Wildsam guides might be small, but they are filled to the brim with information, including interviews, hand-drawn maps, reflections and essays. While most travel guides are little more than a collection of technicolour holiday snaps, Wildsam Field Guides are an intricate portrait of place; part guide, part tribute, part artwork.
Taylor Bruce brought out the first Wildsam Field Guide to Nashville in 2012, followed by the field guide to Austin in May 2013. We spoke to Taylor the day after the brand new San Francisco field guide was sent to the printers.
CEREAL: How did Wildsam come about?
TB: I spent seven years writing and editing travel for people like National Geographic and just really needed a break from that world. I was doing a masters in literature at the time too, so the Wildsam Field Guides grew from the confluence of commercial travel writing and 18 months of reading American short stories. I wanted to create a space for those stories that don’t fit into a traditional travel guide, but which so often are what we respond to most; the woman you chat to for 20 minutes about her grandkids, or the waiter in the little café who is putting himself through school. It’s about gathering those stories, curating conversations, and interacting with 30 or 40 people to build up a true portrait of a place.
CEREAL: Where does the name Wildsam come from?
TB: It’s inspired by Sam Hamilton, one of the main characters in Steinbeck’s East of Eden. He’s an Irish immigrant with a huge sprawling family and a rough patch of land. He doesn’t have much money but he’s full of wonder and curiosity about the world. We pinned a passage from the book to the wall when we were developing the project and the ethos stuck. It doesn’t matter if you are in the coolest place or the roughest, if you look, the wonder is right there.
CEREAL: What is the inspiration behind the way the books look?
TB: We wanted them to feel as though they had always been around. The old Penguin series was an inspiration, and we only have illustrations instead of photos. Some people think that’s crazy because 99% of people who pick up a travel book look at the pictures first, but we didn’t want to be a CliffsNotes on a place. We wanted the imagination to come into play.
CEREAL: How do you choose the cover colour?
TB: Matching a colour to a city is great fun. My associations with Tennessee always go to autumn, so for Nashville, we chose the rich, deep yellow of fall leaves. The Austin field guide is the clear blue of the Texan sky, while the San Francisco guide is International Orange – the colour of the Golden Gate Bridge. It took over two years to construct the bridge, and they treated all the steel with orange primer to stop it rusting. When it came to painting it, the city had fallen in love with this deep, rust colour that popped so much against the green of the hills. To this day, they paint it with the same primer.
CEREAL: Who is Wildsam for?
TB: I never buy guidebooks. I find a novel or a biography that takes me deeper. If I go to Chicago, I get a biography of Al Capone, or for Key West, I grab a book of stories by Hemingway. The books are for people like me, who want to get further up and further into a place. They’re also for people who want straight answers about where to have coffee, or how to find the best surf beach – we call those our ‘bests’.
CEREAL: What are your personal highlights from the guides?
TB: For the San Francisco Field Guide, we got permission to reproduce 7,000 words of one of Joan Didion’s essays, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, which documented the Summer of Love and the end of the 1960s. It’s really exciting because she is such an American icon. In the Nashville guide, Tony Earley wrote about the street he’s lived on for 15 years called Fatherland. He discovered that Jesse James lived there too, for four years in the 1800s under an assumed name. It’s a tiny detail, but for Tony, that fact is an essential part of his sense of place. There are millions of things like that which give a city its texture and I try and put as many of those pieces onto the field guides’ pages as I can.
CEREAL: What’s next?
TB: We’re releasing four field guides next year; Detroit and Brooklyn in spring, and another two in fall. We’ve also started a neighbourhood series about London with the fashion label J.Crew. They’re much smaller books that break a very big city into pieces. As for other field guides, I guess we could go beyond the US, but right now I have a list of at least 20 cities that I could dive right into, so I don’t think we’re leaving any time soon.
CEREAL: Are you Wildsam?
TB: Wow, good question … you know, even though I sweat over every page and they are really personal to me, I’m not Sam. Sam is a way of thinking about and approaching travel and place. A lot of people I know embody that, and I certainly try to.