Ted Simons: Best-selling author Bill Bryson has written a number of enthusiastically received books on travel, history, science, and language. His latest effort looks at the summer of 1927. season that seemed to push America into world leadership by way of Charles Lindbergh, babe Ruth and motion picture talkies. I spoke with Bill Bryson about his work and the summer of ‘27. Bill Bryson, it's good to have you on "Arizona Horizon."
Bill Bryson: I'm delighted to be here. Thank you for having me.
Ted Simons: Thank you so much. I gotta ask you, just for starters, you're a kid from Des Moines, Iowa. How does kid from Des Moines wind up a chancellor of a United Kingdom University?
Bill Bryson: It takes a strange turn. I went to Europe in 1972, hitchhiking around, ended up getting a job at the end of the summer, totally out of the blue, met a girl who's a student nurse at a hospital I was working out, fell for her, fell for England, and that's the rest- That is a long story, but ended up living in England unexpectedly and making my life and career over there.
Ted Simons: When you look back, was there something in the U.S. that was lacking, or was it just --
Bill Bryson: No, no, nothing to do with any rejection of America or anything like that. It was much more of a- Just this new unexpected opportunity came along. I really liked England. I really like still even after these years, I like being a foreigner. It's a privileged position. And it's not hard to live in England. I still come home a lot. America is even though I haven't lived here much for years, it's still home. We were talking about the world series, I'm really just as interested in that kind of thing as I was when I lived here. This is my fifth trip back to America this year. So I'm not really away from the country that much.
Ted Simons: And you're still not a British citizen.
Bill Bryson: No.
Ted Simons: Ever? No plans?
Bill Bryson: Because I'm getting older and because they tell me one of these days at some point I will die, I really ought to get my paperwork in order. And just for inheritance purposes. So at some point I have to. But the problem is they have a really tough test you have to take. And they ask you questions like how many members of Parliament are there. And nobody, British people can't answer that. It's just like how many members of the house of representatives. I don't know. A few hundred. I don't know. Those questions you have to study really hard to pass the test.
Ted Simons: Compare, obviously you've been on both sides of the ocean, you have unique perspective in many respects. Compare culture, curiosity, could you be Bill Bryson if you had never gone to Europe?
Bill Bryson: Well, I would be a different Bill Bryson. I think I'd still- Basically what you see now, I'm sure I would have thinning hair and a pot belly, but it has obviously affected my life a lot by living in another country. It opens a lot of doors for me. I grew up with a strong sense of wanderlust, which I think is the- Growing up in Iowa it seemed to me the rest of the world was a lot more exciting than Iowa. And bright lights were elsewhere. And I wanted to go and see them, experience them. And so when I had a chance to settle in Europe, I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world. And I still kind of feel that way. I still feel privileged to be able to have a life that is kind of rooted in two different countries.
Ted Simons: That wanderlust led to the travel books, which you're very well known for. When you write a travel book and you are wandering, do you write as you wander or do you wait to come home and then write?
Bill Bryson: I take notes a little bit as I wander, but the most of it is done when I come home. It's two too time consuming to do on the road, and it would interfere with having the experiences to gather material. So I do most of the writing after the fact.
Ted Simons: When you leave, like on the Appalachian trail, and you take that particular journey, did you leave knowing I'm going to write about this, or do you believe going, I'm going to take a walk in the woods, maybe I'll write about it.
Bill Bryson: I knew I would write about it, every day I was thinking I don't know how. I don't know how we're going to get a book out of this. Nothing was happening. We were hiking the Appalachian trail, we were leading full days, but just walking. It's the most repetitive activity you can imagine. And for a long time it didn't seem as if we were doing anything interesting, just getting up and walking all day and falling into sleeping bags. I don't know how I'd ever get a book out of this.
Ted Simons: How did you?
Bill Bryson: Partly because the guy I went walking with was a spectacularly eccentric fellow. And he made a big difference. And we started meeting people along the way. Some of them colorful, some of them just did us kindnesses. And the Appalachian trail itself is fantastic. We're so lucky in this country to have the eastern woodlands. You go out there and you're in- Now, right now you're in the same environment as Daniel Boone would have been in. George Washington was riding through. It's like time travel. You going out in the woods and it's just like it was years ago.
Ted Simons: You're a travel writer, you've written memoirs, you've written about science, history. The short history of just about everything, or-
Bill Bryson: Almost write, right.
Ted Simons: "The short history of nearly everything." How does one sit down and say, I'm going to write about almost everything?
Bill Bryson: That was a crazy one. I was wondering at times, what am I doing? What's happening? But it was- The whole idea of that book was that I had always been fascinated by science, but I was terrible at science at school. I thought there's got to be a level at which I can engage without doing all the equations. Because science explains everything, it tells us who we are, how we got here, where we're going, what we need to go if we want to get where we want to go. Science is hugely important to every single thing in our lives. I felt there's got to be some level at which I can interact with.
Ted Simons: With that, I want to get to the writing process. First of all, how do you write? And when you - Like when you're- I want to get to 1927 in a second, your most recent book. But when you write the short history of just about everything, are you writing for someone, do you see that person? Who are you writing for?
Bill Bryson: I try to be conversational. I don't try to be stern and formal. I do try to be as approachable as- Find the voice that makes me sound as friendly and as- I don't want this to be an ordeal, it should be a pleasant experience. So I work hard in trying to get the tone right. Once you get the tone right, if you've got all the information, then it's not so hard. But it is actually quite hard, but the hard part really is getting that kind of first paragraph done and getting the voice right.
Ted Simons: And now the latest book deals with 1927. Why?
Bill Bryson: It's all about the summer of 1927. The summer of 1927 was the most eventful magical summer in any nation has ever had. Certainly in peace time. And it was one thing after another. You had Charles Lindbergh fly the Atlantic, which was hugely joyous event for America, and the world, babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, so it gave me an opportunity to bring a lot of baseball into it. You also had- It was probably the most exciting baseball season ever. You had lots of other things like Sacco and Vanzetti, these anarchist were executed that summer, that was a dark story, but a really big story. They started filming "the jazz singer," the first talking picture. Started carving Mount Rushmore. It was one thing after another. It was just kind of dizzyingly eventful.
Ted Simons: And America leading the way in a fashion that, do you think Americans knew they were leading the way as that was going on?
Bill Bryson: They were just discovering it. America had been unquestionably the richest and most important nation on the planet for some time. At least since the first world war, but probably pretty much the whole of the 20th century. But it didn't have that confidence. It didn't see itself -- It still looked to Europe for leadership. When economic decisions were to be made, it was the governors of the bank of England that made these decisions. America kind of followed. And the summer of 1927 was just the period when it was suddenly discovering itself. It was really- If America were a kid it was like 18 years old and just about to leave home. It was growing up. Just about to burst out on its own. You really see that happening in the years that followed. You think about how America was in World War II, it was our war. Once we entered, we took charge. There was no question Eisenhower would be in charge of the invasion and everything. America had suddenly gotten in a decade really confident. And a lot of the things that happened in the summer of 1927 really gave America that confidence.
Ted Simons: And yet with that confidence, with all of that achievement, way out there in the future is this great depression, just waiting to happen. When you researched and wrote the book, was that future always in mind, or were you just like everyone else in America at the time reveling in the good times?
Bill Bryson: It's a very interesting question. Of course I had advantage over all the people I was writing about, that I didn’t know how it turned out. So what I tried to do when I was writing the book was to try and keep locking myself into that summer and pretend I didn't know what was around the corner. Try to imagine what was it like for the people living through that summer. And obviously you can only do that up to a point because I do know what -- How it turns out. I do know the great depression is coming. But I did try to imagine, what was it like not to know the depression was coming, or babe Ruth wouldn't hit 65 home runs the next year. And just to think about these things from their perspective. That was a really interesting exercise for me.
Ted Simons: So with everything that happened, I think the talkies, the motion picture talkies, I think that was in retrospect absolutely huge in a way that America even today exports entertainment, exports film, we exported ourselves with that.
Bill Bryson: The really important thing, it never gets thought about, is once the pictures started talking, once there were voices it was American voices the world was hearing. And that made a huge difference. Suddenly Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, and America really seemed a lot more important because we were kind of so dominating the culture. There's lots of other stuff that went with it, we dominated popular music, we dominated theater, increasingly dominated literature. But movies is the key. The reason everybody wanted to come to America was Hollywood.
Ted Simons: So was this a fun book to write? Did you enjoy yourself?
Bill Bryson: The time of my life. The most fun I've ever had writing a book.
Ted Simons: With all of these books you've written, science, history, language, travel, again, do you consider yourself in any particular genre heavier than other genres?
Bill Bryson: Not really. All I've ever seen myself as is just a newspaper man. Who's now writing books. I do- What I do is the same thing you do, you get assignments. You get a new challenge. And mine are over a slightly longer scale, but I grew up working on newspapers, and every day you went in and it was a new assignment every day. And so I'm just going from one assignment to another. But instead of taking a day, I'm now taking three or four, five years. But it's still the same thing. What I really like is that freedom of movement. Not being locked into a single thing. Which I'm sure you would say is what most excites you about the job you do, it's different every day.
Ted Simons: Indeed. Have you ever had to bail? Was there something you started on and just said, this isn't working?
Bill Bryson: No, but I did think I was going to do that with "A Walk in the Woods." But no.
Ted Simons: I'm glad it didn't happen, and congratulations on the success of yet another wonderful book. It's good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.
Bill Bryson: It's been my pleasure. Thank you very much.