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Interview with the Bord Gáis Energy International Recognition Award winner 2015: Bill Bryson

November 30, 2015

Bert Wright talks to Bill Bryson, the 2015 winner of the Bord Gáis Energy International Recognition Award.
25 million Bill Bryson books have been sold worldwide and Bill’s latest book The Road to Little Dribbling is the biggest selling non-fiction book in the UK this year.

The Road to Little Dribbling is subtitled More Notes from A Small Island so it’s in some sense a sequel or an update on the state of the nation? How has Britain changed in the interim? Are you still in love with the place or perhaps not so much these days?
I wouldn’t still be here if I wasn’t in love with it. Like any country, Britain has its frustrations, but, as I conclude at the end of my book, it still has a lot of features that make it superior to many other places — a basic decency, excellent sense of humour, good quality of life, a kind of fundamental sanity. (These are, I might note, characteristics it has in common with Ireland.)

By and large, I think life has got vastly better in Britain in the forty years that I have known the place. The food is infinitely better. The National Health Service, which was quite dowdy when I came, is now sparkly and modern almost everywhere. People are better travelled and more worldly and have infinitely more in the way of personal possessions. So, yes, life for almost everyone is much improved.

What particular new developments do you most like and dislike in contemporary Britain? 
Well, this returns to my previous answer, but travel and seeing how other people live is a huge change. When I first came to Britain, I met hardly anyone who had ever been to America or even knew much about it. Most people had barely even been to Europe. My wife, for instance, had only been out of Britain once, on a school trip to Switzerland when she was thirteen or fourteen. That was not at all unusual. Now it is rare to meet someone who hasn’t been to America or Australia, or who hasn’t just come back from a trip to Thailand or Vietnam or India. All that travel means that people are much more exposed to other ways of living and are able to see in what ways Britain is better or worse than other places. It has given them a perspective that they didn’t have before.

I lived in the US for ten years and there is this reciprocal amusement. Americans think we’re strange but cute and quirky, we think Yanks are pushy, full-on and missing an irony gland. What would be the perfect blend of qualities?
The thing always to remember about America is that it is huge and varied, and so it is dangerous to generalize too freely (though I have to say I am probably more guilty of that than most people). Take the point about Americans not appreciating irony. There’s actually a lot of truth in that — but also a vast amount of exception. If, let’s say, just 25 percent of Americans “get” irony, that’s still more than seventy million people, which means that there are more Americans who get irony than the there are Britons and Irish combined.

As for the question about where you find the perfect blend of national characteristics, I would say Australia. Australians have the friendliness and outgoing qualities of Americans, but with a culture and sensibilities (and sense of humour) that are clearly built from a British template. For me, as an American who has lived a long time in Britain, Australia has always seemed a very attractive fusion of the two national temperaments.

You said somewhere that “wherever you are in the country, when you turn on the news, we’re all watching Fiona Bruce, or Huw Edwards, or whatever. Lots of shared experiences. In a country the size of the US or Australia you cannot have that.” But then you have the move towards independence in Scotland and the North/South divide. Do Brits really share a common set of experiences?
Absolutely, in my view. The British are masters at focussing on tiny differences between each other — in terms of accent, education, income, geographical affiliations, you name it. I remember when we lived in a place called Malhamdale in the Yorkshire dales being astounded to find that people could tell whether you came from the top of the dale or bottom of the dale — a distance of five miles — just by how you spoke. Being able to detect those tiny distinctions is really important to the British. It means that the British tend to inflate, in their own minds, their social and regional differences. But to someone from another country, like me, those differences are really very slight.

The thing that most endears you to readers, most would say, is your gentle wry tone which makes the telling point without lacerating. Recently you have said “In countless small ways the world around us grows gradually shittier… I don’t like it at all.” Do you see yourself getting grumpier as the years go by?
Of course. It’s inevitable. You wait till you get old. You’ll bitch a lot, too. The thing I particularly struggle with in contemporary Britain is the pettiness of the Government’s austerity programmes — the drastic cutting of local library hours, the belief that we can no longer afford to maintain municipal flowerbeds and that sort of thing. As I note in The Road to Little Dribbling, if people in the Middle Ages could find the resources to create magnificent edifices like Durham Cathedral, surely it shouldn’t be beyond us to find the funds for a few flowerbeds or to keep a playground open.

You have great sport with the madness of the British giving directions on how to get from here to somewhere else. Here in Ireland we’ve only just introduced postcodes for the first time and the laugh is they are not compulsory! What’s your favourite recent example of weird direction-giving?
One of the changes in my lifetime that most fascinates me is that we don’t have to make our brains work very hard because we have electronic devices that will do a great deal of our thinking for us. An example I give in the book was of an American couple on holiday in a hire car in Britain who wanted to go to a place called Caldey Island, two miles off the Welsh coast near Tenby. They set the sat-nav in their car and it directed them to drive down a boat ramp, proceed across the beach and drive into the sea — and they actually followed those instructions. Fortunately for them, the car got bogged down in sand before it got to the water, but you have to wonder what was going through their heads as this was happening. The answer, I suppose, is: nothing at all.

Little Dribbling is your first travel book in 15 years. What prompted the decision to turn from travel writing to memoir, popular history and science back then? And what prompted you to return to it now?
I never set out to be a travel writer. I am actually a pretty incompetent traveller and certainly not a very bold one. My first proper book was The Lost Continent, in which I travelled around my native America having lived away from it for several years. I didn’t particularly see it as a travel book, but more as a memoir or sociological investigation, but it was categorized as a travel book and the next thing I knew I was more or less pigeon-holed into travel writing as a way of making my living. So, although I enjoyed travel writing, I never saw it as the way I wanted to pass my whole professional life. After a while I began to feel as if I could do with a change and so I started doing other kinds of books — a book on science, a couple of social histories, a biography of William Shakespeare, and so on. I enjoyed all that, but I also missed making jokes, and when my publisher and good friend Larry Finlay pointed out that it was exactly twenty years since I had written Notes from a Small Island, and fifteen since I had written any kind of a travel book, I thought I would give it one more go. The result was The Road to Little Dribbling.

Where are you most at home? Do you see yourself as deracinated in some sense or are you a fully-fledged Englishman after all those years?
I do have British citizenship now — I finally took the test and did all the paperwork a year or so ago — but I will never really be British except in a technical sense. I am an American at root, and expect always to be so. But Britain is my home. I have now lived more than half my life there, and I don’t have any expectation or desire to leave it.

The span of your writing career has seen massive changes in the publishing industry. The whole digital revolution thing, the hegemony of Amazon, the sweeping away of “The Gatekeepers”, self-publishing of e-books and fanfiction are these developments you welcome? Do you use a kindle for instance?
Publishing has changed immensely. I feel very lucky to have come along when I did. Publishing when I started was expanding at a rapid rate. Book sales were thriving and there were lots of new magazines, so there was plenty of work for freelance feature writing — a very good way to generate month-to-month income while I was working on a new book. It was also much easier to build up a following little by little. Far more bookshops offered readings back then, usually by clearing a space at the back of the shop and putting out a few chairs. At the beginning you would read to an audience of perhaps three or four people. Then with your next book you might come back and find that the audience had grown to eight. And then it would grow again with each subsequent book. Now it is much harder to build up a following in those small increments. If you are not able to fill a pretty good sized marquee at a literary festival, there are far fewer opportunities for you. That’s a great shame for new authors, but also a great shame for audiences. I don’t know where the new discoveries will come from.

To answer the second part of your question, I was given a digital reader as a gift a couple of years ago, and I do use it more than I expected to. I generally prefer a real book, but the digital reader is great when I wake up in the middle of the night and want to read without disturbing my wife or when I am in a hotel room with paltry bedside lighting.

To what extent were you involved in the new film A Walk in the Woods?  Did you like it?
I had no direct involvement in the making of the movie. I simply sold the rights in it to Robert Redford’s production company. I assumed that because Robert Redford was the driving creative force behind the project that it would be a good movie — Robert Redford doesn’t make dumb movies, after all — and I am pleased to say I was right. I liked the movie a lot. They took a few small and sometimes curious liberties with my life — they changed my wife’s name from Cynthia to Catherine, for instance; I’ve no idea why — and they had to adjust the ages of the two main characters because Robert Redford and Nick Nolte are both now in their seventies, whereas my hiking companion Stephen Katz and I were in our forties, but overall I thought they were admirably faithful to the spirit of the book. I thought Ken Kwapis, the director, did an especially good job of capturing the beauty of the eastern American woods.

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