Interviewing Bill Bryson is a dangerous occupation, both in the preparation and the execution. I found this out the hard way while researching my chat with the multi-million selling author, and again when writing it up.
“I’ll just dip into Notes from a Small Island for some background, do a brief check on a few details from A Walk in the Woods, and re-read the first page of Neither Here Nor There,” I thought to myself. That was folly. Turns out it’s impossible to pick up a Bryson book for a quick flick even if, like me, you’ve already read everything the great man has ever written.
It was only with a deadline looming and a gargantuan effort of will that I wrenched myself away from such gems as this: “I found myself squeezing through holes in chainlink fences and picking my way between rusting railway carriages with broken windows. I don’t know how other people get to the ferry at Calais, but I had the distinct feeling that no-one had ever done it this way before. And all the while I walked I was uncomfortably aware – actually in a whimpering panic – that departure time was drawing nigh and that the ferry terminus, though always visible, never actually seemed to get any closer.”
Well, you see my problem. Thankfully (and to my great relief – I am a superfan after all), Bryson the man is just as engaging, entertaining and goddamn lovely as his writing. I mention something a friend said recently, that if you see someone laughing out loud while reading a book, it’s likely to be by Bill Bryson. That must be a nice feeling?
“Sometimes people will write and say something like one of my books brought them some comfort when their dad was dying, and that’s the nicest possible thing,” says Bryson. “That always blows me away, to think that I was emotionally involved with people. As a writer, you don’t have any sense of that.
“Writing is quite a lonely way of connecting with the world because you don’t have any direct feedback. So when you hear something from someone who’s read something you’ve written, that in itself is fantastic. But if it’s actually had some kind of emotional meaning for them, well then.”
Fans of Bryson’s work will have the chance to see the man himself next month – in Manchester and Oxford. In order to promote his new book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, the 67-year-old is on tour, and will be revealing what prompted him to delve into what he calls “the extraordinary contraption that is us”. As the book isn’t published until October, he can’t give too much away.
“What I can certainly say is that the thing I found was this – there isn’t any part of the body that isn’t just amazing. This sounds like a glib and fatuous thing to say but what I found in looking at the body in detail is that it’s all amazing. And what’s particularly amazing about it is the way it all fits together. You have all of these systems inside you and they all work co-operatively. But there’s no boss, there’s no little headquarters in your body that is running the show. It’s all these random chemical actions that somehow make you, you. To me, that’s the most astonishing thing there is.”
Bryson is no stranger to complex subjects. In his award-winning examination of the science of our world in A Short History of Nearly Everything, he achieved the seemingly impossible by making deeply complicated topics both understandable and entertaining. As someone whose only interest in science extends to the TV show The Big Bang Theory, I certainly never expected to enjoy reading about the troposphere, Darwin’s singular notion, and alpha particles. Nevertheless, I loved it.
I ask Bryson if, after committing to writing a book, does he ever think, oh my god, what have I taken on?
“That happens every time, seriously it happens every time, particularly with books like this. When I did A Short History of Nearly Everything, which was my book about trying to understand science and the universe, what you discover is that not only do I know nothing, but lots and lots of really qualified experts have already written books on these subjects. So there’s this feeling like, what am I doing? What was I thinking? And all I can do in that situation is try to make a virtue of my ignorance. And, with these books, I do what you’re doing now, which is what any reporter does, you come to a subject and may know nothing about it but you just ask questions, and you try and learn enough that you can put some words on the page or the screen. But you start from a position of not knowing anything.”
Bryson’s background in journalism stood him in good stead for asking questions and learning about the world. From early roles at the Bournemouth Evening Echo and The Independent, the US-born writer also worked for Rupert Murdoch while a sub-editor on the business desk at The Times. He describes this experience in the book that made his name, Notes from a Small Island (1995), and we happily exchange anecdotes about our respective times in Wapping (I joined the paper shortly after Bryson left), including the “little cave made of newspapers and press releases” that made up Graham Searjeant’s desk (page 58, if you’re interested). But the mean streets and, in the 90s, the rat-infested Wapping alleyways, are a far cry from where Bryson is today.
For a time, Bryson, who now holds dual American/British citizenship, lived in Yorkshire. “I don’t know why exactly but I just love the Yorkshire Dales. I’m happy to accept that other parts of Britain are at least as beautiful, possibly even more beautiful, but for some reason the Dales is what got me. Every time I go there I just love it. There’s something about the lush valley floors and then the more bleak uplands that are gorgeous.” He adds: “But Lancashire is a strong candidate for being the most under-rated county in Britain.”
As for his upcoming book tour, is he looking forward to coming to Manchester?
“Of course I am. I have developed a great fondness for Manchester. It’s funny because I’m also doing Oxford on the same trip, the two cities that I was hardest on in Notes from a Small Island. And I think both of them are the two places that have improved the most in Britain since I wrote that book all those years ago. I think Manchester has immensely improved.”
While he became famous for his travel writing, Bryson’s chameleon-like ability to turn his hand to anything is what has kept him in the public eye – and heart. Bryson devotees all have their favourite books (and best-loved passages), whether it’s his wickedly funny Down Under, his thoughtful and nuanced At Home, or the more recent The Road to Little Dribbling. In total, Bryson has sold 9.8 million books since 1998 and scooped more awards and accolades than you can shake a stick at. But does he have a favourite book, one that means more than the others?
“That’s a tough one. I have a particular fondness for the book I most enjoyed doing which was probably The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. That was about me growing up in Des Moines [in Iowa] in the 1950s and 60s. It was a pleasure to do because I didn’t have to do any research really, it was my life. It was pretty easy. But also I just had such a great time revisiting my childhood. It was a pretty happy childhood and what I found was, a lot of people said to me ‘how do you remember these things?’, but what you find is, if you just close your eyes and concentrate, you can remember all kinds of things from your earlier life that you may not have thought about for years. It also helped that I went back to Des Moines and looked through the windows of my old schools and that kind of stuff, and being there brings back a lot of memories. But mostly it was what I could recall from what my brain fed me.”
For such a prolific writer, surely Bryson has a new book on the go? He says not.
“I’m really trying to retire. I haven’t quite decided what I’m going to do with myself but what I promised my wife, my dear long-suffering wife, is that I won’t take anything on right away or for some time and instead we’re going to do some travelling. We both love walking and exploring and I would really like to go off and spend some time exploring more of Britain and the Continent.
“One of the pleasures of growing old is that your work is done. You’ve raised your family and everything and it begins to feel that this is time you should have with your partner and so we are looking forward to that.”
If anyone deserves a rest, it’s Bill Bryson. But, as readers, we hope that he picks up his pen at least one more time.
Bill Bryson is bringing Observations On Life And The Human Body Tour to Manchester on October 5, 2019. Tickets can be purchased from https://lateralevents.com/public-events/bill-bryson-2019/.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants is published on October 3, 2019