I've been reading one of Paul Theroux's travel books, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, and once again am struck by what a skilled writer the man is. Theroux is one of those writers whose work I've been reading off and on for years, both his travel books and his fiction, and I've yet to hit one of his works that wasn't beautifully crafted. Theroux is one of those wordsmiths who is incredibly adept at getting the small things right. He has an eye for people and detail that far too many would-be authors lack. I don't always like what he's written, but I've yet to read anything by Theroux where I wasn't blown away by his craftsmanship.
One thing that struck me while reading Ghost Train was Theroux's ability to focus on his writing wherever he happens to be and whatever might be going on around him. The train may be crowded, smelly, and uncomfortable but he keeps right on quietly taking notes the old-fashioned way (with a paper notebook and pencil) that will eventually become the book, while at the same time (or at least as part of the same trip) he's also working on short stories and novels. He provides one of the most vivid examples of one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given about writing: always have more than one project in progress. It doesn't matter if a person works in fiction or nonfiction, you should never put all the cliched eggs in one hackneyed basket.
I'm also having my usual reaction to a Theroux travel book: fighting the urge to book a train trip somewhere -- anywhere! -- ASAP. It's a bit odd. Even when Theroux is describing the lavatories as "unspeakable" and the conductors as surly, I find myself wanting to go rattling through Uzbekistan on a train that's seen better days, too.