Q&A: Bill Bryson's America

Bill Bryson sounds very British to American ears. Not in a fake Madonna sort of way. It's more like he was raised in some unknown country between the United States and the United Kingdom, where people have both droll manners and unabashed warmth. As it turns out, he's from Iowa. After decades of writing best-selling travel books about Europe and Australia, Bryson has decided to explore the most distant continent of all: his own childhood in 1950's Des Moines. In his new memoir "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," (Broadway 2006), Bryson introduces his alter-ego superhero self, a boy who grew up in an idyllic post-war, prosperous appliance-crazy country. Bryson stuffs the book with richly reported detail about the period, even as he skims over the more contentious parts of the decade like the civil rights movement. He concentrates on what he describes as a happy and uncomplicated childhood in the middle of a happier and less complicated America. It's a place anyone would be nostalgic for. "Happily, we were indestructible," he writes. "We didn't need seat belts, air bags, smoke detectors, bottled water, or the Heimlich maneuver ... We didn't need helmets when we rode our bikes or pads for our knees and elbows when we went skating. We knew without a written reminder that bleach was not a refreshing drink…"

Before going back to the 1950's, Bryson, who now lives in Britain with his family, wrote extensively about modern America. When he returned to live in New Hampshire after 20 years in England he produced the hilarious "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," in which the author gets reacquainted with the American love of guns and car cup holders. And there's the highly praised story of his quest to walk the entire Appalachian Trail, "A Walk in the Woods." Most recently, he's won a raft of awards for his science book: "A Short History of Nearly Everything." NEWSWEEK's Susanna Schrobsdorff spoke with Bryson about America, then and now:

NEWSWEEK: What is it about our era that makes that the 1950's look so good to so many people?

Bill Bryson: It was the last time that people were thrilled to be able to have something like a waffle iron or a toaster. Buying one felt like Christmas. If you go back and look at the ads in the 50's, they looked happy. You couldn't do that today; they'd think you were on some kind of drug. Within a single generation, we developed unlimited expectations. We are all now extremely comfortable, but most people are dissatisfied. We've evolved into a condition of non-stop wanting. What do we all do when we have time off? We go shopping. We are always grazing in this consumer paradise.

You've traveled or lived abroad for much of your life. When you return to the States what strikes you most?

When you come back from Europe, one thing that strikes you is that there's much more sense of possibility in the United States and the physical and mental room to do things. You can actually find your own piece of woods and beach. It's not really possible in Britain to go to a beach where you couldn't see another human being.

Are there essential American qualities?

Yes, and most of them are good ones. I think that friendliness is an essential American quality. The closer you get to the middle of the country, the friendlier people get. I started in New York, which is known as not the friendliest of places, but people were really friendly, and as I got towards the middle I could hardly stand it because it was so friendly. There is also an instinct for optimism in America. That's not always a good thing. With climate change, a rosy outlook doesn't do you much good.

In this book you talk about the Midwest in the teasing way siblings talk about each other. How do you walk that fine line between humor and mockery?

It's not hard because I have a genuine affection and love for Iowa. And that's actually grown because I appreciate qualities about Iowa now that I didn't appreciate when I was growing up. Back then, I thought it was nowhere and that it was a curse to grow up there. Now I'm kind of stunned by how beautiful it is.

You've written travel books in the first person, but this book seems more personal. You also had to get into the mindset of a young boy. What was that like?

When you become an adult, you kind of wipe your memory banks of what it was like to be child. The world is a completely different place when you are only two-and-a-half feet tall. Everything is a challenge. It was the first time you did, smelled, and thought so many things. It takes forever to grow up, but after that, time goes very quickly. For that reason, I think childhood is 50 percent of your existence. I'm in my 50's now and I'm on a sort of high-speed train heading into the future.

Your father was a sports writer, and there's a lot of love for baseball in your writing. What is it about the sport that fascinates you?

I think baseball is the finest game ever. Believing that is probably a condition I had as I was growing up because of what my father did. But it is a superior game. And it's the only game that isn't ruled by a clock. It finishes when it finishes—not when the clock says it's over. Kind of like life itself, it can go really long or be very short.

You say that baseball isn't as central now as it was in the 1950's. Why is that?

Something about the pace of baseball doesn't suit the modern temperament. People want time out and a break so they can go off and get more food. One of the saddest things to me and to a lot of other people is that baseball keeps being beaten back by football. In August, just as the baseball season comes to climax, the sports pages start filling up with football. I don't think it is the national pastime any more.

Were you in the States during the attacks on September 11?

Yes, and I could understand the shock in America because we don't have a history of being attacked. Where I thought we failed was that this wasn't just an American tragedy, but it was a world tragedy. I know that people in Britain and Germany felt just as horrified and shocked because it felt personal to them. As a nation, we failed to make use of that good will. We started acting as if it was us against the whole world and that wasn't the case. On reflection, we could have done it with a little more sensitivity. Even in Canada, they felt as if the Americans were suspicious of them.

Your last book, "The Short History of Nearly Everything," was about science, all of science. Were you itching to do something different with "The Thunderbolt Kid"?

This book was such a pleasure to do, particularly for me because I had an extremely happy childhood. We weren't a very complicated family—no secrets. The last book was the history of the universe from the big bang to last week, so I really felt I was entitled not to do so much research this time.

What's your next project?

I've been consigned to a concise biography of William Shakespeare. It's been the greatest pleasure. He was such a wonderfully fascinating figure, as was the period he lived in.

After writing so many travel books and researching the 'History of Everything,' you must be a great conversationalist at parties.

[laughs] The problem is that I forgot all that at least two years ago. I have to make room for all these new things.