One Extraordinary Bookish Podcast
A conversation with Strong Sense of Place creators Mel & Dave
Welcome to One Extraordinary Bookish Podcast, where I have conversations with my favorite “bookish” podcast creators to learn more about them and what makes their podcasts so good. If you’ve been here for a few months, you know of my love of podcasts; if not, you can find those episodes listed on the home page.
One of my all-time favorite podcasts is Strong Sense of Place by Melissa Joulwan and Dave Humphreys. Each season Mel & Dave take you around the world, providing experiences and enough book recommendations to topple your TBR and keep you entertained until the next season premieres. I’ve known Mel & Dave online for about a year, but I’ve followed them since they started their podcast. Here is my conversation with Mel & Dave:
GG: Thank you so much for talking with me for the very first “One Extraordinary Bookish Podcast” newsletter. You don’t just have a podcast, you have a platform with hundreds of book recommendations and swoon-worthy pictures that make us all want to travel to the places you write and podcast about. I enjoy your podcast so much, and I know my readers will, too.
You decided to become expats and move to Prague; that seems really adventurous, really scary, or both. How did this decision come about?
M&D: We were living in Austin, Texas, and it was time to renew our passports. We looked inside them and realized that we’d only collected one lonely passport stamp in the prior ten years. We were really disappointed by that. So we pledged to each other to travel more. And we did! We went on lengthy trips to Prague, Berlin, Paris, Croatia, and Slovenia — and somewhere along the line, ‘travel more’ morphed into ‘it would be really fun to live in Europe and travel more.’
That kicked off a six-year process that started with a table-sized chart of everything we needed to do before we could move — including things like ‘research visas’ and ‘visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium again.’ We were cookbook authors at the time, and we needed to release another cookbook before we could make the leap to being expats. Then, David decided he wanted to attend the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. So while earning his master’s degree in cartooning, I was testing recipes and writing our book Well Fed Weeknights.
One by one, we knocked down the to-do items until the day we packed our bags, put Smudge in the cat carrier, and got on a plane with one-way tickets.
GG: What does a “strong sense of place” mean in the context of your podcast?
M&D: The easiest way to say it is if a book can be set anywhere, it can’t be on our show. Don’t get me wrong — there are great books that can be set anywhere. Literary novels that take place mostly in conversation or inside characters’ heads, mysteries and thrillers that are plot-driven, charming children’s books — we enjoy these, too. They just don’t make the cut for Strong Sense of Place. A book with a strong sense of place hinges on its location — that story could only happen in that specific place and/or time.
We read in all sections of the bookstore. It’s been gratifying to see that books in all genres can deliver a strong sense of place: historical fiction, mysteries, family sagas, nonfiction and reportage, and graphic novels. We look for stories that include vivid details about the culture, the food, the soundscape, the political and social situation — all the things that will transport the reader to that place in their imaginations.
GG: Tell us how a Strong Sense of Place (SSoP) came to be?
M&D: Even before we started this project, I loved to read fiction set in the destination that we were visiting. It was challenging to find good books with a strong sense of place. Of course, you can go to Google or Goodreads and find lists of books set in specific locations, but I didn’t have a trusted resource to recommend great books with a strong sense of place. So I decided to make one myself.
The original idea was to make a comprehensive website that listed books by country, along with historical libraries, bookshops, literary cafés, and other bookish things. But when we started planning the website for real, we realized that it would be a lifelong project that would never launch. In the back of our minds, we thought we’d make a podcast eventually. One morning, chatting over breakfast — when we get our best ideas — one of us said, ‘What if we flip it around? We could make a podcast now and gradually build the website with all the books and other stuff we talk about on the podcast.’
So that’s what we did! We launched the website in October 2019 to let people know what was coming, and the podcast started in January 2020.
GG: Tell us about what happens behind the scenes of SSoP; how does it all come together?
M&D: Our seasons are 12 episodes, released every other week. In each season, we include destinations from all regions of the globe and at least two destinations in the United States. We also do three ‘theme’ episodes which are not geographical but are places you can visit, like the circus, hotels, the library, and the sea. Many of the destinations we cover are places most people daydream about going on vacation, but we also feature countries that are more challenging but equally beautiful and interesting, like Afghanistan and Iran.
It takes us about two weeks to prepare an episode — that includes research, writing our scripts, recording, podcast editing, social media, marketing, blog posts, and newsletters — there are many small, essential tasks that happen after we’ve finished reading and before the podcast reaches our audience’s ears.
Dave and I don’t read the same books, and we don’t discuss them with each other until we get into our recording tent. When the recording is finished, our work tracks split: He does all the creative and technical aspects of the podcast, and I do all the writing for the website and newsletters. One of the most fun things we do is collaborate on choosing the photos we use everywhere. That is a very daydreamy to-do item.
We talked at great length about how we choose books in the ‘Ask Us Anything’ episodes of our podcast. Dave and I have different approaches, and I think that’s what makes our recommendations so diverse and interesting.
GG: You both are adventurous; what are some of the things you’ve done that we might be surprised to hear about?
M&D: Dave and I joke that we’re very adventurous as long as we get to think about it for a few years first.
I think we both approach life with the attitude that it’s all about experiences and relationships. When we get a fun/impractical/scary idea about something we want to do, if the idea sticks around for a while, we figure out how to do it. Or at least try it.
Also, when we get excited about things, we want to share them with other people. The cookbooks, my Roller Derby memoir, his drawing, and Strong Sense of Place are all expressions of the same desire. It’s our metaphorical way of grabbing people by the shoulders and saying, ‘Do you know about this? It’s so cool!’
GG: The Library of Lost Time is the latest addition to the SSoP platform; where did that idea come from?
M&D: All the credit for that gem of an idea has to go to Dave. We wanted to find a way to be in touch with our audience every week, but producing weekly episodes of the full Strong Sense of Place podcast isn’t an option. He came up with the format for a fun, quick hit of books and travel inspiration — and because he has experience in both film and cartooning, he wanted to make it visual. So we created The Library of Lost Time. It’s a short video and podcast that comes out weekly. In each installment, we share two new book releases at the top of our TBR, then discuss a fun book-or travel-related distraction.
The videos are so much fun! Dave drew cartoon versions of us and our cat Smudge, and the video montages for the books and travel bits are fantastic. We’ve heard from so many of our listeners who say they like to listen to it in their podcast feed and then go watch the video on our website or YouTube. For us, it’s like we invited people over to play, and they said yes. That’s pretty much why we do all the things we do.
GG: Below is my favorite (so far) Library of Lost Time episode.
GG: What does the future hold for you, Dave, and SSoP?
M&D: This isn’t a secret because I firmly believe the more we talk about what we want, the more likely we are to make it happen. We would love to have Strong Sense of Place events in real life. Imagine an immersive evening at, say, a Greek restaurant. We gather for ouzo or retsina and have a book club about a book set in Greece. Then eat a delicious Greek dinner together while Greek music plays in the background. Or — and this is the one my heart most desires — we have a weekend getaway at a manor house with a cocktail hour, a book club, afternoon tea, a guest author chat, a group walk in nearby gardens, perhaps a session with a fortune teller or a séance in the drawing room, reading aloud to each other by candlelight… Someday we will make these things happen.
GG: What else would you like readers to know about you and SSoP?
M&D: We’re big believers in the idea that empathy might save the world. Reading books about people who are different from us — in places that are different or similar to our homes — is a fantastic way to extend and hone our empathy.
Also, book reviews that include spoilers are evil.
GG: What are some of your favorite podcasts to listen to?
M&D: My list always starts with these three book podcasts, of course: What Should I Read Next?, The Perks of Being a Book Lover, and Currently Reading. They are my book podcasting sisters, and they do a fantastic job.
I love the Shedunnit Show, a weekly podcast about classic mystery novels. Caroline Crampton is the writer and host, and she is brilliant. She’s also the editor of the excellent Browser newsletter that curates five outstanding stories each day. I find so many wonderful nuggets in those newsletters.
Bookclub from the BBC is another favorite. In each episode, the host, James Naughtie, talks to an author and a live audience about one book. The conversations are always very insightful — he asks questions that encourage authors to share themselves in a way I haven’t heard before—really moving, inspiring stuff.
When I want a break from books, I really enjoy Films to Be Buried With with Brett Goldstein. This is ostensibly about movies, but really, it’s about life. The conversations are often very funny and quite vulnerable, too. And Rick Steves’ travel podcasts are always a delight.
I got Dave to share his favorites because I knew they were very different from mine. He says:
I like Shut Up and Sit Down because I’m a big board game geek. I also listen to a lot of music podcasts. A favorite right now is Broken Record, and I love the sound sculpting they do on Twenty Thousand Hertz and Radio Lab.
The SSoP website is a gigantic rabbit hole to get lost in for several hours at a time. Be sure to sign up for the free 30-page reading atlas filled with book recommendations and gorgeous pictures, and look forward to emails filled with tons of book recommendations and travel information to keep you in awe of the world’s beauty that they so expertly show and tell us about.
Season four of the Strong Sense of Place podcast premiered in April 2022, and all podcast episodes and show notes can be found on their website. Their newest venture, The Library of Lost Time, can be found here and also in the SSoP podcast feed. Be sure to watch the episodes online for Dave’s graphics and other visual effects you miss by only listening to each episode. You can also find them on Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | and Patreon.
Here are just a few of my favorite episodes of SSoP:
Learn more about Mel & Dave in this mini episode from July 2020
Mel & Dave, what a delight this was to get to know you better and learn more about the wealth of travel and bookish goodness you provide for readers and podcast listeners. Thank you again for sharing your platform, giving us a peek into your lives, and sharing a few of your dreams for the future with us. I just adore you both.
Thank you to my readers and podcast listeners for being here; I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Mel & Dave; I know I sure did. I look forward to every Friday when their weekly email and Endnotes land in my inbox. I’m always excited to read it the minute I see it, but I keep that excitement at bay and save it for the weekend when I can sit and enjoy perusing it at my leisure. Have a great week, and happy reading!
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