Rob Savage meets travel writer extraordinaire - Bill Bryson
My days of being a student are sadly disappearing over the horizon at an alarming rate - kind of like an over eater chasing a mobile, all you can eat buffet. However a memory that will always stay with me is the time I graduated and shook hands with the wonderful travel writer and Chancellor of Durham University, Bill Bryson.
I decided to go back to my student roots and ask this amazing man how the St Christopher’s travel writers can improve their game and what it’s like to be one of the greatest authors of all time.
As a Yorkshire man I’m going to go straight in there with a couple of northern questions. You lived in North Yorkshire for a while - what are your fondest memories of your time there?
I love the landscape there and there’s something about the Yorkshire Dales that gets me. I think there’s just something wonderful about the combination of the red and green valleys. I love driving through, you know up and through the hills. And I really like the Yorkshire people - they’re very happy. My children completed their primary education in Yorkshire and they were very happy times. I have some very fond memories of our lives there.
What would you say you can find in Yorkshire that you can’t find anywhere else?
There’s nothing really but you can find combinations of things that you can’t find anywhere else - like the scenery and the people. But for me Yorkshire will always have a soft spot in my heart because I lived there and I was part of that community for a very important period of my life.
One of my favorite parts of Thunderbolt Kid is the sterile but radioactive toilet seat. What would you say is the modern day equivalent to this?
The only thing that I’ve ever seen, that reminded me of those toilet seats was when I was in Japan. There are these wonderfully technological toilets and I’m sure if I push the right button, I can tell whether you’ve got hemorrhoids or not. They’re quite amazing things but there are so many buttons and that makes it quite scary – you never know what you’re going to do.
You describe Durham as: "the perfect little city." In one sentence, how would you sum up London?
London is the greatest city in the world. It has a combination of everything. It’s a combination of rich history and it’s also an incredibly important world city. Not only this, there are only a few cities in the world that can call themselves world class. New York, Paris and London are just about it and today London has so much more to it. It’s got the history and also it has the parks, so you have quiet space which makes it comfortable. I mean you can go to London and have all the hustle and bustle but you can also get away from it and have a little tranquility - there are places where it feels like you’re in a small village.
Having got to know Durham during your time as Chancellor there, would you alter your description of the city at all?
I wouldn’t say my opinion has altered at all. The only thing that has changed is my affinity and affection for the city. Both have deepened. I’ve got to know the city and the people a lot more and there’s nothing there that’s negative at all.
I read about how you worked in Journalism before you became a travel writer. What was it that encouraged you to break away from this and get into your current line of work?
Well I was working as a copy and production editor on newspapers in Fleet Street. I used to work nights and come into London from the country on a daily basis, just to generate jobs. In the end I just got tired of that. All I was at the end of the day was an office worker in London who left work at 10.30pm. Eventually I gathered up the courage to quit my job and make a living, full time as a writer and I was lucky enough to get away with that. Then it was wonderful – there’s no better way to make a living than being a travel writer.
We have a lot of aspiring travel writers who compete to be published in the St Christopher’s E-zine. What would be your top tips for them?
I think the main thing is to just write. There are an awful lot of people that just talk about a book they are going to write, but they never get round to writing it. I think that unless you just get on with the writing, there’s no way to tell whether you’re a good writer or not.
Also I get an awful lot of people writing to me asking for advice on how to write a book. Instead of doing that they should just write the book. People just seem to put it off. Also don’t be afraid of rejection. There are all kinds of reasons why articles and books don’t get accepted. You shouldn’t take it personally.
What was the first piece of your work that was published?
The very first thing was an article I did for Sports Illustrated, a magazine in the United States. It was about shotguns sold by a company called Purdey. They were special bespoke shotguns and they were some of the priciest guns in the world ever. I was writing about what went into them and what you get for your money.
What is next in the grand scheme of things for Bill Bryson?
In the immediate future I’ll be in Durham promoting the organ donor campaign and then tomorrow I’m going to be getting back to Norfolk where I live now. I’m meant to be thinking about what my next book will be about but I’m not sure what that will be yet.
What is the one thing that you haven’t done that you would most like to do?
The main thing that I haven’t done is go to a lot of places with my wife. For the past twenty years I’ve been going to all these wonderful places and then coming home and telling my wife about it. What I look forward to is when my children are all finally grown up and then I’ll be able to take her to some of these places and share them with her.
You’ve lived in a lot of different places. Do you have an idea where you would like to end up eventually or do you think you’ll always be a citizen of the world?
Well a citizen of the world but I’m pretty sure that I’m in Britain now for good and as long as you’ll let me, I’ll happily stay here.
Every month we pick out five top books for backpacker to read on the road. If you had to recommend five reads to our travellers, what would they be?
1. In Trouble Again – A Journey Between Orinoco and the Amazon - by Redmond O'Hanlon
2. Hotel Honolulu – by Paul Theroux
3. All the Rough Guides
4. The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W.E Bowman
5. The Dig Tree – by Sarah Murgatroyd
- Rob Savage
You can check out these titles and find out a little bit more about them in April’s Top Five Reads.