Author Bill Bryson explores more of America’s past
10/01/2013 12:00 AM
09/30/2013 11:21 AM
Bill Bryson and his wife, Cynthia, were at home, packing for a trip to Vail, Colo., to visit their son. “Home” is a restored 19th-century, multistory Church of England rectory in the pastoral village of Wramplingham in Norfolk, England. It was the “setting” for one of his many best-selling nonfiction books, “At Home,” a fascinating examination of the history of domestic living. For instance, how primitive were kitchens in the early 1800s? Answer: Very.
Their son works at a ski resort in his first post-college job and is “having the time of his life,” Bryson said in a cultured, carefully modulated voice. “Cynthia and I will just shuffle around in the Rockies, go for some walks and look at the scenery. It will be my last week of rest before the U.S. tour (for his new book, “One Summer: America, 1927”). Then it’s on to Canada, Britain and Australia.”
In “One Summer,” the travel writer-humorist-historian examines the astounding events and curiosities that took place in the United States over five short months in 1927, sea changes in the arenas of invention, sports, crime, culture and more that coincided to help shape our national character and launch us into the world arena.
It’s the Bee Book Club’s choice for October. (The event is sold out.)
If any A-list author could be called a Renaissance man, it’s Bryson, an intellectual with an international point of view. His charm, wit, ruminative insight and modesty combine to make reading his books feel like you’re sitting spellbound in a plush leather chair opposite him in his study, content to be on the listening end of a fascinating conversation.
It strikes Bryson as “kind of ironic” that “One Summer” is a book about a window in American history written by an American who has lived most of his adult life in England (but who refuses to apply for British citizenship).
“There were times when I was sitting and looking out at an English woodland and trying to imagine what it was like for Babe Ruth on the Fourth of July in 1927,” he said. “At times, I was removed from it in a way that was inconvenient, but on the whole I feel that a distance from whatever I’m writing about is not a bad thing.
“I used the Internet for fact-checking, but I had to go to America to do a lot of on-the-ground research, which was an excuse anyway because I do like to go home. Particularly when there’s an exciting purpose, such as visiting Charles Lindbergh’s hometown or Herbert Hoover’s birthplace.”
In the book, Bryson chronicles the perfect storm of drama and oddity that marked the summer of 1927, involving such now-household names as Lindbergh and Ruth, Henry Ford, Sacco and Vanzetti, Al Jolson and many others.
“I didn’t have expectations of how much went on in 1927,” he said. “My original intention was to do a book that was just about Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh. They both had this iconic summer – Ruth hit 60 home runs and Lindbergh flew the ocean, and they did it in parallel. But what I found was that all kinds of other things happened that summer as well. It was unbelievably eventful.”
Bryson names a few things that happened – the Great Mississippi Flood, the invention of television, the start of Gutzon Borglum’ssculptures of four presidents on Mount Rushmore, the expansion of Al Capone’s criminal empire, and Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly’s flagpole-sitting record of 12 days.
“I tried to keep the story moving as briskly as I could, but I knew nothing about 80 percent of it, and there were so many stories I had to tell,” he said. “I worked on it to the exclusion of all else for about 31/2 years, and it turned out to be at least twice the thickness I had intended.”
Bryson was “dumbfounded” when his British editor read the manuscript and phoned him with questions: What is a pinch hit? What is an earned run average?
“I hadn’t realized how much of it was alien to a British audience, so it will be interesting to see how people outside of America respond to the subject matter,” Bryson said.
Bryson, 61, dropped out of college and settled in England in 1973 after falling in love with Europe during a tour there. He found work in a psychiatric hospital, where he met Cynthia, who was a nurse. They married and moved to the United States in 1975 so he could finish college at Drake University in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. They moved back to Britain in 1977, returned to the United States in 1995, then went back to England in 2003. They’ve lived there since.
“I’m very happy to divide my time between the two countries,” Bryson said. “But in a way it’s a curse because I can’t live in both simultaneously. In a perfect world, I might spend my afternoons in England and the evenings in America, so I can watch the Boston Red Sox on TV. My wife being English and me being American, we share an element of compromise.”
Bryson’s father was a sportswriter for the Des Moines Register, and Bryson’s own pre-book career included 10 years in journalism in London. He was a copy editor at the Times and deputy national news editor at the Independent. “I did that until my mid-30s, when I started writing in earnest,” he said.
Bryson has gone on to write 24 books on topics that include travel (“In a Sunburned Country”), memoir (“The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid”), history (“At Home: A Short History of Private Life”), science (“A Short History of Nearly Everything”) and biography (“Shakespeare: The World as Stage”). His expertise on the English language is demonstrated in his six books on that topic, including “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words.”
Bryson became a national hero in Great Britain after publishing “Notes From a Small Island,” his 1995 humorous travel book that was really an homage to the British people. Over ensuing years he earned a long list of honors and awards, including an honorary Order of the British Empire for his “contribution to literature.” He was even appointed as chancellor of Durham University in 2005, a post he held for six years.
One of Bryson’s most successful books was “A Short History of Nearly Everything” (2003), which sold 300,000 copies in the U.K. alone. He met with astronomers, chemists, geologists and other scientists to learn enough about the sciences to help explain them to readers in layman’s language. With a dash of humor and relevant history, of course. The irony is that as a student at Drake, he kept changing his major to avoid having to take biology (he ended up with a degree in international relations).
“I had spent a long time failing to be very good at science in an academic setting,” Bryson said. “I knew there had to be some level at which I could engage with science without becoming geeky about it. (“Nearly Everything”) was the hardest thing I’ve done in my whole life, partly because it was such a big subject to take on, and just trying to keep so many things straight in my head for so long,” he said. “Also, there were parts of it where I was so out of my depth, but I had to write about it with a certain amount of confidence. So I had various mentors – top people in their fields – who helped me. At my peak, I didn’t understand it any better than the average 10th-grader.”
“In a Sunburned Country” is a very funny, informative travelogue that profiles the continent of Australia. Bryson himself narrates the audiobook in his John Malkovich-like voice, and it’s clear after listening to the first disc that no other reader could do Bryson’s books justice.
“On some of the early audio versions of my books, the readers made me sound like a loudmouthed wiseass, a quick-talking smart aleck,” Bryson said. “I’d always thought of myself as ‘under my breath’ and not ‘in your face.’ They got me completely wrong, and I was shocked.”
What is Bryson’s next project?
“I don’t have one just now,” he said. “I’m in the curious position of not even having a contract. At the moment, I’m listening to ‘1776’ by David McCullough. It makes me realize how much American history I still don’t understand. History is something I will never tire of. ”
Reading is another. His love of reading has unexpected roots.
“It was really crappy books that made a reader out of me, probably true of most boys,” he said. “It wasn’t Jane Austen, it was Harold Robbins and kind of looking for the sex scenes. Then getting into the story and realizing that words on a page can actually grip you. If it hadn’t been for all the Harold Robbins-type stuff, I wouldn’t have been reading. But nobody should ever apologize for what they read. Your time is your time. I absolutely refuse to sneer at that sort of thing.”
It was getting on to supper time in England, and Bryson has to finish packing for his trip to the States. Any parting thoughts?
“When am I going to be in Sacramento?” he asked.
Oct. 8 for the Bee Book Club.
“I have to check the baseball schedule for that night, to see if there is an important playoff game involving the Red Sox,” he said. “We may have to quit early. I’m always excited to come home in October because it means I’ll be there during the World Series, or at least the playoffs.”
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