A Word with . . .

Bill Bryson

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Uncommonly perceptive, wickedly funny, cynical about all the right things -- Bill Bryson should be declared a national treasure, but which nation? The author of "A Walk in the Woods," "In a Sunburned Country" and other best-selling travel tales grew up in Iowa, married a Brit and alternates living in both countries (he's now based in England). K.C. Summers talked to Bryson when he came to Washington last month to speak at a Smithsonian program on Wales.

Q Why Wales? Are you doing a book?

ANo. But I love Wales. . . . It's preserved an awful lot of the feeling of Britain as it was when I first went there 30 years ago. A lot of the landscape looks the way the British landscape ought to look, in my view, and increasingly is not looking.

How so?

They tend to their hedgerows a lot better. An awful lot of England is slowly eroding, in ways that I find really distressing, and an awful lot of it is the hedgerows. . . . We're reaching the point where a lot of the English countryside looks just like Iowa -- just kind of open space.

Why are you drawn to England?

I could give you a long list of things I like about Britain, but essentially what it comes down to is that I feel about Britain the same way I feel about my wife. I'm crazy about my wife -- we just kind of suit each other. I wouldn't say that she's the most fantastic human being that's ever lived, but she is for me.

You traffic in British-American cultural differences. Has the humor of it all become strained, with the tension over the war in Iraq?

No, although it's very easy when you live abroad to get that impression, because the British press portrays America as this kind of mad country that is war-mongering. And you have to stop and say, wait a minute, I know lots of [Americans] who are not completely pro-war and are, from my point of view, a lot more rational. Not everybody [in the United States] is as crazy as they come across in the British press sometimes.

I read that you'd like to get out of the travel-writing biz.

I never really tried to get into it. I stumbled into it by accident. The first book I did -- the first successful book -- was a kind of a travel book, and publishers in Britain encouraged me to do more. And I still enjoy traveling a lot. I mean, it amazes me that I still get excited in hotel rooms just to see what kind of shampoo they've left me.

I still want to go places, but don't want to just write travel. . . . I've mined those veins. I sometimes think I cannot write another passage about a disappointing meal ever again, because I've done it so many times.

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