Bill Bryson's office in his spacious Hanover, N.H., home surely reflects this ex-expatriate's rich career: the shelves hold copies of his books on travel and the English language, and on the walls hang posters for those books. On the coffee table lie books he's reading and sober magazines like the Economist. A family room by night, the space houses a pool table and a giant-screen TV.
But the room also boasts flagrant evidence of Bryson's curiosity, wanderlust and eccentricity: a collection of matchbooks; photos rescued from junk shops; an inflatable version of Munch's The Scream. Is that spilled coffee on his computer? Nope, it's a plastic novelty look-alike. And that stuffed grizzly bear, looming seven feet high? Well, that's a gift from his wife, Cynthia -- and also an apt tribute to Bryson's latest book.In his adoptive Britain, Bryson reached bestseller status with wiseacre travelogues that retraced earlier trips to the American heartland (The Lost Continent), tourist Europe (Neither Here Nor There) and the Britannia he loves (Notes from a Small Island). In the United States, he's best-known for excursions into the lore of the English language, in Mother Tongue and Made in America. That should change. When Bryson moved back to the States three years ago, the local countryside inspired a new quest: a trip hiking the Appalachian Trail that became the subject of A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, out from Broadway Books.
That grizzly honors some comic paranoia, one Bryson frothed up by reading, in preparation for his trek, a book about bear attacks. A mild-mannered red-bearded chap who obediently leaves the house to puff on his pipe, Bryson on the page becomes a more picaresque character, bemoaning modernity, reveling in tackiness and wielding a lusty, often caustic wit.
Bryson explains: "The voice you're reading is me, but it's only part of me," the part that emerges less while traveling than when re-creating the experience. In jeans, a sweatshirt and wire-rim glasses, Bryson, 46, looks more like a putterer than a hiker.
Indeed, Bryson devised, as he wrote, a number of rationalizations: the hike would get him fit, put him in touch with a fading wilderness and help "reacquaint myself with the scale and beauty of my native land." Not to mention the contract he garnered from his British publisher. So Bryson unearthed Stephen Katz, a childhood chum from Des Moines, Iowa, who was a maddening presence during his European jaunt (as described in Neither Here Nor There). Katz -- who once "single-handedly ensured that Iowa had a thriving drug culture" -- serves as a Falstaffian sidekick for much of the book.
The team's misadventures, not all self-inflicted, include encounters with insufferable hikers, oddball Americans off the trail and landscapes natural and artificial. But the trail, some 2000 miles long from Georgia to Maine, proved too tough. "Initially, it didn't seem an impossible task," Bryson asserts. "But your expectations cannot match reality. What I didn't allow for is that the drudgery and unbelievable scale make it more a mental exercise than a physical one."
So the undynamic duo gave up after 500 miles and six-and-a-half weeks, reaching Virginia only after hopscotching part of the Trail. Katz went home. Bryson had his own obligations: "It was a real problem. Not only had I kind of lost the raison d' etre, but I'd lost my comic foil, Katz." So Bryson returned to hike parts of the trail in segments, veered off to explore the area around it and drew more on trail lore and wilderness reflections to flesh out the narrative.
Bryson hastens to cite "the feeling of elation when I went to the Berkshires and got back on the trail." That epiphany allowed Bryson to write, not unfairly, that his trip taught him "a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods." Even if he and Katz didn't finish the trek, he concludes, they tried.
Leaving Des Moines
Bryson says he's not a travel writer: "I stumbled into this genre." Coming of age in Des Moines, he seemed destined for journalism, the family profession. But the region pushed him outward, as recounted to comic effect in The Lost Continent . "Much as I resented having to grow up in Des Moines, it gave me a real appreciation for every place in the world that's not Des Moines," Bryson adds.
Still, his hometown laid the seeds of his career. His sportswriter father bequeathed a love of language (and supplied baseball terms to H.L. Mencken's The American Language) and shared his P.G. Wodehouse and Robert Benchley books with his son. The National Geographic -- especially pieces on Europe -- shaped young Bill's vision of the outer world.So, after two years at Des Moines' Drake University, Bryson backpacked through Europe, thinking he'd go home and rise to a journalism career in perhaps Chicago. Instead, he found a job at an English sanitarium ("It is an interesting experience to become acquainted with a country through the eyes of the insane," he writes in Notes from a Small Island), met a lovely nurse named Cynthia and went home to finish college.
But Britain beckoned. After graduation, Bryson found a series of copyediting jobs (ultimately, at the Times) and began freelancing. His copy editor's eye led him in 1984 to produce what he calls "a poor man's version" of Theodore Bernstein's The Careful Writer, called the Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words (published here by Facts on File).
Travel articles spawned his first travel book, The Palace Under the Alps, a guide to unusual European spots published here in 1985 by Congdon & Weed and, as Bryson puts it, "instantly remaindered." The publisher, vainly seeking a veneer of class, listed the author as William.
Bryson quit his day job in 1987, just as he won two book contracts. In The Lost Continent, he retraced family vacations and aimed to explain Middle America to curious Brits. Mother Tongue, an informal history of the English language, allowed Bryson to turn library research into entertaining narrative.
The Lost Continent earned Bryson a piddling $3500 advance from Secker &Warburg, but its savage take on American tackiness made it a British hit. Harper &Row paid Secker & Warburg $350,000 for the American rights. The book sold decently but not well here, and some reviewers chided Bryson for cheap shots, like giving small towns such fictional names as "Dry Heaves," New Mexico.
After The Lost Continent, Bryson found an agent, coincidentally a long-lost Des Moines friend, Jed Mattes, who saw a Bryson piece on Iowa in Granta and contacted him from New York. Mattes's London affiliate, Carol Heaton, now reps him in England.Following the stellar U.K. sales of The Lost Continent, Bryson's editor at Secker &Warburg, Dan Franklin, wanted more, so Bryson "picked up where the story left off," in Europe. Neither Here Nor There gave Bryson the chance to observe that Norwegian TV "gives you the sensation of a coma without the worry and inconvenience." The book, published in the U.S. by William Morrow, again did better there than here.
Bryson actually has spent more time in the library than on the road. He returned to language in The Penguin Dictionary for Writers &Editors, published in 1991 in the U.K., but not here. And he extended himself with Made in America, which uses the evolution of American English to slalom through American history and culture.
Bryson, who acknowledges that The Lost Continent lacked balance, found a mellower voice in Notes from a Small Island, published here by Morrow in 1996. This affectionate valediction lauds British eccentricity, endurance and genius for adversity: "They like their pleasures small," he writes.
As an outsider, Bryson felt sympathy for the battered British psyche, and the Brits loved him back. Titled there as Notes from a Small Country, the book became a huge hit in paperback, selling nearly a million copies. It's even turned Bryson into a TV personage, as he returns to Britain this summer to retrace his steps for the camera.
With Franklin gone from Secker &Warburg, London agent Carol Heaton sold Small Country for a reported L300,000 to Transworld, BDD's English wing, where Bryson works mainly with Patrick Janson-Smith. (It became a Doubleday hardcover and a Black Swan paperback).
Bryson has long written mainly for a British audience, though less so in the case of this new book. A Walk in the Woods has been a British bestseller, but reviewers were puzzled, he says, by the "fairly alien" topic and lack of "nonstop yuks." The American version has been tweaked accordingly. Broadway editor-in-chief John Sterling encouraged Bryson to beef up his conclusions and to divide the narrative into two distinct parts.
With a $150,000 investment in promotion alone, Broadway is proclaiming this as Bryson's breakout book here. Indeed, advance reviews have been good, and Bryson will appear on Good Morning America, Sunday Morning and Charlie Rose to promote it; it's been selected as BOMC and QPB alternates.
If A Walk in the Woods may not be vintage Bryson (British reviews noted that it lacks the previous plethora of strangers serving as comic foils), it does show the author more than ever combining his two modes: picaresque traveler and lore-gatherer.
For five years, he reflects, he alternated between lighthearted travel books with more serious language books. He's keen to return to research. One book might be a popular history of the earth, a topic spurred by his mountain musings.
But he's already signed with Transworld to Brysonize Australia, a country he's visited several times. He'll start early next year: "It fascinated me," he says, citing the strong colonial legacy mixed with Yankee extroversion and outdoor style -- not to mention the sturdy local culture. It doesn't hurt that the Summer Olympics (in Sydney) will focus attention Down Under in 2000.
Bryson's hybrid nature -- revealed by his not-quite-British accent -- makes him a valuable cultural translator. Yet he admits confusion about his national identity. "With every passing month, it becomes harder. I'm definitely an American, because I grew up here. But I've lived very happily in Britain," he adds.
Bryson says he's "still completely confused" about the contrast between British and American senses of humor, noting that British TV comedies both sophisticated and sappy have found success here. He does allow that "there's a greater element of cynicism in British life, generally" and that humor "is a more widespread trait." As he once wrote, the British have "a natural gift for making excellent, muttered jokes about authority without ever challenging it."
Despite Bryson's Anglophilia, he says his wife and four children love Hanover so much that their New World venture, initially aimed to be a five-year sojourn, may continue indefinitely: "We'll have to spend our time in both places."
Bryson, who has no association with Dartmouth College, chose a congenial college town because, as he wrote in The Lost Continent, such locales mix small-town pace with urban sophistication. People are friendly, he says, and it's an easy place to live, the contrast accentuated by the family's last abode in a tiny Yorkshire village some 12 miles from the nearest market.
Not that Bryson has lost his ties to Fleet Street. Asked by an editor at the Mail on Sunday to write a weekly column, Bryson reluctantly agreed. "I found I really enjoyed it, and it gave me a reason for being here." Bryson describes "Notes from a Big Country," as a weekly "letter" ranging from the farcical (haircut trauma) to the serious (the death penalty). And yes, Transworld will soon collect those columns for a book.
Bryson says he's running out of column topics, but his files include clippings sorted into categories, from "Beer" to "Zero Tolerance," not to mention a grab-bag Bryson dubs, with British lexical precision, as "Good Oddments." For Bryson, it seems, the world offers a never-ending supply of such oddments.