When a very kind publishing rep contacted me a few months ago to inquire about whether or not I'd like to review The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures, I was more than pleased to do so. What I hadn't expected was to stumble upon not only a new favorite book, but a delightful interview opportunity with the author himself, Louis Theroux.
Son of American novelist and travel writer, Paul Theroux, Louis is a gifted writer, storyteller, television personality, and all-around interesting guy. I hope you enjoy reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
AM: Since The Call of the Weird is your first book, what would you say was the most challenging part of the writing process? The most rewarding?
LT: The hardest part was finding a structure and a shape for the material. The urge to write the book was the result of ten years of making documentaries on off-beat subjects – porn performers, neo-Nazis, gangsta rappers and so on – and specifically my sense of curiosity about what had happened to some of the odd folk I’d made programmes about. So I took this six-month trip around the states to seek them out. But when I came to write it, it was hard to figure out how much back story I needed to provide to make readers care about the characters – how much should come from the shows I made and how much from my “reunion tour”.
Also, I’m used to working in television, which is collaborative, so I had to make the adjustment to working on my own. But struggling through these problems is exactly what makes it all rewarding. And the solution, in the end, was just to trim and trim and trim the material – the chapter about my relationship with Ike Turner was more than ten thousand words at one point and I just chopped it right down until it was a little over four thousand.
AM: I—and I think most readers would feel the same—was vicariously uncomfortable for you as I read The Call of the Weird. Were there any particularly memorable moments that still make you shudder?
LT: If you mean physically uncomfortable – as in feeling threatened or at risk – it really wasn’t bad. The only time I was nervous was before attending a skinhead music mini-festival (a “hatenanny”, one of them called it) – particularly since I’m sometimes told I look Jewish. If you mean emotionally awkward, then yes, I found my involvement in the world of porn tricky. I went to a couple of unsavoury shoots – the nature of the sex acts has become so wilfully extreme and strange – and I felt a bit self-conscious about being there.
AM: On the opposite side of the coin, I loved that you really cared about many of the people in the book. What was the most rewarding part about interacting with the unique and interesting people featured in The Call of the Weird?
LT: I think it was helpful for me personally to level the playing field a little bit between myself and the people I cover by seeing them a second time and giving them a kind of right of reply. Most of the people I tracked down had seen the programmes I’d made about them, and so they had a more informed opinion of who I was and what I was doing, and it was good for me to understand how they felt. I spent months getting in touch with a prostitute I’d met while making a documentary about a legal brothel in Nevada. Since our last encounter, she’d found religion and got out of the business, and when I saw here again I realized she wanted to be my friend but not especially my subject, so I was forced to think about my own motivations – why did my urge to be her “friend” come with a proviso that I would be writing a book? Then there were people like the two survivors of the Heaven’s Gate cult, who you’d think would be among the most extreme in terms of beliefs, but they were just warm, likeable people whose company I enjoyed.
AM: You are undoubtedly a very talented storyteller so my question becomes, what does it take to tell a great story? Is it a talent that can be taught?
LT: That’s very kind of you. I found that crafting the chapters involved a lot of trial and error. I went through numerous drafts. I’m sure there are people to whom it comes very easily, but I’m not one of them.
AM: What is your writing process like? Do you have a particular way that you like to approach writing? Any unbreakable habits or writing rituals?
LT: Not really. I got into a bad habit of saving all my drafts, so I’d be on Chapter 7 Version 14, and then when I was cutting a lot of material out I would start worrying that I might want to end up using it so I’d save “offcuts”, so all these documents would be multiplying. The most helpful thing in the end was having my girlfriend around to read drafts and tell me when it was working and when it wasn’t, to provide some perspective. Otherwise there were time I was just spinning my wheels.
AM: Did you always know you wanted to write at some point?
LT: My father is a writer and I think he always wanted me to be a writer, and I grew up knowing that, so it was kind of an assumption.
AM: Why American subcultures? Are Americans inherently weirder? Disclaimer: I've read in various interviews that you have mixed feelings about the word "weird."
LT: I don’t think Americans are inherently weirder than anyone else in the world. But the kind of weirdness I look at in the book is behaviour that isn’t just outside the mainstream and morally questionable but that is also unabashed – these aren’t secret forms of weirdness, they’re codes of behaviour that people passionately believe in. And among Americans – much more than among the British, I’d say – you find a spirit of candour and openness and unselfconscious enthusiasm which means that it’s much easier for a journalist to find an entrée into these worlds and to find someone who will guide him and explain the world to him. Basically, Americans are more open about it, and there is also enough physical space and prosperity to allow these subcultures to flourish.
On the weirdness question, as a term, it’s a blunt instrument, but a necessary one. When I use the word, I usually just mean behaviour that runs against the grain of mainstream morals – here in the Western World in the early 21st Century. But I also see weirdness in the broad sense as part of the fabric of everyday life for everyone in the world. Humans are weird – the human condition is weird.
AM: Are you done with weirdness or do you have plans to further explore its many faces?
LT: My most recent projects have been back in the world of TV documentary, but I’ve been trying to examine forms of behaviour that are closer to the mainstream, and which represent something more significant in terms of power and influence. Last year I spent several weeks living at a large Las Vegas casino to find out about gambling and I’m also keen to get a story going inside a large US prison. These are fascinating areas of our culture that are both off-beat and yet also close to home.
AM: Do you read for pleasure often and if so, what genres or writers are your favorites?
LT: I try to read every evening when I go to bed. I read probably more non-fiction, especially literary journalism. Some of the books I looked to for help when I was writing The Call of the Weird were George Plimpton’s Shadow Box (about his immersion in the world of pro boxing), Jon Ronson’s Them (about the paranoid conspiracy theorist subculture), and Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs (about English football hooligans). I recently finished reading Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam. She was married to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and it’s an account of their persecution by Stalin. It’s totally fascinating – a tragic anatomy of a police state, an examination of the artistic life, and also a love story.
AM: Who has influenced your work the most?
LT: I talk in my book about my father, who is American, and his attempts to put an American stamp on us every Summer, with our annual pilgrimages to Cape Cod. I think he also taught me in artistic matters to take the best from high and low, finding the merit in a reality TV show or a sitcom and also reading the classics… For my TV career, I owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Moore for giving me my break, and it was really him (and the TV Nation environment generally) that showed me how you could find humour in very raw documentary encounters with people.
AM: Do you keep a journal? Do you record daily life, ideas for projects, etc.?
LT: I do not keep a journal. I sometimes jot ideas down but not in any systematic way. I am a fanatical clipper of intriguing stories from newspapers and magazines, and though I live in London I try to keep up with American cultural matters by subscribing to US magazines (the New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Review of Books).
AM: Is there anywhere in the world where you have not been, but would really like to go?
LT: So many places, but especially the far East. I was born in Singapore but have no memory of the place. I’d love to visit Vietnam , China, and Japan.
AM: Do you have anything in the works right now? Books, television or other projects?
LT: Right now I’m focusing on making some new programmes for the BBC. I did think about trying to make a feature-length documentary for theatrical release but that would mean several years committed to a single subject and in the end I preferred to have the luxury of dipping into a number of different areas of life. For me my work is still a kind of holiday from daily life – it affords me an opportunity to look at worlds that are far removed from my own – and the first sign a story might work is that I have a basic curiosity about it and an enthusiasm to experience it first-hand. I do love going to these places, and it’s wonderful that I can do it several times a year. I consider myself very lucky.
Many thanks to Louis Theroux for his time and thoughtful responses to my questions.
Louis Theroux graduated from Oxford University, where he wrote for the satirical magazine Spy. After working on Michael Moore's Emmy-winning TV Nation, he hosted his own BAFTA-winning shows in the United Kingdom, "Weird Weekends" and "When Louis Met..."
Visit his website at http://www.louistheroux.co.uk