By Emily Mellentine, Kristen Fuhs Wells Communications Intern
We recently spoke with Mason Engel, filmmaker of The Bookstour and Story Road, and author of the sci-fi novel, 2084. In Engel’s latest project, Books Across America, he traveled to 50 states, read 50 books and interviewed 50 authors — all in 50 days. To learn more about the film, visit his website.
“Books Across America” is an ambitious project where you traveled to 50 states, read 50 books and interviewed 50 authors in just 50 days. What motivated you to embark on this journey?
Engel: All of my films start with a question. For The Bookstour, the question was, “Why should we shop indie as opposed to on Amazon?” For Story Road the question was, “How do you become a bestselling author?” And for Books Across America the question was very basic: “Why do we read?” In a world that is full of easier, sexier modes of entertainment, I thought that question was worth investigating. Another point of curiosity for me with the film was this idea of the great American novel. And the notion that a novel or story can be particularly American. That interested me. So I wanted to come up with a premise for a film that would allow me to immerse myself not only in books but in our country. That premise became Books Across America.
Can you tell us more about your background as an author and filmmaker and what led you to pursue these creative endeavors?
Engel: I’ve always loved to write, so growing up I wrote short stories and (attempts at) novels. I didn’t get serious about writing until my senior year of high school. Soccer season had just ended, and every day when school let out, I had all this time I didn’t know what to do with. I decided to write a book. I kept it secret for a while on a whim, and then I came up with a reason to keep it secret: I would use the book to ask my girlfriend at the time to prom. I printed it, dedicated it to her, and popped the question. So that’s what motivated me to finish that first book. After that, writing became a habit. I kept writing when I went to Purdue, and eventually a couple of friends found out my not-so-secret pastime. They convinced me to write the screenplay for their short film class and, later, to join the class. I fell in love with the process of filmmaking and have been making films about books and reading ever since.
Your sci-fi novel, 2084, achieved bestseller status on Amazon. Could you share the inspiration behind this book and about its journey to success?
Engel: I started writing 2084 in 2016 during the Trump election. At the time, phrases like “alternative facts” and “doublethink” were trending, and sales of 1984 had tripled. It seemed like a very clear marketing opportunity. If I could write a compelling spin-off of 1984, I could capitalize on a ready-made audience. So I gave it a go. I re-read 1984 a couple of times, designed a more modern plot with a corporatized surveillance state run by a smart contact lens company, and wove a bunch of nods and winks to Orwell’s original novel. As for 2084’s journey to success … I first released the book as a short story and used the short story to build an email list. I used the email list to launch the novel and hustle a bunch of reviews and ratings. That launch built enough momentum to catch the attention of the Amazon algorithm.
For Indiana, you chose to interview writer Ross Gay, whose book won an Indiana Authors Award. What made Ross Gay and his work stand out to you? Who else was on your list?
Engel: My list for Indiana consisted of one name: Ross Gay. Of course, there are a ton of great Indiana writers to choose from, but I knew very early on that I wanted to talk to Ross. I first encountered his work while working on my previous film, The Bookstour. I read The Book of Delights soon after and just admired the challenge he had set for himself. The challenge of dissecting and understanding joy and delight and gratitude and love. I knew there would be no one better to talk about a reader’s love for books.
During your cross-country road trip to 30 indie bookstores for The Bookstour, you explored the mission of these local bookshops. Can you share some of the valuable insights you gained about the importance of shopping locally for books?
Engel: There are many oft-cited reasons to buy your books locally. You keep money in your community. You get some human interaction. You can attend cultural events. But the most important reason for me boils down to a simple fact: booksellers love selling books. The Amazon algorithm may be efficient at selling you books, but it certainly does not love selling you books. It does not love the books that it sells. Booksellers do. And I value that, because the more people in the workforce who love what they do, the better our world is going to be.
What are your favorite bookstores in Indiana?
Engel: Number one is Viewpoint Books in Columbus, Ind. As my hometown store, it’ll always have a special place in my heart. Another great shop is Wild Geese Books in Franklin, Indiana. I interviewed the owner for The Bookstour a few years back when they were in a much smaller location, so it’s cool to see how much they’ve grown. Another favorite is the Book Corner in Bloomington, Ind. You just can’t beat a bookstore on the town square.
When you interviewed Ross Gay and explored Indiana’s bookstores, what was your overall impression of Indiana’s literary scene?
Engel: Indiana can claim one of the few undisputed Great American Novelists in Kurt Vonnegut. The state has also gotten some love in contemporary fiction (à la John Green). Surprisingly, when I was organizing the The Bookstour trip in 2019, there weren’t many bookstores in Indianapolis. That felt wrong to me, and apparently it felt wrong to Hoosiers, as well. Since 2019, Indy has seen a marked increase in bookstores, despite — or perhaps because of — the pandemic. So that’s been great to see. Indiana still isn’t properly represented as a backdrop for nationally read novels, but amazing writers around the state are changing that.