Author Interview: Bill Bryson on family, writing inspiration, and his changing perspective on the United Kingdom
Bill Bryson has written over twenty non-fiction books covering topics as diverse as history, travel, science and Shakespeare. Holly Newson spoke to Bill about family, the inspiration behind his writing, and his changing perspective on the United Kingdom.
You can listen to the full interview above.
So could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself for anyone who might not be familiar with your work?
Well, my name is Bill Bryson and I grew up in America, but I came to England as a young man, which is many, many, many years ago. About 40 years ago altogether. And met an English girl, married her and settled here. So I’ve spent most of my adult life in England where, for the last 25 years or so, I’ve been a writer.
What made you want to start writing?
Well, I worked on Fleet Street, on newspapers, and I got a little tired of commuting in and out of London. And in my spare time I was writing a lot of freelance articles for various newspapers and magazines and I just thought that was a more interesting way of making a living. So in 1987 I decided to quit my job. We sold our house in outer London, and my wife and I moved with our children up to the Yorkshire Dales. I started trying to make a living as a writer from that point.
Your writing is based around a variety of genres - you've written about history, science and travel - which sort of writing comes most naturally to you?
I don’t know if any of it does! Writing always feels like hard work to me. It is work I really enjoy, but I suppose it’s the same with anything you try to do well - by trying to do it well, it makes it hard to do. I’ve just always seen myself as a journalist and I like to do a variety of different kinds of writing, which is why I’ve dipped into and out of so many different genres.
Is there anything that you enjoy most about writing?
Of the actual writing process itself, I would struggle to tell you which part of it I find enjoyable, but I do enjoy the life it gives me. One of the things I’m able to do is travel, a lot, generally at other people’s expense. I meet a lot of really interesting people. I’m pretty successful now, but even when I wasn’t making very much money, I had a really happy and enjoyable life. It’s a lot better than going to an office every day and sitting at a desk and essentially do the same thing day after day. One of the wonderful things to me as a writer is I get so much variety in my life and I get to meet so many different people from so many different walks of life.
Are there any books out there, written by other authors, that you really admire or wish you’d written?
Oh sure, there’s always loads. The one thing I wish I could do and I can’t - I have no talent for at all - I’d love to have written fiction. I mean, I think I would have really enjoyed myself if I’d had a knack for writing just kind of light-weight but very enjoyable fiction. Things like the Godfather novels or Jaws or that kind of thing. I mean I’m not talking about heavy literary endeavours, but just the kinds of things people read on the beach in the summer time. Or a series of thriller books, you know, murder mysteries, something like that. I think I would have found that very satisfying to do.
In your science and history writing, is there any fact or piece of information that you’ve discovered that has stuck with you as being particularly fascinating?
In terms of actual facts - I’m sure there are, but nothing leaps to mind immediately. What did leap out at me were two things really. One is that when you look into it, everything in the universe is interesting. There isn’t anything that isn’t in some way fundamentally interesting, because it all goes to explain who we are, and what we do and how we got here. I find that amazing.
And the other thing that really amazed me was to discover the enthusiasm that scientists have for their fields. People in science can often work on very specific, very arcane disciplines that I would never have the stick-to-it-ive-ness to do. I’m thinking, for instance, one of the most delightful people I met when I was working on that book [A Short History of Nearly Everything] was a guy whose whole life is devoted to mosses. He collects and classifies mosses. To you and me and pretty much anybody else, any two mosses seem pretty much the same. There’s not much to choose among them, but to this man, who is at the Natural History Museum, he got incredibly enlivened by mosses.
It was just wonderful to watch, to see that, to realise there are people who can do that. I mean I’m saying this without the least bit of making fun of him, I’ve got great admiration for people like that; there will be those people who can get excited about mosses and you know all of these very specific, arcane things.
That was a real revelation to me. We tend to think of science as all about big breakthroughs by people like Newton and Einstein, but really it’s accumulation of little bits of information, from hundreds and thousands of anonymous people.
And so to go to one of your books specifically - A Walk in the Woods - you set out to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail. How did your family react when you told them you were going to do that?
Well, they thought I was crazy, I mean they really did. My wife was really supportive - she’s always been extremely supportive, she was not at all happy at the prospect of me going off for weeks at the time and I wasn’t either. I mean, I wasn’t looking forward to that part of it. But she has always realised that this is what I do for a living, and this is how I pay the bills, so she’s always been very supportive and letting me go off and do these things when I feel I need to gather materials to write my books.
You’ve said before that whilst you travel a lot, you really love being at home. Is it just the writing that pushes you to keep travelling?
Yeah, I mean now that my kids have grown up, my wife and I are able to travel together and that’s the most fun thing of all. One of the things I particularly enjoy about my life now is I can take her to places that she wasn’t able to go 20 years ago because she was the one who had to stay home and raise the kids - you know get them off to school and everything. So while I spent all this time off enjoying myself she was stuck at home, and now I can take her to places. Nothing makes us happier than to go to some place at our own expense without me having to take notes or write about it or do anything, but just to go and show her places that I’ve been and to explore places with her. That I love to do now.
Is there anywhere that you or you both hope to travel next?
Oh, that is a very good question. The one place we go a lot now, and we really enjoy, we go to Colorado, because my youngest son lives there. He’s working in the ski industry in the Rocky Mountains. So we go there usually twice a year to visit him but then often we build in some other side trips there.
In the coming months we’re going to go to America on holiday, and then go see my son Sam. In the late summer, we do something that will be able to go with the whole family, all our children and grandchildren - we go to Italy and rent a house and just have a week and half somewhere, usually in Tuscany. I'm looking forward to that a lot.
Have you got any plans to write anymore about travel, or is it just about enjoying it now?
I don’t have any specific plans to write about travel but I have been saying for years quite sincerely that I would love to do a book on Canada. So that’s something that I keep thinking about doing, but at this stage I don’t have any concrete plans to begin on that.
In your most recent book, The Road to Little Dribbling, you revisit Britain, which is obviously changed a lot since your first visit. How has your perspective on England changed, having lived here for so many years?
Well, a lot of reviewers have said that I’ve become a lot grumpier and it surprised me a little bit, because I thought I’ve always been quite grumpy! But I was genuinely surprised because I really tried quite hard not to be a grumpy old man, because there is nothing more tedious than a grumpy old man. So I was trying to avoid that, and I was really straining to look for positive things to write about. But inevitably, as I travel around a country, and it’s not just Britain but anywhere, any place that you know, if you look at it, you are going to find things that you see as having deteriorated. I mean, I saw many things I thought that have gotten a lot better, but there’s always going to be things that you think have gotten worse. And for some reason, people that are reading the book this time seem to focus more on the negatives that I was writing about than the positives. But really there’s really plenty of both.
And do you think that if you were seeing Britain for the first time now, your opinion on it would be different from when you first did come to Britain?
Yeah there is that, I’ve often thought that, like anybody else I can kind of go through Britain and look at it all sort of critically and think ‘oh God, why aren’t these things better?’, but if I came here straight from America for the first time, actually Britain would seem pretty much like a paradise to me because it is a really fine country in so many ways.
Like anybody else I’ve got kind of blinded to that in some ways because I live here all the time and experience these things every day. If you go somewhere else and see what it’s like in the rest of the world and then come back to Britain, you do realise it is very beautiful. It has really fantastic health service, it has really fantastic public transport system, certainly compared with America, and it has a kind of overall level of civilisation and quality of life that other countries can only dream about.
Thanks to Bill Bryson for speaking to us.
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