• Behind The Scenes: WILDSAM Field Guides

    In 2012, the first WILDSAM Field Guide was born when founder and editor Taylor Bruce found himself looking to make a city guide that relied less on “best of” lists and more on histories, prose, and the recommendations of friends. (Who hasn’t wanted to visit the setting of their favorite novel?) Starting with Nashville in 2012, Taylor quickly followed up with four more WILDSAM volumes: Austin, San Francisco, Detroit, and New Orleans. Filled with hand-drawn maps and single suggestions for the best museum or burger joint, the WILDSAM Field Guides feel more personal than your typical city guide, which leaves you completely trusting of their pared-down recommendations. With the newest Field Guide coming out this May (Brooklyn!), we spoke to Taylor about where he came up with the idea for his highly focused guides, and what cities he’d like to tackle in the future.

    How did you decide to start the WILDSAM Field Guides?
    I’d been working on short stories for the better part of two years, when the idea for a new kind of travel book came to mind. It would use story and heritage more than long lists of restaurants and hotels. Research and content work began in early 2012 on the first WILDSAM field guide (Nashville). Initially, the aim was to make a text that captured the cultural nuance of a city, its true sense of place. We wanted to do this with a mixture of memoir, historical anecdote, local interview, and a smart but short list of favorites. The very first “piece” of WILDSAM commissioned was an essay we assigned our friend J. Wes Yoder, the novelist. He wrote about his lifelong fear-slash-fascination with snakes. From that point on, we knew we were not making normal travel guides.

    What made you decide to start with Nashville?
    Honestly, city choices are mostly based on places we find really interesting. The cities whose stories we're truly curious to know. Nashville (and Austin) were cities that felt like 21st century America to us. Everything booming, cultural centers, but with unique and distinct personalities. SF is just one of our favorite places on earth. It captures such a blend of east coast ambition and west coast vibe. And the restaurants. Detroit was perhaps the most telling decision. Our credo is this line from Steinbeck’s East of Eden: "The world was peopled with wonders." We take that idea seriously in everything we do; that no matter where you are, no matter who you meet, there is something special, magical, wondrous before you. Some places require more curiosity and looking than others. Detroit is one such place. No city in America has had harder times the last few decades, economically and criminally and population-wise. But the heart of Detroit is one of ingenuity and resilience, and some of the most compelling urban ideas are being fostered and flamed there. Plus, the Eastern Market in July is one of the most incredible Saturdays anywhere.

    New Orleans was more like SF. I feel such a draw to NOLA. Maybe it's the writer-who-likes-whiskey thing. And Brooklyn, our sixth, was partly a timing decision - Bk is certainly having a moment - but moreso the idea that Brooklyn is such an American place. The great narratives of our country, the stranger in a strange land, the underdog, the self-made man, they seem most potent there. And the hip-hop heritage.

    Illustration by Lisa Congdon

    Illustration of Arnold's in Nashville by Lucinda Rogers

    How long did it take you to put the first one together? Has it gotten easier since then?
    We started around Christmas and submitted it to the printer in August. For that first one, everything was from scratch, including our layout and design. It took several iterations to hit the right visual look – part throwback, part modern.

    You have a lot of contributors that help out – are these all friends or do you source people online?
    Both. For Nashville, we called on a bunch of friends, from the music scene to the food world to old pals from college. We do a similar thing for every city we work on – reaching out to friends – but also, now that we are six cities in, we ask folks from previous cities who we should meet. And certainly, we learn as much as we can about what’s happening and who’s contributing to the betterment of the city before we get rolling.

    When you start a new city, do you generally have some ideas for the field guide in mind, or do you go into them blind?
    Every city has a few concepts or themes that come to mind – but for those, we aim to find new and fresh ways to access the narrative threads. For example, in San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is an icon and universally known. Sharing about its official color – International Orange – and the origins of that selection felt like new territory. And then there are ideas that I personally bring into each city. One from Brooklyn was high school basketball, and Brooklyn’s lineage of point guards. We thought interviewing the coach at Lincoln High would be an interesting look into that micro-universe in Bk.

    Are you extremely well-versed in each city that you've written about so far, or do your contributors help out a lot with the “Bests” lists?
    We send out a cultural survey to 50 or so people in every city. That information is the foundation for our “Bests” work.

    How do you decide which one establishment you'll pick for a “Bests” list?
    Well one, it’s always something that’s impossible to do. Our goal with the Bests section is to present a hyper-specific set of favorites. No need to tell someone ten barbecue spots in Austin. Just give me one, at least that’s my opinion. We combine our own on-the-ground research with trusted local thoughts to make final picks.

    Have you gotten any humorous negative feedback on any of your choices or do people generally agree?
    Rarely is it negative – unless we out someone’s hidden gem. Kidding. It’s a sprint to keep up with what’s “cool” in each city – and we aren’t much for that race. We prefer asking good friends or locals we meet for recommendations.

    Do you think you'd ever revisit a city after a certain number of years to update the field guides?
    Yes. Two years is about the right time frame. Though we’re a bit behind on Nashville.

    Where do you live currently? What's your favorite thing about it?
    Austin. Favorite thing about the city is its plethora of swimming. I’ve never been somewhere that’s landlocked with more options for going for a swim, whether it be a spring-fed pool or a hill country swimming hole or a clear-blue river. The Blue Hole, Barton Springs, Krause, Hamilton Pool - so awesome in the summer.

    Can you give us one restaurant we NEED to try in Austin?
    Restaurants are booming here. So many good ones. I’d say breakfast tacos are the best way to start the day and my current fave is a small trailer off East Sixth. It’s called Pueblo Viejo. For supper, a new neighborhood place Launderette. (Yep, it was an old laundromat.) Go early because it stays crowded.

    Any ideas on what cities will be coming up next for WILDSAM?
    Brooklyn launches late May, and Charleston is coming later this summer.

    Illustration by Lisa Congdon

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