I've loved the alternately laugh-out-loud, and poignant, writing of Bill Bryson ever since I read "Notes from a Small Country" some 20-odd years ago. When I found out (completely serendipitously, and a mere few hours beforehand) that the Great Man was speaking, right here, in Orlando (well, Winter Park - but it didn't involve flying all the way to England where Mr. Bryson lives)...There was no choice but to drop any other plans for the evening (read: grocery shopping) and go. You can appreciate the exquisite struggle involved in this. I parked in the garage on Lymon Avenue, had a pleasant five minute walk to the Warden Arena, and found a seat at the rapidly filling basketball court. Did I mention that the Great Man was speaking for the betterment of Winter Park (and Orlando's) citizenry for free? Courtesy of the Winter Park Institute at Rollins College. I love Florida in the winter; it's the sort of place where Important Authors With Newly Released Books to Promote go to Escape Winter in more temperate climes. Clearly Mr Bryson couldn't resist the lure of a trip to Winter Park, and left behind snowy England to hear the siren call of '70 degrees and sunny.'
Mr. Bryson walked up on the stage after a brief introduction by the college president, and started his talk by noting how this was a much bigger audience than he was used to. "Certainly bigger than the five people who showed up at the Barnes and Noble book signing in New Jersey..." where one of the five attendees claimed to be there as they were both named "Bill Bryson" and another because she was his editor's relative. He moved on to similar bumbling anecdotes from when the film of his book "A Walk in the Woods" premiered at Sundance Film Festival. He said he felt like a celebrity because he was recognized on the street at Sundance...only to find out the person hailing him was just his son's roommate. He's been resident in the UK for enough years to have assimilated and self-deprecating British sense of humor. Bill read excerpts from several of his books, including the latest "The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain" (copies for sale in the lobby) and then did a question and answer session, assisted by the young editor of the Rollins College paper. The impromptu nature of the Q&A highlighted a quick, dry wit and moved the audience past the expected laughs. When asked, "Why do you write?" He answered, simply, "I've got bills to pay..." of course, it came out perfectly timed and completely charming - although he emphasized that he's a writer not a speaker, comedic timing transcends genre.
After the speech, he stayed on the stage for nearly two hours signing copies of books, taking time to speak to each fan and write individual notes upon request. My typical lack of skill in getting into the short side of the line was evident; I noted in my sketch journal "Well, there's a hundred people ahead of me and at least 10 people behind...." providing plenty of time to work on finishing the watercolor part of the sketch while I stood. When I finally ascended the podium, Mr. Bryson thanked me for my patience, chuckled at my note request "It's summer, it's time for mayonnaise!" commenting that he'd forgotten he's written that one (faux-British magazine article title) and we chatted for a minute about writing. Autographed dogeared copy of book clutched firmly in hand, and riding a wave of fangirl-ness, I sailed out of the arena into the balmy Florida night.