The release of Headhunters at My Doorstep marks the third book that J. Maarten Troost has written about The Pacific Islands. Tom Gates talks to him about his return to the part of the world that made his name as a writer.
TG: The Sex Lives of Cannibals is almost compulsory travel reading now. It’s currently #10 on Amazon’s Travel books and I’ve seen it on just about every bookswap shelf in every hostel or guesthouse I’ve stayed in. What does that book mean to you now? Is it weird being a “classic travel writer”?
JMT: I don’t really think about it like that. You sort of separate writer-you from real-you. I never go by J. Maarten Troost in the real world. It’s like two identities. My close friend J. Maarten Troost has got that nice book out.
[Headhunters on My Doorstep] is the fourth book. It’s always very exciting, and a little strange and weird seeing it out there, but after a few years you just take it as kind of your half-ass job.
One of the surprises of the book for me is that you ended up going back to Kiribati…as I read I felt surprisingly nostalgic. What was that like for you?
It’s a strange sensation, kind of like walking into your own dream. And you notice right away all of the similarities and differences. But it was a fantastic experience. I’d always wanted to write a trilogy and this gave me an avenue to do that.
The South Pacific is a phenomenally large place with vastly different peoples. So when I lived in Kiribati, that was the Micronesian orbit. And when I lived in Vanuatu and Fiji, which I wrote about in the second book, that was Melanesia. And this book, I spent most of my time in French Polynesia and Samoa, which is sort of the Polynesian corner of the Pacific. So in that sense, it did feel very different to me.
Getting sober is front and center in this book. Was it a big decision for you to write about that? You’re basically deciding that everyone who ever reads the book is going to know this really personal thing, and that dicks like me are going to mention it in interviews.
When I write, I try not to think of an audience because then you become self-conscious. Being self-conscious, the best I can come up with is clever. Clever is good, but you usually want something deeper and more soulful.
The only thing that gave me a little pause here is that I don’t want to be on the recovery pedestal. I don’t want to be a posterboy with these things. All of my books are travel memoirs, and that’s what was happening in my life. I know that it affects millions and millions of people, so I didn’t mind writing about it.
The other thing is, I wanted to take away some of the lingering shame of addiction or alcoholism. The first thing I thought I could do was talk openly about what happened to me.
So I have countless sober friends, and it’s fascinating how they throw themselves into new obsessions in their post-drinking life. I’d really ever considered that somebody would re-appropriate their addiction onto something as amazingly dorky as Robert Louis Stevenson. Can you maybe explain how his writing intersected with you at that point in your life, and how the trip idea came into play?
I was sort of at loose ends and I started reading a lot of the early literature on the South Pacific. It’s riveting reading, but there’s a certain air of un-reality about it. Then I came across RLS, who was describing the literature of the South Seas that preceded him, and he described it as a “sugar candy sham epic,” which I thought was such a clever phrase, and not like anything I was expecting to read from somebody in the Victorian era.
And then I really started digging into his work, and particularly into his life, and his life is intriguing. When he left for the South Pacific he stood about 5’10” and weighed all of 95 pounds. That’s not the sort of person you’d envision going on this hardcore, falling-off-the-map kind of travel.
When you left for this trip you were in great shape, about a year sober under your belt and although probably a little terrified, at least physically prepared. In contrast, can you describe what physical shape RLS was when he did this journey?
He was a mess ever since, really, the day of his birth. He was this tubercular, sickly waif who was constantly having these horrible hemorrhages that would cause him to cough up blood. He always knew that death stalked him and it’s something that he grew familiar with, even comfortable with.
He has a famous epitaph on his grave in Samoa (“Under the wide and starry sky / Dig the grave and let me lie…”). He wrote that 15 years before he passed away. To live with that every day and yet to do so much living and so much writing, he was amazingly productive. He died at the age of 44, which was fairly young.
I really enjoyed the section where you talked about picking a religion. What I didn’t expect is that you would walk into random churches on this trip. Whenever I feel like I want to bash on religion I think about nuns, and how the world of the homeless, the addicted…none of it would go away without them. And I mean anywhere on Earth. You seemed to prove it in the book. What were the nuns of Kiribati like?
I did pop into churches when I was there, and that’s something fairly new for me. When I lived in the South Pacific I never went to church — it was Sunday, a great day to sleep until 10 or 11. In the islands the church is really the core of the community, so it’s a really good way to integrate yourself to begin with.
The nuns are terrific. In Kiribati there’s sort of an island-style rehab that’s run by the nuns. Every three or four weeks they pick up a new batch of troubled folks from South Tarawa and bring them to this place next to the runway, where they stay for three weeks.
I was surprised to learn that there’s a “cava problem” on the islands.
Cava is not part of the local indigenous culture, it’s imported and is becoming a real blight. It’s hard to move bottles to the outer islands, but moving bags of powdered cava is very easy and straightforward. So what’s happened is that many people stay up late into the night drinking cava, which is essentially a sedative, and a narcotic if you drink enough of it. So, they sleep all day and drink cava all night. The roles they’ve traditionally held during they day — fishing, weaving thatch, or whatever it is — go unattended now.
A lot of the Matador crew is composed of young travel writers, often learning their craft. I’m curious to hear what you think of the travel writing landscape now, as opposed to when you started.
I think the travel is sort of incidental to the writing. The only thing that really matters is the writing itself.
What are some of the best travel pieces to be written in the last ten years? There’s David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, I really like John Jeremiah Sullivan’s piece in The New York Times Magazine about going to Disneyworld and having a few smokes, (You Blow My Mind – Hey Mickey!).
So think about this — this is Disneyland and a Caribbean cruise. There’s absolutely nothing exotic about it. So, really, the core is the writing itself. It doesn’t matter how far and how exotic your trip is if you can’t string together a few interesting phrases. That’s the core of it.