Bill Bryson - The accidental travel writer
The award-winning and much-loved travel writer, Bill Bryson, tells our reporter about his unusual life in print and why, despite having itchy feet, he's happiest at home with his wife
Standing in the foyer of the rather fancy Langham hotel in central London, Bill Bryson, sensible anorak on, looks like a member of the Ramblers' Club who took a wrong turn somewhere at a country stile. He seems a little bewildered. But this, he says, is his typical response to doing a book tour. He doesn't find the transition easy, each time he is wrenched from his quiet, peaceful existence in Hampshire, where he lives with his wife Cynthia, and sets out onto the promo trail. "From time to time you are thrust into this public world in which you are expected to be extrovert and all these things that you're not," he explains. "I've done it long enough now that I don't resent it or anything, but it always feels unnatural . . . I kind of want to just get back to my normal life - to get back to writing books. I much prefer writing books than talking about them."
With his ruddy face, russet beard and cheery grin, Bryson looks like a comfort-loving, hedgerow creature - the sort you might find knocking around Tolkein's Shire. But this eminently affable, gentle demeanour in person gives away none of the sharpness, the acerbic wit of Bryson on the page. After all, he has built his writing career on making wry, jaundiced and sometimes acid observations of the world. And this instantly recognisable tone, carefully balanced between enthusiasm and pessimism, is much beloved by his army of loyal readers.
Bryson started his professional life as a sub-editor on British newspapers. He grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and spent much of his early life desperate to get away from there. Both his parents were journalists - his father a sports writer of some renown - so there was never really any question that he would work in print. "It was the only thing I could do," he says. "It was a little bit like being able to play the piano and not knowing whether you were going to end up as a jazz pianist in a grotty club or whether you were going to be working with an orchestra."
As it turns out, slumming it in a (metaphorical) grotty club wasn't to be. He is an extremely successful writer, and his books are bought in great number all across the world. This year, his work made it to the silver screen - or at least, the film adaptation of his 1998 memoir of hiking the Appalacian trail, A Walk In the Woods, was released, starring Robert Redford. Although beyond granting the rights, Bryson himself wasn't involved in the project.
His path to becoming a comic travel writer and Britain's favourite American ex-pat started way back when he was in his early 20s, though it took many more years before he was actually published. He'd taken a break from college to go backpacking around Europe, found himself in England and, almost on a whim, applied for a job as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital in Surrey. It was there that he met his wife Cynthia, a nurse - a happy accident that would define the course his life and career would take. Through marriage to her, he became a sort of professional ex-pat. Settling with her in the UK was a displacement which gave him a useful vantage-point from which to observe the world. It all happened pretty accidentally. "I didn't want to be a travel writer," he says. "I mean that wasn't my ambition. I just stumbled into that genre."
In fact, after starting his career as a sub-editor in Britain, his initial reasons for turning to writing were almost entirely pragmatic. He didn't start to write, he says, "with any great ambitions to become famous. I didn't have any great story I wanted to tell . . ." Rather it got to the point where he thought, "actually, I think I could make more money and have a more pleasurable life by writing rather than by sub-editing."
At it turned out, he was right. The Lost Continent, the book he wrote about small- town life in America was published in 1989 and was an instant hit. The Bryson voice, as it jumped off the written page, resonated with readers immediately. It seemed to have emerged fully-formed.
And yet, he says, it doesn't come automatically to him. Even now, as he promotes The Road To Little Dribbling, a follow-up to mark the 20th anniversary of Notes From A Small Island, his much-loved account of travelling around Britain in the mid-1990s.
"With every single book, it takes me quite some time to find that voice again," he confesses. "It's a strange process. Because obviously it's my voice. But the first few drafts or first pages or the first chapter or whatever, often they just don't sound right. Sometimes they're a bit too nasty or too melodramatic or too boring. And I'm groping for just the right tone. Once you get that, it does seem to me that all the rest starts to fall into place much more."
To what extent is the voice of his books a true reflection of him as a person? "Sometimes hardly at all," he says. "It's partly me. I mean it is me. Those are my experiences, those are the feelings I had. But it's all been filtered and it always alarms me a bit when people read my books and then think that they somehow know me a lot. Because I give away very little about certain parts of my life. My children have never been in my books in any meaningful way - you know I have children and they are there in the background somewhere but they don't really exist in the books. And my wife, when she appears it's very one-dimensional - this person behind me who kind of looks after me and keeps me sane. But you don't really know that much about her other than, I hope, that I have a certain amount of real affection for her."
As fans of Bryson will know, he married Cynthia when they were both in their 20s, and they have now been together for more than 40 years. They have four children and latterly, a cluster of grandchildren too. But, he insists, the reader "really knows nothing at all about my relationship with my family, very little about my politics, you really have to guess all that stuff. So I'm not giving away a lot about me. I am this narrative voice. It is me, but it's only part of me. I think that's inevitable with any book."
His wife is largely comfortable with the rather glancing character-portrait he has created for her. "In all the years that I've written, only once has she requested that I change something," he says. "And that was when years ago I used to do a column for the Mail on Sunday about our life when we were living in America (the Brysons moved back to America for almost a decade in the 1990s), and I made her sound very bossy in the garden." This, he insists in his defence, was perfectly accurate. "She is. In the garden she's very bossy. She can use all the Latin terms - it's a very English thing, because she's listened to Gardeners' Question Time for years. Whereas I do gardening spontaneously and just by guesswork." Anyway, he "hinted that she was a bit of a slave-driver in the garden, and she said. 'You can't say that about me.'" In the end, however, he "went ahead and said it anyway."
It's a gentle anecdote, but one that reveals a little of the dynamic of his marriage. In any case, it's obviously happy enough to endure a little gentle mocking. He describes it as "a great comfort in my life. The thing is, you both change a lot. We're nothing like the people we were when we were 20, when we first met. You move along and you can understand why so many people divorce . . . If you are actually able to stay on the same path, it's kind of a miracle. And it's just wonderful. I have lots of friends who have got divorced and you just think, life is just so much smoother when (you can stay together)" he says, revealing that Bryson pragmatism again. "I mean in emotional terms you are very lucky, but just in practical terms you are also very lucky. Because you don't have all those problems of who is going to be there at the wedding and who is going to have the Christmas. I would hate to be divorced and have to deal with all the practicalities."
"The great thing is also when you've been married for a long time, you've watched your children growing up, you're now getting grandchildren - we both feel exactly the same. What fills most of our heads emotionally are the same things, so we have all that shared, the love for our children and the grandchildren. It's a really powerfully bonding thing. Marriage gets better and better. And I think the best part is when your kids have grown up and you can actually relax and spend time together."
'The Road to Little Dribbling', published by Doubleday, is out now, €18.99. Bill Bryson will be the recipient of the International Recognition Award at the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards on Wednesday, November 25, 2015; www.irishbookawards.ie
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