Taylor Bruce, Wildsam Field Guides

Aug 19, 2015

Taylor Bruce is the editor-in-chief of Wildsam Field Guides, bright books that capture the true spirit of a city. More a cultural deep dive than your garden-variety tourist tome, Wildsam unearths a city's rich and legend-thick heritage, culling “diverse points of view, depth of perspectives, and a cross-section of culture and era and voices,” says Taylor.

Wildsam guides rely on deep archival research, books, music, letters, oral histories and myths to create a comprehensive pastiche of the city's past, present and cultural position. “We talk to everyone who will sit down with us. That's the key. The field guides are a chorus, not a one-man show,” he says. You’ll find voodoo charms, Death Row inmates’ last words, flora of note and interviews with saxophone repairmen, neighborhood historians and oyster shuckers.

You’ll also be steered towards storied booksellers and a solid cup of coffee.

Taylor was a travel writer for 8 years before working on a Fiction Writing MFA at Brooklyn College when “the two streams began to merge.” He says, “I concepted the field guides as the book I wish I could take on a trip – one that uses interviews, history, long-form nonfiction and brings the complex life of a city to the page.”

Most recently Taylor launched the Wildsam Travel Fellow program inspired by the New Deal-era WPA Writer's Project. Over 150 travelers submitted fellowship applications for a 2-week road trip to discover America. The interview process was rigorous, academic and personal.

"After an initial application with 4 short essay questions, we had fifteen phone interviews. Then we tasked each finalist with a 48-hour challenge: To go find someone in their neighborhood - a stranger - and to interview them," says Taylor.

"This assignment told us so much about the applicants. What made them curious? So much of what we do with Wildsam is about sensing a story and asking questions."

Dean Russell and Katie Inglis were selected and then the mapping began. "For 6 weeks or so, we did conference calls on Monday nights," he says. "Setting up a pre-trip reading list. Teasing out regional themes worth exploring. Beginning to study the map. But really, the plan was to create space for the unexpected."

The Fellows just wrapped their epic journeys on the golden roads of New England and the lonesome desert highways of the Southwest.

Stumptown sent the Fellows off with Rambler coffee kits and followed their journeys with wanderlust.

We chatted with Taylor about Wildsam, his reading list, and digging out his kind of place. Photos are from the Travel Fellows' exploits.

On the full honest truth: The cities [we chose to write about] honestly had no long-thinking or strategy, other than I was really excited to spend a few months traveling back and forth. Detroit particularly. We were really stoked to learn about the deeper stories there, beyond the newspaper headlines about bankruptcy and blight. We also strive to tell the full, honest, compelling truth of a place.

On his kind of place: Dimly lit. Good bourbon selection. Four great friends.

On the Wildsam Travel Fellows and the WPA: The Travel Fellows program was a way to get beyond the city limits. These trips were meant to mimic a 1930s government initiative called the Federal Writers' Project, which commissioned artists and journalists and other creatives to see America and tell its stories. It was an audacious and phenomenal success.

On unpacking the messy and complex: We talk to everyone who will sit down with us. That's the key. The field guides are a chorus, not a one-man show. We make the first few trips with no real agenda, no interviews scheduled, no blocks of time in the archives.

Instead, we see where a few days will take us. Lots and lots of "You should meet my friend" and "Stop by here." Cities are wonderfully complex and messy. Our process is kind of the same. We also read a ton.

On the Wildsam Reading List: I'll give you the first five books that come to mind when I think about American travels. Joan Didion's We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. She is a master of profiling place and culture. Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. Talk about the ultimate back roads journey. East of Eden, where our name originates. (Page 184.) E.B. White's Writings from The New Yorker. (Here is New York, too.) And Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. That one is kind of a horizon line for us.

On exploring: I walk. There's no better way to see, hear or explore a place than afoot. And I try to leave my phone behind.

On finding a true sense of a place: When I think of something being "true," it's about diverse points of view, depth of perspectives, a cross-section of culture and era and voices. But we know that it is impossible to contain a city in 140 pages. That's why we talk about getting a "sense," capturing the city's aura or vibe. Cities are living things - so that's tricky. We rely on locals to make sure we aren't full of shit on that front. And the word "place" - I'm more interested in it than I am in travel. Your own city, your own neighborhood, the place you call home, contains multitudes, to steal from Whitman. We all do.

On things he can’t live without: These days I never leave without a great notebook. I always say that I get my best thinking done on plane flights. Big fan of Rollbahn. I'm also quite fond of old jazz records, doesn't matter who and what era. Less vocals than brass. Unless it's Billie Holiday. Her voice is perfect.

On places called home: I grew up on 300 acres in Georgia, and there's just not much more calming than a breezy afternoon there. Driving west of Austin feels similar when you hit the hill country. It feels like the beginning of the American West. But my favorite thing, by far, about Austin is the amount of public swimming pools. This time of year, it's a Godsend. And New York? It's my very favorite place in the world. The energy, the architecture, the walking. Any time of year.

On his next great adventure: Our son is expected any day now. He is our first child, so I'm barely about to think about much else. New adventures await.

Follow along the adventures of the Travel Fellows here.

Learn more about Wildsam here and get 20% off these bright books with the discount code STUMPTOWN until August 31.