It was a pleasure for Literary Traveler founder, Francis McGovern, and editor-at-large, Jennifer Ciotta, to travel across the Atlantic with authors Bill Bryson and Joanne Harris on the Queen Mary 2 Luxury Ocean liner. The Westbound Transatlantic Crossing leaves port in Southampton and docks in New York City.
Francis and Jennifer reveled in the literary prestige of the line, which has hosted many authors and celebrities throughout its years of service, including: David Niven, H.G. Wells, Helen Keller, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams, and W. Somerset Maugham.
Please enjoy the transcript of Francis McGoverns’ interview with Bill Bryson, author of books like A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail and The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, among others.
If you would like to watch the interview video, please visit Literary Traveler’s YouTube channel here.
Francis McGovern: So, you’ve had a chance to relax and enjoy the ship?
Bill Bryson: Yeah, absolutely.
FM: Is this your first crossing?
BB: It’s our first crossing on the [Queen Elizabeth 2], but we did two crossing on the [Queen Mary] some years ago.
FM: The same format?
BB: Exactly the same. In many ways it’s a very, very similar experience; in terms of, you know, being at sea.
FM: I overheard you talking with [Joanne] outside—there’s a real spirit on the ship, a comradery with passengers who’ve taken [the liner] many times. Someone had been on it 18 Summers. It’s great.
BB: Yeah, no. I genuinely feel that the most outstanding experience I’ve had on this ship is the friendliness, on all levels, of the people. People pay to come on and people are paid to be here. I’ve never noticed such uniformly charitable, agreeable, unforced feeling of friendliness.
FM: It’s very natural.
BB: So they’re either extremely well trained, or they’re very nice happy people all the time! But I do think that translates into a happy atmosphere for the passengers.
FM: It’s something to write about, maybe. I’m not sure, but to start-off: thanks again for taking the time. We’re from a website called Literary Traveler. And that’s all about writers and the places that they’ve traveled. So we’re here on the ship showcasing the trip and the fact that you’re here, and Joanne Harris is here, so we just want to ask you a few questions. A little bit about your writing about what the experience is like for you on the ship. Maybe throw a few baseball questions in there if we can.
BB: Right, well I always have time for baseball.
FM: Well great. So you grew up in the Mid-West, and both your parents were writers, or journalists, right? So who was the biggest influence on/for you growing up and becoming a writer? Was it your parents, was it Mark Twain, who was it?
BB: Well it was both my parents together; they were both newspaper people, as you say. My dad was a sports writer, and my mother wrote a home-furnishings column for the [Toy Register]. So newspapers was the family business, it’s what got talked about around the dinner table, and so it never occurred to me to do anything else other than work with newspapers in some capacity. When I grew up, English was the only thing I was any good at at school anyway, so it honestly it never entered my mind at any point that I would ever do anything other than make a living from imitating words in some way.
FM: OK. And was there a writer, aside from your folks, that had a big influence on you?
BB: Well I think… My dad had a great collection (it seemed to me at the time an enormous collection) of hardback books mostly from the 30s and 40s—a lot of Book of the Month club stuff—and that included a lot of books by P.G. Wodehouse, and books by people like James Thurber, Robert Benchley, and also a lot of S.J. Perelman. So the four people I just named are really, really funny writers, and I picked up those books when I was 13, 14, and started reading (cannot identify phrase here), and fell in love with the idea of being able to use language as a way of making people laugh. Telling a story, sort of telling essays; and I just really liked the idea of being funny as a writer.
FM: Now this next question may sound funny, but hearing you talk and knowing a little bit about your work, this seems like a perfect place for you—the middle of the ocean—(Laughs) and I mean that with all due respect…
BB: I know exactly what you’re saying, yeah.
FM: …but the fact that you have, in a way, a captive audience of equal parts: an equal amount of British folks, or people from the UK, and an equal amount of people from the US. I want to know what kind of experience is that like for you in terms of…is this the perfect place for you?
BB: Well I feel very comfortable with both, because I really am genuinely, and literally, at home with both cultures. You know, America’s the one I grew up with; it’s where all my formative experiences were. So when I talk to an American, I can talk really very intimately about things like American history, baseball, cultural things, you know, perhaps that you get attached to, because that was my ground, that’s what I grew up with. Britain on the other hand, I’ve lived here one way or another, pretty much continuously for over 35 years, so an awful lot of my life, half my life, has been spent in Britain. So although I had none the formative experiences there (I’ve never had a day of education in Britain), a great deal of my life has been there, so I’m obviously at home there too. And because the most recent 35 years have been spent there, I only have de facto English now—in the sense that I’ve lived there so long, it’s been my home for so long, my wife and kids are English—that in just the kind of terms of thinking, the sensibilities, they’re pretty well English now.
FM: Do you find that one group reacts to your work differently; do the Americans like the travel books; do the British folks like the books more?
BB: Not exactly, except that everyone likes books that are about them. So the books that have done the best in America are, I’ve got one here, about growing up in Iowa. That [kind of book] seemed to resonate with Americans, and particularly Americans of my generation, more than it did with Brits. The other book that did well in America was A Walk in the Woods, which is about hiking the Appalachian Trail. I mean those books did OK in Britain, they did fine, but they didn’t sell in the same kind of numbers; whereas the books that are sold in Britain [are about Britain]. In particular was Notes from a Small Island, which is about Britain, and about me traveling about Britain. So I suppose it’s natural to people to be most interested in the things that are about them and about the worlds they’re most familiar with.
FM: Right, right. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, even though they might not know it.
Now, with your background in journalism, and now the way, we often times will hear how the technology and the internet has made this giant shift in journalism and in print, and things like that. And in a way that’s a sad thing, but it’s also, I think, depending on your perspective, can be a good thing. And I want to ask you, maybe from the sports-writer-perspective, or sort of thinking, paying attention to that world: Do you feel that the technological shift in journalism now…do you feel that that’s better for something like sports writing, where you have the opportunity to read and check the scores? I can find out what’s happening back in Boston; I found out today that the Playoffs are starting, that the Red Sox are in them. So it’s just the sports writer…descending from one, paying attention to it, what do you think about it?
BB: Yeah, the fact that all information is immediately available now is really very convenient; it’s hard to argue with that. Somebody came up to me, an English person came to me quite excitedly the other day and said that England had just won the Rider Cup, that Europe had just won the Rider Cup. I mean, the last time I was on a crossing, you couldn’t get that, the channels satellites went blank sort of once you left port! So all of this technology is racing ahead and it’s nice to be able to be plugged into the world. And I’ve been emailing my kids (you know they’re fine, everything’s you know…), and there’s a great deal of comfort in that. But also, at the same time, there’s a kind of…. For me, there’s a kind of sadness in that; just in that rushing forward. And it means that because everything’s available “right now,” this instant, then there’s sort of… we don’t seem to have the amount of reflection that we once had.
But I quite like… there’s something nice about an event happening today, but that you read about tomorrow morning at the breakfast table. There’s something kind of kind of good about that separation between the immediacy of an event and the more reflective way of looking at it the next morning, so I would hate to have a world in which there wasn’t a newspaper at the breakfast table. Even though the news is going to be slightly out-of-date compared with digital formats by the time you’ve actually opened it up. There’s something nice about having a more leisurely, relaxed look at what’s going on. The analysis and everything just seems a bit less…
FM: That element, is basically, I think, the time. When [news] breaks there’s such a rush to get it out.
But to kind of keep you on baseball a little bit, you mentioned you’re a great friend of baseball, and many folks know that. In terms of, like…you write a lot about place and how that can inspire a writer, and so forth. And I’m wondering if you had a favorite ball park, or there’s one that means a lot to you.
BB: Well, in terms of…you know, as I said I moved to New England in 1995 and lived in New Hampshire for eight years, and I became a Red Sox fan. By default, you can’t live in New England and not become a Red Sox fan. I grew up as a Saint Louis Cardinals fan. So Fenway Park has a real kind of hold for me, I really think it’s…when you go there it feels venerable and good, and you know you feel like, ‘this is the park that Babe Ruth played in, and Ted Williams, and all these people. It feels like there’s history. And there’s hardly any parks left that are still the same park that they were. Wrigley Field and Fenway—I don’t think there’s much else left.
I think it really goes back to sort of the Ted Williams days, or Ernie Banks, people like that. So Fenway is important to me, but probably the park that’s most important to me of all is the one in Toy Island, which was called Sac Taylor Stadium, when I was very young. I don’t know what it’s named [now], it’s named after, like, an insurance company or something…. So they’ve changed the name, but it’s where the (can’t ID words) AAA baseball team, which is the AAA farm of the Chicago Cubs now. And I spent a lot of my life watching minor league baseball in that park, and in a lot of ways minor league baseball is incomparable in this space, because there’s an intimacy, a kind of coziness about it. You know, I don’t know what the capacity of that ballpark was, but it probably wasn’t more than 80,000 people, so you were really close, you could almost talk to the players, you felt really…you could certainly hear them very clearly. You could hear, you know if the players were arguing, you could hear the words that were said, and all that kind of stuff. So there was just something kind of wonderful about that. I think that’s the place that I’m most attached to.
FM: And that sort of falls into my next question: if you could play, where would you play? What position would you play?
BB: Oh! I mean, I played short stop in little league when I was growing up, but I suppose my fantasy life, I always think of myself as a short stop; and anywhere, to play anywhere in the major leagues. What a wonderful experience that must be: a June evening, as the sun is going down, to just step out onto this green, grassy space and actually get to run out onto the field and be part of that—it must be the most thrilling thing for a kid. It’s a dream to dream. I think that is something that’s extremely special about baseball, that sense of place, that sense of engagement.
I just think you must feel that much more powerfully in a baseball park. You know, Fenway Park is very different from Christy Park, or…all the parks are very, very different in a way that I think you can’t imagine it can be the same for all stadiums, basketball for instance; they must all seem kind of all the same in a lot of ways.
FM: Yeah, I think there’s not the romance…
BB: That’s the word I probably needed to say…
FM: You said it very well. I know we could probably talk about baseball all day, but I want to talk a little bit more about traveling. You mentioned something very interesting in your talk the other day, that: as you started to make your way in travel writing, you said it’s kind of a “great scam” (Laughs).
BB: When you get to travel and someone pays you to do it, that’s a legal scam. It’s a came, and it’s a great one!
FM: And I think it’s true what you said, but I think with your work, you’re doing things that are in a way, there’s an ordinary aspect to it, but you could get attached by a bear, or crash in a plane, or bit by a snake; and in a way, you sort of put yourself out there and say, “here’s what I’m gonna do, and here’re all the things that could go wrong,” but then you do it anyway. And I think that gives you a kind of credibility and authenticity. Do you think people respond to that, do they relate to you? And they sort of say, “that’s how I would be, if I were to do it.”
BB: Well, I think, umm, yea, you know, I’m not very good at it. I’m really not a born, natural traveler, or adventurer or any of those things. And I’m full of admiration for people who are. I mean, there’s a long-long tradition of British travel writers who, you know, George Mallory tracking up [Mount] Everest. A brand of them, going to difficult places. And there’s still a lot of that out there. And I wish I was out there, I wish I was virile and brave, but I’m not. And so the travel books that I do are a lot more (pause) cautious, and confused. And I do think, it wasn’t a plan, but I do think that people recognize that and respond to that as something they can kind of identify with, because I think that’s the way most of us are when we travel. I mean, the average person, when they travel, really enjoy it, most people really enjoy it, and you’re glad you’re doing it, but there’s also this sort of element of, always somewhere, a little element of anxiety somewhere, because things can go wrong: “What if I miss my flight; What if I get to the station and I can’t figure out which path my trains going; What if I get seasick? “ And, I think that actually adds to the experience. To me it means that travel is this combination, for most people, of real stimulation, it’s very exciting, but mixed up with little degrees of worry and fretting.
FM: Right, right. I keep thinking as we came to England, I said, well I don’t want to miss the boat! And it has a real literal meaning, so it’s definitely understandable.
BB: Well, you leave your comfort zone. You’re note… You know, “Will I like the food; Will I be able to get what I need; Have I got all my prescription medicines?” You know, just all those things. You sort of leave the world that you know and that you’re comfortable in. And in a way, that is part of the excitement of travel. It’s also, for all of us, it makes any kind of travel a little bit of an adventure.
FM: Great, now: as far as where you go next, is there a place that you always wanted to go, that you haven’t gone to yet? Not even to write about necessarily, but just to visit.
BB: There’re really some places that I’ve never been, that I would love to go [to], and… I’ve never been to China, I’ve never been to Russia, I’ve never been to India. Those are three right there. I haven’t really been, there’re lots and lots of parts of South America and Africa that I haven’t been. So there’s lots and lots of world that I’d love to go and see. In terms of places that I’d like to go and write about, the one that I always talk about, it really is serious, I would love to go do a book on Canada one day. (Laughs) But nobody wants a book on Canada.
FM: I thought about it, when I heard it, and thought for some reason…
BB: It’s sort of famous as a kiss-of-death, as a topic. But I just love the idea, if you grow up in the United States, there’s this whole country on top of us that we know almost nothing about. I mean, I bet 98% percent of Americans, who you just stop in random, couldn’t tell you who the prime minister of Canada is right now, and would be struggling to name a lot of other facts about Canada. Could you name all the provinces all the way across? I couldn’t. I mean, I couldn’t name them all, but I’m not sure I could put them in the right order. I would get confused a little. And I spend a lot of time in Canada, I really like it. But most people in the United States know almost nothing about Canada, except that it’s a nice place and they’re nice people. (Laughs) “We don’t need to worry about them, they’re not going to attack us.” And they’re good friends and good neighbors and all of that, and I just think that’s kind of wonderful. And I would just love to go and find out what they’re doing up there…
FM: OK. Well that’s good, we’re getting a lot of ideas of what to cover. (Laughs)
In terms of, if you were to take a trip now, or let’s say you were going to a desert island and you were going to be there for some time, maybe let’s say six months or something like that, and you had to bring one book with you. What book would you bring that would satisfy you there…?
BB: Oh, well, I was actually asked this question once. It was a radio show in Britain called “Desert Island Discs,” and you choose 10 songs that you would take on a desert island, and you talk about them. And then at the end of the program, famously, they say you can take one book with you, but you can’t take the bible, and you can’t take the collections of William Shakespeare. (Otherwise I would choose one or the other). So I actually had to think about that question really hard, and I actually suggested that I would take my own first book, The Lost Continent. It sounds very vain, but it’s not because I want to read it, but I’d love to have a chance to re-write it. (Laughs) I mean, I can’t think of one book that I would want to read over and over and over again. I think it would really drive me crazy…stuck for the rest of your life with just this one book. At least with [my book], I think I would get more pastime out if it, trying to study and re-write it, trying to get it better this time.
FM: Now, now that you’re involved, well you’ve been involved with academia, in terms of…you’re known as a traveler, but what do you think’s more important to encourage students to do today? Is it to travel more, to see things and experience things, or is it to read more? You’d obviously choose both, but from your perspective, having traveled, having written, being such a reader, what do you think?
BB: I think, I think, I think…travel more. I mean, if I can’t say both, I would say travel more, because first of all, it’s a lot easier to do now than it used to be. It’s a lot cheaper, it’s a lot more accessible. You know, when I was twenty, going to Europe, it was a huge investment, in terms of things, once-in-a-lifetime things, you know it was very, very expensive. Now almost everyone can afford cheap flights and all that. And I just think it’s an amazing world out there, and young people have much more opportunity to travel and experience it. And I think you can learn a lot. I always say, you know, everywhere you go it’s not, it’s never a waste of time, because some people do better than where they come from, (some do worse) and take everything in stride, you know? It’s interesting, you go to places and…I mean look, you go to Paris and you see all these sidewalk cafes and you say: “Why don’t we do this around here; Why don’t we have cafes in say, Des Moins, Iowa?” Because it’s such a cool thing, it’s so sophisticated, and just really, really nice, you know? In Des Moins, you know, everyone’s just hidden behind air conditioners. It would be nice if you could be out on the street, drinking and talking. But there’s other places you go and they seem, just kind of dopy. That’s very instructive too. You know, “Why do they do that this way, and why do eat those foods?” And I just think it makes you appreciate what you’ve got from wherever it is your coming from a lot more. But you see, the flaw in it…realize that no place is perfect. Sometimes you see things that are good about where you come from that you hadn’t appreciated because you had always taken them for granted. You can’t get that from books, you have to get that from personal experience.
FM: That’s a great answer. In terms of this crossing and your time on board, do you have an especially memorable experience? I know, just from seeing the reception you received, folks that wanted a signing, and I wonder if every signing is like that for you, where there’re hundred of folks that show up?
BB: No, not by any means. And it wasn’t very long ago, you know…I can remember doing readings to six people in (somewhere) and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. So to have a lot of people turn out for a reading or a lecture is really very nice. I’m very flattered. And if they want to come and talk afterwards, then I’m even more flattered. [The turn out here] was very good. It went well and people seemed to have a good time and they made me feel welcome, and I enjoyed it. But it doesn’t always necessarily happen. I mean, usually those are pretty good experiences, but sometimes people are a little bit…half asleep. So it doesn’t always work out as well as you’d want it to. So anyway, when it goes well it’s very, very gratifying.
FM: Now, when you’re on the sea (you mentioned you’ve taken a couple other crossings), do you find it inspiring? Do you want to sit down and write? Do you feel the juices flow, so to speak? Or do you just want to relax?
BB: Well, it’s very nice, on this crossing my wife is with me, and it’s a very rare chance for us just to be alone together for five or six days, which is quite wonderful. There’re no phone calls, no interruptions, you know it’s just the two of us. And that is really, really good and enjoyable. The thing that I think is absolutely special about going to see in a ship is it’s the only way you can really realize just how big the oceans are. You know, we fly over it, we all fly over the Atlantic ocean again and again, and you know it’s big. But you know, it’s sort of hours-big. But when you go on a ship, it’s days-big. And every single time, for five or six days, every single time, you look out and do a 360 degree turn, there’s nothing there but water as far as you can see! And I think every human being, certainly everybody on the ship, ought to kind of feel compelled to go to the rail and just drink in that very fact, because it is so amazing how much of the earth is filled with water, not “unusable” landforms. Because we live on them, we tend to prefer them, but… Because, as beings, we’re extremely dependent on the seas for all kinds of things: to regulate environment and to provide us with food, all kinds of things. And I think we take that for granted, and I think we do so very much at our own detriment.
FM: It’s true, it’s true, I think a lot about that. This has been great though, we really appreciate you taking the time with us. And one kind of last question: you mentioned in the movie version for A Walk in the Woods, that Robert Redford might play you. Do you have any instinct who would play, the cast?
BB: No, and they mentioned many, many names at various times, and I mean, it’s really…they need, they need it to be somebody who’s of an age, which was Robert Redford. And he was going to be in this sort of thing with Paul Newman, it was gonna be a kind of Butch and Sundance thing again. And it would have been really wonderful, and they would have been great together. And he was very worried that it was getting too far away from, the fact that the cast and I were in our 40s when we started off, and Redford and Paul Newman were both well into their 60s. He was worried about it, but I didn’t think it mattered at all. As long as you can shoot two people of the same generation, it doesn’t matter if they’re in their 30s or 40s or 60s or 80s. So, I think that, you know, my advice to them (if they’re asking for it), is just to find somebody who could walk comfortably with Robert Redford, and that’s all you need.
FM: Great. Well thank you so much.
BB: No, thank you, it’s been my pleasure.