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.
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.
What are you working on now?
I'm doing a book which is a kind of travel book, except that it's a memoir about growing up in the '50s in Iowa. My feeling is that it was quite a magical time to grow up. The pattern of life was a lot more sensible and more appealing. And if we'd built on that, if we'd kept the downtowns vibrant places, instead of the way we did go . . .
What's Des Moines like now?
Des Moines is like your typical American city; it's just these concentric circles of malls, built outward from the city. The population of the city is the same as when I was growing up, but its footprint is at least five or six times what it was. The downtown is completely dead.
Are U.S. travelers different from British travelers? Do they approach a destination differently?
Yes, U.S. travelers dress better. The British are always so conspicuous in hot climates. They don't seem to wear shorts. American men seem to be comfortable wearing hot-weather clothing.
You say that like it's a good thing.
There's one sort of psychological difference, which is that Europeans all get tons of vacation time -- we all have five or six weeks -- and Americans still have these small amounts of vacation, so you still get people coming and trying to do the whole Europe in two weeks or something. There's a kind of franticness.
Who are your favorite travel writers?
I really admire the writing of Jonathan Raban. He wrote a book called "Old Glory," which is about traveling down the Mississippi, and he just described the texture of the water, over and over again. God, I wish I could do that. Paul Theroux I like a lot. I also really like an English writer called Redmond O'Hanlon.
Me too. He reminds me of you.
That's a huge compliment. I wish I could be more like him, because he's very funny, but he's also just so knowledgeable. And he's comfortably knowledgeable, he's not showing off.
I also very much like Tim Cahill. He does the brave stuff, which I admire because I couldn't do that. I'd much rather read about it than try and do it myself.
Any advice for all the would-be Bill Brysons and Paul Therouxes out there?
I always tell people there's only one trick to writing: You have to write something that people are willing to pay money to read. It doesn't have to be very good, necessarily, but somebody, somewhere, has got to be willing to pay money for it.
Do you have a favorite place in the world?
My home, because I don't get to spend as much time there as I'd like. Wherever I am with my family, that's sort of a treat . . . My idea of the ideal experience is to go somewhere with the family and not have to write about it.