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Books Mon Feb 10 2014

Pioneer Press: Writer and Editor Publishes Book of Real-Life Travel Tales

Thumbnail image for TPWB_front-cover-image.jpgWhile on a class trip in Cuba, college junior Asha Veal Brisebois' camera died. The year was 2003, so phones were not yet the Swiss army knives of capture they are today, and finding a replacement battery proved impossible. Without an instrument to record her experiences visually, Veal Brisebois picked up a pen.
"I started writing travel stories--nonfiction--about our group's time there," she said. "At the time I was really into literary journalism, on-the-road pieces, and nonfiction work about place. I was a total devotee of Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem."

Veal Brisebois' experience certainly wasn't the first time necessity became the mother of invention, but it may have been the first time a dead battery led to a publishing company.

After writing about her time in Cuba, during which the U.S. first invaded Iraq ("It was intense to see the reaction while in a different country, the people of Cuba offering prayers to the people of Iraq," she noted), Veal Brisebois became fascinated by the idea of capturing and compiling those experiences in an essay collection. Several peers had been traveling to other parts of the world--one to South Africa to explore how puppetry connects people around social issues, another to Albania to shoot a documentary about the Holocaust. "Through these different experiences, the idea for a book-- just this one book-- kept growing," Veal Brisebois said.

She put together a proposal, and after a brief flirtation with traditional publishing she decided to take the matter into her own hands.

"I realized that I already had all that I needed there in the proposal--a fleshed-out blueprint to begin constructing the project," Veal Brisebois said. "Technology had changed so much in that short time that I felt like, 'I can spend the next year trying to get someone else to pick this up, or I can use the time to do it myself.' Once I read books about independent publishing, it made sense to look beyond this one book and do something wider."

In 2012 The Places We've Been books was born with a mission to portray "the diverse experience of human existence". With the help of Kickstarter, The Places We've Been: Field Reports From Travelers Under 35 became its first release in September.

The anthology comprises 48 original travel narratives by a diverse collection of writers and adventurers, some emerging and some with credits like The New York Times, The Atlantic and Vogue India. Billed as "a literary project to challenge conventional tourism," The Places We've Been features stories like that of a former StoryCorps interviewer, who spent a year tending bar at her aunt's nightclub in Tokyo; a teacher who experienced violence during the 2008 transport workers strike in Cameroon; and a filmmaker who shot a surf documentary in the Western Sahara.

Book Club caught up with Veal Brisebois to learn more about the book and her more domestic adventures in the world of indie publishing.

How did you compile the essays for The Places We've Been?
To bring the full collection together, I started out with a made-up table of contents as part of the early book proposal. It was a "shoot for" list of the types of stories and diversity to go after. The next step was posting the call for submissions and reaching out by trying to target actual niches, organizations and people that could bring that table of contents to life. There was definitely a lot of posting and cold emailing. That's how we connected with contributors like Frank, a high school teacher from Pittsburg who hung out in a cave with the national army of Colombia.

Some of the writers and participants in the book I already knew as former classmates and friends. One is Derek, who travels to attend the annual "Hillywood" film festival in Rwanda. He shares what it's like to go to a place that's widely known for one thing--in Rwanda's case, the genocide--and to find so much more. That's the commonality and the link between all of the stories really--traveling somewhere else and finding "much more."

In addition to obvious travel stories, there are a handful of stories that, at first glance, might not seem to fit into a standard idea of a travel collection, but are absolutely about place. There's a piece on home by a writer named Haroon, about how Kareem Abdul Jabbar and the Lakers became heroes to him, and other American Muslim families, while growing up in the sparse diversity of 1980s and 1990s rural New England. There's also Carys, a youth and family counselor in Western Canada who drives to a prison to meet the man who killed her father.

What are your plans and hopes for the book and the publishing company?
Something unexpected but really cool that's happened with the the book is that it's been added to the 2013-14 required reading list and curriculum by a professor at Chicago Community Colleges as part of his courses that involve global studies. Comparing "modern writing with classical texts," is what the prof describes. I think it would be awesome for this book to spread into even more learning settings.

Also, for the fall of this year, we're trying to put up a panel event here in Chicago that will bring together a handful of the contributing writers in person, each discussing their own stories from the book along with wider social issues related to international travel, and also what it's like to "report" through creative arts.

Overall for The Places We've Been books, we've got two other titles coming out near the end of this year. They're both solo-author projects and fiction. So I'm hoping those go well!

What are the challenges and rewards of running your own publishing company?
There are definitely challenges. More than once I've found myself thinking that there should be more support for start-ups that aren't tech-related, but rather small shop arts ventures like ours, even though we aren't nonprofit and even though publishing ventures aren't always considered a part of the arts.

It's also been interesting to see that even though publishing and book production is so open right now and coming from so many channels, the ways that new books are dealt with and received is still pretty old guard.

Who are the writers/what are the projects that inspire you most?
There are many--everyone who's on my home bookshelf. But if I had to name one travel collection I've admired over time, it would be Caryl Phillips' The European Tribe.

Who is The Places We've Been for?
I'd say that this is a book for anyone who enjoys compelling nonfiction writing and unique perspectives of the world. I think it's a good book for the types of readers who like to get away and be transported in their minds. I think it's also cool for people looking to challenge themselves in terms of thinking, "So what can I go out and do?"

Buy the book here.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher's website. Artwork by Lisa Hsia.

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