1) Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into writing?
I’ve been writing stories from a young age – it started by writing little plays to perform with my friends and family. For me, writing is a conduit to commune with other people, and that’s why my interest has been primarily in playwriting – it keeps the lonely writer trope at bay and keeps art from becoming a solo sport. Writing to me is so much about collaborating, and that’s why this book – which has given me the opportunity to travel across the country to talk to voters and speak at colleges and bookstores – is such an exciting endeavor. 50 States of Mind the book is only the start of the conversation.
2) What inspired you to write your book?
My impetus to write the book was a combination of a lot of different seemingly serendipitous factors: like many in the United States, the 2016 election was a wakeup call. I had been working for the Florida Democratic party, and was totally stunned by the result and hungry to dive into the nuances and contradictions of the hugely consequential election. I needed to discover what I missed – I was a Northwestern-educated 26-year-old who had chosen New York City as his home, but also a Rust Belt native who grew up in a sometimes overlooked part of the Midwest. Because of this, I could empathize with not feeling heard by the rest of the country. These preoccupations led me to write an admissions essay to University of Oxford. When I left the U.S. for the U.K. in September of 2017, I had room to reflect on the events of the past year and, fortuitously, the opportunity to pitch a thesis project to my department. The 50 States of Mind idea – the opportunity to travel to all 50 states to speak to people on the ground, seemed to be the best way to dive into the heart of a divided America and see if there were answers to be found from the people.
3) What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I think the message of the book, hopefully, makes the reader want to turn off the news, put down their phones, and get out there to fully engage in the ever-changing story of American democracy. We are made to feel that we have to think in black and white terms (or red and blue) about the problems in our country, but there is an awful lot of nuance and gray area surrounding these topics. I think those in power intentionally divide about so many inconsequential things – forcing us to take sides in cultural discussions that have little to do with our democracy – that we lose focus on the issues that matter most and get distracted from finding meaningful ways to make change. Our communities are the perfect canvas for us to get involved and make an impact, and it’s worth considering if we’re actually doing our part to make positive change.
4) What drew you into this particular genre?
The works of travel nonfiction by folks like Bill Bryson who allows humor to illustrate broader points about society, Samantha Allen who fuses candid memoir with travel writing, and William Least-Heat Moon with the search for meaning among the regular folks in America all helped me reconsider what travel writing should or could be. Seeing what is possible in narrative nonfiction and borrowing what I admired helped me create a work of travel nonfiction that I see myself in.
5) What social media site has been the most helpful in developing your readership?
I really have come to loathe social media because I think it’s tearing apart our democracy (for more details, see the full book or audiobook!), however, I do like to keep people in the loop on Instagram.
6) What advice would you give to aspiring or just starting authors out there?
I’ve learned through the development of this book that you are only as strong as those who edit your work, and luckily I had brilliant editors along the way. The most important relationships a writer can cultivate is with someone who will give you honest feedback on relatively polished work. This could be a non-writer, but never, ever make that person feel taken for granted – buy them dinner, buy them a million drinks! These people are worth their weight in gold. And if you are a part of a writers’ group, be the person who reliably gives notes in a week or two. You’ll learn about your own writing by giving feedback to others, and you’re more likely to get careful feedback in return.
7) What does the future hold in store for you? Any new books/projects on the horizon?
I’m embarking on a speaking tour of U.S. libraries and bookstores next month, which couldn’t be more exciting since it’s quite parallel to the journey of the book. I’m also starting to develop 50 States of Mind into a stage play in the style of The Laramie Project as I hope to use my playwriting background to bring the diverse voices of those I met along my journey to life.
About the Author
Ryan Bernsten is a graduate of Northwestern University and Oxford’s Creative Writing Master’s program. Ryan is a contributor for The Infatuation and has been published in USA Today, The Fulcrum, The Oxford Political Review, and The Trevor Project, where he is the Senior Managing Editor. Ryan is an award-winning playwright whose plays have been performed across the US and UK. You may have seen him as a Slytherin contestant on Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of Houses. ryanbernsten.com