Q&A with best-selling travel author Bill Bryson

Seth Bodine

Bill Bryson is an internationally-recognized travel author, writing humorous stories such as hiking on the Appalachian Trail or his travels as an American in Britain. His book “A Walk in the Woods has been turned into a film starring Robert Redford and Emma Thompson. He is from Des Moines, Iowa, but he started off his writing career as a copy editor for local newspapers in Britain while he was in his 20s. While he had been writing travel articles part-time, it wasn’t until he was 37 that he decided to write travel articles full-time as a freelance writer. 

Best-selling author Bill Bryson spoke at the Lory Student center about his books (Photo Credit: Seth Bodine)
Best-selling author Bill Bryson spoke at the Lory Student Center about his books. (Photo Credit: Seth Bodine.)

His newest book “The Road to Little Dribbling” depicts his return to Britain, traveling to Cape Wrath from Bognor Regis. It is on the New York Times Best Seller list. Sunday, Bryson came to Colorado State University to talk about his humorous travels in detail. The Collegian spoke to him in a small group about traveling and living abroad. 

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Q: So what brought you to live in Britain? 
A: That was a complete accident — a happy accident. I mean, all that happened was I was 20 years old, I was hitchhiking around Europe the way everybody was doing in those days, and at the end of the summer, I was supposed to go home and go back to Iowa. I finished my sophomore year at Drake in Des Moines. I was supposed to start my junior year, and I stumbled into a job that, just by chance, I knew somebody who worked at this psychiatric hospital outside London and they said, “You could get a job here, too, if you want.” So I just did. I was intending to just stay one semester, go back to Des Moines at Christmas and resume my college career in January.

But in the meantime, I met a student nurse who’s my wife now, and that kind of changed everything. I fell for her, and I fell for England and over the years — now, that’s 41 years ago — in that time, we have lived back in America for about a quarter of that time, but we’ve spent three-quarters of that time living in England. Because I like it. I like living in England. I like being a foreigner. It wasn’t like I was fleeing America or I was repelled from it in some way — I just happened to stumble accidentally into this alternative life. Like I said, I come back to America as often as I can because I do miss a lot of things about it, but strangely, I feel more at home now in England because I spent virtually all of my adult life there. 

Q: Do you still feel like a foreigner in England? 
A:
Yeah, in a strange way. Because, I mean, and now I feel like a foreigner in America, too. It’s a strange thing, because in both places, I also feel like a native. Because, you know, I grew up here, so obviously I am a native, but in England, I’ve lived there so long that I really feel like I understand the place and I know it. You know, any kind of cultural reference you could make, I know what you’re talking about because I’ve lived there for so long. So I’m very much at home there. At the same time, because of the way my life has ended up, I have a distance between just a step back from the rest of the country and the same in America. When it comes to politics, these are no longer my politics. It’s my country, but it’s not my politics. So I have this kind of distance. I’m watching America, not actually being a part of it anymore. So it’s the same thing in England, and that’s not a bad thing at all to me when you’re a writer, because little distance for your material is a good thing. It’s just a privileged position to be in, because if you know the society really well and things are going well, you can step forward and kind of join in on the celebrations. But if things aren’t going well, you can step back and say, “It’s not my fault — nothing to do with me. They’re out of their minds. I don’t know why.”

Q: What are some of the most important things you’ve learned while traveling? 
A: 
Well, the thing that fascinates me about travel is how humans beings are all essentially identical. I mean, we all obviously physically have four limbs and a brain, two sexes and all that. We all do — anywhere you go in the world, essentially the same things. Whether you’re American or Chinese or German or whatever, you know, the likelihood is that you’ll be woken up in the morning by an alarm clock and you go off to work or go to school or whatever. But you have the kind of days of productivity and then you relax and you eat. Eventually, you can get a job and raise a family and all of that. So everybody, all of the world — we’re all engaged in almost identical things. Most the same kinds of activities and more or less identical bodies. Humans are obviously very much a cohesive unit, and yet as you go around to place to place, culture to culture, the details of all of it are all different.What kind of cars you drive, or what you watch on television to what kind of movies you go to, what foods you eat and, of course, languages and all these other things. What sort of houses you live in. How much privacy you require. All of that — every bit of it — is very, very different, and I find that really interesting how we can be similar as a species but then there’s so much variety everywhere.

That’s what I think keeps — that keep me going, that fascination with seeing how other people do things. You go to another country, another culture, and some of the things they do you think, “This is so good. This is the most delicious food. Why don’t we eat this where I come from?” or equally, “This is revolting.” But, in either case, you’re learning something. You’re seeing your horizons expanding. Sometimes in ways that make your home look better, and some ways that make it look worse, and I think that’s so interesting. 

Q: What is your favorite place you’ve traveled to? 
A: 
That’s a really tough question. I mean, if you put aside America and Britain because those are the two countries I’ve lived in and have the deepest emotional attachment. So, if I just think of places I’ve just visited, I think probably the place I’m fondest of is Australia. In my experience, people have gone to Australia and New Zealand and they fall for one or the other, and I really like New Zealand a lot, but I really fell for Australia. I think the people are really, really attractive, they have a great lifestyle, they drink a lot of beer. They enjoy themselves, but also work hard and have a dynamic society and they’re good-natured, funny and very likable people. Very outdoorsy — I like that a lot. 

Q: Is there a place besides Britain or America that you’d stay for the rest of your life? 
A: 
Oh, if you removed all the practical considerations — a big reason why I stay in Britain is because that’s where my children and grandchildren, and all (those) family reasons. But if I didn’t have to think about that or if you removed all the language issues and everything else, just in terms of general backdrop, a place I find very appealing … is Italy. In practical terms, I couldn’t live there because I don’t speak the language and I’d miss all my family. But in terms “I really like it here,” Italy would do. 

Q: What is it about Italy? 
A:
Everything. It’s historic, it’s beautiful. They’re very stylish. There’s a kind of enthusiasm about life. There’s so much energy there, just when you watch two guys having a cup of coffee and they’re just flinging their arms everywhere. They’re talking with great passion, you know, they could be talking about anything. Who even knows that they’re talking about. When we sit around and have a cup of coffee we just sort of talk quietly. They’re all gesticulated. All of that. The food is great, the culture, the art, everything. So I would not have any trouble filling days there. 

Collegian Reporter Seth Bodine can be reached at news@collegian.com or via Twitter @sbodine120.