Sleepless Nights, Epic Road Trips, and the Magic of Books: A Conversation with Mason Engel

Mason Engel
Mason Engel

“I had become a writer. The habit had stuck, and I fell in love with books and reading and writing, and the rest of the path unfurled from there.” – Mason Engel

 

Discover the epic journey of Mason Engel, who embarked on a mind-blowing adventure to all 50 states in just 50 days, to read 50 books and interview 50 authors. Whoa! Imagine the day to day of meeting fascinating authors, navigating through time changes and road challenges, and learning the heartwarming stories of small-town America. Hear Mason’s perspective on storytelling and the human connection. This a super fun and captivating expedition that unfolded on the road. 

My special guest is Mason Engel

Mason Engel is an independent author and filmmaker. His sci-fi novel, 2084, has been downloaded over 35,000 times, and his short documentary about indie bookshops, The Bookstour, has played at the Miami, Brooklyn, Louisiana, and Portland Literary Festivals. His upcoming feature-length documentary, Books Across America, follows him as he travels to 50 states, reads 50 books, and interviews 50 authors, all in 50 days. A treatise on why we tell stories, the film includes interviews with James Patterson, Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Patchett, Walter Mosley, Brandon Sanderson, Ken Liu, and many more. Mason lives in Columbus, Indiana, where he spends his time editing Books Across America, writing a new novel based on his travels, and dreaming about a “Parts Unknown” for the book world.

 

In this episode, you will be able to:

  • Discover the journey of Mason Engel’s 50-state book tour. 
  • Understand the vital role of independent bookstores in communities and how they contribute to local culture and literary diversity. 
  • Uncover the profound impact of reading and storytelling on personal development, empathy, and societal change. 
  • Discover the enriching experience of exploring local cultures through literature and discover the power of storytelling in connecting communities.

 

The resources mentioned in this episode are:

  • Subscribe to the Winds of Change newsletter by visiting the website mentioned in the conversation ThinkWY.org. This will keep you updated on the latest episodes and news related to the podcast.
  • Follow Books Across America on social media platforms for updates on the release of the documentary. You can find them on Instagram and Facebook with the handle books across America and on Twitter as books x America.
  • Visit the website booksxamerica.com and subscribe for updates on the release of the documentary. This will ensure that you receive notifications about the film’s availability and release date.

 

  • Stay tuned for the release of the documentary and learn more here: 
  • Explore the work of author CJ Box, who was interviewed in the podcast. Discover his books and delve into the captivating stories that represent the geography, people, and causes of Wyoming.

 

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Listen on all your favorite platforms and subscribe!

As always leave a review if you enjoyed these stories and follow us on Instagram or visit the webpage of the Wyoming Humanities!

00:00:00
Welcome to winds of change, brought to you by Wyoming humanities. I am your host, Amy de Grappa. Winds of change is a unique focus on people, places and history of Wyoming. Please sign up for our newsletter by clicking on the link in the description. Learn more about us@thinkwy.org that’s t h I n k w y for wyoming.org dot.         

00:00:41
And today my special guest is Mason Engel. Mason is an author and filmmaker. He traveled to 50 states, read 50 books, and interviewed 50 authors, all in 50 days. Whoa. Books across America is his story, and we can’t wait to talk about his journey.         

00:01:04
Welcome, Mason. Thank you so much for having me. Absolutely. So where did you grow up? I grew up in southern Indiana, a town called Columbus.         

00:01:18
There’s actually been a little art house film made about my hometown a few years ago, so if anyone wants a sample of southern Indiana, you can find it there. I went to high school in Columbus and then later to college in northwestern Indiana at Purdue, moved to New York after college, then to LA, and have now come full circle back to Indiana. Oh. So are you back in your hometown? I am, yes.         

00:01:46
If I open the blinds behind me, you’ll see cornfields in the distance.         

00:01:52
Yeah, well, out of my windows you see mountains, so I get that. And so when you went to school, what was your dream? What were you going to do with your schooling? Yeah, I didn’t have much of a dream or a plan when I first went to school. In fact, I didn’t want to go to college.         

00:02:14
 I was working on a startup at the time, an edtech startup, educational technology that would help high school seniors apply for college financial aid. So I had this whole scheme planned up for a way I could build this website and then grow the site and then exit with a big acquisition and be rich and famous very young. That was my post high school plan. My parents thought that that was a good plan but that I should also have a backup. And so they strongly recommended I go to college.         

00:02:48
And when I got to college, I didn’t really have much skin in the game of choosing a major because I already had everything figured out. I knew I was going to be a millionaire from this website idea. And so who cares what’s on my diploma? And I just chose the subject in school that I’d always been best at, which happened to be math. So I studied math at Purdue without a clear career path.         

00:03:16
And on the side, I was writing science fiction and a little bit of fantasy that had started back in high school. It just carried forward as a habit into college, and by the time I graduated, without being able to put an exact pin on this moment, I had become a writer. The habit had stuck, and I fell in love with books and reading and writing, and the rest of the path unfurled from there. So you fell in love with reading and writing, but in your childhood days, that wasn’t your thing? Well, it was my thing, but it was more of a hobby.         

00:03:57
I never really envisioned it as a profession until. Spoiler, the website didn’t work out, I didn’t become a millionaire, and I needed some way to spend my time and make a living. I turned to the thing that I realized I loved the most, which was books. So it says in your bio that you also are a filmmaker. So tell me about that journey.         

00:04:27
Yeah, my journey in film actually started with a book. So my senior year at Purdue, I self published my. It’s actually my 6th novel, but the first one that I released publicly called 2084, which was a play on Orwell’s 1984. This was during the time of the first Trump election, when phrases like alternative facts were trending, and therefore the sales of 1984 were trending. So I was capitalizing on that marketing trend.         

00:05:00
So I did a bunch of online promotion at first, but quickly hit a wall, and I realized that I wanted to do some promotion in real life. And I came up with this idea to promote my self published book to independent bookstores around the country. So I hit the road with my goal being to visit 50 independent bookstores in 50 days and give each store a copy of my book. And about day ten or twelve or 15, I was walking up to one of these small bookstores, actually remember the exact stores in Lawrence, Kansas, the Raven bookshop. And I was walking up to the storefront, and I saw this pamphlet in the window that said how to resist Amazon and why.         

00:05:47
And I looked at the pamphlet, and I looked down at my self published Amazon exclusive book that I have been giving away to independent bookstores. And I realized that I’ve been trying to promote a product to these little shops that supported their direct competitor. So I took a moment to process that, and I looked back on the conversations I had had with booksellers so far without having really thought about this. And I remembered everyone being so kind and warm and supportive and just excited for me and my trip because I love books and they love books, too. And that made me fall in love with bookstores.         

00:06:34
And after that, I realized I wanted to talk to more of these people and understand their passion and why they do what they do. So I finished that first road trip and dovetailed into a second trip where it was less about me promoting myself and more about the booksellers and asking them why it’s important to shop local again. By the end of that trip, I never really decided to become a filmmaker or to make a documentary, but I had all this footage, and I knew I needed to tell their story. So that’s what I tried to do. Okay, so that’s super interesting and how powerful it is that you go into these bookstores and they are so close to their communities and so close to the authors in their communities and in their state that they really focus on what is real for them, what is, like, right there in front of them.         

00:07:32
And they have community of people who go in and out of their bookstore and, of course, request books, and they put them on their shelves, and it’s like that farm to table concept, you know, or shop local. It’s right there. It’s interesting you bring that up. The very last thing we did, my camera guy and I, on this bookstore road trip, was to shadow the owner of my hometown bookstore, which is a viewpoint books. Beth Stroh being the owner, we shadowed her for a few days to figure out what she would do on a daily basis.         

00:08:07
And one of the things I found most interesting about her job was how she selected books for the bookstore. I guess in my head, when I had been walking into all these stores around the country, I just imagined someone in a back room dragging and dropping 10,000 books into their store, and it was as easy as that. But when we sat down with Beth, she was going through hundreds and hundreds and thousands of books and corresponding with publishing reps and going back to past sales patterns and thinking of customers and what they liked and thinking of the community and what it needs. And she built the selection of books that the 10,000 selection of books in her store like that. So it is very far to table.         

00:08:53
 It’s curated, and it’s born of the preferences and needs of the community. And walking in a place like that, where you feel so, so seen and cared for, is just irreplaceable. You know, that’s really heartwarming to me because, you know, that really touches my soul, because we live in this Internet world now, and you can talk to somebody, you know, across the globe, you can, and we live in a global community. But what really touches people is still the people they see every day, the people that they talk to every day. It is their community that really ignites their passions, because it is still the human connection.         

00:09:41
Agreed. It took me quite a few bookstores and a whole lot of driving to come to that conclusion, but I agree with you. So now I want to hear, because this sounds so amazing, is that you traveled to 50 states, read 50 books. I don’t even know how you had time to do that. And interviewed 50 authors, all in 50 days.         

00:10:04
How did you do that? How did you go? How did you make it happen? Yeah. I mean, good question.         

00:10:15
I still wonder. But the way, I guess, to backpedal a little bit, maybe a good question to answer before how, is why? Because it is sort of a crazy thing to do and a grueling thing to do. Living out of a minivan with a couple of strangers for two months on the road and doing all these other things. It’s not a vacation, really.         

00:10:41
So the idea first came from a question which was my. A very broad question, which was, why do we read when there’s so many other options of entertainment available to us that are easier, easier to consume? Why do people spend time reading? So that was part one, and part two was there’s this notion of the great american novel. Never heard any other nation talk about their great America or their great country book or great country movie or whatever.         

00:11:13
So there was this notion of americanness that was tied to novels, and I wanted to explore our reason for reading, as well as that nebulous connection between America and books. So the reason that I wanted to do 50 states and 50 days and 50 authors and all the rest of is to immerse myself the. In those two environments, in the book world and in America. And I thought the best way of doing that was a very intense, very involved journey around the country. So that was the goal.         

00:11:49
And when I first had the idea of going to 50 states in 50 days, I knew I needed a rough route. So step one was drawing roughly the best path from the major urban areas of each state and minimizing the miles. Of course, that changed a little bit if an author lived off the beaten path. But after I convinced myself 50 says in 50 days was possible, then I started thinking about reading and how many hours per day I would need to read and how many words per minute I would need to read. So you have the challenge first, and then you reverse engineer a solution.         

00:12:29
And I can’t say I reverse engineered the whole thing before the trip. There was still plenty of gray area, and I didn’t know if it would be possible. But in the end, with the help of my crew and a whole lot of luck, we managed to do it. I like that. Your crew and a whole lot of luck.         

00:12:47
So thinking about that, because I am a podcaster, that’s what I do. And scheduling people and getting in touch with them and finding them and finding the right phone number or email address, that must have been a challenge. Yes. Yes, it was. Step one was finding the right authors to represent each state or the right author, just one to represent each state, and that’s it.         

00:13:21
Just started with a humongous spreadsheet of, I sort of borrowed from the New York Times API, kind of a techie thing, to pull their database of authors who had made the New York Times bestseller list. And then I hired someone to find the state of residence of all of those best selling authors, ranked according to popularity, also filtering for various demographic characteristics, race, age, sexual orientation, and so on, to try to come up with the most representative, diverse american sample of authors possible. But that’s all good and well. You have to get those people to say yes. Just because they appear on your spreadsheet doesn’t mean you’re going to get to interview them.         

00:14:06
So my strategy for reaching out began with an organization I was introduced to through the first documentary, the bookstore documentary called Bink, the book Industry Charitable foundation. And they serve as basically a safety net for the bookstore world. If someone encounters a hardship, a bookseller encounters a financial hardship, Bink is there to support them, which is so valuable in a career where you don’t necessarily have insurance and a all these other cushy benefits the corporate jobs have. So I got to know Bink through the first documentary, and they have a ton of author connections because that’s where they raise a lot of their money from. So my strategy was to onboard a few big name authors early who would signal credibility of the project to the rest of my author prospects and then reach out from there.         

00:15:06
But I think overall, the hit rate for yeses was about 50%. I think I reached out to 100, a little over 100 authors total, and got 50 to say yes. I think the response rate was so positive for two reasons. One, because it’s just sort of a cool, crazy idea that’s not an email you get very often. And second, for scheduling, that really wasn’t a problem for us.         

00:15:39
I think people knew that if they wanted to say yes, they pretty much had to be on our schedule because they know, given the constraints of the trip, we just don’t have any wiggle room. So, weirdly, the craziness of our schedule worked in our favor, I think. So if someone wanted to say yes, they had to say yes on our terms, which is a podcaster or interviewer’s dream, and we’re super lucky for that. Absolutely. And what do you think was the most challenging in that travel?         

00:16:11
I mean, 50 states and getting to each location the next day. Did you sleep? Did you sleep? That was the most difficult parts. Was the sleeping situation rewinding a little bit?         

00:16:31
Day one of the trip was January 12 of 2023, but three months before that, I hadn’t begun any work on the project. This was for a variety of reasons. The idea came up, and I had an opportunity to take the trip, and I had to do it right then. So I had about three months from no trailer, no Google Docs, no spreadsheet, no anything to go from zero to day one of the road trip. So before the trip even started, I had three months of twelve hour workdays and not sleeping very much at all.         

00:17:13
So at the very beginning of the trip, I was on e just to get the project off the ground. And then you start the trip, and you’re reading 6 hours a day. And then on day three, one, I read an epic fantasy novel that was 850 pages and stayed up the whole night before, and you dig a hole for yourself and you just can’t dig out. So the crew and I were functioning on four to five, maybe 6 hours of sleep per night, which compounds an already very difficult trip. If I could change anything to make anything easier, it would have been two or three more hours of sleep per night.         

00:17:56
But it’s hard to come by when you’re trying to do as much in as little time as we were. Oh, yeah. Oh, my gosh.         

00:18:05
What kinds of questions? When you met the authors and what did you ask them? What was your goal in meeting them and talking with them? Yeah. So I knew when I was first ideating about the project that I didn’t want to ask every author the same questions.         

00:18:27
One, because it cheapens the challenge. Anyone can show up and ask the same 15 questions to a person. It’s just really not that impressive. And two, because in addition to taking the road trip, I also needed to make a documentary. And you can’t make a documentary if all of your sound bites from your interview subjects are very similar.         

00:18:49
So I wanted to ask about different parts of the book world, different value, different value adds for reading and why it’s powerful. So the first thing I did was divide the country into different focuses for reading. For example, the Pacific Northwest, we talked about books as an escape. In the northeast, we talked about books for the purpose of self examination or introspection. So I started with a focus for each region, and then I would read the book of the author that I was talking to that day and filter my questions about the focus of the region through the context of the book.         

00:19:35
So we could talk specifically about the plots and the characters and so forth, and then tie that to the larger topics at hand. And then the last topic that we would cover is just biographical stuff and interesting tidbits about the authors and trying to. When we would create the film and our miniature episodes, give ourselves material to introduce the author to folks, to just paint a little picture. So I had someone do some research on all the authors beforehand. And on the road in the back of the minivan, I would be reading through the research and going through my notes of the book and my focus of the region and then using all that to spit out interview questions in the 2 hours before we had to talk to the subject.         

00:20:20
I’m just. I keep saying whoa, because I’m just imagining this. And. Well, first of all, I just want to say you were reading books and someone else was driving, hopefully. Yes.         

00:20:35
That’s an important thing to know. We’ll just make a note of that and. But that’s one thing I can’t do. I cannot read in the car. I cannot.         

00:20:46
This would have been a rough trip for you. Oh, my gosh. Yeah. I get a headache or I get nauseated. I’ve heard this from other people, too.         

00:20:54
When I say that they can’t read in the car, I mean, I can check my phone, read a text, do that kind of simple stuff, but in terms of really reading and absorbing. Can’t do it. Cannot do it. Yeah. That was something that I had to test going in because there was a point when I was maybe in middle school, early high school, where I would get very nauseous in the car.         

00:21:19
Or maybe that’s what I told my mom so I wouldn’t have to do homework on the way to soccer practice. But, yeah, I was not nauseous while reading. That would have been a deal breaker, I think, for the road. Oh, yeah, for sure. And.         

00:21:35
Well, and I think it’s interesting because when I was younger, I read in the car all the time. I mean, we’d go on road trips. My dad was big on road trips. We traveled all across the United States doing road trips. And we would always have a stack of books, and I’d just be reading in the back.         

00:21:51
You know, we had a station wagon, and because we had a big family, and we would, like, lay in the back with pillows and read our books and. That sounds amazing. Yeah, it was before seatbelts. Okay. Anyway, it’s just funny because I think about what is required now and then.         

00:22:15
It was not. That was not a thing. Not so much, no, no. But. So I think it’s interesting that you were able to just, you know, keep your work going, drive, get to the next place.         

00:22:27
And what did you find the most frustrating in this process? The most frustrating, really? There wasn’t a whole lot of room for frustration. I think that’s how I function in high stress or high. Any situation where a lot of work is required, my emotional valve is the first thing to shut off.         

00:22:54
So whatever small frustrations we have to deal with are not frustrations anymore, just problems. It wasn’t personal when we got caught in traffic or someone didn’t cooperate at a location, a writing museum or whatever we would show up to. All of those things were just obstacles to be navigated. So that. I’ll answer the opposite of your question.         

00:23:22
I didn’t really deal with frustrations as much as monomaniacal numbness toward the goal. But my crew, Nick and Olivia, Nick, the camera guy and Olivia, his assistant and driver, and Jill of all trades, they took what frustrations there could have been from the road and turn them into laughter. These were people I met on Facebook two weeks before we left for day one, and we became lifelong friends within the first couple of weeks. And they were the funniest, smartest, lightest people I could have taken with me on the road. So not many frustrations, more laughter than those.         

00:24:06
Okay, so now I have another question. When you say, how did you. Okay, how did you find them on Facebook? What did you. What was your message out there in the world that said, I need help.         

00:24:20
This is what I’m doing. Who’s game? I mean, what was it? That was. That was pretty much my message after.         

00:24:27
After I came up with a respectable list of authors. So, like, 35 or 40 authors, even within. On day one of the road trip, I hadn’t locked in all 50 authors that we would interview. So we’re still doing some logistics. But when I had a respectable list of authors and a website and a trailer, I posted all that stuff in film Facebook groups in Los Angeles, that’s where I was living at the time, and posted my budget and what I could pay people and asked if anyone was interested.         

00:25:03
And the pay in was garbage relative to industry standards. And the standard of living was also pretty rough. Living out of a minivan and living in hotels and not sleeping. And I tried to be transparent about all that, but I still had dozens of crazy people apply who would reach out and say, this sounds incredible. I know the pay is not great.         

00:25:29
I know this is going to be super hard, but I think this is going to. To be awesome. Be. So I had a surprising number of candidates to sort through, and it was just like hiring for a job. We would exchange emails, then have a Zoom interview.         

00:25:41
And I landed on Nick and Olivia because of their qualifications and also because of a gut reason of how we would all three work together. And I think it was a couple days after Christmas, maybe December 27, 28th. Olivia said yes. Nick said yes, and we had a crew, and that was just two weeks before we were due to hit the road. Oh, my gosh.         

00:26:10
That is like a little miracle right there. I love it. One of many that had one of many miracles. Yeah. Yeah.         

00:26:22
You had an angel on your shoulder, for sure. So my last question is a big question because it’s really thoughtful and from your heart, why do we tell stories? Well, I’m taking about 90 to 100 minutes to answer that question with a documentary, but I’ll try to do so in condensed form here. The core of my answer comes from my personal experience. In a way, the answer to that question is the same answer to the question of why did I take the road trip?         

00:26:59
Because I was looking for the sort of completion, closure, cause and effect that we don’t get in real life. And I think that’s why a lot of people turn to books or turn to movies or turn to whatever medium of story is for things to make sense and for things to come out okay. We’re wired genetically, neurologically, to receive information through stories. And we internalize this structure, this three act structure, the hero’s journey, however you want to refer to it. And when our life unfolds in a way that clashes with that internalized structure, when you.         

00:27:43
The midpoint is when we have a saggy second act, as screenwriters say, or when the climax is anticlimactic, or when there’s no inciting incidents, when we feel like our story is broken. We can turn two books. We can read books, we can write books to achieve some sense of closure and something that feels right to us. So I won’t answer for everyone why we read or why we tell stories, why we listen to stories, but that’s why I do, and that’s why I took the trip. Wow.         

00:28:23
That’s excellent. And I believe that. I think what you just really encapsulated it very well because you do look for. Yeah, I like what you said about the hero’s journey. Especially when we’re in crisis, we want to read something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end that we can count on, that we can look to, that we can have hope for.         

00:28:52
So that is a really excellent way of answering that question. So I want to find out when does your film come out and what are all the ways that people can find you? The film will come out eventually. That’s our official release dates targeting to hit the festival circuit, the film festival circuit in January of 2025. So we still have some work to do, post production work to do to finish off the film.         

00:29:23
And then by summer of 2025 it should be available in some form to the public. I hope the initial target has been public television. That’s the relationship that I have through my previous work. So some form of PBS potentially. There’s also been interest from more commercial type streaming services and networks.         

00:29:46
All that remains to be seen, which is a great segue to the second part of your question, how you can find out when a film is to be released. The best way is to follow books across America on social media, and that is the handle on Instagram and on Facebook, books across America and on Twitter. We are books x America. Or if you’re more of an email person, you can go to booksxamerica.com and subscribe there for updates. I don’t send emails because I’m too busy working on the film.         

00:30:23
I email very rarely, so you won’t have to worry about being spammed. But anybody who loves books and loves the idea of the film can find us at any of those places. I’m going to put all your links in the description on the podcast so that people can actually follow you on all those channels. And because we’re in Wyoming. And the author that you interviewed in Wyoming was CJ.         

00:30:47
Box, what did you learn from CJ? I could tell you a couple of different stories about CJ, not only from the interview, but how we had to get to his neck of the woods in southeastern Wyoming. It involved me calling a pilot friend who lives in Denver to see if he could fly us through a storm to southeastern Wyoming because the roads were closed, so plenty of quirky things happened in route to the interview. But once we were there, he was totally worth it. I thought he represented the states really well, not only in the way he was speaking to the camera, but in the way he writes.         

00:31:32
He takes a lot of pride in representing not just the geography of the state, but the people and the causes, and just painting a holistic picture of Wyoming. What I learned from CJ, I thought one really interesting thing he said had to do with the kinds of people who live in sparsely populated areas. He would talk about his method of gathering fodder for characters or doing research for different aspects of his books. And some of his research seems to include him going to a local bar and sitting down with people and buying people drinks, which sounds like great research to me. But he would talk about these small towns, isolated towns in Wyoming and elsewhere, where he would encounter such colorful characters as if, due to the lack of people in the area, the people who were there had to make up for all the personalities that weren’t.         

00:32:38
And they contained even more multitudes than the average person. And I never thought of rural or mountainous or isolated areas in that way, but I think that’s a beautiful way of looking at it. I’m glad he can help portray those people in his work. No, that is so amazing and interesting and so true. Because I live in rural Wyoming, I understand the, you know, the fact that we are the smallest population and we’re made up of small towns.         

00:33:16
We are. We’re made up of those small towns where you have really big personalities. That’s one of the things you realize that you got big personalities in small towns where people, where you do find really real life characters that, that are so amazing how they live their life and how they survive in rural Wyoming. So cool. Very cool.         

00:33:42
Well, it’s been great talking to you. Thank you so much for your time. Likewise. Thank you for having me. It’s always fun to, it’s always a little anxiety provoking to revisit the difficulties of the road, but it’s always fun now that I’m on the other side.         

00:33:58
Oh, yeah. I love road trips. That’s, that’s a cool road trip, for sure.         

00:34:05
Take care. And thanks so much. All right. Thanks, Emmy.         

00:34:24
Thank you for joining us for this episode of what’s your why brought to you by Wyoming humanities with support from Wyoming Humanities foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org subscribe and never miss a show.