So, I just spent a couple of days with my old friend, Bill Bryson. I started re-reading his book on Australia because I’m thinking of including the bits about his journey on the Indian-Pacific railroad in my reading package. In so many ways, this book started me on the long journey that got me to undertaking a creative writing MA in order to write about penguins. On the most literal level, when I shared In a Sunburned Country with my Dad, we agreed that someday we would have to take that trip. Dad died before we could do that, but shortly after he died, I did it on my own. In homage to him. I met Simon on that trip, we fell in love (like that ever happens), and a year later we got married. Thus started the slippery slope that got me, eventually, to New Zealand and penguins.
But on a deeper level, I think reading Bryson’s books, maybe more than any other writer, inspired me to try my hand at creative writing. When I first read Notes from a Small Island, in the mid-1990s, I was still deeply entrenched in the world of analytical/academic writing, but I already aspired to bring some of his voice and irreverence into my writing. Now, I find myself reading his books—especially the early travel-related ones—looking for ways I can create a similar sense of humour, wonder, and whimsy in writing about my adventures in search of new penguins. I hope there will be places in my writing where people laugh out loud.
In re-reading In a Sunburned Country, what I think I ended up admiring the most was the self-effacing yet sensitive way he dealt with the unexpected culture shocks he encountered as he travelled around Australia: cricket, Australia’s love of ‘building big things in the shape of other things’ (giant lobsters, giant earthworms, giant bananas), Aussie Rules Football. Most of his funny stories were at his own expense: ‘I was late arriving owing to a little inadvertent experiment I conducted to establish whether it is possible to find your way to an address in Melbourne using a street plan for Perth.’ And when he observed the quirks of Australians, he did so with respect and genuine affection. It’s a balance I’m very conscious of needing to strike in my own project when I write about my culture shock coming to New Zealand.
Neither did he avoid the more troubling aspects of Australia. He dealt seriously and pretty unflinchingly with the treatment of the Aboriginal people of Australia and didn’t cut white Australian racism any slack. He did most of his travelling in Australia in the late-1990s. I’ve visited some of the places in which he observed the starkest disrespect and disregard for Aboriginal people in the past five years and, sadly, can’t say I saw many signs that things have changed much. And while he was writing at a time when climate change wasn’t really on the public radar yet, he called out the forces of environmental degradation—especially mining and habitat destruction—effectively without seeming preachy.
It’s not that I want to be Bryson, but I kinda want to be Bryson.