IF BILL BRYSON did not already appreciate his privileged position as a bestselling writer of non-fiction, a brush with Hollywood was enough to convince him of his good fortune. The American humorist has just seen his 1998 travelogue A Walk In The Woods adapted into a Robert Redford movie.
While Bryson’s involvement is peripheral, what he witnessed of the film-making process was sufficient to convince him authors have a far more straightforward time of it than filmmakers.
“There is nothing to do with the making and promotion of the movie that doesn’t make me glad I write books,” says the amiable 63-year-old, his heartland USA accent rounded at the edges after nearly 30 years on and off in the UK.
“It’s crazy – so much more intense. If I’m planning a book, I go to lunch with my publisher. We talk for 20 minutes. I say I want to write about whatever, he says ‘okay great’. And that’s it.”
A Walk In The Woods is a wry, deprecating account of Bryson’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to complete the historic Appalachian Trail, a 3,500km ramble linking Maine in America’s far north east and Georgia in the south. If the trek itself was an endurance — something Bryson does not shy from on the page — then the process of bringing the story to screen was even more of an ordeal.
Attracted by the tale’s man-versus- the elements overtones, in 2005 Redford announced he would oversee a film version, which he originally conceived of as a two-hander reuniting him with Butch Cassidy partner Paul Newman.
However, Newman’s ailing health and eventual death put paid to that. So Redford turned to another old comrade, Nick Nolte, casting him as Bryson’s dysfunctional friend Steve Katz (a pseudonym conceived of by Bryson to spare his pal the ordeal spotlight).
In Redford’s hands, A Walk In The Woods becomes a meditation on old age, far more grandiloquent in tone than Bryson’s folksy tome. Redford looks all of his 79 years and Nolte is more grizzled yet, every centimetre of his face covered in a delicate lattice of wrinkles and worry lines. The contrast with Bryson’s actual trek, which he undertook in his mid 40s, mostly because he wanted to get back into shape, is acute.
“The way I see it — and others may see it slightly differently — that’s not really me up there, “says Bryson. “He’s taken my name and my story and a fragment of my life — and used it to be make something really new.”
“Sometimes you find yourself a new territory that’s exciting and you say, ‘that was worth taking a risk’, and there are other times when it isn’t,” says Redford of the project.
“But I think there’s always been an impulse to go into uncharted territory and see what happens. Bryson didn’t quite know what he was doing; he was innocent and he had this impulse to do something.”
Raised in Des Moines, Iowa, bang in the centre of the American rust-belt, Bryson moved to Britain in the 1970s, where he met his future wife Cynthia (portrayed on screen by Emma Thompson). He settled in the UK and embarked on a successful career as a newspaper production journalist. His life changed with the publication in 1996 of Notes From A Small Island, a gently mocking portrayal of the UK that became an instant bestseller both sides of the Atlantic. He is shortly to revisit his unlikely love-affair with Britain with a new work marking the 20th anniversary of Small Island.
“My publisher persuaded me to do a sequel. It’s looking at how Britain has changed and how I have changed in the past 20 years. Mostly it’s about me asking myself why is it that I’m so crazy about this county. What is it about this damp little island in the North Atlantic Ocean that I like so much? Of course I will also be taking every opportunity to poke fun at the British.”
The new book, The Road To Little Dribbling, will be characteristically humorous but with a sober underpinning. “Life is pretty much homogenous now When I came to Europe there wasn’t a single McDonalds. Now, things are pretty much the same everywhere,” says Bryson.
“The foods that your kids eat, the games they play, the programmes they watch on TV — all of these experiences are pretty well indistinguishable from the experiences of kids in America, France, Britain — everywhere. In a way, that is perhaps a good thing. What is sad is that there isn’t more of that individuality we used to have,” he says.
He moved briefly back to the US in the 90s. Indeed, hiking the Appalachian Trail was part of an attempt to reconnect once again with his Americanness. However, he missed the UK and was soon to return.
“I never happily settled back in the US. I missed the small things — Radio 4, the shipping forecast. And the scale of Europe, the pace of life. One the thing I love is going to Heathrow and, two hours later, you’re in Rome or Madrid. I adore that.” Bryson has Irish family on both sides and hopes to one day write about the country.
“I’ve always wanted to keep Ireland for a separate book. My father’s side were Ulster Protestants, my mother’s Ulster Catholics. Ireland is so much where my roots are. I would dearly like to spend time — come and live there for six months. That is what I would love to do. Whether I’ll ever get around to it I don’t know. It’s the main item on my bucket list, for sure.”
As portrayed by Nick Nolte the Steve Katz in A Walk In The Woods is a pitiable figure — an ex-alcoholic whose life has remained at a standstill while his old friend Bryson has achieved renown as man of letters.
One wonders what the real life Katz makes of seeing himself presented in such a fashion? “When I wrote the book, the real-life Katz was in a pretty bad place. He was struggling with recovering from alcohol. He has sorted himself out and is in a much better position. The Katz in the movie is a historical person. He doesn’t have a problem with it.”