After several quests for bliss across the South Pacific, author of Headhunters on My Doorstep J. Maarten Troost has learnt it’s not about location.
Zola: You’ve visited the South Pacific multiple times. Do you recommend it as a getaway? Which spots are the most intriguing for first-time visitors?
J. Maarten Troost: My personal list of favorite islands in the South Seas is partial to difficult, hard-to-reach places—the outer islands of Kiribati, the Marquesas, etc. These are not practical vacation destinations, however. For that, I would point people to Fiji and Vanuatu. Fiji is easy to reach; the people are friendly; the islands are beautiful; and due to its political instability, it’s usually fairly affordable. Vanuatu is intriguing because here you can experience a bit of the raw South Pacific—active volcanoes, cargo cults, custom-people, little put-put planes landing on grass runways—while still being able to dine on some pretty yummy food. The French colonial legacy is murky, but if food is important to you, you’ll be grateful for it.
Zola: Did being surrounded by the kind of beauty you describe in Headhunters make it hard to write about it? Did you ever fear you weren’t doing it justice?
JMT: When it comes to writing, I appreciate the sly and the understated. However, when trying to capture the beauty of some of the islands, I can’t help but get all lush and exuberant in my prose. When confronted with the shimmering colors of a lagoon or the saw-toothed ridges of a volcanic isle, my natural inclination is describe it just as it is—glorious. As for doing it justice? Only a reader can decide.
Zola: At one point in the book, you say you had a previous book orphaned—your editor and the team who bought it were fired and the publisher tried to get back your advance. How was that issue resolved?
JMT: Because I live in fear of the Random House Legal Department, I will say only this: when my children express interest in becoming writers, I point them towards science and engineering. Also medicine, accounting, food services, volcanology, archeology, professional athletics, opera singing, and rodeo-clowning. It’s less risky.
Zola: Your bestselling debut about life in Kiribati, The Sex Lives of Cannibals, was published almost a decade ago. How have the islands changed in the past decade?
JMT: They’re sinking. Really, I mean it. Go to Kiribati now, and you will see that many of the coconut trees near the shoreline are dead. So too the gardens. There are even entire villages that have been swept away at high tide. And this is a nation of atolls, the slender ridges of undersea volcanoes, never rising to more than a couple of feet above the surface. When it comes to sustainable existence, there’s not a lot of room on the margins here. In a generation, Kiribati will cease to exist as a habitable country.
Zola: At the beginning of Headhunters, you talk about how traveling to the Pacific Islands seemed like it might save you from a crumbling life on the continent, yet you’re now reportedly living in Washington DC. How are you handling landlocked life?
JMT: When I’m in the South Pacific, I periodically run into foreigners who have moved to the islands in order to escape what they perceive as the stresses of continental life. Inevitably, they complain about the local chiefs, or the lack of reliable electricity, or the paucity of food options, or the absence of medical care. Happiness, I’m learning, is not something that derives from geography. It’s a state of mind that can be cultivated anywhere, or at least I like to think so.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.