Interview: Louis Theroux, Author
Louis Theroux hangs out with unusual people. He spends time with pimps, Neo-Nazis, porn performers, UFO believers, cultists, and folks that enjoy life outside the mainstream. Fascinated by sub-cultures, Theroux probably throws a helluva cocktail party.
Born in Singapore to American novelist Paul Theroux and his British wife Anne Castle, Theroux holds dual American-British citizenship. This allows him to stradle the fence between cultural insider and outsider observer. From 1998 to 2000, Theroux made documentary films for the BBC. His show, Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends primarily focused on unusual American subcultures.
Years later, Theroux wondered what happened to those people. Was the porn star still working up a sweat under the bright spotlights? Was the Aryan still preparing for race war? Theroux travelled to America to find the answers and documented his journey in The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures. He journey took him from the deserts of Nevada to the magnolia trees of Mississippi and many more places. Sometimes the interview subjects were happy to see him. Other times, they weren’t.
Theroux was kind enough to talk to us about our fascination with unusual subcultures, the strategy of planning a “quest” book, and how tape recording generates too much material.
Slushpile: In The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures, you write that this book was the product of wanting to follow up on many of the subjects you featured in your BBC documentary series. Did you complete your travels before trying to find a publisher? Or did you sell this project based on a proposal and then go out and write it after signing a deal?
Theroux: I got a book deal based on the success of my TV shows in the UK. It was all pretty vague but there was some idea I might do something about quirky British celebrities, which is what I was making programs about at the time. Then I got the idea of revisiting some of the off-beat American subcultures I’d covered in the mid to late nineties – UFO cults and the porn industry and militias – and seeing what had become of the people I’d got to know, so I did that instead.
Slushpile: You obviously had a successful television show. So you weren’t an entirely unknown quantity. If an unknown writer wanted to publish a book like this, do you recommend that they go out and interview one of the subjects first and then try to get a publisher? Should they write the entire manuscript and then seek publishers? Can they get by with just a proposal?
Theroux: My advice would be to to get the deal in place first – certainly with a non-fiction idea like mine. You’ll need to write a proposal and maybe one or two sample chapters, but any more and you’re putting a lot of time and effort into something that might not come off.
Slushpile: During your travels, you interviewed porn performers, strippers, Neo-Nazis, UFO cults, self-help gurus, and others. What do you think most intrigues us about these groups? What makes them so interesting?
Theroux: I think we’re fascinated by the illogical or the bizarre – when someone does something that seems totally wrong-headed we’re naturally curious about their motivations. Add to that a moral dimension, people who are doing something taboo – as in the case of neo-Nazis, say – and it piques our sense of amazement and outrage… I also happen to think that there’s a tiny bit of wish fulfillment in our curiosity. In many cases these people are doing things which, in a little part of ourselves, we’d be curious to do ourselves.
Slushpile: What most surprised you about the folks you encountered on your travels?
Theroux: I tended to be surprised by how tenacious they were about sticking to their guns and pursuing their off-beat lifestyles, even when they’d suffered and struggled in consequence. I’d thought some of them might have become reformed characters, that they might have woken up and realized their odd inclinations weren’t getting them anywhere – and a few had – but by and large they were still the same believers and enthusiasts I’d met on my first encounters. The pimp was still pimping, the militia guy was still worrying about the UN, the Aryan Nations was still obsessing about Jews, just in slightly reduced circumstances.
If I can add a personal note, what surprised me even more was a realization I made about myself about how invested I was in the idea of having a personal relationship with these people. I realized it was, for some reason, important to me that I be something more than a journalist to my subjects – which is quite weird, when you think about it, but also very human.
Slushpile: What most disturbed you about those same people?
Theroux: Probably the most awkward encounter was with a space channel called Bob Short – basically he acts as a mouthpiece for an alien being called Korton during weekly spiritual sessions. Bob’s a good guy but I think I brought a set of expectations to the reunion that were unrealistic. He was one of the first people I caught up with and I had this idea that he was going to let me into his life and confide his anxieties about whether or not his gift was real and generally have a distance from his own beliefs that he doesn’t have and perhaps can’t have. And when he didn’t do these things, I became exasperated, and the encounter kind of unraveled.
Slushpile: How did you plan your trip from England to America to conduct these interviews? Did you line them all up before arriving and then hope to add to your material as you went along?
Theroux: I didn’t line up much before I left. I did a little googling and dug up a few phone numbers, but that was about it. The idea was to make the tracking down part of the story. I did stick some pins into a map and make a reservation at a weekly motel in Las Vegas.
Slushpile: During the course of your travels, you met a number of new interview subjects. Oftentimes, your encounters were spontaneous chats without a lot of preparation. How did you record their quotes? Did you always use a tape recorder? Did you rely on written notes?
Theroux: To begin with I used a tape recorder but I found I was getting too much material, so I came to rely more on scribbled notes which I would write up at the end of the day. For certain things, a tape recorder is helpful, but it sucks up so much speech that it can end up bogging you down.
Slushpile: Did you get the interview subjects to sign any type of release form? What are the rules about including someone’s quotes in a book like this?
Theroux: Well, I was clear with all of them that I was there to write a book, and they could see I was either recording them or taking notes, so there was no need for a release. I’ve never heard of anyone needing to sign a release for their words to appear in a book, only for a TV appearance.
Slushpile: When you emailed or called your interview subjects, how much information about the nature of the project did you give them? How did you explain your goals for this book?
Theroux: I usually tried to write or email first, and I’d just say, “I’m writing a book about some of the intriguing people I’ve met over the years, do you want to be in it?”, then I’d call and explain a little more. And they’d say either yes or no.
Slushpile: As a journalist, how do you know when to request interview, when to give up if you don’t get a response, and when to surprise the subject? For example, when you interviewed Marshall Sylver, who claims to teach people how to become a millionaire, you just attended his conference. You wrote, “I was back, intending to catch him unawares.” But with other interview subjects, you made an appointment and left it at that. How do you decide on your strategy?
Theroux: With some characters, when I heard nothing back, I stopped there – for example, I’d thought I might check in with the subculture of female bodybuilders, but when one or two emails went unanswered I reconsidered. With Marshall Sylver, I had a pretty good idea he wouldn’t speak to me, but I found his story and the stories of his followers so interesting I opted to ambush him… But I think he’s the only one I did that to. With April, the neo-Nazi mother whose twin girls are in the white power folk group Prussian Blue, she wasn’t that keen to do follow-up, but she did speak to my on the phone, so I just persevered, and in the end she relented.
Slushpile: How did you actually write the chapters that comprise The Call of the Weird? Did you write as you were going along your journey? Or did you wait until you completed your trip and had all the material at your disposal before deciding what to focus upon?
Theroux: I waited until I’d done most of my traveling and catching up before starting to shape the material. Then in the act of writing a few holes appeared and I did some follow-up. The idea evolved in the course of writing and researching – and it’s probably worth saying that if I had the book to write over I would have taken more time in the planning stages and maybe spared myself a lot of misdirected energy.
Slushpile: What advice do you have for aspiring authors who want to embark upon a book project like this, where they travel around and round up people to interview and collect stories to tell?
Theroux: Try to be organized, have a structure in mind, and plan as much as you can. Of course your plan will evolve and change, but you’ll still benefit from the forethought you put into it. Think about the genre you’re working in and what existing examples there are. Learn as much as you can from how they’re put together. As I say, I didn’t plan much – I assumed that because I was starting from an honest motivation of something I was personally interested in doing that that would be enough and that the technical aspects would sort themselves out – and I suffered for it.
Slushpile: Have you heard from any of the book subjects since publication? You mention that some people liked and others disliked how they were portrayed in your BBC series. Have you had any feedback from them on the book?
Theroux: I’ve had limited feedback from the subjects of the book. JJ, the porn performer, sent a friendly email. April Gaede, the neo-Nazi mother whose twin girls formed the white nationalist band Prussian Blue, was basically positive… I think that’s it.
Slushpile: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you had to trim excessively to make everything fit and to boil down your interactions to their most effective length. What was the most interesting story that didn’t make it into the book?
Theroux: Quite a lot of material from the original shows that I’d hoped to use in the book had to come out because it was throwing the newer material out of balance. Ike Turner is one example. There was a time I was with him in Memphis when he was touring, and he’d asked for a rental car with a satellite navigation system. It had a computerized woman’s voice – but it was either malfunctioning or Ike was having trouble with it, I’m not sure which, and he and the computer got into a set-to. The computer would say, “Calculating route” and Ike would say: “Shut up! You don’t know nothin’! Calculatin’? Yeah, you calculatin’ alright!” I remember thinking, if this guy can get into an argument with a computer, he can get into an argument with anybody…
Slushpile: In some cases, you had difficulty getting the subjects to speak with you. Yet you were able to make the quest to reach these people as interesting as if you had interviewed them. The reader is taken along for ride and experiences the thrill of the chase. What techniques did you use to make this chase portion interesting? At any point did you think, “This interaction isn’t going anywhere, I should just cut it out of the book.”
Theroux: The quest aspect of the book was always part of my original plan for it. I think the trick is sustaining the chase – which is all to do with postponement – while delivering new characters and situations. It wasn’t always easy. I went through a lot of drafts with the Mello T chapter – he was a pimp and gangsta rapper based in Jackson, Mississippi. Eventually I realized I’d been so intent on trying to track him down that I’d failed to deliver anything new of substance. So I went back to Jackson to get some more color – went to a freestyle battle at a nightclub and then to Atlanta to interview a Mississippi rapper who’d made it big and interspersed those scenes with the “chasing Mello” scenes.
Slushpile: There is a lot of you in this book. It’s not just a straight-forward journalism account of these people’s lives. It’s also your story of crossing the country and how you interacted with the subjects. How did you balance their story with your story? How did you decide when to focus on them and when to focus on you?
Theroux: I have a tendency to write myself out of the story, almost out of a misplaced sense of journalistic purity and virtue; so sometimes redrafting was a matter of personalizing the material, reacting honestly to what I was experiencing. Sometimes I just had to feel my way – rewrite, reread, see if it worked, then either add more of myself or else tone it down.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Theroux: Number one, have a good idea. Then, work to a plan. It’s not alchemy, it’s not a mystic art – there are things that work and things that don’t work, and to an extent there’s a roadmap – by which I mean, there are others who’ve worked in similar areas in similar ways, and you can learn from them. Also, have a great editor or a close friend or colleague who can read and offer you honest feedback.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print.
Theroux: Well, I had the luxury of starting from the position of having my own TV show, which undoubtedly helped; not to mention that my father is a successful novelist and travel writer, which I’m sure helped, too. If you don’t have these, then be talented and hard-working and have a great idea.