A sense of wonder, more than any material possession, is the most valuable thing a traveller can possess. The ability to see beauty in the imperfect, the fascinating in the mundane, and the hope in the devastation, is what distinguishes those who travel simply for the sake of it, and those who travel because it nourishes their soul. Taking their name from a character in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Taylor Bruce’s Wildsam Field Guides feel more like a literary experience than a simple travel guide book. Through essays, illustrations, interviews and curious almanac-style factoids, the Wildsam series currently includes guides to finding the wonderment in Austin, Nashville and San Francisco – with Detroit and Brooklyn editions also in the works.
I grew up … on a farm in a small town in Georgia. My childhood was pretty low key and quiet, and a lot of it was spent outside. Our house was up on a hill and there was a train that ran through the farm. Even now when I hear a train, it makes me think of when I was growing up. It’s a really soothing sound for me.
When I was 12 … my family flew to San Francisco and rented a car and then drove Highway 1 down to San Diego – it was my first big trip. That’s a pretty iconic American route and it was a trip that was much different to our summer vacations at the beach.
If I look back on myself … and study my habits and sensibilities, even as a kid I was always drawn to talk to people who most other people wouldn’t pay attention to. I’ve always found people who are living in the shadows really interesting and I’ve always been inquisitive and I like to ask questions. That, to me, is the trick with travelling – to slow down enough to pay attention to people and have conversations with folks who might not immediately appear to be of great significance.
I like to use novels as my travel guides … because it’s kind of like having a soundtrack. It’s not the specific information you’re getting but rather the sense of place that a writer has captured so well. For example, for New York City I would recommend E.B. White’s Here is New York or Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel. Or for San Francisco I would suggest Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the collection of stories, some of which by Joan Didion were set in San Francisco. Or Kerouac’s On the Road, which ends in California. And for Austin, one of Willie Nelson’s bios would be great.
We decided to use illustrations … in the guides instead of photos. I really wanted people to lean in and pay attention and get lost in the stories that were inside the book. You can just flip through photos and move on from one to the next without really investing in the piece, whereas illustration really leaves some of the imagination to you. Also, photos are so readily available these days because of things like Instagram that we wanted to make it special.
Anywhere you go … you’ll see that cities aren’t just beautiful. There’s also a lot of homelessness, inequality and just a certain harshness to urban areas. I believe that a true guide to a place should tell every story – there’s nothing to hide, because it’s all part of the narrative. And that texture gives a truer dimension to the city you’re covering. Some of my best – and most meaningful – travel experiences have been in the parts of a place that aren’t perfect. That’s often what you remember most.
Each neighbourhood is usually pretty different … and so to really get a true picture of a city, you need to have representation from all the different neighbourhoods. I feel like I could just wander through the city from one end to the other and interview people at random, and that could fill the entire book. Everyone has something interesting to say if you give them time to talk.
I sort of fell into journalism … I was an English major in college and after graduating found myself writing for some magazines. I did that for about seven years – a lot of travel and some music writing – and spent a lot of time on the road. I took some time away from journalism to do a master’s in fiction writing and give myself the time and space to write a novel. The field guides came about as a result – a sort of confluence of those two streams.
I’d always dreamed of living in New York … As a writer, it’s like LA is for an actor. I’d always loved the energy of the city and its bookstores and restaurants, and my wife and I were looking for a reason to move there. So I ended up doing my master’s at Brooklyn College and we lived in New York for three years. But we’d spent some time in Austin before we moved to New York, and then we’d made such great friends when doing the Austin guide, that we finally made the jump and moved here in August last year. It’s just got such a creative group of people who live and do cool things here, but the pace is certainly much slower.
We seem to have made something that resonates … and I always feel proud when I pick up any of the guides. It’s wild to think that just a couple of years ago they didn’t exist, and now Wildsam has come into the world and people have had some meaningful experiences because of it. And the making of the guides is so collaborative. It’s not just one person going into a city and writing a book – it’s really being there over the course of six months and making a ton of friends who tell you stories and lead you to other people. Then you end up having this group of 40 or 50 people who have really invested themselves in it. I think that’s part of the reason it’s done fairly well, because people get behind it and feel like a part of it.
I’m a chronic optimist … so I don’t tend to see challenges too readily. I tend to assume that things are going to work out. I think, as a writer, your biggest challenge is always the blank page and it can be creatively daunting beginning a new project. But this one has been different – the difficulty hasn’t been there, but I think it’s because I don’t feel like I’ve been doing it alone. Every time we do a new city, new people come along and help shoulder the load and it’s fun.
I’m really proud … of the way the field guides honour all people. It’s not about finding what’s cool, but more about what’s real and honest about a place. And we care just as much about someone making designer jeans as we do about the guy selling flowers from a bucket on the side of the street. Both of those people matter and they contribute to making a place what it is.
The place I find peace … at the moment is in my backyard building a fire. We have a fire pit that a friend of ours made us in Austin, and I love sitting out the back with my wife Robin and my dog Coop.
‘Love your neighbour’ … is something that really resonates with me. It goes back to the fact that I’ve always been drawn to talking to people who are living quiet lives in the shadows, and I hope it comes through in everything I do.