It’s not often that you go on a cruise where authors are treated like rock stars. But not every author, admittedly, is as beloved by his fans as Bill Bryson, the cross-genre master of memoir, history and travel writing.
And not every ship is Queen Mary 2. With its frequent transatlantic crossings, the Cunard flagship liner attracts those who appreciate the pull that both the UK and America have for Bryson – and many people I met on last week’s cruise had booked passage just to see him.
I’ve read several of Bryson’s books – including his latest, “One Summer, America 1927″ – and wasn’t sure what to expect for our in-person interview. Wonderfully descriptive and humorous, his prose can also be cutting; when Bryson doesn’t like someone or something, the reader knows it. Would he be sarcastic and snarky toward me?
Luckily, my fears were ungrounded. During our talk, Bryson appeared as self-effacing, clever and Midwestern-nice as he seems in his book about his Iowan childhood, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.” Here are a few of his thoughts on cruising, traveling and the appeal of Quebec City.
Q: Is this your first cruise?
A: We’ve done several. It’s the second time on the ship (QM2); we did an Atlantic crossing a number of years ago. We’ve also done other cruises on Cunard, including QE2. We’ve also taken cruises with Holland America and Silversea. Those were really nice too, but it’s probably ungracious for me to say too much about them.
Q: Would you ever choose cruising as the subject of a book? It seems like it would provide great material!
A: No, for the very reason that I am a guest….When I’m writing in travel mode, people expect me to be comical and irreverent. Would Cunard really want me to be making jokes? I don’t think they’d be very happy about it. Now mind you, it’s not like I have a whole bunch of discontented experiences to trot out…But in order to be comical. I would almost have to be looking for negatives.
Q: What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of cruising?
A: For me, the great advantage and the reason we do it is the exclusion. It’s just me and my wife. There are no phone calls, nobody pestering us. It’s the most wonderful feeling to be out of reach from the outside world…. We could achieve the same thing by locking ourselves in a cupboard or something but this is a much more pleasant way of having quality time together alone.
The negatives to me are, I’m not very good when the seas are rough. Also, it’s not very often terribly easy to have a high quality port experience because you are there so fleetingly.
I’ve been on a couple of cruises where you have to buy an excursion to get somewhere. I have found those experiences a little disappointing at times because they seem to be built around moving very slowly and going to souvenir emporiums.
On another cruise line, we went to Bethlehem. Now how often in my life am I going to get to Bethlehem? We go there and the first place we stop is a rug shop. I’m in Bethlehem! I didn’t come all this way to buy rugs.
Q: What have you enjoyed the most about this cruise (a 12-night round-trip from NYC to Quebec, along New England and Maritime Provinces)?
A: What I liked about this was the frequent stops in ports where you can get off and go walking, which is something we enjoy a lot. Even Boston, a place I know quite well – it was quite a novelty to step ashore and just walk on foot from the terminal.
For example, I was walking all around Quebec City and thinking, ”Why didn’t anybody tell me how wonderful it is?” Somebody should have grabbed me and said, “You have to go, you’ll love it. “ Nobody ever did that. I’m 60 years old and I haven’t seen this place until now. I want to go and see the rest of the province.
Q: Can you tell us what your next book will be about?
A: I would tell you if I knew but I haven’t decided. The new one took me longer than I thought…I haven’t had the recovery time or the reflection time that I would normally have.
I have a half-dozen ideas for books…(one on) Canada would appeal to me a lot (but) we’re moving later next month. The next year or so, I’ll be fairly preoccupied by taking things out of boxes, getting bookshelves built and so on. It’s unlikely I would want to spend a lot of time away. Canada would be a big commitment. I need to do it when I’m in a fairly relaxed place.