When I place a call to Bill Bryson on a sunny Friday morning, it’s evening in Norfolk, England. He wants to make sure it’s not a radio interview; in the background, we can hear his grandchildren laughing. The Iowa-born writer has been flitting back and forth between the U.S. and the U.K. ever since meeting his British wife in 1973 while backpacking through Europe, and much of his writing has centered on the confusion and comedy that arises from that cultural divide. In his books, Bryson has tackled an unusually wide range of subjects, from Shakespeare to semantics, Australia to Appalachia, backpacking to biology. In conversation, he is engaging and sincere, with a subtle sense of humor and an endearing enthusiasm for discovery. Bryson will make his first visit to Santa Barbara on Tuesday, April 14.
What do you miss most about the states when you’re in the U.K.? Baseball. Without any hesitation, baseball, because almost everything else can be replicated over here. The great thing about coming from America and living somewhere else is that whatever is really good that comes out of America reaches you, whereas it doesn’t always work the other way around. You know, if I just had to have Oreo cookies or something, I can get them here. Whereas you wouldn’t get haggis in Santa Barbara, would you?
Not likely. I haven’t tried too hard, mind you. So where else are you going on this book tour-anywhere particularly fun besides Santa Barbara? Out of all the places that I am going on this trip, Southern California holds out the greatest prospects of happiness and bliss and good weather.
Have you been to Santa Barbara before? Never. I don’t know Southern California that well. It’s just one of those blank spots in my life for no particular reason. I’ve heard about Santa Barbara for a long time, so I’m looking forward to seeing it and hoping to have enough time to do some nice walks and kind of explore. What would you tell me to see, if I had a day to explore the city and get a sense of who lives there, what it’s all about?
I would visit Farmers Market. I would stroll a little bit on State Street and on the beach, and then I’d get into the frontcountry hills for a hike. Oh, this sounds very exciting. A good walk is something I always enjoy doing.
There’s clearly something important to you about walking. It’s the subject of one of your books [A Walk in the Woods], and it’s what took you to the U.K. in the first place. What is it about walking that you like so much? I really don’t know. I’ve thought about this a lot. I hate to be bored. The worst torment you could give to me would be to tell me to just go sit in a chair for a couple of hours and not have any stimulation around me at all. And yet if my legs are moving, I’m completely happy. You could put a bag over my head and I’d still be really happy. If you could explain that to me, I would love to understand it. There is something deeply soothing, I think, and happy and pleasant and just glad to be alive about walking. And the fact is, you don’t have a bag over your head, so you are able to see things, and the world is just so much more beautiful up close when you’re taking it on foot.
Tell me about making the jump from working in journalism to writing books. Well, it was not so much a jump as a kind of gradual slide. For years, I worked on newspapers in England as a copy editor. In my spare time, I started writing travel articles as a way of making some extra income. I was in Denmark once for an airline magazine, and I thought, “They’re paying me to be in Copenhagen and they’re going to give me $1,500 and all I have to do is write 1,500 words, and in the meantime I get to eat and drink at their expense. This is the way I want to make my living.”
Now that you work on longer-range writing projects, do you ever feel you’ve kind of run out of steam for the whole thing? No. You’d think you’d get bored with it all, but I don’t. I’m very lucky that I do lots of different kinds of books. I would hate it if all I did was just essentially the same book over and over again. But I can go all over the place with my books, and that helps to keep the material fresh. I’m in the middle of writing a new book, and I ought to be bored with it by now, but I still find it a really exciting challenge, trying to get the words right. I still feel at the age of 57 like I’m learning how to do it.
What’s the new book about? This book is kind of a strange departure for me: It’s a history of private life. I’m looking at how we live in our houses, and have throughout history. So it’s a history of the world without wars and politics-a social history of humanity. It’s more about things like hygiene and sex and sleeping and death and the things that are actually the big things in life, most of the time.
Do you have any advice to writers on humor? Is there a key to it? I just try to write what I think is amusing. And then I just hope that other people will think it’s funny too, but there isn’t any way of knowing. It’s very unnerving, and you don’t ever get more confident about it. It’s especially unnerving when you go on a book tour and you start reading passages to audiences, because you always get laughs in the wrong places. You’re almost embarrassed about a line because it seems so obvious or trite, and that will get a big laugh, and then something that you worked really hard on and thought was just brilliantly hysterical, they’ll just sit there stone-faced. It’s just a very disconcerting experience.
Bill Bryson will speak at the Granada Theatre on Tuesday, April 14, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.