A talk with Bill Bryson

Wanderlust editor Don George talks with author Bill Bryson about writing, hiking and other arduous pleasures.


Don George
May 20, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Bill Bryson's new book, "A Walk in the Woods," is a delightful and enlightening account of the author's attempts to hike the Appalachian Trail. The work is distinguished by its vivid depictions of the landscapes and the people Bryson encounters -- and also by the writer's engaging combination of reverence and wit, qualities that are also abundant in the interview below, which was recorded by telephone earlier this month.

You are usually referred to as a "travel writer," and your books are shelved in the "travel books" area of bookstores, but you are hardly a conventional travel writer. What does the term "travel writing" mean to you?

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Well, I suppose all it suggests really is leaving home, having to go somewhere and having an experience out in the wider world.

Are there travel writers of the past whose work you really admire?

There's a lot of travel writers whose work I admire very much. But it's really their writing that I admire. They're not inspirational to me in the sense of me reading them and thinking, "Oh, I'd like to go make that trip myself." I'm very glad they've made it for me.

I think it's very interesting to read about places that I'm unlikely ever to go, or circumstances under which I'm unlikely to see them. I know how hard it is to write descriptive passages in a fresh way. If I go to a mountaintop and the view is great, whatever I write, in the first draft, always sounds like something you'd write on a postcard: "Mom, it's breathtaking. It was stupendous." This is one reason why I admire the work of Paul Theroux, for instance. He can describe a landscape in a very original and novel way. It's impressive.

Everyone in the world has done travel writing after a fashion, because everyone who has gone on vacation has written somebody a letter or a postcard. And most of those phrases that spring to mind have been used. It's very hard to describe something that's particularly beautiful or majestic or whatever in a way that's fresh and original.

Is there a secret to that, do you think?

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It's just really hard work. I mean, there are other parts of putting together books that are relatively easy compared with that. But the parts that I always struggle over are the parts where I'm describing the landscape and describing the way things look -- particularly if it's beautiful. It's much easier for me to describe something that's ugly. Then you don't have all these clichis tumbling out at you.

Yes, I'm approached by so many would-be writers who say, "All my friends tell me my letters home are so good, I should write travel stories." Well, I try to gently tell them, good travel writing is an art -- it's more than just a letter home.

I think a basic error that is made with travel writing, particularly by aspiring travel writers, is the same mistake that most people make when they want to show slides from a vacation -- just assuming that everybody's interested in it. You have to work from exactly the opposite assumption: Nobody is interested in this. Even your wife is not interested in this. You have to somehow make it so that they become interested in it. Every travel writer does it in different ways. And I suppose my trick is to try and make them laugh so that they feel that there is going to be some reward in terms of amusement.

Some writers are tempted to fictionalize their writing when it suits their purposes. How do you feel about that? How closely do you stick to the actual facts of a trip?

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In a book like "Mother Tongue," where my purpose is to convey information in as accurate a way as I can, I'm very rigorous and careful. But with the travel books, my approach is much more relaxed -- though I still try to be accurate, it's not paramount in the way it is with a book that's presenting itself as the history of the English language. So, I tend to write without much of anything on the desk -- and then I get up and wander off and go look at a map or check a note or go to the library.

I'm focusing much more on the writing and on trying to re-create the experience mostly from memory. And it's just a completely different kind of book. I'm sure that in doing that, I make mistakes. In fact, I've gone back to places that I wrote about in the travel books and realized that the motel was on the southeast corner of the route, not the northwest corner. To tell you the truth, this doesn't bother me terribly much because they're not guidebooks. If I get a detail like that wrong, it's an honest error. It's not my purpose to give people guidance to where they can go and how they can retrace my steps.

You're not really expecting someone to set off with your book in hand and say, "Oh, let's stay here. Let's eat here."

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Right. The book is absolutely faithful to my memory. Anything I've written in "A Walk in the Woods," for example, I have a very clear memory of. But I just went up on Mount Graylock this week in Massachusetts, for example, and there's a lookout point up there, and it was much farther on than I recalled.

But none of that seems really too important in a work of literature like this.

That's the view I take. There are obviously certain times when you have to tend to accuracy. There are times when it is important. But as I say, it's not important in the same way it is in a book that's a history or biography.

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When you set off on the Appalachian Trail, you knew you were going to write a book. But did you have something framed in your mind about how the book would proceed?

I realized very quickly that the book was going to be very different from the way I had loosely imagined it. First of all, we weren't having encounters on the trail with a lot of other people. There weren't a lot of other people out there. And Katz [Bryson's hiking companion] was a lot less communicative than I expected. I thought the guy was just going to fill me up with great anecdotes and great stories of what he'd been doing for the last 20 years. And he didn't.

As I say in the book, our relations were very congenial throughout once we sort of got through the first day or two. We settled into a routine. And there was no stress or tension or anything, but also there wasn't much conversation. And I just thought, Oh, God, all day long we're doing nothing. We're moving forward, but we're not actually doing anything that you could write home about. And at the end of the day, he puts up his tent and crawls into it. Quarter after 6, and he's gone.

So, I realized then, I'm going to have to do a lot more work on this to make a book out of this, which involved doing a lot of research once I got back, doing a lot more reading and finding out about geology and history. Much of the time I was struck by my ignorance when I was out there. And on the trail I couldn't do anything about it. I mean, you couldn't carry a set of encyclopedias or even a good reference. There were lots of times on the trail I would have really loved to have had those books for 10 minutes to read about various dogwoods or whatever.

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What was your biggest fear going into the trip?

Bear attacks. Even though bear attacks are extremely
rare, if you're going to get hurt by a big animal on the Appalachian
Trail, that's the one that's going to do it. I was aware that my
fear was irrational or inflated, but I couldn't quite shake it.

Somehow the fact that something is irrational doesn't hold much
power out there in the woods.

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No, it doesn't. Or in any circumstance when you're
alone. Because even though I was hiking with Katz, when we were actually
in motion most of the time we were several minutes apart. We weren't
within sight of each other. I was always in the lead. And there are those
times when you come around the bend, and you hear crashing in the
undergrowth and something large. Your instinct is to think: Is that a
bear? And it always turns out to be a deer or something much more tame
and less threatening, but it was never quite out of the back of my mind.

What was the most important lesson of the trip?

The lesson I got from the trip was just how big the
world is. And how big a part of that big world the United States is. The
one thing that happens when you get onto the trail is you're approaching
the world in a way that you've never approached the world before -- i.e.,
on foot. You think you know what to expect, but you just don't. When you say
2,200 miles, the only way of conceiving that kind of distance is in terms
of air miles or driving. You can't even imagine a distance of that
magnitude except in some kind of a machine. It's just huge, and with a
lot of hills in between. There's this whole other world out there, this
whole other way of looking at that world. And that was something that
really stuck with me and made it all worthwhile. I really understand now,
in a way I never did before. And most people go through life without
understanding at all.

Can you bring that understanding home with you? Do you find that
you're applying that somehow in day-to-day life?

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Not day-to-day life. Living in New Hampshire, I like
to think when I drive down the road and see a hill and trees
that I appreciate the scale of it in a new way, that I know what it would feel
like to walk up that hill. I can look at it now, and if it's 2,000 feet, I
know the difference between that and a hill that's 3,000 feet in terms of
the exertion that is required.

The one thing you always tell yourself on the trail is that you will
never take running water for granted again. Or, you know, flushed toilets
or hot meals. And you do. As soon as you come off the trail, you forget
that. You can't sustain that. You instantly take it for granted. Within 24
hours, it all seems completely routine again.

One thing that I was especially struck by in your book was the
intimacy with nature that you conveyed. It's like living with a
person for a long time. You get to know every contour of them, you get to
know
the nuance of their different moods -- I think you had that same
experience with nature.

It's certainly true. You are out in this world that
most of us normally don't really experience except as backdrop, something
in the distance. You realize that the woods are a strange place. Sometimes
they're really quite strikingly menacing and remote, and at other times
very intimate and almost caressing. Caressing sounds a bit New
Age-y, but there are times when it's almost womblike, very comforting.
And at other times it seems much more hostile and aggressive. You do
feel very small out there. And you find yourself vulnerable to it, kind of
at its mercy -- not just the woods but nature in a wider sense.

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The closest thing in my own
life was when I went on the Karakoram Highway that goes up through Pakistan
to the Chinese border. There were mountains towering above you that
you knew had towered above Marco Polo and Genghis Khan.
On a trip like that you come to terms with so many
things that you just don't find in your daily life,
important truths that we usually don't think about: How small we are. How big the
world is. How puny our efforts are. But still how important they are
despite the puniness. When I was reading your book I kept thinking
about my own experience of being way out in the middle of nowhere and
realizing how vulnerable I am and how much I depend on other people or on
other things for my survival. It's pretty intense.

That's exactly the experience I had. And it's awful
to think how easily you could go through life and not have that
experience.

I take it you are very grateful.

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I hated 98.8 percent of it. There
were moments of genuine exultation when the sun comes out and spring is
coming and you crest a mountaintop and you get a great view. But most of
the time it's either just boring as hell, or you're cold or wet or
uncomfortable. Most of the time if you're honest, you don't want to be
there. You want to be somewhere else where you are more comfortable. I
suppose it's like any kind of penance. It's worth it because you get so
much out of it. It's worth it just for those moments of exultation. It's
also worth it for what you learn about landscape and yourself.

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And what is your next project?

I've pretty well decided that I'm going to go and do a
book on Australia. I didn't want to do another travel book. I wanted to go
off and do something else -- but Australia really, really appeals to me.
And with the Sydney Olympics coming up in 2000, if you're going to do
Australia, you've got to do it sooner rather than later.

I'm especially attracted by the wide open, unpopulated expanses you find
there. In Iowa, where I grew up, you have pretty spacious areas -- but it's
inhabited space, cultivated space, something narrow. In
Australia, it's just incredible expanses of nothing. I want to feel
what that's like, to be in all that nothing.


Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

MORE FROM Don George

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