Mason Engel is making his next road trip a cinematic one
Around the world in 80 days? Try 50 books in 50 days. In “Books Across America,” the author and filmmaker will travel to 50 states in 50 days, reading 50 books and interviewing 50 authors along the way.
The giant undertaking includes “An American Marriage,” a novel by Professor Tayari Jones of Emory University. The story centers on Celestial and Roy, a Black couple living in Atlanta whose lives are changed when Roy is convicted of a rape he did not commit.
The film is currently in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign that lasts until Aug. 8, where future viewers can preorder the film. According to a spokesperson, the documentary will not be available to view until next year.
Rough Draft Atlanta interviewed Engel about what he hoped to achieve with the documentary. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I would love to start with a bit of background on you. Where are you from and how did you become an author and now filmmaker?
Mason Engel: It’s somewhat of a strange path. I was born in Columbus, Indiana, and went to Purdue University in Northwest Indiana majoring in math.[I was writing throughout college, started writing back in high school. Actually, my senior year of high school, I wrote my first book and got a printing business to print it, and I dedicated it to my girlfriend at the time and used it as a way to ask her to prom. That was my first ever book.
From there, I kept writing while majoring in math at Purdue, graduated from Purdue, proceeded not to use my math degree [and] started writing books. I self-published a book and then took this road trip in 2019 to 50 different independent bookstores in 50 days. That was my first 50 days trip, just to promote my self-published novel. During that trip, I fell in love with indie bookstores, and decided to make a documentary about them. I’d been doing vlog updates via Snapchat and Instagram on the road, so I had this footage and eventually shaped that into a documentary – not about me, but about why it’s important to shop indie as opposed to on Amazon.
From there, I just fell into this weird niche of making documentaries about books. For “Books Across America,” I had the idea in my head for a long time of a crazy road trip, the 50 books in 50 days, 50 states, all that stuff, and just took the plunge. I took the road trip and here we are.
That seems like a pretty grueling schedule. How many people were on the road with you?
Engel: The crew was three people total – me, the camera operator Nick, and the assistant camera/assistant director/jack of all trades Olivia. They were in the two front seats of our minivan, and I was in the backseat reading books, and preparing interviews, and popping out every now and then to get some b-roll.
You’d done the 50 bookstores in 50 days before, and this is sort of a similar construct. But how did you go about putting this together? What were you hoping to achieve through this project?
Engel: So putting it together – I started with a big spreadsheet of all potential authors that I could choose from, drawing mostly from the New York Times Best Seller list, then categorizing that list by state, and then selecting authors by genre, by demographic, by gender, by all these sorts of variables to try and build as representative of a cast as possible. Then we built our schedule going from place to place.
I think you’re asking the right question – what were we trying to achieve with the trip? On the surface, it’s kind of a gimmick, right? You go to 50 states in 50 days, but that doesn’t mean anything if you don’t stick with the premise. One of the big questions that I had been thinking about before hitting the road was the idea of the great American novel, and the notion that something in a novel can make it “American” – more or less American. That combined with this other question, a very basic question, which was, why do we read? In order to properly answer those questions, I thought one, it was important to immerse myself in books – that’s why I read 50 in 50 days. And two, it was important to experience as many different corners of our country as possible, and that’s why we went to all 50 states. So there’s a reason why I chose the schedule that I did.
Do you think you found an answer to that question, if there’s something in a novel that can make it inherently American?
Engel: I think we did find some answers. I’ll tease them, because I don’t want to give away the heart of the film, but probably the most surprising thing that I think we discovered is that, of course, America is known by the world at large for its media – our movies, our music. And books, I mean – I don’t know who thinks of America and their mind immediately goes to books, and I think that’s reflected in the way that modern Americans consume their content. We’re on social media, we are obsessed with Marvel movies, and so forth. But the thing that we discovered – I think we discovered – is that there’s something about reading that makes it an intrinsically American pursuit. Not that we have exclusivity on reading, not by any stretch. But I think we’ve underappreciated the degree to which reading is intrinsically American, and I hope to talk more about that in the film.
You touched on this a little bit, but when you’re picking a book from a certain state, are you trying to pick a book that’s themes connects specifically with that state?
Engel: We did that a couple of times. More than a couple of times – oftentimes, we’d find a book that was set in the place that we were traveling through when I was reading it. But one of the beautiful things about our literary scene and an important thing about books is that they’re geographically diverse, and they allow us to travel on the page. So it wasn’t always vitally important for us to find a book that was from the place we were in, because ours is such an interconnected country that there’s a little bit of everywhere in a book about any one specific place.
The author from Georgia is Tayari Jones. Why did you choose her book?
Engel: One of the ways that I was sourcing books, or trying to find book and author ideas for the road trip … was referencing Oprah’s Book Club, because Oprah is always a great tastemaker. I found Professor Jones’s book via Oprah.
We’re talking about why we chose specific books, and Professor Jones’s book relates very closely to the south and the experience of southerners. The book at large is sort of about, or at least revolves around, mass incarceration. But when I spoke to her, she was very adamant about emphasizing that though it’s about that, or though that plays a large role in the book, she doesn’t mean to paint the entire south with that broad of a brush, and nor should the novel be categorized as a very heavy subject matter novel – though it does deal with some of that stuff. It’s a funny book. It’s a great story. So talking to her about those things was very educational. I think she approaches her craft in a very smart way.
Obviously, literature and movies are very different mediums, and you work in both. How do you go about making literature feel cinematic and translate between those mediums?
Engel: Some people have asked why make a documentary about this? Why not write a book about it? Since the subject is books, why don’t you write a book about books? But the goal of the film is to introduce or to depict reading to people who typically don’t read in a way that makes them want to pick up a book. I’m trying to meet people, my target audience, where they are – which is not in a bookstore, but on Netflix, on public television, on anywhere you find movies and shows. So that’s why we decided to make a documentary
As for how to make reading and literature cinematic, we’re certainly not going to feature me reading for 90 minutes. I don’t think that would be exciting to anyone. But we are doing a few different things. One is working with an illustrator and an animator to bring some of the scenes from the books I’m reading to life onscreen. So we’re shaping our narrative of the road trip in part through the lens of the story that I’m reading at the time. So being able to have visuals for those stories beyond just the words on the page, having those animated illustrations, I think that’ll help keep people engaged.