In his latest travel memoir, Headhunters On My Doorstep, a newly sober Troost traces Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey through the South Pacific, encountering adventure while reflecting on the beauty and history of the islands along with the nature of addiction and recovery.
You refer to Robert Louis Stevenson as a “kindred spirit.” Tell us a little about what he means to you and how he inspired your journey. Is Headhunters a homage to In the South Seas?
I always avoided reading Robert Louis Stevenson. When it comes to late nineteenth century literature, I preferred the Russians. But then I set out to read the early western literature on the South Pacific—Cook, de Bougainville, etc.—and when finally I did happen upon In the South Seas, I became intrigued with Stevenson. Here was a man who stood 5’10” and weighed 95 lbs., wracked by illness and lung-splattering coughs, who on a whim decided to fall off the map and set sail for the South Seas, where he would remain until the day he died. Why? The more I read about him, the more I felt he was a kindred soul. I don’t mean that as one writer to another, but rather I connected with his humanity, restlessness, his love of the motion of travel, and his desire to begin anew even toward the end of his life. Writing Headhunters isn’t really a homage but rather my attempt to infuse the spirit of Stevenson into my own life.
Headhunters spans multiple genres: memoir, travel, with a lot of history and literary asides as well. Did you do a lot of research before your trip?
One of the sensations I try to avoid is discovering only later that the beach I was on in Tahiti happened to be the very shore where Captain Bligh first landed. I’d say, D’oh and slap my forehead. I like to be able to really experience a place, to contextualize the geography, and so I do as much research as I can. This way, when I find myself on some isolated shoreline in the Marquesas, I can say—hey, this is where they filmed Survivor-Marquesas—and I feel good, knowing that I know exactly what transpired here. So I read everything I can. I chat with prior visitors. I do the Google. Still, most places feel fresh and novel to me. You can read and read, but nothing eclipses experience.
You were not yet a year sober when you decided to take what was, in some sense, an island vacation. Did you see this as a test for yourself in a way?
I was really scared of this trip, but not because of the travel. The gift of sobriety is clarity and a sense of connection—and travel only enhances that. When I see someone drinking a Bloody Mary at an airport bar at 8 a.m., I don’t think, gosh that looks like fun. Seeing people linger over a bottle of wine at dinner? I think, hey works for them, not for me, no big deal. No, my worry early on was my cockiness. Being an alcoholic was not on my list of things to do in life. I feared I’d think of the last year of my drinking as an aberration, an anomaly, and that this time would be different. I’d have control this time. That was the test—my thinking—not the travel.