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Read January Magazine's 1997 interview with Bill Bryson
The first thing to realize about Bill Bryson is that he fits everywhere. And nowhere. Which is perhaps the very thing that has given him the ability to share places with all of us so vividly.
Born and raised in the United States, Bryson moved to the United Kingdom when he was a young man and started his career as a journalist and travel writer there. In fact, Bryson was a well-loved and wildly selling British author before his books even raised an eyebrow "at home." At the time, home was in the UK and his wife and four children are all British subjects. In fact, it wasn't until 1996 that Bryson moved his family back to the United States where they now make their home. A passel of little Brysons with British vocal inflections and half American hearts. Well, maybe.
Bryson is mild of voice and manner. Gentle. Even charming in a sweet and innocent sort of way. He speaks rapidly, yet succinctly, articulating his thoughts -- in person and on paper -- in a no-nonsense manner that, nonetheless, always leaves room for fun. Not for Bryson the heavy prose of a Paul Theroux or Bruce Chatwin (Brits both). Nor, also, the youthful exuberance of a Will Ferguson or a David Sedaris (both from the North American side of the pond). In his travel books, Bryson looks at places baldly, unmasks any natural humor that might be lurking, gives us a glorious glimpse and then moves on. In personal as well as professional style Bryson is the perfect blend of all that has influenced him. An American with a British soul, gone away again and it shows in his voice, in his personal style and, of course, most of all in his writing: hilarious and informative looks at places that he shares with us unstintingly.
His latest book, entitled In a Sunburned Country in North America and Down Under in the UK, takes us on the most intimate and informative tour of Australia perhaps ever published. In fact, Australians will likely read it and learn things they never knew about their own country. At the very least, they'll be proud of the enthusiastic and fun glow Bryson has brought to this work. The publication of the book was timed to coincide with the 2000 Olympics in Sydney in September of 2000.
Linda Richards: Do you find that traveling for a book tour is anything like the research trips you do for your travel books? That is, do you enjoy this part of the writing process? The promotional parts?
Bill Bryson: Most parts of book tour are really fun. You know, you get to eat at someone else's expense. You get looked after very well. You stay in nice hotels. You meet people who generally have enjoyed the stuff you've written. It's almost all fairly positive. The only downside is just the headache of traveling. Like, I set off at this morning to catch an early flight and I didn't get the early flight and I ended up spending four and a half hours at the airport in Seattle, which was ridiculous. I could almost have hitchhiked here faster than I got here.
There were a couple of editions of your last book, including entirely different titles. One edition in North America and another in the UK. How did that happen?
It was Notes From a Big Country in the commonwealth and it was I'm A Stranger Here Myself in the States. What happened was in the British edition they just took the first 18 months of [U.K. newspaper] columns -- all of them but one or two -- and just put them in. By the time the Americans got around to publishing, I'd done the column for two years and they had an extra six months worth of stuff to choose from. And I just left it to the editor in New York to choose. His decision was to toss out anything that was kind of critical or controversial and he filled it up with a lot of other stuff I'd done in the last six months. Some of it was pretty good and I was sorry that it wasn't in the British edition, but I hadn't written it by the time the British edition came out.
So Notes From a Big Country was like a book you almost didn't have to write, because you'd written it piece by piece for the newspaper column.
Yes. It was a dream come true. [Laughs] Actually, you've put your finger on it more than you know because I took the column on reluctantly at first. I did it for three or four months and I thought: Well, this isn't too bad. And they talked me into doing it for a year. The column was for The Mail on Sunday in London. And I could do whatever I wanted, they didn't put any restrictions on me so I agreed to do it for a year and at the end of a year I was very happy. I didn't want to do it anymore and my UK publisher said to me: Well, you know if you did it for another six months it would be enough for a book. You've got a book two thirds written. So I agreed to do it for another year, though it was a lot harder to do in the second year even though I thought some of my better stuff was in the second year. But it's just that I was beginning to run out of ideas by the time I got to the end of the second year. It's just such a commitment: having a weekly thing that's got to be done whether you feel like it or not. I was trying to do other stuff at the same time: book tours and magazine assignments and other kinds of commitments. So it was just kind of a nuisance.
And then there was a tremendously successful book at the end of it.
Yes. And this was a book that I didn't really have to write. I'd written it in pieces and I'd been paid for them. Gravy doesn't get any thicker than that. [Laughs]
Are you working on anything now?
No. Usually there's quite a time lag between finishing the manuscript and then going out on a book tour. Months and months, a year sometimes. This time there wasn't. Because of the Olympics being the critical factor, they wanted the book out in good time for [that]. And nobody knew how many other Australian books were going to be out. The US publisher's thinking was: If there are a lot of books on Australia, they'll all be reviewed as roundups and they didn't want to risk that as no one is going to do them separate. So they wanted to make sure it was out by June in case there were a lot of Australian books. I think they were right, in that sense. But it meant that I printed out the manuscript on December 31st to avoid all those Y2K problems [Laughs] and sent it off that week and then, as I say, usually there's this great lag time and you don't hear from anybody for months and you start thinking about your next book and go off and begin working on it. So that by the time you go on a book tour for the book that's just been published, you're already kind of working on your next book. Then when somebody asks you: What's your next book? You know. But there hasn't been that. And I haven't really had a chance to stop and think about what I want to do.
It's fun, because last time you told me all about this book.
I really wish I could do that! [Laughs] All I know at the moment is [that] I want to spend some time at home. I did a lot of traveling to do the research for the Australian book, as you can imagine. Then I've had an awful lot of stuff that's taken me away ever since. Magazine assignments and a long period of book touring. When all of that is sort of wrapped up in November, I know that the first thing I'm going to want to do is spend some time at home. So whatever I do for my next book it will be something that involves some research up front because I'll spend next winter at home, reading and thinking. I certainly won't go off right away and suddenly do a travel book.
Did you say that the book tour is going to end in November?
Yeah: the book tour and other things. I'll spend into August doing Australia and New Zealand. October is all of UK and Ireland and then I come back and do two more weeks in the States and probably in Canada. That brings us almost to the middle of November.
Well, I'm glad I got you fresh!
Yeah, I could be heartily sick of it by November, as you can imagine.
Well, you're traveling. But it's not the same though, is it?
It's not the same at all. I mean, there are good parts. Like tomorrow I'm off and the forecast is good, so I'll have a great day tomorrow. I'll go out and have a really long walk and I'll have a great day. So it's not like it's totally devoid of fun. But most of your days are spent traveling to places and then just being at radio stations and shopping centers and so on. I've reached the point where all I think about is what I've got to do that day. I always bring a laptop with me and a sheaf of papers I should be dealing with. And I think: Oh, if I have some down time I'll do that. But I never do it. If I have any down time I just watch television. Or go for a walk. I don't know why I drag this laptop around with me: I won't ever plug it in on the whole trip. But it makes me feel as though I have the possibility of doing something productive.
Walking is sure a good way to acclimatize yourself, isn't it? A good way to get a sense of a city.
It's the only way to see a city, I think. And it's what I really enjoy doing. I love that business of getting up early in the morning and getting out -- especially if it's a nice day and everything -- and just constantly deciding at every corner: Oh, this looks nice. I think I'll go this way. And just kind of not knowing where you're going to end up. Coming back dog tired at night. To me that's just a perfect day.
You loved Australia.
I did. I couldn't help myself. [Laughs] I mean, I really didn't expect to. I never expected to dislike it. I knew I'd enjoy it. But I didn't think I was going to become completely captivated by the place. And I did. I was. I just really, really liked it. It's a very agreeable place. Nice places to eat and drink and sit in the sun and a very easy going lifestyle. Nice people and all that. So it's very appealing at that level. But also it's just a lot more interesting than I thought. The history is a lot more interesting.
More interesting than what?
I thought, you know, big empty country, young: it hasn't got a very big population base with which to produce achievements and history and stuff. And it hasn't been going all that long: it hasn't had a great time span. Yet, with relatively few people and in a fairly short time, their history is very eventful and interesting. I didn't know anything about their gold rushes, for instance. And their gold rushes are at least as interesting as the California gold rushes or the Canadian gold rushes. The stories of who came and what they did and what happened and everything are really, really interesting. All of the natural history is unusual and, particularly from the outside, it's very exotic.
The feeling you have when you hear a story or you read something in the paper, something that's news to you, and you want to go immediately and tell people: Did you see that story? Here, read this. And you kind of want to share it. But I felt like that all the time in Australia. Everything I was reading or hearing or learning was stuff that I didn't know about before then. And it was just so interesting that I just wanted to rush off and tell everybody.
You comment on that early in the book. That Australia is like the world's best kept secret. And how you'd done a search on news stories about Australia in The New York Times and in one year there were fewer stories than had been done on bananas.
That's right! It was. Literally. The country is just completely ignored. But it's not ignored because it's boring. It's just ignored because nobody is watching it. We don't pay any attention to it.
Like the nuclear testing by that cult group.
Right. The Aum Shinri Kyo. It's amazing. That these people could just make their own nuclear bomb, put it off in the desert and nobody would notice it. I mean, God!
For four years.
Right. And then it was just kind of a fluke that somebody somewhere kind of put two and two together.
Do you have a favorite story from Australia?
The two things that were the most unexpectedly wonderful were Ayers Rock or Uluru, as it's properly known now, and the Great Barrier Reef. Both of them, by the time you get to them, you feel as though you've already seen them.
They were two places I went to sort of out of sense of duty. If you're doing a book on Australia, you've got to go to Ayers Rock and you've got to go to the Great Barrier Reef. I wasn't aching to see either one of these things. Especially Ayers Rock: it's right in the middle of the country and a long way from anywhere. You've really got to want to get to it. And it's a rock. Just an object in the middle of the desert. How interesting can that be?
So I went thinking: OK. I'll go and see it because I have to. And I got there and it was just wonderful. Just totally arresting. Completely mesmerizing in a way I'd never expected. Almost in a kind of weird way. It felt as if there was something special -- something primitive -- in a sense. The only thing I can liken it to is -- I don't know if you remember in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey when they find the monoliths that have obviously been put there by somebody else? That kind of feeling: it feels almost as though they were put there by some alien people as a kind of marker or something. I obviously don't believe that's what happened. But that sort of feeling. It was uncanny.
The Great Barrier Reef was good in much the same way. I'm not interested in aquatic environments and fish swimming around and -- you know, you go and see it and tell me about it this evening. I went out there and I was just completely transfixed. I didn't expect that at all. It's so beautiful and there's just so much and there's just a wealth of different kinds of things there.
So both of those are things that I didn't think could possibly exceed their reputations and did.
I loved the part about the date farm at Alice Springs. The desert environment you get to pay to go see in the desert. I loved the deadpan of it: You mean to tell me they've recreated a desert environment in the desert?
That was about the size of it. [Laughs]
It was ironic. But there's lots of irony in this book. You always see irony, don't you? You see irony where other people don't always see it.
I suppose it helped to have lived in Britain for a long time, because they do specialize in that. Though I'm sure I learned a lot of that in Britain, I also think that's part of why I responded to Britain. I can remember when I first went there thinking: These people are really funny. I like this. It was as if I was sort of wired for this but the connection had never been made. In Iowa you didn't get that kind of humor. So it was as if a switch had been flipped and I suddenly had this sort of new neural circuits that were lighting up. And I thought: God, this is great. I love it.
So yeah, I really do like deadpan and irony and understatement and all that. I think it's brilliant. When it works, I just think it's great. There's something just so terrific about a good deadpan joke.
You were born in 1951?
How many children?
Four. Two boys, two girls. The boys are nine and 21. And the girls are 15 and 20.
Do they think you're funny?
Sometimes, but not really. Mostly they just think I'm kind of dumb. I guess everyone thinks their dad is dumb, especially if dad makes jokes.
"Dad thinks he's funny."
And I am dumb. With them, I am dumb. Like when I'm driving I like to comment on stuff. One I always remember is a Pennsylvania state license plate with a slogan on it -- they've all got a slogan on them. And this one said: You've got a friend in Pennsylvania. And I used to always love to say: Well, why doesn't he call? The kids just thought this was so stupid: Get a life, Dad. So no, they don't think I'm terribly uproarious.
Is your wife a writer as well?
No. She's a nurse by training. Psychiatric nurse. Which of course she always says was great training. [Laughs] But very quickly after I started freelancing she had to give up working because with me going away so much, somebody has to be there reliably with four kids. She really couldn't. So she kind of runs everything.
Who is your favorite travel writer? Who do you read?
I really like Redmond O'Hanlon. And I really like Tim Cahill. And what I like about both of them is that they are proper travelers. They go to dangerous places. They engage in high risk activities. But they also write very, very well and are both extremely funny. And, you know, as someone who toils at that end of the literary spectrum, you can appreciate when someone writes a really good comic passage. I read them and kind of think: I wish I had done that. That's really good. And also, Redmond O'Hanlon, more than Tim Cahill, is extremely learned. He's a trained naturalist. And he writes with great knowledge about all kinds of things to do with wildlife and birds and stuff without showing off. Not easy to do and he just sort of tosses off his knowledge very lightly.
You do that very well, though.
Well, that's very kind of you to say, but they do it so well. They're just really great writers. I don't read a lot of travel literature. I kind of like to get away from it. It's kind of like, you know, being a brain surgeon and having to read neurological magazines or something. For pleasure I wouldn't necessarily read travel stuff. But when I do read it, almost every writer -- even the guys I don't particularly like -- there's always a lot of stuff to admire. Because, you know, you've tried to do the same sort of thing at some point. Describe a sunset or the mountains. So when you see somebody else who's done it really well, you think: I know that that wasn't easy.
But nobody does quite what you do. Look at things so knowledgeably and so well and funny, too. You don't seem to take yourself very seriously, in a very delightful way.
It's very kind of you to say. I'm increasingly enjoying the challenge of trying to be amusing here and actually be more serious there. The thing that I think I've learned from writing is that you can write funny books, but they don't have to be funny in every line. Because at first I thought you had to just keep providing jokes. And I think it wears thin after a while. You can't keep it up. There's a reason why standup comedians aren't up for six hours at a time. There's a limit to how much of that you want. My own feeling is that it works more effectively if you dispense it in dribs and drabs. But, also, there's room in these books for slightly more sober reflection. It's kind of interesting and a challenge to move back and forth between those things and trying to keep it so it sounds coherent.
Have you ever been to a place that was just so horrible you didn't want to say anything about it?
The closest I came was the Appalachian trail in Walk in the Woods. Because every day when you're hiking it's the same endlessly repetitive activity. You're walking essentially the same landscape day after day. You're in the woods and tomorrow you'll be in those same woods. And the day after. I had kind of a feeling of panic much of the time we were walking because: What am I going to say in this book? We're not doing anything. All we're doing is just advancing in these tiny little increments day after day and nothing's happening. We're not really meeting people most of the time. We're not having interesting conversations. Encounters with wildlife or anything.
I had no notes, I had nothing. If you read the book, I don't talk [in] very much detail about the actual walking. I do at first just to kind of establish what we're doing and this is what it's like but then, you know, I tend to say: And so we walked for the next week. That's about as much as I'd have to say about the actual physical walking. Then I'd go off on these tangents, talking about wilderness and national parks or US Forest Service or something like that.
Walking just happens to be the thread that ties it all together?
Yeah. Because there wasn't really anything to say. And it's an awful feeling of being four weeks into the hike and feeling committed to something and thinking: I'm never going to get a book out of this.
But you got a very successful book out of it.
Yes. But there was no overmatter. There was nothing left. Everything: every scrap of paper, every newspaper clipping, every factoid I'd come out with. The manila envelopes were empty when I'd finished that book. Of course, with Australia there was all kinds of stuff left. There was lots more I could have done. But I just thought: Well, maybe people have had enough of explorers. Or, maybe they'd had enough natural history. Because there were lots of other good stories. | July 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.
Read January Magazine's 1997 interview with Bill Bryson