This is a transcription of SSoP Podcast: A Mini-Episode With Answers to Questions from Our Audience.
David: Hello welcome Strong Sense of Place. This is our second of two mini-episodes that we’re doing between Season One and Two. In this episode, we are going to answer the questions that you posed to us as part of the survey. I’m very excited about this. Are you excited about this?
Melissa: I am excited about this all right.
David: First question: This is from Alameda, California.
Melissa: Hello, California!
David: Do you really love every book on your website, or is there a spectrum? Some you love more than others?
Melissa: That’s a legit question.
David: It’s totally legit.
Melissa: I mean the short answer is yes, we are not putting any books on our website that we wouldn’t recommend.
David: Heartily recommend. I would shove those books into pretty much anyone’s hands. [Mel laughing] What?
Melissa: Except for Restaurants Success by the Numbers. I’m not giving anybody that book.
David: But that’s a great book.
Melissa: I agree with you that you enjoyed that book. That is not a book that I would shove into most people’s hands, but it is an excellent example of what we mean when we say we love a book. So we should impact a little bit.
David: Yes, so let’s do that. There are a lot of different ways to love a book. Let’s just start there. Here’s a few: You can love an author in the way they put language together. You can love an author and the way they present an idea. You can love the characters that the author has created for you. You can feel like you’re spending time with a friend. Some books are like museum pieces that you get to carry around with you. You open them up, and they present you with pictures and images that you could hang on a wall, but it’s in a nice, portable format.
Melissa: I think from my observations of you for almost thirty years, but you also have a lot of action for books that teach you things. You really like to dig into an idea, and a book that presents new information to you in a way that is compelling and satisfies your curiosity, makes you enjoy it.
David: Yeah, I think, for instance, if you’re curious, if you’re curious about how the restaurant works, you can get a book about how the restaurant works and read that, and it changes the way you walk into a restaurant. It presents a new way to look at something that you’ve seen many times before and I really enjoy that. I also like fiction. There’s a quote that says, We read fiction because life is too short to get to know that many people well.
David: And I totally buy that right. It is very difficult to get to know somebody well, and fiction is a shortcut to that, and that’s compelling. All of this, I feel, is getting far from the point of. There are a lot of different ways to love a book, mostly because there are a lot of different ways to represent the truth.
Melissa: But you can rest assured that if there is a book on our website, it is because of one of us enjoyed it for one of those reasons we loved it for one of those reasons it delivered something of value. We don’t just put books on there, because they’re new or we read them one time.
David: Oh, no! There are a ton of books we read one time that is not on the site. [laughter]
David: The other thing is, is that we wanted to — we wanted this podcast and are excited to be passionate and positive about books.
Melissa: Yeah, this is a celebration. We’re not here to review critically.
David: You ready for the next one?
Melissa: I am ready.
David: This is a multi-part. It’s from Indianapolis, Indiana. Give us a behind-the-scenes look at the production of the podcast. Mainly, I’d be interested to know 1) How many books do you read for an episode? 2) How do you decide which ones to read, and 3) Do you read them all at once or over a period of time?
Melissa: How many books, I read for an episode really depends on how the reading goes and my whims. I’m not super- regimented. When I was reading for Cuba, the first three books, I read, I absolutely loved, so I stopped. Because I thought, ‘I have three winners. I’m good.’ Sometimes I have such a long list of books that I want to read for a place, I just keep going, which is how you know, for example — our circus episode. I’ve always been interested in circus books, so I think I have something like 25 books that I’ve read that I really enjoyed, and I had to just choose three for the podcast.
David: Which goes in part to answer any other question 2: How long does it take? And the answer is: We’ve got a lifetime of reading that would pull from.
Melissa: But when we’re reading a place that is new to us, it takes a while. If I’m having a good week, I can read two, maybe three average-length novels, but by a good week I mean I’m spending a lot of time reading. And then there’s something like The Labyrinth of Spirits which is 842 pages. I’ve been reading that for about a week. So I feel like the short answer to all of this is ‘it depends,’ but we do take choosing the books pretty seriously.
David: Oh, yeah. One of my favorite parts of this whole process is what I think of as ‘shopping for books’. For me, we choose a destination. Let’s say, Alaska, and then I will hit the internet pretty hard looking for books that I think represent Alaska. That I think are good books. I am searching for a variety of books because usually you handle fiction, so I’m trying to explore nonfiction or graphic novels or photography or poetry or whatever, and I’m trying to weed through those books. So I might take a look at the reviews. I might download the book and read the first chapter or two and see if I think I’m going to enjoy reading it and then talking about it. Because I want to be enthusiastic about the books that we’re representing.
Melissa: I generally want to read fiction because that’s how I feel like I learned to understand a place. I’m looking across genres, usually, I’m also starting with trying to find a native author from that place. It’s not always possible to find a book that I absolutely love that transports me to that place and is written by an author from that place. But that’s where I try to start and at least have one of those among my recommendation. Some places, it just is not possible. It doesn’t work out, but that’s usually where I try to start. For example, with Alaska, I tried to find some books that had indigenous stories woven into them. There are a lot of noir murder mystery set in Alaska , which, if I was reading just for myself, I might start with because I love murder mysteries. But we’re trying to represent this place with as much rich detail as we can, and I’m not going to say that a noir murder mystery is necessarily the best representation of Alaska.
Melissa: I have a database of books for every country in the world, so as I’m going through my online reading during the course of regular life, looking at things like LitHub, and Electric Lit, and BookRiot and New York Times book review and Washington Post and The Guardian — they’re recommending books all the time. So I look at their book recommendations and reviews through the lens of ‘would that book give us a strong sense of that place?’ If I think it might, I throw it into my database, and then when we get to that destination and it’s time to find books, I have a starting place. After I read a book, I take notes into this little form that I made for myself. That includes the flap copy and quotes from the book that I really liked, and information about the author, the number of pages, when it was published, so that when it comes time to get ready for the podcast, I have all of the stats about the book in one place. One of the things I find really challenging is limiting my picks to three. Three does not seem like enough. [laughter]
David: It really doesn’t — at all. If we’re trying to represent some places, diverse, an enormous and with as much history as say, Japan, coming at it with five books is that’s absurd.
Melissa: Right. But what we’re trying to do with the show is not be necessarily comprehensive, but to give you really solid recommendations so that if you read these books, you will understand this place and you will enjoy them. That is the best we can do in five books and a 45-minute podcast.
David: Right. We’re trying to basically open a window and say, ‘Look at that! That’s cool, right? Check that out!’ And then the bus keeps rolling. Because there is no life that’s long enough to do a comprehensive look at Japan. But life is long enough to enjoy some of the things the Japan offers and to try to reach out your empathy to somebody who is living a radically different life from yours, somewhere else. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do.
Melissa: Agree. I also make myself feel little bit better by continuing to add books to the database, even after we’ve covered a place on the podcast, because Rick Steves always says when you’ve traveled somewhere, you should assume you’re coming back. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking about 15 years from now, we’ll just do another Japan episode.
Melissa: This is a good question: Do you read multiple books at once?
David: I do! I tend to have a fiction and nonfiction going at the same time. Sometimes I will — like this weekend — I found a book that I thought was really compelling and I just stopped reading everything else and read that book. It all depends on circumstance and time for me.
Melissa: I usually have one book going on my Kindle and one audiobook, because audiobooks are my company when I go on walks and when I’m doing kitchen chores, but I try to pick books that are not very similar to each other in tone and style so that they stay very distinct in my mind. I was reading The Labyrinth of the Spirits, and I was listening to The Thousand Doors of January, which I loved, but it was too similar in tone to The Labyrinth of the Spirits, and I had to take a break from the audiobook. Brains are weird. [laughter]
David: That’s why I try to do a fiction and a nonfiction.
Melissa: Yes, that makes the switching a little easier.
Melissa: What’s the next question?
David: The next question is from Salt Lake City, Utah, and someone from Maryland asked the same question: How did we meet?
David: We’ll take you back to the heady days of 1992. I was working in a digital services firm in Sausalito, California. We made little CD-ROMS that we sent out. This was before the web.
Melissa: So long ago!
David: So long ago!
Melissa: It was even before CDs. When I started there, which is giving away part of the story, we were making 3-inch floppy disks.
David: Yes, and mailing those.
Melissa: You ordered them by looking at a magazine ad and calling an 800-number. [laughter] We’re so old!
David: Yeah. Yeah. And it felt like that happened for 20 minutes between when magazines were a thing, and the internet was a thing. Anyway, I worked at a firm that was doing that: making little interactive displays —
Melissa: For marketing purposes.
David: So you’d see a magazine ad for Ford, and you’d call, and you’d get a disk, and you’d put that in your PC, and you’d look at a new car, choose the color you wanted, that sort of thing.
David: I’d been there for, I guess, about a year and a half. And then one day, my manager asked me to do an informational interview, and I went into the room, and then Mel walked into the room.
Melissa: Baby Me I had just graduated from college from Syracuse University, and my mom and I had moved to Escondido, California, which is near San Diego. I was just desperately looking for a job in advertising. In the back of Ad Age magazine, there was an ad for a junior copywriting position in Sausalito. I had no idea where that was. I got out the atlas because, again, no internet. I got out the physical atlas and looked at the map of California, and saw that Sausalito is up by the Golden Gate Bridge. And I wrote my letter and put it in the mail and applied for the job.
David: And I remember you coming in, and we talked, and I remember you’re talking about your days working in a factory.
Melissa: [laughing] The summer I worked in a steel foundry.
David: And I thought you were lovely and charming, and I remember hearing that story about the factory in thinking, ‘Well, she could definitely work here.’
Melissa: Hey, thanks for warning me! [laughter]
David: Put up with working in a lead smelting plant, you can put up with this place.
David: And I walked into the other room, and they asked me how it went, and I said that you were awesome, and I think it was awhile — maybe a month —
Melissa: Oh! It was a few months until I got hired. I was interviewed by seven people that day. I sat in the conference room —
David: All in the same company —
Melissa: All the same company —
David: For junior copywriting position.
Melissa: Yes, I sat in a conference room, and seven different people came in all day long from — I don’t know, 10:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon or something. Then I went back to Escondido, and I heard nothing for about four months. And I had completely given up on that idea, and then the human resources person called me and offered me the job.
Melissa: Yeah, who later laid me off from that job. Yes, my first real job in the world, I got laid off because… I don’t know what happened with the downturn in our business, but I got laid off my first job by the woman who hired me.
David: Yeah, there was a moment where they had two staff meetings at the same time. I was in one roomm and Mel was in another. In my room, they said, ‘If you’re in this room, your job is safe.’
Melissa: ‘And in my room, they said, ‘If you’re in this room, your health care benefits end today,’ and I burst into tears.
David: Good times.
Melissa: So that’s how we met. And for a long time, we were just friends. And then we weren’t.
David: Well, that’s a good segue into the next question. A lovely person from Visalia, California asked, ‘I would love to hear a little bit about your story. Where have you lived? Why move to Prague? What else do you do? Talk about your reading life journey?’ That is too many questions.
Melissa: That’s a lot of things. [laughter] Also, if you wind me up and let me go, I will talk about myself for a really long time. Okay. I’m going to interview you. We’ll start with you.
David: All right.
Melissa: Where have you lived, David?
David: I was born in Grand Rapids. My parents and I moved 13 times before I was thirteen years old. Because my mom was ambitious and liked to have different jobs. Part of this weirdness is my mom was a librarian, so it wasn’t like she was CEO or anything, but she eventually became a serials librarian at the University of Cincinnati, and we lived in Cincinnati from when I was in fifth grade until I graduated high school. Then I went to school in New York City at New York University. I went to get a degree in film and television. Then I moved to St Louis, which was a really bad idea, and then I moved to San Francisco, which was a much better idea. And then we met and together we move to Austin Texas, and then we lived there for a long time. 13 years. Moved to White River Junction, Vermont for a few years, and then we moved to Prague.
Melissa: That’s a lot of places.
David: It is a lot of places. I have been a wanderer my entire life.
Melissa: Also, fun fact: Dave’s mom brought a book to our wedding. Which, in hindsight, is much more charming and delightful than it was at the moment.
David: My mom was a dedicated, lifetime reader. My mother moved through more books than I ever hope to. She passed away about 10 years ago, and one of the things that I loved most about my mom was talking about books with her. So at the time, I started to going to a book club and reconfirmed that I enjoy talking about books with people. And that indirectly led us here.
Melissa: I grew up in Owrigsburg, Pennsylvania, and I lived there until I was eighteen, and I went to Syracuse University for school. After I graduated, I moved to Escondido with my mom and then to San Francisco and then my path follows Dave’s path.
Melissa: We moved to Prague because somewhere along the line, we got in our heads that we wanted to travel more and then that kind of morphed into ‘it would be really fun to live in Europe and travel more.’ And that was a long process because we both had corporate jobs, and the first step in that process was coming up with a way to be geographically independent, so that we could live in Europe without having to worry about someone else giving us employment. And that’s kind of how we ended up reading our cookbooks.
David: Right! Maybe you don’t know: Mel wrote three cookbooks and together we took pictures of so many dishes, so many plates of food —
Melissa: So many moving pieces of parsley with tweezers. It’s called the Well Fed cookbook series. They’re paleo recipes, which means they don’t have gluten or added sugar, or dairy. But they’re very fun and very flavorful, and even if you’re not paleo, you can make them, and you could put cheese on top of things, if you really feel compelled to, and eat real rice instead of cauliflower rice. The recipes are — I’m just gonna say it. The recipes are really good.
David: Fact! Mel is an awesome cook.
Melissa: Anyway, that’s kind of how we ended up here.
Melissa: I want to tell a story: that’s going to take us way back. When I was in college in my retail advertising class, it was a copywriting class, which meant we were going to be writing copy for magazine ads and newspaper ads. Maybe the first week, we were given an assignment to create a business, and that would be the business that we would write all of our ad copy about for the entire semester. My business was a fruit, vegetable, and spice shop in New York, where I would go to the docks — this is my made up story. I would go to the docks, and I would pick out cool produce and spices and stuff and bring it back to my shop, and at the shop, I would have recipes and cooking classes and evening events with wine tastings, because I wanted people to be able to eat things and try things from all around the world. I would play the music. We would change the decor. There would be themes — the whole schlemiel. At different stages of my life, I’ve always had that idea in different versions. So the cookbooks, the Well Fed cookbooks, are international recipes. The little headnotes at the beginning of each recipe tell a little story about why that recipe is important and what it means in the culture that comes from. And here we are with Strong Sense of Place, and I have a travel journal where I’ve meticulously written lots and lots of information about all the places we visited. This is a continuing theme in my life of wanting to explore the world and share it with other people. And this is my favorite version of that story so far.
David: Yeah. One of the questions asked in the survey was somebody’s curious about other careers that we’ve had. And I just wanted to mention that because — to follow up on what you just said — we’ve had different careers as writers and web developers and producers of media. I feel like all of that, all of those jobs have led us here and all of the skills that we’ve developed over the years have allowed us to do the thing that we’re doing now.
Melissa: Including working in the steel foundry.
David: [laughing] Yeah. This question comes from Toronto, Canada. Hello, Toronto!
Melissa: We love Canada!
David: I enjoyed your city very much when I was there a few years ago. ‘Where else would you guys wanna live for a few years, if you were to move away from Prague?’
Melissa: I kind of have it in my head that sometime I would like to live a kind of beach lifestyle. Not for very long. In my imagination, it’s maybe a year where we live very close to the beach and our days begin and end with a walk on the beach. And sometimes in my imagination, it’s something like Santa Monica, where it’s warm and sunny and just your classic, sandy beach, and sometimes it’s the coast of Ireland or Maine, where it’s rocky and windy and very dramatic.
David: That was the first place my mind went to when you said, ‘live along the beach’ which I realize is not what most people think of when they think of living by the beach.
Melissa: I think it would be really fun to have a lifestyle that’s very connected to nature that way, but I don’t know that that would suit me for the long-term, but I think for a year, that could be really attractive.
Melissa: One of the things I’ve learned from our living in cities and small towns throughout our lives is that I am much more of a city person. I get a lot of energy from being out and having other people around doing things, even though I’m not necessarily interacting with them.
David: Yes, like you, I tend to be more city-oriented, and I think about things that way. In terms of cities I would live in, it’s a huge number. Off the top of my head, I think of places like Vancouver, Paris — I would live in Paris if I had a billion dollars. Edinburgh was delightful. I would consider Tokyo for a limited time, just because it seems so unlike anything we’ve done before. New Zealand has its charm. I mean, there’s so many places where it’s, like, ‘I don’t know — what have you got?’
Melissa: Yeah, I kind of have this idea that I’ve turned over my mind sometimes that after Smudge goes to college, and we don’t have to be rooted in one place that we would take a year and pack very lightly and every quarter, live in a different place. Just live four different places in a year. Because we’ve never done that. Usually, when we travel before we moved here, when we would travel, we would go for long periods of time. The first time we came to Prague, we stayed for four and a half weeks, and another time we came to Prague and Croatia and our trip was six weeks. So, that’s the way we usually travel, so we can really nest in. We’ve never visited multiple places in a short period of time. And really digging in for a few months in a place and then going somewhere new would be a completely different thing for us.
David: Just to be clear, Smudge going to college is a euphemism I. I don’t want to explore that too much, but just in case you’re wondering, ‘What is she talking about college?’
Melissa: Smudge is very intelligent. She was accepted to Harvard.
David: She is looking at the humanities program, but I don’t know, is there a living in that? I don’t know.
Melissa: One of the things I wonder about being more of a wanderer, is if it would get lonely. I was worried about being lonely when moved to Prague, and we have very rich circle of friends and acquaintances here. It’s wonderful, but I wonder what it would be like to be the outsider over and over and over again, when you move to new places on a regular basis. But I also feel like I’m curious about that, and it could be really interesting to explore.
David: Yeah, one of the things that I think was really interesting about moving to Prague was settling into the role of being the outsider. Because there was no illusion that we were going to magically be a part of the Czech culture. But we also met a ton of people who are lovely. Just really kind and friendly and welcoming. That’s been very rewarding and hardening.
Melissa: We’ve lived a lot of places, and we’ve always had people around us that we really loved, that were awesome. We had a couple questions from people asking us, you know, What is it like to move abroad? What steps did you have to go through? We don’t want to go into that too much here, but if you’ve ever been curious about it, and one of the things that makes you nervous is, are you going to be lonely? There are lovely people everywhere.
David: Thank you so much for listening! Season Two is going to start soon. We are going to go to Paris. I’m so excited about that. I’m very enthusiastic about Paris. And we’ll talk to you then.
Melissa: Look for an announcement on the website, in the newsletter, and on social media, so that you don’t miss the first episode of Season Two.
David: We’ll be rolling out the full schedule for Season Two on our website shortly —
Melissa: Which is also very exciting.
David: Talk to you soon!
Top image courtesy of cruzintheworld/Shutterstock.
Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!
Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.
This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.
We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.
This 30-page 2020 Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.
Content on this site is © 2020 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.