Interview with Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is softly spoken but has a certain precision in choosing his words, pointing to where the acerbic wit dotted through his 22 books comes from. When I ask him if he’s up-to-date with the current PM, referencing the first section of his novel Down Under about his travels around Australia, it could go either way; he could play along, or decide I’m a dickhead. Thankfully he’s happy to joke, chiming in with “Oh yes. I mean I know that it’s Mr Costello…”

Of course, he does know that it’s actually Tony Abbott (and “people seem to be disgruntled with him at the moment”) but his willingness to be playful and have fun with serious subjects in his books – covering history, science, language, and travel – is perhaps what has made him one of the best-selling non-fiction authors in the world. This coupled with his astute observations and understanding of the places he has visited is why people like him. For example, he reflects further on Abbott, “I kind of miss John Howard in a strange way. I know I used to make a lot of fun of him, but you sort of knew where you were with him.” It’s the kind of comment that makes you think he’s been keeping across Australian politics since his last visit .

Bryson is out in Australia not only to promote his latest historical novel, One Summer: America 1927, but will also appear on stage with Ray Martin for a talk series entitled Many a True Word. “It’s essentially me telling the story of my life and career, how I work, and I what believe in and think about,” he says.

“I’m being guided by Ray Martin; he’ll be asking the questions and setting the pace… his basic assignment is to get my life story told… To try and make it more stimulating there’s also some filmed sections; they’ve taken some footage from both my home movies and some television programs I’ve made in the past, and things like that.”

Calling from his Sydney hotel room, I spoke to him ahead of the tour about his writing process, whether he’d ever write fiction, and the people he’s offended over the years with his opinion of their town.

Anna Horan: To get started, what sparks an idea for you when writing a book? Do you see a place or hear about something and go, ‘I want to go there,’ or ‘I want to know more about that’?
Bill Bryson: That happens all the time. It’s natural to be curious about a lot of things. But when I’m going to do a book about it, the thing I have to factor in is that it’s going to be a big commitment of time and energy to a particular subject. So it’s got to be something you’re pretty confident you’re going to remain interested in for three or four years, or however long it takes to do the research or the writing.

The other thing you have to factor in is: does it have some commercial viability? You have to persuade publishers in London, New York, Sydney, Toronto, everywhere, that this is a story that has reasonable chance of selling in their own markets, and that’s not always the easiest thing in the world. Those are the kinds of considerations that determine what books you write.

AH: So where do you sit down to write? Can you describe it?
BB: Ideally it’s at home. I’ve got a really nice home office, just a room in our house where my desk, and computer, and all my books and papers are – that’s where I work the best. But because I travel so much, an awful lot of what I do is done in airport waiting rooms and hotel rooms and places like that. I was working just a little bit this morning in my hotel room here in Sydney. I have to say that the best invention in my lifetime has been the laptop computer. You can do things now… you can work just about as effectively in a remote location as you can at home at your own desk.

AH: You’ve said before that you don’t often go travelling with your wife because you like to come home and tell her about it. Has that changed?
BB: Yeah, it has changed. That’s not exactly correct. It wasn’t like I didn’t want her to come with me so that I could have the pleasure of telling her about it. But for a long time she couldn’t come with me because somebody had to stay home and raise the kids. We’ve got four children, and it took a long time to raise them and move them on into the adult world. But now they have all grown up and left home, so now generally my wife does accompany me. She’s not with me on this particular trip I’m very sorry to say.

AH: Is talking to your wife or someone else about your trip an important part of your process though?
BB: It’s helpful in that you can see what someone might respond to. Things that excite me don’t necessarily excite other people, and you see that if you start talking to them about whatever it was – Australian politics, or a scandal, or a murder case, or some sporting achievement – sometimes they just listen politely and you see they’re not all that interested. Other times you can see they’re really interested to know more. That’s very helpful in helping you make up your mind about what you want to write about.

AH: You’re one of the biggest & best-selling non-fiction authors, and I’m sure over the years you must have met some pretty interesting characters. Would any of them inspire you to branch into fiction writing?
BB: I don’t think so. In principle I’d love to write fiction, but the problem is I don’t have any stories to tell. I don’t have any plots. The great thing about non-fiction is that the plot is imposed on you by the subject of the book, and I’m very comfortable doing that. If I were confronted with having to do a novel, I wouldn’t quite know how to do it.

AH: Over the years you’ve made some quite acerbic observations which are often funny and sometimes people can take them the wrong way. Have you ever come across someone who has been particularly offended, and they’ve wanted to tell you about it?
BB: Sometimes people are very defensive of their hometown – in Australia I was pretty hard on Canberra, and in England I was pretty hard on Bradford. There were people from both of those locations who were sensitive to what I was saying about their towns, but similarly there are lots of people who say, ‘Actually, you’re absolutely right.’ If you’re going to be truthful, you have to tell people the way things are the way you see them. You are going to have to sometimes ruffle feathers, and be a little bit candid about things and places. It’s just an occupational hazard.

AH: And sometimes sugar coating things can make for pretty boring reading.
BB: Yeah, if you did nothing but said nice things about places nobody would want to read it… Nowhere is perfect, there are always things that could be improved, or there are things that are mystifying to you. You wouldn’t necessarily want to do it that way yourself where you come from. So you’re always looking at these things in a critical way.

AH: You’ve talked before about how woodlands and certain parts of environment aren’t as “lovingly cared for” as you would hope. What do you think about eco-tourism as a means to ‘care for’ the environment?
BB: Personally, I think it’s something that needs to be managed very carefully. On the one hand it can bring a lot of benefits to a region, and for a place that doesn’t have many tourists it can be a very valuable injection of cash into a region. At the same time, just having lots of tourists there can threaten the fragility of an environment, and sometimes it’s not easy to know whether having a lot tourists come to a place is actually good for the place or balances the negative.

The one place I’ve been where they did seem to manage it really, really well was the Seychelles because they try and keep tourist numbers quite low, so the place does not become over-developed. The natural habitat is really quite wonderfully well looked after there, and people are able to go and enjoy it and appreciate it, but without overwhelming it… It’s not easy to strike the balance.

Originally published19 March 2014 on 

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