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Bryson can’t help but write funny book

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Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is naturally funny — and he writes naturally funny books.

His new one may be his funniest. After all, it's his life story. "That made it easy," Bryson said by phone from Pittsburg during his book tour.

"I know my own history," he explained, "so I used my memory. I could write in my bedroom slippers. I did start out, though, at Drake University in Des Moines and immersed myself in the '50s.

"I started reading the newspapers of the time to jog my memory. I was struck by my own feeling of growing up as pleasurable. Yet ugly stuff was going on — the Cold War, racism, nuclear weapons, DDT, cigarettes, and the fall-out from atmospheric testing. There was a disparity between my memory and the news."

Bryson found it was "also an innocent time — we didn't worry about the consequences of things. But I've always seen the world as slightly ridiculous or skewed anyway. You get along better if you relax."

Like his compatriot Dave Barry, Bryson writes with heavy exaggeration.

For instance, when Bryson was a kid there were "always 600 kids everywhere except where two or more neighborhoods met — at the park ... where the numbers would grow into the thousands. I once took part in an ice hockey game at the lagoon in Greenwood Park that involved 4,000 kids, all slashing away violently with sticks, and went on for at least three-quarters of an hour before anyone realized that we didn't have a puck."

Adults were always ancient — like Mrs. Vandermeister, one of his teachers. He remembers her as "abnormally old." And he writes about "Mr. Milton," the father of his friend Milton Milton, who "bore as uncanny a resemblance to the Disney character Goofy as was possible without actually being a cartoon dog. His wife was just like him but hairier."

When Bryson visited the Miltons, they always passed around "a plate of Fig Newtons, the only truly dreadful cookie ever made." Bryson, who at the time thought he was the Thunderbolt Kid, "torched the Miltons repeatedly with ThunderVision, but they were strangely ineradicable."

Bryson has made an excellent living churning out such books as "A Walk in the Woods," "In a Sunburned Country," "A Short History of Nearly Everything" — and his new book, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: a Memoir."

Bryson said he enjoys writing books. "You choose something that you can sustain interest in for a couple of years. It's not a lifelong commitment like majoring in biology. You have an intense interest in something, then you move on. I feel lucky to have jumped around."

After Bryson grew up in Iowa, he hitchhiked through Europe, because "everyone was doing that then," and while working In a psychiatric hospital near London, he met a girl and fell in love. They married, settled down in London and had kids with "a mish-mash of American and British qualities. We're an international household."

Bryson grew up learning to read from the "Dick and Jane" readers, about which he feels affection. "I really did want to have their lives — but not to talk like them! I was not scornful of them. The illustrations in books now often have stick figure drawings, while Dick and Jane's were little paintings, Norman Rockwell-like. There was something magical about the illustrations. It was so important to me to learn what was going on in the pictures."

His father was a sportswriter, who was gifted in producing a report of a game "in the immediate aftermath. He could write well under pressure. I'm the opposite. I could not do a quality piece of writing immediately after the event. If I could think about it for about three weeks, I could do better."

When the family was at the dinner table and a strange word was used, Bryson's dad would go and look it up. "As a kid, I thought it was pathetic, but he was implanting in me a respect for finding things out."

At the time of this interview, Bryson had just visited Des Moines during his tour, and several people thought they recognized somebody he described in the book. "But they were wrong. I was astounded with some of it. Someone mentioned that she knew who Mary O'Leary was — and she was completely wrong.

"Someone else thought they recognized the Butter brothers, the bullies in town. But the ones they described were two nice brothers, and they weren't the Butters at all!"

That's the trouble with writing about real life.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com