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Strong drugs, hot sex, devil's bargain

Following Paul Theroux's 'Blinding Light'

By Todd Leopold

Paul Theroux was inspired to write his new novel by eye surgery he had several years ago.


Martha's Vineyard (Massachusetts)
Paul Theroux

(CNN) -- Paul Theroux admits it. He used drugs to write his new novel.

He also recalled his vision loss, traveled to Ecuador and dropped the names of some of his well-known Martha's Vineyard friends.

Call it research or call it life, but don't call it autobiography. Far from it. More like observation.

After all, Slade Steadman, the main character of Theroux's book, "Blinding Light" (Houghton Mifflin), is a frustrated author known for one best-selling travel book that spawned an industry of travel paraphernalia.

Theroux is an accomplished novelist and travel writer who has written more than 40 books, including the novels "The Mosquito Coast" and "Hotel Honolulu" and the travel tomes "The Great Railway Bazaar" and "Riding the Iron Rooster."

And when Steadman takes his drug -- a hallucinogenic concoction found on a drug tour into Ecuador's wilderness -- he's temporarily struck blind yet given a second sight of sorts, a sense of oneness with the world that sparks a variety of sexual shenanigans and creativity. Eventually, he produces a second book. And eventually, the blindness sticks and his world falls apart.

Theroux, 64, just got a few ideas.

He'd always been fascinated by the idea of the one-book writer -- "an American phenomenon," the well-traveled, Massachusetts-born writer says -- and wanted to explore the issues raised by his 1999 cataract surgery. He also wanted to write a book featuring that aspect of legend, the magic potion.

"The drug didn't help with the composition, ... but it gave me a plot angle," he says in a phone interview. "It was a magic potion you could actually find."

Martha's Vineyard realism

"Blinding Light" features Theroux's insights on both travel and writing. Parts of the book -- particularly his descriptions of the members of the Ecuadorian drug tour and the overall commercialization of travel -- could have been written by Theroux the traveler.

"The drug tour he had hoped would be unique, his own," Theroux writes, "was apparently a widely known trip down a well-traveled path, in the sort of full-color brochure that also described gorilla encounters in Africa and white-water rafting on the Ganges and treks to the Everest base camp and birding in Mongolia."

"The kind of travel I do is a reaction to that," Theroux says. "Instead of going to meet gorillas or Bhutan, I prefer to go [my own way] and do things the wealthy wouldn't dare to do."

Theroux also offers rich descriptions of his beloved Martha's Vineyard, complete with Steadman attending a party with a number of the island's denizens, including Walter Cronkite and Theroux's friend William Styron.

Given the book's setting, the late '90s, there's also a special guest: a certain Arkansas-born president, who has thematic parallels with the high-flying -- and then low-brought -- Steadman.

Theroux acknowledges the risk of bringing Bill Clinton into the mix, but says that at the time the book is set "it would have been impossible for characters to go to parties and not meet Clinton."

"What I was trying for was realism, what really living on Martha's Vineyard was like," he says.

Addiction with a price


It was more difficult, he acknowledges, to write the book's sex scenes -- erotic adventures made more dramatic by Steadman's blindness.

"I don't like it when two characters hit it off and the chapter ends," he says. "There's a natural curiosity [about what happens next]."

Yet to write in that vein means exposing the reader to the writer's own fantasies, he adds.

"There's a lot of self-revelation in the way a writer describes sex," he says. "It's very difficult to do, but it's worth doing once."

To research Steadman's blindness, Theroux relied on his own experience and read extensively.

"I depended on my own traumatic sense of the possibility of loss," he says. "I tried to think of my own fears. But I also thought of the assets -- enhanced sense of smell, hearing, touch -- and what that would do."

Steadman's addiction to the potion comes with a price. It soon renders him permanently sightless, taking away his second sight and his control of the gift, which engulfs him in panic.

Moreover, a fellow drug tour traveler, a German nicknamed "Herr Mephistos," knows his secrets. The Faust parallels are, of course, intentional.

But for Theroux, writing -- and traveling -- remain a joy. Even book tours, which are loathed by many authors.

"I meet people who read and like books," he says. His fans are "real people ... they bring copies, ask questions. ... To physically see who they are is a wonderful thing."

But what about getting there?

"I don't mind it," he says. "I have nothing bad to say about airports. Well," he adds, "only security."

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