Paul Edward Theroux was born on April 10, 1941 in Medford, Massachusetts. The son of a French-Canadian father and an Italian mother, Theroux was one of seven children. Never much of an athlete, Theroux spent most of the 1950's reading. He never admitted, even to himself, his desire to be a writer and studied premed in college. Writing, he believed to be "incompatible with being a man--money is masculinity".
Theroux, who grew up a Boy Scout and a Catholic, graduated high school in 1959 and left Medford "the first chance I had". He attended the University of Maine where he wrote many anti-Vietnam war editorials and refused to join the required Reserved Officers Training Corps. He transferred to the University of Massachusetts and took a creative writing course from the poet Joseph Langland. That desision changed the way Theroux would perceive writing as a career. Theroux graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1963.
At Syracuse University, Theroux trained for the Peace Corps and then lectured for a short while at the University of Urbino in Italy. Next he was sent to Malawi, Africa (then called the Nyasaland Protectorate, under British rule) where he taught at Soche Hill College and wrote sentimental articles for Christian Science Monitor. He also wrote articles for Playboy, Esquire, and Atlantic Monthly. He won the Playboy Editorial Award for Best Story four times. (In '72, '76, '77, and '79.)
In 1964, Theroux was involved in a failed coup d'etat of the Malawi president-dictator and was thrown out of the Peace Corps. Yet, Theroux had obviously fallen in love with Africa. He returned to teach English at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Here he met not only his future wife, Anne Castle, a schoolteacher from London, but also V. S. Naipaul, (2001 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature). This writer was to become his mentor. His first son, Marcel, was born in Uganda in 1968.
Waldo, Theroux's first novel, sold about 4000 copies. Theroux went on to write Fong and The Indians, published in 1968, Murder in Mount Holly and then Girls at Play, a novel about "the futility of African politics and the disintegration of tribal life." When an angry mob at a demonstration threatened to overturn the car in which his pregnant wife was riding, Theroux made the decision to leave Africa.
Theroux was next hired on at the University of Singapore, where he wrote his fifth novel, Jungle Lovers. His second son Louis was born in Singapore in 1969. It was in Singapore that Theroux realized that he had enough of the monotony of teaching and decided to become a professional writer. His wife got a job in London and he taught one last course at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1972. Both Sinning With Annie and a criticism of V. S. Naipaul's early works were published in 1972. Theroux wrote Saint Jack, a novel about his time in Singapore, while living in the English countryside of Dorset. Saint Jack was made into a film by Peter Bogdanovich, starring Ben Gazzara as the main character, Jack. Theroux's seventh novel, The Black House is a macabre tale set in the English countryside.
The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia was Theroux's first travel story and also the first work to distinguish him as a well-known writer. The book was a best seller (selling 35,000 copies). It was also a main selection for the Book-of-the Month Club. Theroux continued writing.
He wrote The Family Arsenal (1976), Picture Palace (1978) which won the prestigious Whitbread Award, and The Mosquito Coast (1982) which won the James Tait Black Award and the Yorkshire Post Best Novel of the Year Award. Mosquito Coast was later (1986) made into a movie directed by Peter Weir, starring Harrison Ford as the main character, Allie Fox. Theroux also published three collections of short stories, that mirrored some if his adventures while abroad: The Consul's File (1977), World's End (1980), and The London Embassy (1983). (Later these three short story collections were combined into one book and published as The Collected Stories.
At the request of his two sons, Theroux also wrote two children's stories : A Christmas Card (1978) and London Snow: A Christmas Story (1979). He also published Half Moon Street (1984) which contained two short novels: Doctor DeMarr (this book was also made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Michael Caine, but received generally negative reviews.) He also continued to write travel novels, publishing The Old Patagonian Express in 1979 (also a Book-of-the Month choice), The Kingdom By The Sea (1983), Sailing Through China (1983) and The Imperial Way: By Rail from Peshwar to Chittagong (1985), a "coffee table book" which includes the stunning photography of Steve McCurry. Patagonia Revisited (1985) is based on a discussion between Bruce Chatwin and Theroux of Patagonia's influence on literature. Sunrise with Seamonsters: Travels and Discoveries (1985) is a collection of Theroux's articles and essays between 1964 and 1984.
Riding The Iron Rooster (1988) which chronicles Theroux's travels by train through China was followed by My Secret History (1989). Theroux wrote Chicago Loop (1990), To The Ends of the Earth (1990), Millroy the Magician (1994), The Pillars of Hercules (1995), and My Other Life (1996). (My Other Life, with My Secret History were long believed to be Theroux's "closet" autobiographies, until the publication of Sir Vidia's Shadow.) Kowloon Tong (1997) is a novel that approaches the subject of Britain's rule over Hong Kong. In 1998, Theroux wrote Sir Vidia's Shadow which was meant to be a biography of his mentor, V. S. Naipaul but is believed to be more or less Theroux's own life story. Fresh Air Fiend was the title of his 2000 collection, a reflection on his life and travel writings; a collection of articles written over the last fifteen years, it is almost a sequel to Sunrise With Seamonsters. Hotel Honolulu (2001) is Theroux's most recent novel. Additionally, he was the editor of Best American Travel Writing, also published in 2001, which even contains a short story by his son, Marcel.
In 1977, Theroux won an award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Theroux is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Geographic Society in Britain. Furthermore, he holds honorary doctorates in literature from Trinity College in Washington and Tufts University in Medford, Theroux's hometown.
Theroux currently divides his time between Cape Cod and Hawaii, where he lives with his second wife. Theroux also claims to have taken up his second profession: beekeeping. Theroux sells his honey under the brand name Oceania Ranch Pure Hawaiian Honey.