Bill Bryson talks Iowa homecoming at Writers’ Workshop

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Bill Bryson speaks at the Writers' Workshop -- photo by Tim Taranto
Bill Bryson speaks at the Writers’ Workshop — photo by Tim Taranto

“This is the first time I’ve gotten to the Writers’ Workshop,” said Bill Bryson, to the audience gathered in the sun-filled Frank Conroy Reading Room of the Dey House. The Iowa-born writer and current resident of England is one of the most widely published authors of nonfiction. This week, the University of Iowa awarded Bryson an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

On the day preceding his award, the acclaimed author held a Q&A at the Writers’ Workshop.

“When I come to the States I usually fly into Chicago and then drive to Des Moines,” said Bryson, “There’s just something about crossing the Mississippi.”

Bill Bryson was born and raised in Des Moines where both his parents worked for the Des Moines Register. After his mother’s passing last year at the age 102, Bryson said he was, “Despondent not to have a reason to come back anymore.”

“I grew up really wanting to leave Iowa. I always had the impression that the real world was elsewhere,” said Bryson. Since then the author explained how important this landscape has become to him. “I miss the scale and majesty of the American weather,” he said, “The storms and the snowfall. I miss baseball. I download and watch the games on my computer, but it is not the same.”

Several of those in attendance inquired about the humor of his books, whether the subject be hiking the Appalachian Trail or a biography of Shakespeare.

Bryson explained how what he felt the unique brand of “dry Iowa humor” prepared him for British comedy. “Growing up here you don’t take yourself too seriously, that self-deprecation is not very typical of American humor,” he said. “Because of this I thrived in England.”

“But I made quite a lot of fun of Iowa and Iowans in my first book, I overloaded it with jokes,” the author explained. “So in [The Life and Times of the] Thunderbolt Kid, I wanted to show how wonderful my childhood was, and to make it clear that Iowans are nice decent people, favored human beings,” said Bryson.

When asked if he had any future plans to return to Iowa City, the author said yes. The subject of his forthcoming book pertains to the human body. “The University of Iowa leads the nation in medical science,” said Bryson, and he went on the explain the value of speaking with scientists when researching his books.

“I always ask them what excited them about their subjects, whether that be lichens or mollusks. And more often they’ve forgotten. They’ve lost the magic in something they do so repetitively. They lose the wonder. The hardest thing we should all try to do is recapture that magic, to remember why we’ve chosen a subject to research or a book, or our romantic partners.”

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