Dylan Thuras founded Atlas Obscura, a site predicated on the idea that a community of explorers can come together to showcase their discoveries of amazing, hidden spots, and share them with the world.
He recently penned a book along with his partner, Joshua Foer, aptly titled Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, celebrating more than 600 of the strangest and most curious places in the world. It’s now a New York Times best seller.
Our founder and curator, Elizabeth Lane, was intrigued by Atlas Obscura at first sight at NEIBA (The New England Independent Booksellers Association) Conference this past September. And when the first copies arrived at Partners Village Store (the book store she buys for), she dreamed up the “Gentleman’s Quarterlane” on the spot — specifically for this book (the box sold out in a matter of weeks). It is so original, so unique and just begs to be savored, flipped-through, passed along to friends and revisited. In Elizabeth’s own words, “I can only imagine that these books will have quite a story to tell as they pass from friend to friend, family to family, and the many adventures that will surely inspire as a result. At its essence, this book breathes life.”
We’re so excited to interview Dylan on The Edit. Read on…
QL: Hi Dylan, Neil Gaiman says your book is the kind of book “that makes you want to pack in your workday life, and head out into the places you’d never have dreamed of going to see things you could not even have imagined.” So, first I have to ask, what prompted your passion for travel? Do you remember your first trip as a child?
DT: As a Minnesota boy, my first trips were the quintessential epic rambling midwestern Road Trips. My parents, who had me when they were quite young and kept their youthful spirit even as parents, would take me on these thousand-mile drives to South Dakota, Wisconsin, Canada — generally all over the midwest — and, luckily for me, the Midwest is a bizarre and amazing place. I have a particularly fond memory of a place called House on the Rock which is this massive, seemingly endless museum tucked into the woods of Spring Green, Wisconsin. We went when I was 12, and the place takes hours to walk through and has a sculpture of a squid fighting a whale that is the size of the statue of liberty, the world’s largest carousel, and a huge cantilevered hallway that is made to look infinite which juts out like a spike over the forest hundreds of feet below. It is a surreal wonderland.
In fact, one thing that Neal Gaiman and I share is a love of the House on the Rock! He used it as the home of the gods in American Gods. It is such a magical place, in his own words he “had to tone down my description of it and leave things out in the book in order to make it believable.” So that may be what started me down this path.
QL: You are an author, you run your site Atlas Obscura and you’re also a dad to a baby. Have you taken him on any trips? Where do you want to take him?
DT: My son Finn has already been on quite a few trips! He just went on a 2800 mile road trip with my wife and me. He is two now, so he a better sense of his surroundings. Recently, on a trip to Baltimore, we took him to the “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death” which are bit like like tiny doll house scenes in which horrible accidents or murders have taken place. They were made by a wealthy socialite in the the 1940s who had an interest in forensics and proved to be such invaluable teaching tools for Forensic detectives that they are still used today. Luckily Finn is young enough that he wasn’t fazed by it and I didn’t have to explain the scenes — he spent most of the time playing with an inflated surgical glove. He also went with us on a big trip to Madrid and we visited the unfinished cathedral of Don Justo — a cathedral the size of a city block built by one man over the last 50 years. Kids are wildly adaptable. As long as we make sure to hit naps and meal times, he is pretty much down to roll with us. I am excited to start doing activities outdoors, like hiking, when he is older. I am waiting a few years to go on a big trip family to Albania, but that is one place I want to go with the family.
QL: Where would you like to go that you have not already been? Did you learn about this place from a submission to your site, a friend, a book?
DT: I am dying to go to the abandoned space gun in Barbados. There isn’t that much to see, but the history is so fascinating. It was made for the US and Canadian governments to provide a cheaper option for resupplying space missions, but its creator, a guy named Gerald Bull, went on to become an international arms dealer. He started building giant five-hundred foot guns for various oppressive regimes before being assassinated in 1990. The remnants of this massive canon and the start of this guy breaking bad are unbelievable! This cannon was used to shoot projectiles farther into space than anything before or since continues to rust away on a beach.
QL: It may seem like an odd question — but tell us, what’s special about travel? What does it do for you? Is it actually about stepping away from your usual scenery or something more?
DT: For most people who enjoy travel, there is this magical shift in perspective. Your brain is astonishingly good at editing out what it sees as needless details, and so the more familiar you become with a place or a routine, the more your brain hides things from you, filing them under “seen it — done it.” When you travel its like slapping your brain across the face. You are forced to see with new eyes, and your ability for perception both outward, and I think inward increases. As Josh would say “Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one.” The trick is trying to do this even when you are not in a foreign land. To force yourself to get willfully lost and to engage in some ridiculous activity gives you this new sense of awareness and expanded time.
QL: Your book is getting rave reviews. Congratulations. What was the book writing experience like for you? Do you think you would like to do another one someday? Someday soon?
DT: Thank you! The writing experience was really good, and I have to give a shout out to Ella who did a tremendous amount of work and heavy-lifting on editing and writing the copy of the book as well. One of the most difficult parts was choosing what to include and what to cut. Many things I really love didn’t make that cut!
There will absolutely be other books, in fact there are already wheels in motion! It may take a bit of time, but probably not the five years that this first book took!
QL: You live in Brooklyn with your family. What made you chose Brooklyn as home base?
DT: As a matter of fact, we just moved! We are currently living in a lovely Victorian house in Rosendale, New York. After nine years in Greenpoint, which is a neighborhood that I still really love, we found we were craving a change — so we moved to the country! I learned to drive at age 33 (amazingly, I had been able to get by without it until then) and we headed upstate. I just got some ice skates and have spent some time analyzing Google maps for hidden forest lakes to skate on. (Too warm at the moment, but once it gets cold enough!)
This area of New York State is so full of strange and amazing towns, ruins, art, secret swimming holes, I am really excited to start exploring it all!
QL: With your hectic work and family life, do you carve out time for yourself to read? If so, what’s your genre of choice?
DT: I try to! I read a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Right now I am reading the incredible A Burglar’s Guide to The City by Geoff Manaugh. Geoff is a total genius and writes about the way architecture and crime interact and feed off one another. If there was a job for noir-futurist-architectural-detective, Geoff would be the best candidate.
As for fiction I have a real soft spot for all thing Sci-Fi and Fantasy. When I want to relax, I tend to read something from that genre. The Ancillary Justice trilogy, about an AI who has gotten separated from her ship, is spectacular. The Name of the Wind, and the Magicians Trilogy are some of my more recent favorites.
QL: What are some books you loved growing up?
DT: Everything by Roald Dahl. My parents read the Narnia and Lord of the Rings books to me out loud as a kid. I also adored these Time Life books called “Into the Unkown” all about strange occurrences, and mysterious happenings. They probably also helped influence my general world view.
QL: What are some great books on travel or where a traveling character is featured that you would recommend?
DT: It is predictable, but everything by Bill Bryson. He is just so so so good. Another great one is a book called An Island to Oneself by Tom Neale. It is a the autobiography of a man who decides to leave everything and go live on an island by himself for 16 years. It is fascinating and harrowing. He debates with himself a lot about whether to eat his pet duck, it is really great.
QL: If you could beam yourself anywhere right now and spend the day…where to?
DT: Just a day? Antarctica! I would go hang out with the scientists living at the base of Blood Falls, this three story blood red frozen waterfall in the Dry McMurdo Valley. The falls are leaking a from of extremophile found nowhere else in the world. A day there would definitely be memorable!
QL: Thanks so much for chatting with us Dylan!