You might know Bill Bryson from his acclaimed bestseller A Walk in the Woods, which describes his trek through the Appalachian Trail with his out-of-shape childhood friend Stephen Katz. Or maybe you’re more familiar with his other work, like his 500-page bestseller A Short History of Nearly Everything; his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, or 2011’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life.
Bryson returns to New Hampshire next week to talk about his most recent endeavor, One Summer: America, 1927, which he argues was perhaps the most exciting summer any nation has ever had.
Some highlights: Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic; Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run; Mount Rushmore was dedicated; the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was shown; the Great Mississippi Flood devastated seven states; anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in Boston; Calvin Coolidge opted not to run for re-election; and the four most powerful central bankers on Earth met in a secret session on a Long Island estate and made a decision that guaranteed a future crash and depression.
He’ll present this project at The Music Hall’s Historic Theater on Thursday, Oct. 3, as part of the Writers on a New England Stage series, which includes an on-stage interview with Virginia Prescott, host of NHPR’s Word of Mouth.
The Hippo caught up with Bryson via phone before his long trek from England to promote his new book. Portsmouth will be his only stop in New Hampshire. But, having lived in Hanover for eight years, from 1995 to 2003, he’s anxious to visit again — perhaps, he said, when the Red Sox go on to the World Series?
Why 1927? Were there any other years up for contention?
I’ve always been fascinated by Charles Lindbergh and Babe Ruth. I thought there was something kind of fascinating that these moments were happening in tandem, and I was wondering if it would be possible to write a dual biography of these guys with a narrative arc heading toward the summer of 1927.
Then I looked into it and found that this was just part of a million other things that happened. … It was an incredibly eventful summer, if not the most exciting any nation has ever had — certainly during peacetime.
I read that this was also the summer that Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flagpole for 12 days.
This crazy fad had started a little bit earlier [before the summer of 1927], but this summer presented the glorious culmination of flagpole sitting. The guy who did this became this world expert, Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly. A hotel would employ him to sit on a flagpole as a publicity stunt. Tens of thousands of people showed up to watch it.
Did you know about this story before your research?
I’d heard of it, but I didn’t realize it was associated with the summer of 1927.
How do you research a book like this?
I read a lot of newspapers and magazines [from the period] … I really enjoyed it. I’d do things like go to the library while I was in America and take out all of the copies of the Scientific American from 1927 and look at every single issue, just to see what people were excited about in terms of science and technology. I took out all of the copies of Time, which was a brand-new magazine in 1927, and see what it had to say about everything. Just doing that made it a lot easier to bring the age alive in my mind.
Was it difficult to research American history while you were in England?
I had to come home to the States to do some of the research. I visited a lot of places, like Lindbergh’s home where he was born into, Vermont, where Coolidge was born and grew up … I spent quite a lot of time with some aviation experts in Washington at the Smithsonian. … But luckily, I could do a lot of it in England. … Nowadays, you can log onto the Globe’s website and look at any newspaper, which is fantastic.
Your dad was a sports journalist. Did that influence your fascination with American baseball?
He talked about Babe Ruth’s heyday, how good he was. But Babe Ruth has always been a mystery to me. When you see him in news footage, he just looks fat. He doesn’t look like a great athlete. He didn’t even have the build of a great athlete. … He was the greatest baseball player ever, but he led this dissolute lifestyle — he ate too much, drank too much, chased after women, and then he’d come to the ballpark with a terrible hangover and make two doubles, two home runs … he’s my favorite person in the whole book.
How did this book compare to your others?
For me, it was a very hard book because unlike any other I’ve done, there are a lot of stories going on here. I introduce a character, tell his life story, and then move onto another character, like Henry Ford or Al Capone or Calvin Coolidge. I must have had 20 stories going on. … But I really think I enjoyed doing this book more than any other book before.
I love your writing style; it’s informative, yet very funny and entertaining. What is your writing process like?
I do lots of editing. I always take the view that when you ask someone to read a book, you’re asking a lot, not just financially, but reading a book takes a lot of time. I really feel that you owe it to the reader to try to give them the best experience you can, to not just explain what you’re trying to write about, but to be as entertaining as you possibly can. I work as hard as I can to try to achieve those things. I don’t know whether I always do, but I always try hard.
Your parents were both writers. Did you get the writing bug from them?
My dad had a big library of books, a big collection of bookcases filled from floor to ceiling. To me, it seemed like this great bonanza of books. From the age of 13, I started picking books off the shelf, not having any idea about what they were. I read a lot. … There were a lot of writers who I was really taken with, more than I can begin to recollect now; Ernest Hemingway really blew me away. J.D. Salinger was another, speaking of New Hampshire writers.
You lived in Hanover, New Hampshire, for eight years. Will you be visiting your old town?
Sadly, no! I’d really love to go back to Hanover, to look up old friends. But when you’re on book tours, there isn’t any time to do that. … I’ll come back at some point soon, anonymously when I’m not working for the publisher. It’s still my favorite part of the country. … Maybe when the Red Sox go on to the World Series. I really think they’re going to go all the way this year.
Why did you move back to England?
We always intended to go back. We came to America because we thought it would be a really good thing to do during that period of our lives. I’m very lucky that I’ve been able to live within two different cultures. I wanted to give some of that to the children. We meant to stay for five years and ended up being there eight … I [had] moved to England when I was 20, and all of my long-term friends were there. … Though I also didn’t think I could take another New Hampshire winter.