invention, a machine that makes ice using fire). The series is a noir-ish, stylishly photographed, slow-motion nail-biter, with atmospheric echoes of the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu.

What was your inspiration for The-Mosquito-Coast-the-novel?

An idea for a novel is never one thing. It's what's going on in your life, your marriage, the country, the world, and in your reading.

In a way, it's the most American story you can think of: People taking the family and moving to a promising place to begin anew. That's one reason why I suppose it has had several iterations. But typically, it's people from elsewhere coming here. Americans don't often go in the other direction. They don't say, "We're going to Warsaw and starting a new life." But Allie Fox does. As he tells his teenage son: "No one ever thinks of leaving this country. Charlie, I think of it every day. And I 'm the only one who does, because I 'm the last man."

Paul Theroux wearing a hat: Paul Theroux in London-by-the-Thames, 1988. He is the author of 57 books, both novels and works of travel literature. "Every good thing has come from The Mosquito Coast," he says, "and it was 40 years ago exactly. © Nancy Ellison Paul Theroux in London-by-the-Thames, 1988. He is the author of 57 books, both novels and works of travel literature. "Every good thing has come from The Mosquito Coast," he says, "and it was 40 years ago exactly.

I started the book in 1979, and in the late 1970s there actually were Americans thinking that way. We had the Arab oil embargo, with OPEC sort of at war with us and long lines at gas stations. Unemployment was high and bank interests rates were at 18 percent. Jimmy Carter was president and highly unpopular. Japan was buying American companies: They bought RKO and Rockefeller Center. All of it converged into a national feeling of helplessness. Morale was low. For the first time in my life, I heard people saying, "I hate this, I hate what's going on, I want to leave. For Canada, New Zealand, somewhere...." Not unlike what some people were saying during the Trump years.

And there was Jonestown. [In November 1978, more than 900 people died in a mass murder-suicide in the remote settlement in Guyana, established by the Peoples Temple, a San Francisco-based cult under the leadership of Jim Jones.] Jones was charismatic but also diabolical. He had gone to Guyana to escape. His stated rationale: Black Americans were oppressed, America was going to rack and ruin, we are going to start over in a better place. It seemed like an idealistic thing, but it turned out that people were kept there against their will. And it went horribly wrong. In my lifetime, prior to September 11, Jonestown was the worst, most traumatic episode in this country's history.

Is that why you chose a south-of-the-border destination for Allie Fox's utopian project?

Not entirely. I had just finished writing The Old Patagonian Express [one of Theroux's most renowned travel books]. During part of the reporting, I'd traveled from San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, to Puerto Limon, on the country's Caribbean coast. I had been thinking about a book about castaways. And when I saw Limon, I thought: This is the perfect place for a family of castaways to land. But why would they have come here? Well, all the reasons I just mentioned, everything that was happening in America in the late 1970s. So it all suddenly came together. And do you know what the coast of Costa Rica just north of Limon, up toward Belize, is called? The Mosquito Coast.

text: The Mosquito Coast © amazon.com The Mosquito Coast

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Were there literary influences? This story feels rooted in things more universal than America in the 1970s.

One of my favorite books is Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe, the first real novel in English [1719]. It's about a castaway who is stranded on a remote tropical island [near Venezuela and Trinidad], and who has to make a life for himself. To not only survive, but to prevail over the landscape, subdue it. It's a powerful, existential premise. It's based on the life of Alexander Selkirk [who lived for four years on a Pacific island that is now part of Chile].

And there's Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck is 13 years old at the start of the story—much like Allie's son Charlie, from whose point of view The Mosquito Coast is told. Huck's father, an old drunk in Hannibal, Missouri, says that he'd like to leave this country. He wants to leave because Black Americans are getting the vote, and he's very annoyed about that. So that struck me.

In the AppleTV+ series, Allie and Margot Fox’s children are played by Gabriel Bateman (Charlie Fox) and Logan Polish (Dina Fox). To say they’re happy to leave their settled life is neither exactly true, nor false—it © Courtesy of AppleTV+. In the AppleTV+ series, Allie and Margot Fox’s children are played by Gabriel Bateman (Charlie Fox) and Logan Polish (Dina Fox). To say they’re happy to leave their settled life is neither exactly true, nor false—it

And there's another book—No Man Knows My History, by Fawn Brody, the biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism and one of the great charismatic figures of the 19th century. It was the 1820s. The United States had rejected Europe. We were Americanizing—our writing, our identity. Religion was part of it. A lot of people were prophesying. Smith was a prophet, a preacher, and with his Book of Mormon he started an American religion, and an immensely successful one, of course. He claimed that the Book of Mormon was his translation into English of buried golden plates [to which angels had directed him and which were inscribed with a Judeo-Christian history of an ancient American civilization]. It was quite a feat. He was trying to be a polygamist, he was anti-government. I used to read his speeches, and I put a lot of their rhythms into how Allie Fox talks. Allie is a Joseph Smith–like figure, obsessed and possessed.

So what makes this story resonate the way it does today? Do you think it's all those underpinnings? 1970s America is a distant echo now.

Yes and no. During the Trump years, people were talking about wanting to move to Canada, to New Zealand. Rightwing nativism has long been part of the American scene, and still is, fueled by the depiction of immigrant groups as subversive, or disloyal, or just strange. Japanese exports and buy-outs have been replaced by Chinese ones. There are people now questioning the grand American experiment. People who are anti-government. And in the end, it's a simple and accessible tale. A man decides to leave, takes his family, they set up, and then it goes wrong. It's a story about failure and about survival.

Allie is obnoxious, yet weirdly likable. A maddening fantasist, yet never a liar. A character that keeps you on your toes.

He's full of contradictions. But that's the best kind of character to write about. You don't want to write about—or watch on screen—someone who is saintly and good and doing all the right things. He wants to rescue his family. But he objects to everything that is happening in the United States. He objects to materialism, to shoddy goods, to the fact that foreign countries are involved in our economy, to the government, to organized religion, to television. His kids can't watch television; they are home-schooled. He's the independent spirit you see in a lot of Americans, the preppers, the survivalists, for example, but taken to an extreme. I also see him very much as a Yankee inventor. I've known people like him.

Like who?

My father was a bit that way. He was a very ingenious man. He had gone through the Depression, so he was also very frugal, like Allie. He saved everything—nails, jars, cigar boxes, string. [Allie takes his son Charlie to "shop" in the town dump.] He made things out of them, little inventions, and got a lot of pleasure out of it.

Justin Theroux looking at the camera: Justin Theroux as Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast, with a sketch of one of Allie’s inventions. His character was partly modeled on Paul Theroux © Courtesy of AppleTV+. Justin Theroux as Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast, with a sketch of one of Allie’s inventions. His character was partly modeled on Paul Theroux

And the other thing he did was challenge us. I come from a family of seven children, and he would egg us on to do brave things. Can you climb that tree? How high can you climb that tree? Can you sit out on that rock out there until the tide comes in and then swim ashore? After I became a boy scout, he approved of my going out and camping in the woods, staying out for two, three days, sleeping in a tent. He thought that was a great idea.

He was skeptical of the government being able to help. He was a pious man, but anti-clerical, and thought priests had it easy—they had housekeepers. He found television vulgar, the newspapers vulgar, Why not? Popular culture is offensive. Allie has that side of him that believes, "We can do better." But Allie goes too far, makes mistakes. My father was a very benign and admirable figure. Sort of the good side of Allie Fox.

What's the fatal flaw in Allie Fox's dreams of starting over?

You can't escape your problems. You just take them with you—your anxieties, your paranoia. He brings his America with him. And like a lot of people who seize power, he doesn't know when to stop. That's also why things go wrong.

Have you ever harbored Allie Fox–like fantasies of escape?

a man wearing sunglasses posing for the camera: Paul Theroux in India in 1983. "As a species," he says, "humans are travelers, and the oldest form of entertainment is story-telling--in the cave, around a fire." © Steve McCurry Paul Theroux in India in 1983. "As a species," he says, "humans are travelers, and the oldest form of entertainment is story-telling--in the cave, around a fire."

When you're writing a novel, you're always fantasizing. When we lived in Singapore between 1968 and 1971, I thought of taking taking my family to live somewhere exotic for a number of years. My two sons at the time were the same age as Charlie Fox is in the book. I thought about Bali. It was [a short distance from Singapore] and just a few villages then. Ubud was a scattering of huts and one hotel that had been a temple or part of a royal palace. The owner of the hotel was a prince. I thought, "Let's just go!" But my then wife said, "No, I 'm not interested."

And I think I share some of Allie's sense of independence. I always valued my independence as a writer. I 'm not a McCarthy Fellow; I was turned down for a Guggenheim (and you can print that); I've never had any material support from a philanthropic institution or school. I never wanted to be a writer-in-residence in a college. It can be hard, it has its ups and downs, but it also concentrates the mind. It has made me more productive. That's an aspect of Allie Fox. He wants to be as independent as possible.

Justin Theroux, Paul Theroux posing for the camera: Paul Theroux and nephew Justin Theroux on Cape Cod in 2015. "Even though I’m one of the producers," says Paul, "I did’t know Justin was auditioning for the part. I think it was all serendipity." © Courtesy of Paul Theroux. Paul Theroux and nephew Justin Theroux on Cape Cod in 2015. "Even though I’m one of the producers," says Paul, "I did’t know Justin was auditioning for the part. I think it was all serendipity."

How did your nephew, Justin Theroux, come to be involved in the TV adaptation?

Justin lived with me for a while after he graduated from college. He was a bit lost, didn't know if he was going to be an actor, a painter, or travel. I didn't give him any advice, other than saying, "Do what you want to do. Don't listen to anybody telling you what to do." His father is a lawyer, and I 'm sure he wanted him to go to law school. But Justin was not a good candidate for that. We did talk about The Mosquito Coast then, I knew he liked the book. But I didn't know that he was auditioning for the Allie Fox part when the project came up. The production company, Freemantle, obtained the rights about three years ago, and they said, "by the way, Justin is up for the part." I texted him, "Are you going to do this?" And he responded, "I hope so, we're working on it." I had no influence. Justin was cast about a year and a half ago. I think it was all serendipity.

Harrison Ford looking at the camera: Harrison Ford as Allie Fox on the set in Belize of The Mosquito Coast’s earlier iteration, the 1986 movie directed by Peter Weir. © Sunset Boulevard Harrison Ford as Allie Fox on the set in Belize of The Mosquito Coast’s earlier iteration, the 1986 movie directed by Peter Weir.

How does the 1986 film with Harrison Ford and Hellen Mirren compare with the TV series?

I admire the film. It was filmed in Belize, which is a very difficult place to make a movie. Peter Weir is a brilliant director. Harrison Ford is a great actor and a really great guy. We were a very happy bunch of people. The movie got some bad reviews, undeservedly. But you can't compare it to this series, which is a true adaptation. It's been converted into long form, in essence. A series is a truer reflection of a book: you can extend it more, there are subplots, there is more texture, more room in it. It's how books were first published, of course. Dickens came out as a series. It feels natural.

There are differences in plot and characters in the TV version—in addition to Allie and family being on the run. You were okay with that?

Yes. Neil Cross, the writer, is very good. He's also a novelist, and in fact he told me that he's been reading my books since he was very young. I read the script, made a few suggestions, but basically I just approved it. It was his and his team's decision to move Allie's destination from Honduras to Mexico, and I think it's a great decision. The irony of an American family sneaking into Mexico! In the book and the film, they get on a ship, which is a very poetic way to leave the United States. But going through the desert from California and crossing the border—that's also a wonderfully dramatic thing to happen.

a man sitting on a bus: Scotty Tovar plays Chuy Padilla, a former coyote who helps smuggle Allie Fox and family—here, Mellisa George as Allie’s wife, Margot—across the border into Mexico. © Courtesy of AppleTV+. Scotty Tovar plays Chuy Padilla, a former coyote who helps smuggle Allie Fox and family—here, Mellisa George as Allie’s wife, Margot—across the border into Mexico.

The character of Allie's wife also changed. She was just "Mother" in the novel and the film. She needed a name. She's Margot now [played by Melissa George], and instead of being a loving, benign helper and follower, she has become a strong, resourceful partner. She and Allie are now a team. At times she questions Allie, becomes an opposing figure. They have to figure things out together. And there's a lot to figure out.

Justin Theroux, Melissa George are posing for a picture: Justin Theroux as Allie Fox and Melissa George as Margot in the AppleTV+ adaptation. "She has become a partner in the series," says Theroux, "in a way that in the book she is not. It © Courtesy of AppleTV+. Justin Theroux as Allie Fox and Melissa George as Margot in the AppleTV+ adaptation. "She has become a partner in the series," says Theroux, "in a way that in the book she is not. It

Was there something that you cared most to preserve from the novel?

The complexity of Allie's character. All the gradations of who he is needed to still be in it. And they are. He is not a cartoon. When Justin was trying to figure out Allie Fox, I suggested that he either go through the book, or have someone go through the book, and write down everything Allie Fox says: "The Sayings of Allie Fox." Like The Sayings of Chairman Mao. Since Allie has an opinion on everything—movies, money, the government, other people, exploitation. And so they did. Reading it makes you aware of how the story hangs together because of his personality.

Migrant workers from Central America are in the book and the TV series. It's a subject that matters to you.

I learned about migrant workers during my early youth in central Massachusetts, near Amherst and Smith College. They were all over Connecticut, too, picking tobacco, fruit, apples. Generally, they were from Puerto Rico in those days, but sometimes from Central America. In the early spring—like right now—they picked asparagus. They were then absolutely below the radar. I found out about them around 1962 or 1963. I had no money for school, needed to make some, and one of my jobs in late April and into May was picking asparagus. It's very hard to harvest. You have to bend over, cut it the plant below the surface of the soil, and pull it up. It's backbreaking work that no one in America would do. I did it, but I didn't last long—about a month. The whole of the United States is full of poorly paid immigrant workers. They are the people that Donald Trump hates and thinks are criminals. But actually they are producing our food.

I so hated that Trump was disparaging Mexicans and immigrant workers, portraying them as bad, disposable, criminal, that three years ago I stopped writing Under the Wave at Waimea, put it on hold, and went to Mexico to write about the country. Mexico is full of composers, writers, sculptors—people of real achievement and also just wonderful, hard working people. The book is called On the Plain of Snakes [2019]. Mexico has many surf spots, so I visited them during my journey, which helped keep the novel alive for me, too.

The Mosquito Coast was filmed all over Mexico—in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Zapopan, Puerto Vallarta, Riviera Nyarit...

Yes, the pandemic prevented me from going that time.

Where would you like to go next?

I'd like to travel back to my first foreign assignment when I was in the Peace Corps, as a teacher in the bush in Malawi, where I ran a small school.

Do you have another travel book planned as well?

Yes, when the pandemic has eased, I will set off.

What's the secret to good travel writing?

To be patient, to have humility, to know that other people are more interesting than you are, to be widely read and have unlimited time. It also helps to know the language and to be a fiction writer--to have skills in writing dialogue and noticing the small details of landscape and people.

Paul Theroux cutting a cake: Paul Theroux on the porch of his house on Oahu in 2015. "The hardest thing to write about on this earth," he once said, "is luxury, pleasure, happiness. Misery is really where it’s at. Because it’s more like real life." © MCCURRY6 Paul Theroux on the porch of his house on Oahu in 2015. "The hardest thing to write about on this earth," he once said, "is luxury, pleasure, happiness. Misery is really where it’s at. Because it’s more like real life."

Apple's promotional language says that each AppleTV+ original is "meant to entertain, connect, and inspire cultural conversations." What do you hope The Mosquito Coast will inspire?

I hope it raises questions that Allie Fox asks—about the decline in American manufacturing, the corruption of popular culture, the exploitation of the underclass of workers, the arrogance of government, the misuse of power, and injustice generally. One reason this story feels relevant 40 years after I first wrote it is that what I was seeing in the late 1970s is a recurrent thing. We haven't solved our problems—not civil rights, not our judicial system.

Still nothing you can tell me about your next novel?

Well, yes. My subject is always the odd man out, the person with a problem and in an extreme situation. One of my favorite books is Madame Bovary. She gets herself into hot water by being a shopaholic, borrowing money she is unable to repay, and being unfaithful to her husband—all in a provincial French town. My next novel started out as a short story about two guys having lunch. It is now about a guy with a problem—a big problem, which he has to solve. It's not the pandemic. Although it is my pandemic novel.

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