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The Best of the Book Nook: 'A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail' by Bill Bryson

"A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail" by Bill Bryson

An interview with Steven Katz from Vick Mickunas.

I'm frequently asked; what is your favorite book? I cannot answer that
question. I'm asked; who is your favorite author? Once again, I cannot
respond. Too many favorite books and authors. During the time I might
waste trying to rate them I could be reading another book!

I do have favorite interviews however and this is one of them. There's
quite a back story to it. Here are some of the details:

I grew up in Des Moines on the west side of town. When I was 11 years
old I got my first real job, delivering the Des Moines Register and
Tribune. Every weekday when I got out of school I would pick up my
bundle of Tribunes. On Saturdays they put out the paper early, our
bundles arrived by noon. Then on Sundays I would get up at 3am to
deliver the big paper, the Register. Seven days a week. That taught me
about working. Working hard. It also turned me into a lover of
newspapers. I read the entire paper every day. One of my favorite
writers was a sports columnist named Bryson. He wrote a lot about
baseball, especially, the Chicago Cubs. His wife also wrote for the
paper. Bryson was a name I have known for years.

When I got into high school I started hearing about another Bryson,
their son Bill Bryson. My older friends would talk about him. They knew
him. Bill grew up on the west side too, he was older than I was so I
never met him back in Des Moines. My friends kept talking about how Bill
had moved to England and that he was writing books! Amazing. None of our
mutual friends had read any of his books but they were still impressed
that one of our hometown guys was doing something like that.

One fellow who talked about his pal Billy was a guy named Matthew. He
was one of Bryson's childhood friends-they had had many adventures
together when they were growing up and afterwards when they were bumming
around Europe and Turkey during the early 1970's. I got to know Matthew.
I had a few adventures with him myself. I met Matthew when I was in my
teens.

Fast forward to the mid-1990's. I'm here at WYSO playing music every
weekday on Excursions and talking to lots of authors. Bill Bryson came
through on book tour and I interviewed him. Before that day we had never
met. I mentioned Matthew's name during the interview and Bryson
instantly got really peeved. He tried to curtail any discussion of
Matthew. I was puzzled by that. It took me a few years to figure out why
Bryson was miffed that day.

Here's why: Bryson had just hiked the Appalachian Trail with Matthew and
he was working on a book about their experiences. A few years later the
book came out. It was "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the
Appalachian Trail" and when it came out in paperback it became a massive
best-seller. That book transformed Bill Bryson. He went from being a
respected scribe who sold a few books to being a very successful top of
the charts writer. And he remained so until last year when he retired
from writing.

I noticed how well the paperback was doing. It was number one on the New
York Times non-fiction list for months. I wanted to do an interview with
Bryson about it and when I called his publicist I was told that the
author was in Australia working on another book and he was not
available. I did not let that stop me, though. You see, I had read the
book and I loved it. The best bits in it in my opinion were the
interactions between Bryson and his fellow hiker, a guy named "Steven
Katz." I was well aware through my conversations with our mutual friends
back in Des Moines that this "Katz" character was actually our old
friend Matthew. Bryson had given him a pseudonym and that is why he had
gotten so annoyed with me previously for mentioning Matthew by his real
name during our interview. Matt's identity was top secret! Back then
nobody knew who "Katz" really was. But I did.

I called up Matthew and said hey, I am trying to get an interview with
Bryson and he's not available. Would you like to do an interview
instead? Initially Matt demurred. But I stayed on him. It took me months
but I finally got him on the phone for this live interview. I told him
that he was getting an opportunity to set the record straight. Since his
identity as "Katz" was still a closely guarded secret he had never been
interviewed before we did this one. In the years since the book came out
his identity as Matthew Angerer has been revealed and he's done a few
more interviews. Very few. Several years ago when the abysmal film
version of the book came out with Robert Redford playing Bryson and Nick
Nolte as 'Katz" he did an interview for the Des Moines Register. They
published a wonderful photo in that article: Matthew in his basement
with his awesome collection of record albums. If you do a web search for
Matthew Angerer and "A Walk in the Woods" you should be able to find
that article and some photos of Matt who is living quietly these days in
a small town in Iowa.

After you listen to this conversation I think you'll have a better sense
of why this was one of my favorite interviews ever!

The Book Nook on WYSO is presented by the Greene County Public Library with additional support from Washington-Centerville Public Library, Clark County Public Library, Dayton Metro Library, and Wright Memorial Public Library.

Vick Mickunas introduced the Book Nook author interview program for WYSO in 1994. Over the years he has produced more than 1500 interviews with writers, musicians, poets, politicians, and celebrities. Listen to the Book Nook with Vick Mickunas for intimate conversations about books with the writers who create them. Vick Mickunas reviews books for the Dayton Daily News and the Springfield News Sun.