Walking and Talking With Bill Bryson

The author of A Walk in the Woods talks about what it’s like to be played by Robert Redford, how to make the most of your travels, and the places he still wants to go.

Bill Bryson presents Notes From All Over to a packed Alfond Sports Center on February 22, 2016. (Photo by Scott Cook) Bill Bryson presents Notes From All Over to a packed Alfond Sports Center on February 22, 2016. (Photo by Scott Cook)

The outdoors have always fascinated me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to them, but nothing has pushed my interest more than Bill Bryson’s most famous book, A Walk in the Woods. When it was announced last summer that Bryson was coming to campus for the 2015–2016 Winter Park Institute season, I immediately re-read A Walk in the Woods—then I dove headfirst into his other books. In the process, I got addicted to his humorous, conversational style and the wit that permeates every chapter.

We talked—and walked—the morning after Bryson delivered his Winter Park Institute speech, “Notes from All Over,” to a packed Alfond Sports Center on February 22. One of the first things he asked me was to recommend a good place for him to go for a walk while he was in Winter Park. How surreal is that? Bill Bryson—the man who has inspired me to go on bigger, longer walks and better appreciate the world around me—was asking me for walking advice. After admiring Park Avenue’s beauty, we sat down at Mon Petit Cheri to discuss everything from hiking the Appalachian Trail to Kevin Bacon and baseball.

Nick D’Alessandro: I’ve read many of your books and love them. When I found out you were coming, I picked up A Walk In the Woods and read it in about three sittings because I was just in love with it, which I’m sure you hear all the time.

Bill Bryson: Occasionally

ND: I loved it so much that I told everyone around, “You’ve gotta read this,” because I fully intend on [walking the Appalachian Trail] at some point in my life. I know you must think it’s really funny for people to read your book and go, "I want to go do that because of you." What does that feel like?

BB: It seems very strange because for us doing it, as you know from the book, was so disastrous. The last people you should model yourself on and take as inspiration would be us. We did genuinely do everything wrong. We didn’t prepare for it. We didn’t train for it. My feeling was that I would train on the job, that I would learn as we went. And we did and that does happen. If you go walk the Appalachian Trail, you persevere with it. You will get fit. You will be able to do it. But it is just such a shock to the system if you go out unprepared. And the one thing that I would certainly recommend to everybody—to anybody who hasn’t done it but wants to do it—is go and experiment with it first. Go and do a week or a long weekend or something—and not necessarily on the Appalachian Trail. Just go somewhere where there is a kind of wilderness experience. Go and walk for a few days and see how you do before you make this five-month commitment, because it is a huge commitment and as much of a commitment emotionally and intellectually as it is physically. The physical part actually comes pretty easy after a few days. If you spend any of your life walking, which all of us have, and you’re reasonably ambulatory, that shouldn’t be a hardship. It’s the mental part of it is that is really, really hard.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

ND: I can imagine. That was something that always really interested me as I was reading the book. When you would say the times you spent and the places and that it was eight days in this stretch of time. My brain couldn’t register it. We have a beautiful state park called Wekiva. It’s closer to where I’m from, so about 25 minutes from here driving distance. I have gone walking through there a dozen times. I did this one all-day walk through there and was exhausted. I remember reading your book and going, “I cannot fathom that, but I’m still very excited about potentially doing that.” I ended up reading how many times people say they were inspired by you to walk the trail, and I could imagine you thinking that is the funniest thing.

BB: Well, I’m really glad and very touched that people were inspired, and I hope that people go out and do it. But I also hope that people would genuinely take us as poor models, that people would use us as the examples of how not to do it. We really were unprepared. It is something that I do feel very strongly that everybody who can do it ought to get around to doing it. We are so lucky in this country to have that kind of wilderness area right through the most populous corridor of the whole country. Here you are. On the map you see Washington, D.C., and all these other places, but on the ground you’re in the 18th century. Electricity hasn’t been conquered yet, and it’s just so far from everywhere. You can’t believe it. You look around and you could do a 360-degree turn and not see any sign of civilization. If you see one chimney sticking up through the trees, it’s amazing.

ND: On the same topic, your book was made into a movie. What was that like? Because I feel that it is so interesting for people who have their whole lives made into movies and this was such a specific chunk of your life.

Bryson answers questions from a panel of Rollins students during his visit to campus. (Photo by Scott Cook) Bryson answers questions from a panel of Rollins students during his visit to campus. (Photo by Scott Cook)

BB: You’ve touched on it right there, because it wasn’t a book about my life. It was a book about one experience I had. So when I watched the movie, it was extremely surreal for about 90 seconds because it was Robert Redford answering to my name on the screen. As it happened, I was sitting at the Sundance [Film] Festival with him beside, so the first time I saw it was in his company. And it was strange, but it very quickly stopped being really about me personally. It was strange in the sense that I knew what was going to happen because it was my story, but it didn’t feel like it was me. The only way I can explain is that they started quite early on making small changes to my reality, which just constantly reminded me that it wasn’t me up there. For one reason, they were guessing what my house looked like. They were guessing what kind of car I drove. They had read the book, but they didn’t know me at all. They imagined what my life was like based on what they read in the book. It was all guesswork. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t like they were miles and miles out. But it still wasn’t totally accurate, and they did a few small trivial changes, like my wife’s name. I don’t know why. I have a daughter named Katherine—not my wife. I don’t think there was any serious reason. Probably some screenwriter just couldn’t remember so he went, “Oh, Katherine, I think.” It was trivial and didn’t make any difference to the audience. For me, it was just a reminder. Not that I needed reminding that my wife is not Emma Thompson. Everything I saw was distancing my actual reality from what was going on on the screen. But, I enjoyed the movie very much. There were a lot of things I would have done differently if it had been mine to make but it wasn’t. I had nothing to do with it. I thought they captured the spirit of the book.

ND: Sundance is a big dream of mine. The entire time it is happening, I am just on my laptop watching the live streams.

BB: I was there for this Sundance and it was just amazing. If you come from my world, as a writer, it is a very solitary life. And then suddenly you are being thrust out. It was cool. There was a point where I was just there—I wasn’t really doing anything but following them around— but there was one point where I was standing in this green room and I turn and the person beside me is Kevin Bacon. And I said, “Oh!”

ND: One degree!

BB: One degree of Kevin Bacon. And that is cool. There’s no two ways to see it—it’s cool. Just as you look around, there are lots and lots of celebrities.

ND: Now that I’ve got all those A Walk in the Woods questions out of my system. I recently saw a list on Facebook and it was something about “Top Ten Ways to Be Happy.” I go down the whole list and say, “I can’t do that,” to all of them. It gets to No. 1 and it says “travel.” I have found tons of these lists that all say the No. 1 way to be happy is to travel. What do you think of that?

BB: That is very interesting. I wouldn’t have said that at all. I’d definitely put it on the list, but not number one. If you’re not the sort of person who is going to be happy anyway, it’s not going to help. It seems to me that that is the key element with happiness. It’s not things that are going to make you happy. You have to find happiness first and then these other things will reinforce it or help to promote it. If you’re not a happy person, traveling is actually going to make you really unhappy. If I were depressed, I don’t think I would want to travel because it’s too much like trying to escape things. But having said that, travel does make me genuinely happy. I find it kind of odd. I’ve been doing this for a long time—going away from home for a long time professionally. And yet, I am in Winter Park, Florida. I had to fly, go through airports to get here. All those things that ought to be quite tedious and it is. The physical act of traveling is not very exciting because we’ve all done it so much. But when I step off the plane and I’m in Orlando and I get picked up by car and brought here and you see this town. It’s just wonderful. I’m really lucky to have this. Yeah, it does make me happy.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

ND: But you have to be there first. You’ve got to be in that happy place first.

BB: If I were unhappy, and you brought me here, that’s not going to make me happy. But because I’m happy to be here, I’m predisposed to happiness. This reinforces that. Travel is important. People ought to take advantage of it, but the idea that somehow it is going to create happiness in you is a little bit delusional. It’s the same thing with the Appalachian Trail. An awful lot of people go out there because they think somehow it is going to fix their lives. And it’s not—unless you’ve got the right attitude. People who should walk the Appalachian Trail, it’s not people who are messed. It’s actually people who are fairly sound.

ND: An interesting thing about our school is our study abroad program. It’s a big deal at our school. A huge percentage of our students study abroad at some point. I plan to go to Australia at some point, actually. What sort of advice do you have for students that are going abroad?

BB: Enjoy it. Keep your eyes open, and for God’s sake stop fiddling with your electronic devices. Just put them in your backpack, and just use your eyes and ears and actual physical senses. I think there’s this terrible instinct now for people to cut themselves off from the outside world. To put two little plastic things in their ears. They’re listening to music and it’s as if they’re trying to remove themselves from reality. I can understand why you would want to do that if you were in a day-to-day commute or something that is boring. But if you’re going to a new place, don’t do that. Don’t sit there watching a movie on the London Underground. Listen to it all. Take advantage of it. For me, the real advantage of travel is seeing both better ways of doing things and worse ways of doing things. It gives you that ability to contrast your own normal experience. I just think you learn so much and you learn to appreciate the better things they do abroad that might better be used as models back home. Equally, you think, I’m so lucky where I come from. Because, you know, in Florida we can sit outside and drink coffee in February. It’s fantastic. You’re so lucky to have it. When you come back, you appreciate what you’ve got all the more. Equally, if you’re in Paris, you might appreciate that there’s all this glorious architecture. The big city offers this stimulus that a little town can’t compete with. It broadens your experience. It gives you so much more that you could compare and contrast with.

ND: I definitely have felt that exact feeling. Whenever I go to New York City and I’m freezing and I come back home here to my little town, I’m always so much more in love with the 80-degree weather and the quiet suburb life. Not that I don’t love New York—I just love home all the more.

BB: That’s exactly it.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

ND: Similarly, what are some places you haven’t lived in for a period of time or haven’t traveled to that you want to?

BB: There’s so much. There are so many places I haven’t been to. I’ve never been to Russia. I’ve never been to India. I’ve really barely skimmed the surface of parts of South America and Africa. So, lots. If I could go to one place that I want to spend more time in is Japan. I just find it fascinating. I loved it when I was there, but I was only there for about 10 days. I would love to go back and see it more. The other place that weirdly fascinates me is Canada. I’ve been wanting for years to do a book on Canada. All publishers will beg you not to because there’s no market for books on Canada—even in Canada.

ND: Your writing style is so conversational. I loved A Walk in the Woods. I also love I’m a Stranger Here Myself. I just love those stories. I have copies and if I ever just want to sit and read something, they are so easy to go to. Is there a writer that you can think of in your life who has influenced your style? Or was it really just coming straight from you?

BB: Lots. Lots of people. I’ve really always enjoyed and admired Dave Barry from Florida.

ND: I love Dave Barry.

BB: Having done it once a week for a couple of years, the fact that he just churned out writing day after day after day after day. What an achievement! That must be so hard, and he makes it look effortless, which it’s not. I know. It’s not. To be that funny and that good and have jokes that sharp day after day after day. He must have just worked himself so hard.

ND: My grandmother moved down here from Buffalo and she’s the biggest non-Floridian Floridian in the world. She’s read every Carl Hiaasen book, everything Dave Barry has ever written. She’s been pushing Dave Barry on me since I was a lot younger, and now she’s pushing Hiaassen on me and I love both of them. Barry was just on it all the time.

BB: Is he retired now?

ND: I don’t think so. I believe he just published a book in the last few years. He’s still doing his daily work somehow. If he hasn’t already gotten rid of every word in his brain. On that same note, you’ve written so many different kinds of books. Your travel books, your science books, your personal books. Your personal book, The Life and Times

BB:of the Thunderbolt Kid.

ND: That’s another one I love. I love the way you talk about baseball in that. People will always say to me, “Baseball is so boring,” and I say, “Do you watch baseball?” It’s the most tense sport in the entire world.

BB: Good for you, Nick.

ND: I’ve been watching since I was a kid. I played it. It is so wonderful. One of the huge draws of Thunderbolt Kid was how much you talked about it. You mentioned how Americana it is. Is there something other than baseball that you feel really captures that spirit?

BB: I think baseball is really special. I think there are two kinds of people in the world. People who really get baseball and all the rest. I’m so glad to know that you’re in the right camp. It’s a shame because it is a fantastic sport. It’s not just the individual games itself. It’s the idea of the season. It unfolds very slowly. Each day doesn’t matter. It’s a lot like life, really. You’re always moving in a certain direction—whereas with football and basketball, especially NFL football, it’s like a blitzkrieg. Each game is like a nuclear war. It doesn’t unfold slowly. It’s much more violent and emphatic. And that’s why I really like baseball. I miss watching baseball on TV. That’s one thing I really miss living in England. Even in England, I can at least follow the season and look online and see how the Red Sox are doing versus the Yankees and that kind of thing. That’s great. If you’re seven games back in June, it’s not over. Everything could change. I love that. Whereas if you’re seven games back in October in the NFL, you’re finished. I don’t know that there is anything else in America that can’t be replicated in England. Almost any food you can name, I can now get in England. If I had to have an Oreo, I could go to my supermarket. When I first went to England, there were no McDonald’s in Europe. You couldn’t get a cheeseburger. You could barely get a pizza. There was just so many things that I had grown up with that were completely far away. I felt much more deprived there. Genuinely, the only thing you can’t get at all is baseball in real time.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

ND: I got a little off topic, but you’ve written so many different kinds of books. What kind of book, aside from your Canada book, would you really want to write but haven’t gotten the chance to?

BB: Depends on if you’re talking realistically or hypothetically. If you’re talking completely hypothetically, I would love to write detective fiction or something like that. The reason I don’t do that is because I haven’t got any plots or stories or anything in my head. I’m not that imaginative. If you’re talking realistically of what I haven’t done, there isn’t anything terribly compelling. One of the nice things about getting old, getting to my stage of life, is that not just with writing but with family you feel like you’ve done your job. I’ve done everything I’ve ever wanted to do, and I’ve had all these wonderful experiences. I don’t want to stop. I want to keep writing. I want to keep traveling. I want to keep having family life. But I’m quite content with everything. There isn’t any aching need. What I would really like to do is not do so much of the peripheral stuff, the promotion and the interviews. To just focus on the writing and the rest of the time enjoying life. Spending more time with my wife, just the two of us traveling, which we couldn’t do for 20 years because somebody had to stay home and raise the kids. Now that our kids are grown and gone, we can travel together and I really like that. And then, also, we’ve got four kids and we’re now starting to accumulate large numbers of grandchildren and we like to spend all of our time with them. Those are my dreams and my goals and my ambitions. They’re to do with finding personal time and not doing so much professionally.

ND: That is completely understandable. So, I asked this next question to LeVar Burton as well. What was a book that you read at college age that influenced your life going forward?

BB: The one that I remember that leapt out was Cosmos by Carl Sagan. It was something that I just picked up—it wasn’t something I was particularly interested in. I started reading in, and he had this very learned but also very seductive style. It was like stepping into a warm bath or something. It was just very comfortable. The whole experience of total immersion. I really enjoyed that. That really inspired me to want to write in that vain. To find that kind of voice myself, to write in that way that feels conversational. He became a real model for me. I couldn’t compete with him intellectually for sure because, I mean, he had a super-gigantic brain. But I’m sure he would have been a nice to meet. He just came across as a nice person. That was a book that leaped out to me.

ND: What is it that drives your curiosity? What makes you keep asking or wondering what’s going on?

BB: I don’t know. It seems to me a completely natural thing. I’m just curious to know. It’s just natural. It’s why we get up in the morning and go through life. It’s why you put the television on or read a book or look at the newspapers. I think there is this instinct to know what’s going on outside and around you but also to know why it is going on and I always feel that there is so much I don’t know. To get back to your early question, that’s one of the satisfactions of travel. It gives you a chance to find things you wouldn’t otherwise know. Like on this trip, one of the things I’ve been doing to everyone I know is asking them, “What’s going on with American politics?” Because, well, I don’t know. How do you explain this current election season? What I’m finding is that no one can answer these questions. But it seems to me there would be something wrong with you if you weren’t curious about certain phenomena. Like the meteoric rise of certain people in our pop culture. I just find it strange. I’m just naturally curious, but I don’t think there is anything particularly special about me.

ND: It’s just human nature?

BB: I think so. I’m struck by how often people don’t seem to be curious however. I think that is very unfortunate.

ND: That’s something I love about Rollins and its students and professors. Even if they have one thing that they focus on, that is just one thing in the long list of things they want to learn about. It’s founded, a little bit, on the many curiosities of people. The things people want to do with their lives. When did you know what you wanted to do with your life?

BB: Pretty early, I think. It’s what you did in my house. Both of my parents worked for newspapers. My older brother worked for the local newspaper. He was nine years older than me so he was another adult figure in my life. English was the only thing I was ever any good at. I had no aptitude for anything else. I would love to have been a major league shortstop. I would give away everything else just for one season in the major leagues. And I would have loved to have been musical. The only thing I could really do that distinguished me from other people was that I could write; that I had a certain facility for organizing words; that I enjoyed doing it and the challenge of doing it. As far back as I can remember, even to first grade, I sort of knew instinctively that that was where my life was going to go. It never occurred to me to do anything else. I was lucky that I knew what I wanted to do or knew what I could do. Though, I wasn’t consciously preparing. Everything I did or read was working toward trying to make the most of my own particular little pocket of talent. I was never going to be a great novelist or the next Dostoyevsky or anything like that. That’s why I focused on the middle-ground type of writing.

ND: So, what are some parting words of inspiration you have for people in college?

BB: I think Nike stole the words from me. Just do it! Really. Whatever you want to do in life, you should try at least. Nothing worse than getting to middle age and realizing something you wanted to do, might have done, you never got around to do it because you were making excuses. You may never become the next Martin Scorsese, but if that’s your dream, you’ve got to at least try and find out that you weren’t the next one. Or if you want to be the next William Faulkner or whatever. The chances are overwhelming that it’s not going to happen because there’s not that many of those people who come along in every generation. But to be 50 years old and to think, “I might have been a great novelist,” but didn’t bother to try. I think that’s just awful. It’s a waste of an opportunity. Just do it.