BLENDING HUMOUR ONTO EVERY PAGE
“I do think one of the most adorable and admirable qualities of British people is their sense of humour,” says Bill Bryson. “It’s the best sense of humour in the world.” And as an American famous for his highly entertaining books, he should know.
“I think humour is just something I naturally do,” he explains in his measured, quiet voice. “We all have certain language skills that we do well and things we don’t do so well. I always struggle with descriptive passages or lyrical prose, but I seem to have more of a knack for seeing a joke and I learned to make a virtue of that.” He smiles. “Technically it’s a real challenge to write humour successfully but I find it’s very satisfying.”
Though of course Bill doesn’t just write humour – he has written books about travel, the English language, science, history, a memoir, his love of the English countryside, and about the home. “I’d gladly write another 25 books if I thought I was going to live long enough,” he continues. “I think from now onwards, I have to start getting more selective and for that reason I’m taking more care in committing to the next book. But I haven’t made a decision yet.”
Bill grew up surrounded by books. “We had floor to ceiling bookshelves and I used to go in and just take these books down - I had no idea what I was reading and discovered people like P.G. Wodehouse and Robert Benchley; all funny writers.” But it was Wodehouse that made an impression on the young American. “P.G. Wodehouse particularly seemed wildly exotic, describing life in England in a way that I had no personal connection to; it was just funny and engaging. That was very important to me - not just in writing in a way that made people laugh, but also being able to connect with people.”
Bill’s parents were both journalists so it was no surprise that he chose to become one.
“I wasn’t under pressure but it was just the natural progression, and English was the only thing I was ever any good at,” he explains. “I didn’t have any scientific or mathematical aptitude.” So Bill worked as a sub in Bournemouth, then went to London. “I worked for the Times, and then I worked on the Independent when it first started which was a very exciting period.” He smiles. “I’m proud to say I was one of the founding journalists (of the Independent) - though not a very important one,” he adds. “Then we moved to Yorkshire and I quit my job and was a freelance all the time.”
The move from journalism to writing books was a gradual one. “When I was working at the Evening Echo in Bournemouth, I started doing freelance articles to earn more money as I had a young family, and little by little I discovered it was something I enjoyed very much. I started writing books in my spare time and I thought this is what I would really like to do – not commute into London every day and fight the crowds and all of that, but live in a nice rural, idyllic spot and write for a living.” He pauses. “At the time I wrote articles and books – you know, anything that people would pay for – and that’s what I have done ever since.”
Bill’s writing day starts very early, before he’s properly awake. “I get up around 5-5.30 at this time of year and have one cup of coffee with my wife, and we have a brief chat about what we intend to achieve that day.” And his endearing honesty is one reason why his books are so incredibly popular. “Then I take my second cup of coffee and go to my desk and start writing before I have any time to reflect on how little I want to work - that’s the only way I can do it. If I went to check things in the greenhouse, I would never get back to my desk.”
When it comes to planning his books, Bill needs to know where they are going. “I don’t necessarily write them sequentially; I hop around a bit, but I do need a clear idea of what ground I’m going to cover and how to link all these things up.” He frowns. “Sometimes you discover things or stumble across devices as you work away on it, but at other times, in a weird way, what goes on in your head doesn’t actually seem to relate to what comes out of your fingertips.”
His current book, At Home, came about when his family returned from America to live in England in 2003 and it was time to come up with the idea for a new book. “I’d just written A Short History of Nearly Everything and took on the whole universe and I thought what’s left to do? I was sitting at the kitchen table and realized that a house is sort of a universe in its own right. The idea was that I would wander from room to room and write a history of the world from the perspective of each room, and how those rooms had been lived in throughout history. So the bedroom would be the history of sex and sleep, the bathroom of hygiene, the kitchen cooking and so on.”
For such a prolific writer, I was surprised when Bill announced that all his books have been “a nightmare” to write. But the hardest was A Walk in the Woods, about walking the Appalachian Trail. “Essentially we were just walking which is the hardest thing in the world to write about,” he explains. “I felt there was no material for a book and I felt quite gloomy about the whole thing. So when I finally managed to get a book out of this experience, I felt most pleased.” He pauses. “I realized of course that things did happen but I didn’t necessarily pay much attention to them at the time. This happens every time I write a travel book.”
It is clear that Bill is content with his life, although not so happy about getting older. “I turned 60 this year and it does make you realize that there is a finite period. But I very much enjoy writing and I don’t want to stop working: I feel lucky to be able to do it.” He gives another slow smile. “Writing to me is the greatest indulgence in the world because I can indulge a huge area of curiosity and make a living from it. I can’t think of a better wheeze than that!”
Although he concedes that life is tougher now. “It’s harder being freelance. One of the things that I used to be able to do was sell the same articles over and over. One to the Washington Post and then to the San Francisco Chronicle and the Chicago Tribune and you can’t do that any more because you sell it to the Washington Post and they put it online and they have world rights. So it’s become a lot harder to find markets for some things.”
But when it comes to new writers getting published, Bill is pragmatic. “It is difficult but it’s always been difficult, and a lot of aspiring writers think that it’s a question of being sprinkled with fairy dust, whereas it’s actually mostly hard work and application and the ability to withstand rejection and keep plugging away.” He pauses. “Just go into any big bookshop and look at all those books - every single one of those writers was unknown when they started out. Half a million books get published every year so it’s not that remarkable a thing – it’s a question of persevering. Though if you do fail again and again you do have to ask yourself is this the right line of work for me?
“You have to be able to take rejection without taking it personally,” he continues. At first it’s natural to feel slightly crushed and that the odds are stacked against you. But I don’t think publishing is stacked against you any more than life is generally. Assuming that you have some talent and a real story to tell then things will come good for you.”
At Home is published by Transworld, out now.
Writers' Forum August 2011