Bill Bryson is one of the world's most popular and entertaining travel writers. The son of a Des Moines sportswriter, he's written wonderfully descriptive and usually hilarious books on his travels in the United States ("The Lost Continent"), along the Appalachian Trail ("A Walk in the Woods"), in England ("Notes from a Small Island"), Europe ("Neither Here Nor There"), Australia ("In a Sunburned Country"), Africa ("Bill Bryson's African Diary") and his return to America ("I'm a Stranger Here Myself"). His latest book, however, takes him across a much grander map.
"A Short History of Nearly Everything" explains how the universe started and how we got here as a species -- only in Bryson's usual breezy and completely engaging style. If our high school teachers made science as fun and entertaining as Bryson does, we'd have a lot more science majors in college, a lot more scientists in the real world and we might even have a college football ranking system that makes sense.
Page 2's Jim Caple caught up to Bryson to ask for his thoughts on sports across the globe, his memories of Ernie Banks and why rooting for the Red Sox is infinitely nobler than rooting for the Yankees ...
1. Which do you think is more difficult to explain: how the universe began and how we got here or baseball to Europeans?Bryson: Oh, explaining baseball to the Europeans. Especially the English. Because they're convinced that their children's game of rounders is what baseball grew out of. So to them baseball is a children's game. They understand the principles of it but what they can't understand is the glory of it. Compared to that, explaining the creation of the universe is amazingly simple.
2. You lived in England 20 years, you wrote a best-selling book about your travels in Europe, you wrote a best-seller about your travels in Australia. You now have a book that promises a short history of everything. So tell me this: Why the hell does the rest of the world like soccer so much?Bryson: Now you're just trying to sucker me into the same trap as the baseball question.
I've actually come to think of soccer as a great sport. Baseball is the game I love but I do feel we in America have really short-changed ourselves because we miss out on the world's biggest sports spectacle and we don't really appreciate it. And it's kind of a shame. I went to the World Cup last summer in South Korea and Japan, and in a way, it was bad to be there because I was cheering for European teams more or less by default. It's a great international spectacle and most of the U.S. doesn't pay much attention to it. I know we pay more attention to it than we used to but the average American still couldn't tell you what was going on.
2B. I always thought it was just a matter that we Americans had so many better sports to follow here.Bryson: I share your prejudice. [LAUGHS] But I've been around soccer long enough that I do like it and think it's a great sport. And part of what makes it great is that it's international. I mean, think how wonderful baseball would be if the Nigerians were playing it or the Brazilians. What if baseball had a Pele? We don't quite know how much potential there is for greatness in baseball. Imagine if it was played everywhere.3. You live in New Hampshire now. Are you a Red Sox fan?Bryson: Yeah. I grew up as a Cardinals fan but when we came back from England (where he lived and worked for 20 years), we settled in New Hampshire and little by little the Red Sox grew on me. I think you have to be a Red Sox fan there.
I like the Red Sox. I think they're a noble cause. I would think it would be very hard to be living in Michigan and have to root for the Tigers. At least with the Red Sox there is always hope. There's also a kind of a sense of dignity. Yankees fans are kind of pathetic because they always win. Rooting for them is just such an easy option. With the Red Sox, there is always disappointment, so there's a sense of goodness to rooting for them, a virtue. But at the same time, it's not a hopeless cause. And I like them because they're old, they're not an expansion team, they play in old ballpark that's been there since 1912. There's a sense of tradition. I like the Cubs for the same reason.
4. Your father Bill was a sportswriter for the Des Moines Register for many years. Did you ever get to tag along with him to a sporting event?Bryson: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The glory of my dad being a sportswriter is I got to go with him. Every summer he would do a mini-tour of the Midwest teams in the majors, mostly to do features on players from Iowa but also he would just write about the Tigers or Milwaukee or the Cubs. He would go to four or five cities and he would take me and I would get to meet those people. He was quite unashamed that I was there. I would be at his elbow when I was 10 years old and I could go on the field. Things were much more relaxed in those days.
Let's play two: Ernie Banks hit 512 home runs and was nice to young Bill Bryson.
My greatest moment as a human being was one day I got to sit in the Cubs clubhouse where Ernie Banks was autographing baseballs and I got to hand them to him. As I recall, all he had on was a towel. He was this very strong human being, but a really nice person. He had a box of baseballs he was signing and he obviously didn't need my help but he let me hand him the balls.
4B. Baseball was your father's passion, right?Bryson: It was all he really cared about. As a sportswriter he had to cover all the sports -- he mostly covered Big 10 basketball and football, Iowa football and basketball -- but every spring training he would go to Florida and he went to the World Series every year for 35 years and the All-Star Game. He was a great, great baseball writer. I know, I mean I really know, he could have been one of the best of his generation but he never wanted to leave Iowa. He grew up there and never dreamed of going elsewhere.
In 1960 when Bill Mazeroski hit the home run to beat the Yankees in the World Series, he wrote one of the best postgame stories I've ever seen. I didn't appreciate it until years later. At the time, I thought he was just this dorky guy who wrote about sports. It wasn't until years later, after he died, that I read some of his stuff and said, "Christ, he really was good.''
That day Mazeroski homered, it completely turned the game around at the last moment, it was the exact opposite of everyone's expectations, so when he hit it everyone had to come up with new ledes and everything that was written that day was written off the tops of peoples' heads, and what my dad wrote was like a feature that he had been working on for weeks. He was gifted at that. He had an obvious great gift but he was content to keep it in a small town.
It's like that story Garrison Keillor once wrote about a player in Lake Wobegon who never wanted to play anywhere else. He didn't feel a need to prove himself in the majors. A player is just good, no matter where he is. He isn't good because he's somewhere, he's just goodBryson: That's very true and my dad would agree with you. He liked Iowa and never wanted to leave. I grew up always wanting to get out of Des Moines and be part of a bigger world. It's the one area where my dad and I parted ways.
5. What do you think your father would have written about the Larry Eustachy mess at Iowa State?Bryson: I don't know what my dad would have made of that. He did come from another era. He always admired players who were kind of honorable and principled. He hated Ty Cobb and that sort of player. He grew up thinking that a sporting personality had a responsibility to be a decent human being.
That is old school.Bryson: It is. But he was born in 1915.
It must have been terrific growing up with him.Bryson: It was terrific. He knew a lot. His lifelong hobby was working out where baseball terms came from and their use in the language. He would check out the earliest use of the term "Give me a raincheck'' or "southpaw.'' My dad was actually cited in H.L. Mencken's History of the American Language as a source.
6. Did you ever want to be a sportswriter yourself?Bryson: No, I didn't. Particularly as I grew older. I've always enjoyed sports and going to sports but personally, I've always preferred to go to a baseball game and just watch and enjoy it and not have to be at work. I would hate to have something I enjoy so much become a job. I would much rather be in the stands. I like going to places and working and writing about them. I enjoy that. But I don't enjoy going and writing about sports. The one thing I didn't like writing about the World Cup (for the Times of London) is that I had to keep writing about it. I wanted to enjoy the experience. I hated having to knock something out after a game.
7. Do you see yourself as a travel writer or just a writer?Bryson: Just a writer. Travel writing is never something I set out to do. I got clean pushed into it and I found I liked it. I still feel it's the best scam. To be in Australia and having a great time and basically being on vacation in one of the great places in the world and being able to call it work, well, you can't beat that. So I like doing it. But I want to do something more with my own professional time other than just going to one country after another and making fun of it. That's one reason I wrote this current book, as a change of pace.
7B. Was there opposition to the book from the publisher because it was about science, not travel?Bryson: There is always opposition from the publisher if you don't write exactly the same book you wrote last time. When I finished "A Walk in the Woods," and went to the publisher and said, I'd like to do Australia, he just looked up and said, "No, no. You have to get Katz and go do the Pacific Crest Trail." They wanted me to maintain this same character and do all the big hiking trails until I was completely spent. And that's the way publishers think. They really didn't want to do a book on Australia. If it hadn't been for the Olympics, I would have had a really hard time getting a publisher to agree to a book on Australia. They were really not interested in Australia at all.
8. You make a lot of wonderful, amusing analogies in your new book to help explain how small or how big or how old or how far away something is. Was it difficult coming up with all of them?Bryson: Oh, yeah. To make a baseball analogy, writing this was like not really knowing a thing about baseball and then writing a book explaining it all.
So in that analogy, you would talk to these experts and write it up and say, "There are two ways to make an out in baseball. You can either strike out or the fielder can catch the ball." And then you would show it to the experts to make sure that's right and they would say, "No, no, no. You can also hit a grounder to the fielder and he can throw you out. Or you can be caught stealing. And have you heard what happens when the catcher drops the third strike?" So what you would end up writing is, "Well, no one knows exactly how many ways there are to make an out but most people agree there are at least 24."
The challenge is making an analogy that is still accurate but not one that gets so bogged down that you lose the reader.
9. As a writer who has traveled the world, where would you go if you have only one more vacation available?Bryson: That depends a lot on the ground rules. Like if I was going to be under house arrest the rest of my life, or something like that?
Right.Bryson: Well, then I guess I would have to pick Des Moines.
Oh my.Bryson: Well, it's my hometown and it would be my last chance to see my mother.
Well, let's change the ground rule. You're going to be placed under house arrest in Des Moines.Bryson: Oh, God! Anywhere! Anywhere outside Iowa.
But as far as just a place to go, I have a real soft spot for Australia. If you said I had one last trip overseas, I would say Australia. I think one of the great experiences in life is leaving a place like New Hampshire in February with snow on the ground and finding yourself 24 hours later in Sydney's Circular Quay, which is one of the world's great spots, and it's summer there and you're drinking a cup of coffee, and thinking, "This is not so bad."
10. One last question -- which superpower would you choose, the strength of 100 men, the ability to fly or the ability to turn invisible?Bryson: Oh, that's tough. Well, if you had asked me when I was 15, it would have been invisible but I think that would be wasted on me now. I think the ability to fly. I would get a lot of pleasure out of that, a lot of entertainment value. I wouldn't want the strength of 100 men because that would be terrible. You would be hurting people all the time.
Almost everyone picks invisible. Probably 90 percent invisible, nine percent strength and almost nobody picks flying. You may be the first one.Bryson: Really? Well, I can't see any advantage to being invisible other than going into the girls locker room.
What more COULD you want?Bryson: But it would be pretty shameful if you suddenly lost the power and had to explain yourself.