Section: News

On the record with Bill Bryson: 2014 commencement speaker

by Phoebe Carter

Kenyon Collegian: What was your initial response to being asked to come to Kenyon for the commencement address?


Bill Bryson: I was reading an article from the Kenyon Review [when I was asked], which is a little uncanny. I know Kenyon from reputation, and my son and his wife both went to Denison [University], so we know that part of the world and I like Southern Ohio very much. But it was such a great honor, a school as distinguished as Kenyon inviting me to give the address. It never would have occurred to me to say no to that, so I accepted immediately.


KC: Have you begun thinking about the address?


BB: Well yes, I think about it all the time and it’s a real challenge because on the one hand you have to give some advice, but it’s very easy to be pompous and I don’t want to do that. I’ve given a few commencement speeches in my time now and they’re the hardest thing to do, they really are. The temptation is to sort of say, “Be good,” you know? “Behave yourselves and be good people,” and just to say things that are very obvious, so trying to say something that’s a little bit different is a challenge.


KC: What else are you working on these days?


BB: This year I am doing a travel book about Britain and my relationship with the country and really just making fun of the British again. I haven’t done that in 20 years.


KC: What advice would you give to aspiring authors?


BB: One piece that I always give is to go someplace where there’s a lot of books and just look at those books and remind yourself that every one of those authors was once unknown. I remember when I was first starting out it seems like everyone is against you, the publishers don’t want your books, nobody knows who you are and it can just seem impossible. But if you just plug away, it’s not as hard as it seems in the beginning.


KC: What is the craziest thing you’ve done as a part of your research for a book?

BB: Oh gosh, well the craziest thing I’ve ever done for a book was trying to hike the Appalachian Trail [for A Walk in the Woods]. If I’d reflected more sensibly I never would have started in the first place. I was really disappointed when I realized I was actually going to fail at it, but then I also realized there’s lots of different ways of measuring success and failure, and that became sort of the theme of the whole book. That was one of the most knuckleheaded things I’ve ever done, but it was one of the great experiences of my life.


KC: Have you looked at past Kenyon commencement addresses, such as David Foster Wallace’s?


BB: David Foster Wallace’s was one that is in the kind of “Commencement Address Hall of Fame,” and I realized I’m following in rather large footsteps here. But all I can do is give it my best shot. If I have one advantage over him it is that I think I am a happier person so I can bring a sort of happiness to everything I do. He was a troubled human being, and also an extremely gifted human being, so I’m probably the opposite of him in both ways.


KC: Do you mean you think you’re not a gifted human being?


BB: I am happy to be considered just a really happy human being. Nobody has called me a troubled genius, let’s put it that way. So whatever I say, it will almost certainly be in sharp contrast with what he said.


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