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Shelby: I'm a big fan of reading and I tend to gravitate to books about adventure. I especially love kids' books about adventure. I remember being a little girl and being and loving the book where the wild things are. Pretending that I was Max the main character and then my bedroom was a forest with an ocean right where my bed was. Does anybody have a good imagination? Do you guys play pretend games after school?
Kid 1: Yes, sometimes.
Kid 2: You know what I play? I play that I'm on a scavenger hunt and there are big tigers or I play that I'm an agent trying to protect the city but the thing is there's a problem every single day, and sometimes there's no problem but we have to figure it out.
Shelby: That is so cool. I bet you like a lot of female super heroes.
Girl 1: Yes, I do.
Shelby: Did you watch Wonder Woman?
Girl 1: Yes.
Kid 2: How do you guess?
Girl 1: The new Wonder Woman is the best.
Shelby: There's some cool girls in this school.
Girl 1: It's the best.
Girl: I play with the ground as lava with my sister [chuckles]
Shelby: How do you play that game?
Kid 2: Well, you try to go on like benches and playgrounds and you can't touch the ground.
Shelby: I love that game. I play that all the time.
Shelby: This why I'm really excited to have on Steve Bramucci, a travel writer and kids adventure author which is a job I always wanted and I think a lot of people would do. Steve had an active imagination as a kid and a desire to be outside on rope swings or even a local playground swing ever since he can remember. As an adult, he's continued to live his childhood fantasies by travelling around the world on assignment for magazines, and now he is using the power if story telling by writing kids adventurer books to inspire the next generation of adventurers and readers. If you love kids, books or adventurer, this is your episode.
Steve Bramucci: Hello friend, are you ready for a dazzling tale of grand adventure? A tale of sword fights and disguises of pirates and stolen relics? If not, you should scramble up the moss-covered rocks of a towering waterfall and fling this book into a piranha infested river. Ronald Zupan won't allow a single unadventurous spirit to touch these pages. I mean that. Just feast your eyes on my swashbuckling mustache. Isn't this the look of an 11 year old who demands to be taken seriously? I am Ronald Zupan, the only son of Francisco and Hellen Zupan and from the moment I was born, I've been nothing short of spectacular. Want proof?
When I was just one year old, a seven-foot long king cobra slithered across my bedroom floor and wound his way into my crib. Fact. The king cobra is the most venomous snake known to man.
Shelby: I'm Shelby Stanger, and this is Wild Ideas Worth Living. I met Steve a while ago when I was living in Laguna beach. He used to surf the same break I did, and at the time I did. At the time he was writing for NatGeo and even then, he told me he was going to be a famous children's author. As a young kid, Steve struggled with ADD but he was able to focus most when he spent time playing outside or reading books about his favorite subjects, which were travel and adventure. We met up this February at an Elementary school in Irvine, California, which is in Orange county to south of Los Angeles.
Steve, who is now a father himself, was giving a presentation to a few hundred third through fifth graders to talk about his book which is called The Danger Gang And The Pirates Of Borneo. He was also there to talk about how impactful adventuring and reading can be.
Shelby: How did adventure help you as a kid?
Steve: I think, as I say in my speech, every brain works differently and for me, my brain was driven to distraction to such a dramatic degree that I remember like my whole childhood was dominated by it. Whenever I would see the books of attention deficit disorder sitting on my mom's night stand, I would know that I had been on a bit of a jag lately, right? that I was off track. Being outdoors was the medication for me. That was the one and that was where the world, as I like to say, telescoped and things fell a little more narrow.
Even now, no matter where I go, I rarely travel with my cell phone. I travel the world, very rarely with a camera, which I'm sure has made me miss out on incredible opportunities but I'm usually just like me and my body and that's it. [chuckles] Because I need to focus on the moment and travel and adventure is the place where that's the easiest for me.
Shelby: That's incredible. This first book, The Danger Gang, I remember when you started writing it. I remember when I met you, you had all these books of Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and you admired them so much, these adventure books.
Steve: Yes, like I say in my talk, I have always had that brain that is transportive and brings me someplace and those books always brought me off to a different place. Mark Twain, for people who don't know, was America's most famous travel writer before he ever wrote novels. He does so well with description and his books really carry you away. That transformative effect of literature is really important to me, it's really been an inspiration for me.
Shelby: Let's go to Ronald Zupan, your first character is this excited adventurous young man?
Steve: Right, adventurous and so excited by the world that sometimes he can't slow down enough to see it clearly. For example, in the excerpt that I read, him saying, "Fact, the king cobra is the most poisonous snake known to man," I knew I needed someone to check and balance him. Later in the chapter, his butler comes in, and every chapter, his butler gives him corrections. His butler, in this case, said, "Oh, it's not actually the most poisonous snake known to man, it's fourth most poisonous, but the snake that Ronald had been defanged when he was just a boy."
There are these constant checks and balances. I get so hyped and just so gassed up on life sometimes that I need people to balance me out and say, "Let's make sure that we're living also in the real world and maybe pay your bills this month," or whatever.
Shelby: I remember I related it to you because you said as a kid you were pretty hyperactive and now there's a label for that.
Steve: Yes, I think there is a label for it and you'll notice in my speech that I don't actually use it.
Shelby: I think that's great.
Steve: I simply talk about how brains work differently and my brain works differently. I think like so many people like you and I-- You're the person I always go to who does such a good job of integrating the outdoors into every second of your daily life. I think nature is a good respite from that for somebody who gets easily distracted with the world telescopes when we're outdoors. For me, whether I'm surfing, or hiking, or rock climbing, or whatever, I find that that world that is constantly creeping into my consciousness and making me look in different directions, all of a sudden is incredibly focused. That's why I like it so much.
Shelby: Basically, you were ADD as a kid but when you're in the outdoors or immersed in the book, you could focus?
Steve: I felt like I could lock in a little bit. I've trained myself as a writer to do that also. I work with giant headphones on where you think I'd be blasting music but there's nothing playing and I have earplugs underneath the headphones, I'm just like-- Yes, I have to do a lot of work to help myself focus, but it's worth it to me because I like what comes out when I'm focused.
Shelby: Steve worked as an elementary school teacher himself between his travels and his magazine writing assignments. He's really good with kids and gets on their level fast. I especially love the way he explained to students how challenging it was for him to focus when he was their age without explicitly using the label ADD. As a bonus, he makes them laugh the whole time.
Steve: One of my favorite things in all of life is that all of our brains work differently. In fact, that's what most of my presentation is about is the fact that all of our brains work differently and a little bit of insight into my weird brain. One thing about me, and some of you might relate with this, and some of you might not. Both ways are perfectly okay, but one thing about me is that ever since I was a kid, I have had a hard time concentrating and staying focused on one thing.
It caused me a lot of problems when I was super young. I had to really, really practice and I had to learn and do things to make sure that I could stay focused. As an adult, I'm pretty good because I've practiced so hard but I will tell you, sometimes people get excited in presentations and I get distracted, my brain doesn't do a good job filtering it out. I'll give you an example of something we want to try to avoid. Sometimes someone will come over, it's always a first grader or a kindergartener.
The great thing about them is they haven't realized how their knees work yet all the way, so, they walk over to me very intense like this, "Whoo, Steve." I'm like, "What? This is exciting. What are we talking about?" "I have to tell you something." "What's the thing?" They say, "I got a pet goldfish and I love it." "Okay, that's great, that's great, that's great." The problem with how my brain works is that at that exact same moment, a different kid walks over from here, also a kindergartner, also figuring out how their needs work, "Steve," I'm like, "What?" "Can I tell you something?" "So exciting, what is it?" "I had a peanut butter jelly sandwich for lunch it was delicious."
Which is great but here's one wrinkle one complication with how my particular brain works. I'm excited to hear all of that, I like hearing pieces of people's lives, but if two people do it at the same time I get discombobulated, I get confused. I look over at this person and I say, "I'm so excited I can't wait to hear about your pet sandwich." That's okay, that's not a big deal. Friendships can get through that sort of miscommunication, but I turn over to this person, and I say, "I can't wait to eat your goldfish."
That's a catastrophe. This is my one request. Please don't talk while I'm talking because I really will get discombobulated and distracted. We're going to take those questions, watch. Question comes into your brain, the way it works the synapses start to fire. It's electric, it feels good. Your hand transmits a message from your brain to put my hand up I can't wait to say my question, but then what you're going to do because we're doing a one hour talk and we're going to have questions in the end you're going to go, it like a rocket ship put, boom into your pocket. You're going to tuck it there and it's just going to stay till the end, and I promise to you- the clock is right here so I promise I will get the questions, so I promise.
Shelby: Aside from writing kids books, Steve is a dad and husband who makes a living as a travel writer for publications like Nat Geo, Outside Magazine, Uproxx which is spelled U-P-R-O-X-X and more. It's a really fun and rewarding job, but it's not an easy way to make a living. I ask Steve how he makes it work. You also love teaching kids and you're really good with them, you just had this very natural way with them. How, why?
Steve: I think my brain goes to that place more. My brain is very easy to understand the thought process of a child, maybe sometimes to my detriment. Maybe sometimes makes me inconsiderate to adults, but it's very easy for me to understand the fears and joys of childhood. It helps me a lot when I'm on the road because if someone came up to me and said, "You have to be proud of one thing." I would say the one thing that I'm truly proud of is when I'm out in the world, everything to me feels very brand new. When I go surfing and I'm at a new break, or when I go hiking and I'm at a new peak, the world feels brand new to me. There's nothing that's taken for granted whether it's the construction of rocks or the shape of a wave. Truthfully in the world that's probably the thing I'm most proud of on this planet.
Kids really connect with that in the sense that like, they're the same way, they lock in on things and go like, wow this feels new, and I'm noticing it and I'm clocking it. I'm really-- Where adults, we don't clock, instead, our brains go like, "This is like this other thing I did."
Shelby: I think you're also good at taking things that are old and making them new. For example, just like you said when you're a kid you jump off curbs and they weren't curbs. They were like snake boats. Just a little girl I asked her what they like to do for fun and she's like, I like to play hot lava. I was like yes, where like everything underneath you is hot lava and you can't jump on lava and you have to stand the couches and whatever is above the lava. You did that all the time as a kid.
Steve: That was like the game. Who knows how we even like-- I don't remember that from any TV show when we were kids or any books, but it's in us. There's this natural desire in us between like, am I gotten? It's like tag, am I it. Did I get gotten by the hot lava? or am I still afloat?
Shelby: When you were a little kid, did you always want to be a children's author?
Steve: I don't think I knew that. I thought I wanted to swing on rope swings professionally. I wanted to go on adventures professionally. I saw the cover of a Nat Geo book that had-- it was like a NatGeo reader which, I write for them these days, and it had a Komodo dragon on the cover. I saw that.
Shelby: How old were you?
Steve: I was second grade, I was like boom that's-- Yes, seven years old. That's what I want to do, that is a dream. I didn't think of it like I want to write those, I thought I just go where that is.
Shelby: It's so funny, I was the same way, I just wanted to go on surf trips, so I figured a way to write about them.
Steve: You've obviously done a marvelous job with that. That's the process. That's the goal is we find a way to do the things that we love the most. You heard in that speech that there was a young woman who said, "Well, how did you know you liked writing?" I described that sensation of what it feels like for me to write. I think there is a generation of people who say to themselves, "This feels really good. Now, Let's chase that more." I think that's what we do in the outdoors.
You see people who are so incredibly passionate about surfing or skateboarding or whatever their thing is. They start to gear up and they start to get new equipment and they go to new places. All they are really saying is like, "I feel good. My body feels good when I am doing this thing."
Shelby: How did you first get into a nerve, this could be a career? Because when I met you, you were freelancing which I was too and it was hard.
Steve: It's a hard world. I think that the shortest explanation I have that I could say with an adult that I don't really say with kids is adult books are often about middle class axed and bill paying. I get the place in the world for that, it's just those are the stories I want to tell. Frankly, they're not the stories I want to read. Not that I don't think that's a valid genre of the American fiction story of how hard it is to make a way in the world is certainly a valid form. Truly, I enjoy reading books about adventure more. Those are more often written in the children's book space.
Shelby: How did the authors influence you a lot as a kid? I know you said, Mark Twain.
Steve: Mark Twain is huge. There was an author named Robert Newton Peck, who I don't hear people talk a lot about a lot these days. He had this series of books called Soup about like country living and a boy named Soup. Trying to think of like the other biggest influences. I taught Shakespeare for a while and I do think one thing that people don't recognize about Shakespeare is how much love for Mayhem and Madcap hysteria he had. People take him so seriously that they forget that he was trying to also entertain people who had paid the bare minimum to go to these shows. I like Shakespeare. There's so many.
Shelby: You like comedy, mischief, and adventure.
Steve: I do. That's my sweet spot. Comedy, mischief and some degree of unfolding a mystery or detecting something.
Shelby: I love Dennis the Menace as a kid.
Steve: If honestly if you put me on the spot and said, what do you think is the most important children's property of the past a hundred years for moving forward our way of thinking about children. We understand now better than ever, that children are just not the precious little kiddie widdies. They have incredibly rich and detailed mindscapes. Those are complicated and nuanced. If you were to ask me what do I think is the best thing in the past 100 years for evolving? How we understand the patterns and thought processes of children, I would tell you, Calvin and Hobbes. That had a huge influence on me. I believe such an important project out in the world.
Shelby: After going to College in Oregon, Steve got an amazing opportunity to write travel pieces for a local magazine in Southern California. With plans already in motion to hit the road for the year, he pitched some ideas, combine them with press trips and his own budget and traveled all over the world. That's not something most easy way to make a living.
Steve: No, no. Between all those trips I was teaching. I saved up a lot of money when I was 24 years old. I traveled for 14 months straight. The first big trip that any adventure takes is always just like, "I have to see what's out there and where I want to go back."
Shelby: Where would you go?
Steve: One thing in travel that has always-I've tried to make my brand is trying to unlock what is the right way to travel in this part of the world. For example, in East Africa, I wanted to go on safari, I bought a really cheap, but usable four-wheel drive. I drove myself on safari for three months through East Africa and because I was driving myself and I was self-guided not only did I get a lot of respect from the other guides and a lot of friendliness and warmth from them, but I was also able to really slow down and spend time with animals. I didn't have an itinerary. I wasn't checking off boxes.
Shelby: This is right after you graduated college?
Steve: Two, three years after, after I'd save some money.
Shelby: You were writing for Coast Magazine?
Steve: Writing a column for Coast Magazine. At that time I would go into Internet cafes. I was traveling around the world and doing that. The most notable have all these was that I bought a Vietnamese sampan, which is a small canal boat. It's typically used by elderly women to take ferry people to and from different sides of the canals that shoot off of the Mekong Delta. Me rowing in one, for your listeners, I’m a 6'2 white guy and it was really notable for people because not only was I clearly not from there, but I was also you know someone who is using a traditional form of getting around which is this sampan.
I was taking it in the big river which I realized later was insane and I hadn't done any research and I hadn't planned this trip at all. I got into the boat and I bought it from a woman who --I was using a translator who I had met at my hostel and the elderly woman who sold it to me.
I looked at the boat and the most worn thing in the whole boat I remember was the baling pan to take water out from inside of it. I was like, "If that baling pan is that worn out it's been used a lot." I tried to negotiate a little bit I said, "Can she do 50," and she said in Vietnamese to my translator, “He is crazy this is a terrible idea. If he wants it so badly he'll pay exactly what I ask.”
She was 100% right and I paid exactly what she asked and then I took my boat. I was like, "This is going to be so good." I had some cookies. I had a copy of Huckleberry Finn. I was like I’m going to be off on the big river. I start paddling and immediately it starts ripping me upstream back towards Cambodia. I couldn't figure it out. I realized eventually that the Mekong Delta is so giant that it's actually tidal.
It runs upstream for eight hours and downstream for eight hours and even at the pretty far up by that point, I was 200 miles inland of Ho Chi Minh City. I wasn't at the shore but it was still tidal because it's so wide. I was running upstream and these paddles that I had were like pool cues and I hadn't figured out the traditional way that the Vietnamese women do which is stand up rowing.
They rowed standing up. It looks really neat. I hadn't figured it out yet. I realized that my best bet was to throw my anchor cable to people and their big boats would drag me and because I stood out so much on this traditional vessel, and clearly, being from a foreign land everyone picked me up and they would bring me down the river. I spent days and days just essentially hitchhiking on my little tiny boat down the Mekong Delta.
Shelby: That sounds so nice and you probably learned so much about the kindness of humans.
Steve: Sure, I think that's what you always see when you travel that you don't anticipate. Is you find people being so shockingly kind and you want to show your gratitude in any way you can. I brought along cookies with me. That’s the only thing I can figure out. I didn't have anything to offer really. I didn't speak the language. I just couldn't even wrap my tongue around thank you in Vietnamese.
I just couldn't get it right. I had been living in Thailand, I could function in Thai but when I got to Vietnam I just couldn't do it. I gave people cookies and they wouldn't give me a ride down river and because everyone was constantly flagging me-- The elderly women in the small villages rowing through these canals would want to see that I could do the stand-up rowing.
They'd flag me and they'd wave me and because of that the big down river boats would point to me like I was an interesting novelty. I wrote a story about that and it got immediately grabbed and anthologies and a travel book. It was travel, and it was humor, and it was an adventure, and it was these three things I liked. I was like, "Now there might be a new gear here. There might be something I can really do here that's significant."
Shelby: You were writing for these glossy magazines traveling around the world and then there was this time one day where you were like, "I’m going to go back to school and I’m going to be a kid's author."
Steve: Yes, I got a couple of breaks. I won a couple awards for the first 10 pages of the first 20 pages at different conferences and things like that of my books. I was winning these awards and I was having these opportunities and then I wasn't able to do the complete book. I just somehow couldn't put it together and I’m a big believer in graduate school.
If you really know what you want to do and I’m not a believer in any sort of schooling if you don't yet know what you want to do. I'm not a believer in going to college right out of high school if you don't know what you're interested in, but I was already by this point late into my 20s and I knew that this was a dream of mine and I knew I needed-
Shelby: [laughs] This is awesome, this is going to sound really cool.
Steve: Going to be the last one. I was late my 20s and I knew this was a dream of mine and I knew I needed new tools right. Every time you talk about writing you will meet someone and I find them to be the most obnoxious brand of writers. You'll meet some writer who says like, "Writing can't be taught," which it goes to show you that the egos of us writers because if writing can't be taught it's literally the only thing in the history of human existence that can't be taught.
You can teach someone how to operate on the human brain. If you couldn't teach someone how to put a nice sentence together but you can teach someone how to operate on the human brain, that would be an anomaly that would have books written about it and it's not. Of course, you can teach people how to write and I needed new tools. I went to graduate school it's really expensive. I leveraged my future. I'm paying those loans right now, but I came out and I sold a book pretty quickly after graduate school two book deal and we're signing up the third book now.
Shelby: Awesome.
Steve: That's exciting and-
Shelby: This is Ronald Zupan's third book you're writing now.
Steve: Ronald Zupan he's paused out in the world right now for a little bit and we're starting a new series that takes place in Oregon which is really good for me because it's rainy and I've wanted to get back to the Oregon rain I've wanted to be back in that space.
Shelby: Of the jungles of Madagascar.
Steve: From the jungles, yes the first book it's- people always ask like why did you decide to set your book in Borneo? I have spent so much time in jungles and I really like jungles I like that how I feel when I'm walking through a jungle I like having a machete and slashing through greenery and people ask why and I knew that I could write jungles well. Word wise I know I can capture that. I'm the type of writer I want the book to play like a movie in your head. I knew that I could capture jungles so hopefully I did that, that's why it started out there.
Shelby: You've got a wife a kid? Tell us a little bit about your other day job?
Steve: I'm the travel and adventure editor at which is a travel food and adventure.
Shelby: You write a lot about food?
Steve: I write a lot about food. You just can't as a travel writer because it's such a connector. Food is such a connector so you can't not be a food writer at some point. Write a lot about food a lot about travel and-
Shelby: Didn't you once interview Anthony Bourdain?
Steve: Yes, he was a great help to me a couple different times. I read about food, I read about travel and then I've started to write a little bit about social justice because we just end up seeing that humans can continually treat each other better and travel is such incredible machine for that. I do believe that everything Mark Twain my hero said about travel and its ability to help knock down barriers between humans and because of that, I have tried to help be part of social justice conversations-
Shelby: Like?
Steve: -through my writing about ecology, about things that really touch on the balance between social justice and the world we live in. Sometimes it's about ecology, sometimes it's about the wealth gap, sometimes it's about different conversations about the gun conversation. That's where it really all started was as a travel writer I was asked to react to the Paris attacks a couple of years ago and so I did move into that space about talking about social justice too and it comes from this place of deep love for the world.
Sometimes when you're talking about social justice you're going to meet a lot of people who disagree with your stance on things. Ultimately it comes from my desire to be a part of living in a world where we treat one another better.
Shelby: As a parent has that just made you care even more?
Steve: It has. It's also reignited my love for travel and seeing the world constantly seeing the world through the eyes of this kid who he's one year old and five months now and he has been to Australia for months at a time. He's been to Italy which is my family homeland. He's going to Dominica in the Caribbean pretty soon here. He's seen a little bit of the world.
Shelby: Coming up we talked to Steve about where he gets the ideas for his stories, how he deals with self-doubt as a writer and why storytelling is so important him. First a little advice from Steve about dental hygiene and Pirates – yarrr!
Steve: Ever since I was a boy I have been particularly interested in adventure and I have not been able to find any type of adventurer more bold than pirates. I like pirates, because they are scallywag. The only thing I do not like about pirates, is that they have terrible breath.
Dental hygiene is not really important in the pirate community. They didn't floss very much. If you ever are getting pressured by your parents, to brush and floss your teeth you're being resistant, just remember that if you wake up one day with pirate teeth you are only going to have that one career path in front of you. You're going to wake up they're going be like, "You have some pirate breath," and you're going be like, "Okay, I guess I have to go be a pirate." If you want options you've got to floss. That's the number one most important thing I've said so far today.
Shelby: REI Co-op asks, what does nothing sound like? REI Co-op helping you answer your outside questions outside. Find out at What kind of adventures you guys like to go on?
kid 3: Fun ones.
kid 2: Exciting ones.
Shelby: You guys seem like you're really active and liked to play a lot of sports, is that true?
Kid 2: Yes.
Shelby: What sports do you guys play?
Kid 2: Oh my gosh basketball-- club basketball sports yes, soccer. I like to play tennis as my dad and I go skiing, swimming, soccer, and volleyball.
Kid 4: Soccer being a goalie.
Shelby: What are your favorite books? I'm just going to go around we're going to say our favorite book.
kid 4: Scat.
kid 5: The Land of stories book 3.
kid 3: Graphic novels.
Kid 6: Harry Potter.
Kid 7: Danger Gang.
Kid 8: Zia.
Kid 9: Island of the blue dolphins.
Kid 2: Keeper of lost cities.
Shelby: The characters in Steve's stories are complex, so much that can't help but wonder where he comes up with them. The answer, inspiration from real life with a little dose of fantasy thrown in for good measure. How did you come up with the story for your book?
Steve: It so funny that you ask that because the truth is like as you saw in my presentation. The number one thing that every kid asks is like, where do your ideas come from? That was the same for me, is, that's what my presentation was really about. Where do my ideas come from? You'll see that most of the things in the book because it was the first book I was getting out, are planted from inside my head. There are things that were planted when I was a child, I was allergic to cats and dogs and I had reptiles, and so the boy has a reptile as a pet. I like to dress up and the boy constantly throughout the book wears a fake mustache.
I took things that I knew about myself and I extreme-o-fied them to make them what I thought was more funny. Hopefully, readers think it's more funny too. To create some balance then I gave the boy this butler who gives him some checks and balances, and a best friend who is named after my cousin used to give me balances. I think the idea in a way comes from-- it's a remix of my childhood in some ways. Then I wanted to have pirates, so the boy's parents are abducted by pirates as happens to all of us when we're kids. All of our parents get abducted by pirates from time to time. [laughs]
Shelby: I think the great thing about adventure in some of your books is it's like the great equalizer, any kid can relate.
Steve: Yes, you can. I think that it can put you outside of yourself too. The children's fiction has done such a good job over the past couple of years with this beautiful achingly painful and beautiful sense of realism, but that's just not who I am as an author. I like the fantastical, I like the absurd. If you pitched my book in a sentence to someone, you would be like, a boy and his pet king cobra and his butler and his best friend go to rescue his parents from pirates in Borneo. They meet fruit throwing orangutans and they crash a plane and they battle scallywag and it's obviously fantastical it's in that realm.
Shelby: You said something which I thought was really cool to the kids. You said even ugly humans get a bad rap, in the world. It's hard, you look different today. This translates down to the animal kingdom as well.
Steve: Yes, there are studies and it's easily measurable that mammals that resemble humans get a lot more money spent on them to protect them, than reptiles or amphibians or animals like that. I mean the most easily reference about one of these is sharks, there have been shark populations that have been pushed to the absolute brink because there's something that humans actually have a huge amount of dissonance with. We feel a lot of fear around sharks. I'm going to go real deep here, I'm going to go for the loyal deep tissue podcast listeners.
We have to decide as a culture whether or not we truly want to protect animals. Why that's a real question is this, species die all the time, and species die because of other species all the time. On one hand, we can prove very easily that humans are pushing more species to the brink of extinction faster than any other species has done to any other species. We know that, but at the same time we don't know that that's not the natural way of things, we don't know that that's not the natural order of things that would still fall within the constraints of Darwin's survival of the fittest.
We really have to think about it and why do we want to have compassion towards animals and why do we want to essentially undo some of the damage we've done to their habitats, and for me the answer it comes from a sense of care for them. I mean that in the simplest, most straight forward way which is I think they're cool, I think they're cool and I like them around and I would like it less if they weren't around. For me, that's a pretty valid reason to protect the animals.
One of the coolest things about writing is that you can take things from inside your mind and you could remix them and you can twist them up if you want but you can also simply take them directly as they are. My best friend when I was young with my cousin, her name is Julian Sato and she had her grandfather had come straight from Japan and was very traditional and I liked him a lot I interviewed him for a big school project.
In my book, I made a character named Julian Sato whose grandfather has come straight from Japan. It was great you could just take your friends and put them right in the book, and then they may feel famous and they love you in the next time you go out to dinner they treat. That's really the point of the talk.
Shelby: Was it hard to focus to finish a book that's that complex in terms of characters.
Steve: For me there's always one thing that can power an idea through to the ending. Whether I'm writing an article or whether I'm writing a book, there's one thing that happens, and in this book I needed at that point to get my first book out so bad. The theme of this book is really about a boy who needs to have his first adventure, he wants to have his first big adventure, his parents are kidnapped by pirates and he realizes like this is my chance.
He's really just it's a direct amalgam for me an over-excitable 30 something trying to get his first book out, and in the second book, the boy is afraid of the second adventure slope. Which is just like me the author, being afraid of the second novel slump and not want to get to fall flat. It's actually like I really just use these books in this case, as a pretty direct amalgam of who I am and what I believe in.
Shelby: I love that you suffer from I don't love this but I think everybody here listening relates to this self-doubt and this fear of failure not being accepted and not being legit, how do you deal with that?
Steve: It confronts us constantly, like next week whenever this comes out I'm going to be able to tweet that I was on this really prominent adventure podcast and the last person who was on it was an Oscar-nominated film director. Now I'm in that company, that's really cool. At the same time there's this constant fear of like, "When that Oscar-nominated film director listens to my episode he might not think it was a school or him might be like wow," whatever and I think that's so natural.
Like right now, I'm a travel and adventure editor at a really big website, I travel around the world, I go on adventures I have three books out plus six that are anthologized and I will tell you that I still feel very tiny and I have fear constantly about being a fraud and not being real and not being as big as I long to be or not maximizing my own talent or not taking advantage of the opportunities given to me. It doesn't seem to ever go away, and the answers I understand for self-doubt are the same answers I have any time I feel like just generally low, which is I write.
I can write through my self-doubt. I get out in the water. I can surf through myself doubt. Exercise until my legs feel like jelly. I can exercise to rise up out there. Those are pretty much it. Those are the keys, those are the secrets and now I have a son I can play with my son through my self-doubts to some degree. I don't know that voice ever goes away. I don't know I mean we'd have to ask Jimmy Chin or Cheryl Strayed or all these people who were so prominent, but I would imagine-- At this point I am in my career I would imagine that I'm far enough up the mountain top where I can look up and go, "It probably never goes away," it probably doesn't disappear.
Shelby: I don't know I think it goes away at times I mean for me I just give a less Fs, I don't know.
Steve: No, good for you I want to give less Fs.
Shelby: I've just had to because I think having the Vitiligo has made me just give less self, something on my face and I'm just like, "Well I just don't care as much." What do you like best about being an author?
Steve: I like the writing truth.
Shelby: That's good.
Steve: The moment of writing-- Here's what I believe. I was in graduate school, and I'm always a person who likes to tell people how I feel about them. I like to tell them when I'm grateful. I like to tell them that I appreciate them, and I had a teacher and she had written a book that I liked, and she was also my direct professor, and I said, "Hey, is it weird if I tell you, I really liked your book." She was such an elegant woman, and she said, "There is not enough credit in the life of an artist where I am going to turn some away."
I loved that, and I feel very similarly in the sense that I don't know if writing wasn't fun for me, I don't know if the whole process would be worth it. There is pain in this process. There's rejection and there's people passing on things that you love, and there's struggling financially, and there's waking up at 6 AM to start writing because your day job starts at 8 AM or whatever. I don't know that it would be worth it to me.
In fact, I don't know if it would-- I'll tell you I have my biggest dream in the world, is to go into signing, and that during the signing that the bookseller would have to wave her arms. They'd be like this line stretching out the door, and she had this so ridiculous, and she would go, "Sorry, everyone, but Steve is the only contracted to stay till ten o'clock at night. He's just not going to be able to sign all your books." Then that I would stand up on my chair and go, "Wait. I will stay, I'll stay as long as it takes." Then people would share, and I'll tell you that little imagining is so ridiculous, and obviously it's hyperbolic and is certainly not like my current life experience.
That does power me in a way, and if I didn't get to have those little daydreams, I don't know that it would all be worth it. Just like as a traveler, if you don't get to have these fantastical visions of what you're going to see if you don't get to think of yourself as Indiana Jones, as you're climbing up the side of a pyramid or something like that, I don't know that it's worth it. For me the imaginary world is a big part of what makes living exciting.
Shelby: In addition to hanging out with famous surfers, being a writer has also led Steve to some wild adventures, like hanging out with Komodo dragons, which by the way can kill you.
Steve: Raise your hand if you know what animal that is? Yes.
kid 1: It's a Komodo dragon.
Steve: It's a Komodo dragon. When I was a kid, I saw a book by National Geographic and I slammed my finger on the cover, and I said, "One day, I want to go and see a Komodo dragon in the wild." Small world and dreams do work out, because not only do I write for National Geographic, but I went to see a Komodo dragon in the wild. I stayed with Komodo dragons for about nine days.
I will tell you something, staying with a Komodo dragon for nine days is exactly eight days too long. It was too much Komodo dragon. Here's why. Now there's going to be a little acting part of this presentation you need to be ready for it. The craziest thing about Komodo dragons and this is truly wild. I want you to slow down and think about this. They can smell blood for eight miles.
That means and I know this for a fact, I know the distance for a fact, because I just drove it today, and I checked it on my phone. We are exactly eight miles from my house, which is in Laguna Beach. That means that if I was in downtown Laguna Beach, now you are all no longer yourself. You are Komodo dragons. You've had such good posture during my speech, but I want your posture to get a little worse right now because Komodo dragons don't have such good posture.
Now, when I cut myself, you're going to smell the blood eight miles away, and you're going to go like this, and you're going to look hungry, "That's good." Okay, so here's Steve. He's downtown in Laguna Beach. He's walking around. It's beautiful, sunny day. I'm really enjoying myself today in Laguna Beach, who walks by something that bumps his elbow, "I'm cut." [laughs] You’re too good. Give yourself a round of applause.
Komodo dragons. The cool thing, crazy thing about a Komodo dragon is it reminds us that life is not a video game. If a Komodo dragon bites you once then your life is done. That's just it, that's all. You're spending a lot of time with them and you can get bit. It's not you can go like, "I screwed up the first time but I'll do it again." That's it. They're everywhere and all you're carrying is a little stick to push their necks away because you love these animals and you want to protect them on the planet Earth but you also don't want them to bite your ankles so you just guide their necks away from you.
I obviously was feeling very stressed during the day researching these Komodo dragons and then, I went into my hut, mosquitoes have always liked me so mosquitoes started to feast on my blood. That was not great for me, I wasn't sleeping that well. On my last day with the Komodo dragons, I really needed a nap. Now, forget the other thing I said about flossing your teeth, don't forget it, just move it to number two.
This is the number one most important thing I say in my speech. There was a long dock like this and it went out into the water and I thought, "I'm going to relax right now, I deserve some relaxation." I had a book with me, I sat down on the dock, started to read the book and I thought to myself, "This is a very pleasant experience, I'm having a nice time." I did not have my neck-pushing stick with me, that was a mistake. I thought this is a nice time, you know what would be even nicer? Leaning back on one shoulder, it was nice. That's a comfortable way to sit if you ever get a chance.
This is great, but you know what would be nicer? Is if I laid all the way down like this but I was smart, I said, "No, what I'll do is I'll read this page of book like this, I put my face on the book and then when it's done, I flip it over like this." I made it through exactly seven words of Sherlock Holmes before falling asleep. Now, there is a thing that is going to happen in your lives, a little voice that is going to tap you on the back of your head, went something like this, "That's a bad idea." I said the only reasonable thing to say, "I'm taking a nap." Voice came in five minutes later, "Seriously, that is a bad idea." I got up, stood up on the dock, realized that maybe it was a bad idea, turned around with no stick, nothing and there sauntering towards me slowly with drool dripping from its jaws, was this exact Komodo dragon and I wish that I could tell you because I'm here as an adventurer to tell you to love animals, wish I could tell you that I was so brave I ran past it but I didn't. Instead, I looked at the Komodo dragon, the Komodo dragon looked at me, I realized that I had no stick, I turned around and I jumped in the water and swam away.
Now, why do we tell all this? Why do we even have me come to the school? Here's why, one of these days very soon, your teachers are going to give you what I believe is the greatest gift a teacher can give a student, truly, the greatest gift. Here's what it is, a new car. No, the greatest gift a teacher is going to put it right in front of you and it is going to be a blank piece of paper.
Hear me out, hear me out, hear me out. What they're going to say is this, "Here's a blank piece of paper, make something." They're going to give you a chance to create. Maybe you create something with words, maybe you draw, maybe you start coding for a video game that you're going to design, maybe you start doing a storyboard for a comic you're going to write or a movie you're going to make, maybe you start to build it into an origami wonder the likes of which the world has never seen, but you're going to create something.
When you decide to do that, you are going to need something and you already have it, it's those seeds in your head. Now, one habit of mine, I never speak on behalf of people but I'm going to speak on behalf of your teachers just this once and tell you that we collectively are so excited to see what you come up with and which stories you want to tell and what you create thanks to the seeds that are planted in your heads. Thank you for listening about the seeds that are planted in my head. You have been an incredible audience and I like you very much.
Shelby: Any advice to people who want to be writers? Yesterday, Neil Gaiman just came out with a class, a master class on that video series master class. There are 7,000 writing books by the best writers of all time. The number of options that a writer has right now to facilitate their dreams and to get them close to their dreams is higher than ever. The advice I would give is this, it's like, study, learn, be voracious, read a lot, and then, write something where you would be comfortable selling it out of the trunk of you car. That's the goal that I have. When I sent this book to an agent, at that point, I was like, "I would be comfortable selling this out of the trunk of my car. If this just doesn't come together, I would be comfortable."
You feel awkward. If you were at a flea market and you popped open your trunk and you were selling books out of the back, you would probably feel uncomfortable. If you can write something where you're like, "This is good enough, this is close enough to what I was trying to do where I would battle through that discomfort to sell it out of the trunk of my car," then you're probably on to something. That's the thing I encourage people. Actually, I'll modify that a little bit, this is for the young travelers who listen to the podcast. When you and I were traveling, I didn't start making a full time profession in travel writing for 10 years, I was subsidizing trips.
These days, a traveler, they leave their house for the first time ever and they go to Europe for two weeks, and by the end of the second week, they're trying to monetize the experience of traveling. I would really deeply encourage people against that. I don't think that that is the best plan, constantly. I would encourage them, instead, to work really hard at the local bar for seven months and not spend any money, and tell everyone, "I can't go out, I'm sorry. I'm just not going out during this period because I'm saving money for travel." Then, to go to travel for a while and not monetize it.
I probably don't make as much money as some of the travel writers that you and I grew up with, who built their own websites and did all these things, but I do feel like I have a very deep sense of the world so that when I'm asked to go on television to speak about things, my frame of reference for travel is very broad. I was never racing around places, I had a rule for myself that sounds absurd now because I'm older and my life has less disposable time. But, until I was 33, I had a rule for myself that I wouldn't leave the country, would never leave the United States for less than a month at a time, and I was traveling seven or eight months a year, on my own dime.
I do think like people are in such a rush to monetize things and build a brand these days that they don't ever slow down and say like, "I actually need experience first. I need to see the world." I work with influencers a lot in my day job and I work with young travel writers a lot in my day job, and I recognize, now, that one thing that I have that is an asset is I do have the authority of someone who slowed down and took a lot of time to see the world before I tried to turn that into a business or a career.
Shelby: Why do you think storytelling is so important to get people involved in outdoors and adventure?
Steve: I think there is this transportive effect of a good story. We've seen in all sorts of memoirs that have come out in the outdoor space over the past couple years, that they transport us and they inspire us. I think that fiction does that, often, better than non fiction. I think storytelling does it, put it that way. It could be a non fiction story like Cheryl Strayed With Wild but I think that does it even better than reportage. If I tell you about a river or if I tell you something is endangered, it has one series of effects on you, but if I share a story about that space, it has a different series of effects on you.
Especially for kids, I think sharing with them joy for the world through adventure, it really transfers. They get it and it makes them want to go out in the world and the idea that I want to protect the world, when the characters in the book want to protect the world, it makes them want to protect the world.
Shelby: If we want the next generation to continue to take care of our environment, the best thing we can do is show them the magic of nature by telling them stories of amazing adventures that take place and stunning places in the outdoors. We can help foster people of every age to get outside, and whose inner child doesn't need a little wake up call? Thanks again, Steve Bramucci, for coming on the show, for telling me you're going to be a famous children's author way back in the day and for doing the work you do to inspire and connect kids and urge them to get outside and read more books.
Thanks, also, the kids and teachers of Oak Creek Elementary School in Irvine. I laughed all day with you kids, thanks so much. This podcast is produced by Annie Fassler and Chelsea Davis and supported by REI, a brand that helps you get outside and go on adventures in real life. Tune in, week after next, for an episode all about music, where I talk to extremely successful musician and surfer about writing music and how the outdoors has influenced his music and his life.
If you get a chance, please write us your review on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to this podcast. Some of them lately have really touched me, so I really appreciate it. Remember, wherever you are some of the best adventures often happen when you follow your wildest ideas.
[00:55:51] [END OF AUDIO]

Here’s the Wild Idea

I’ve been an avid reader since I was a kid, and gravitate towards books about adventure. Growing up, I devoured everything by Dr. Seuss, and books like Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Reading books like these captured my imagination for adventure, which is why I was excited to interview kid’s adventure author, storyteller, and travel writer, Steve Bramucci.

Growing up in Oregon, Steve had an active imagination, and a deep love of the outdoors and books, but struggled with his attention span. The times he was able to focus most was while reading a book or playing outside in the wild.

Today, Steve’s been able to focus his passion for the outdoors and books into a career as a kid’s adventure author, and a travel/food writer for national publications like Uproxx (where he’s the travel, adventure, and food editor) and National Geographic. On assignment, he’s rowed down the Mekong Delta on a traditional Vietnamese boat called a x’ampan, traveled into the Australian Outback with Aboriginal elders, and driven himself through East Africa on safari.

When I met Steve over a decade ago in Laguna Beach and we were both trying to make it as freelance writers and get paid to go on adventures, he told me he was going to become a famous children’s book author. Just a few years ago, Bloomsbury published his first novel, The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! Its sequel, The Danger Gang and the Isle of Feral Beasts!, launched a year later.

Steve and I met up this past February at an elementary school in Irvine, California, where Steve was giving a presentation to a few hundred third through fifth grade students about his books and encounters with Komodo Dragons. His talk kept the kids enthralled for a full hour, telling jokes that made them scream with laughter, and stories that will likely inspire adventures of their own. If you’ve ever wanted to write a book, or work with kids, he shares great advice about what he did to live out his wildest ideas.

Presented by REI

Listen to this Episode if

  • You want to be a writer.
  • You love adventure and travel stories.
  • You’ve ever struggled with ADD.
  • You love kids, have kids or want to get them outside.

Key Takeaways

  • 5:00 – How Steve translated his love of adventure into a children’s book series.
  • 8:15 – Hear Steve explain his difficulty concentrating to a roomful of kids.
  • 12:10 – Why he connects with kids.
  • 15:45 – How he started writing stories for kids.
  • 18:15 – Het he got paid as a travel writer for glossy magazines.
  • 23:30 – Why he decided to go back to school for writing.
  • 26:15 – Steve’s day job, which involves writing about food and travel and social justice.
  • 31:20 – Where Steve gets his ideas.
  • 37:30 – How Steve deals with self-doubt.
  • 42:35 – What it’s like hanging out with Komodo dragons.
  • 50:00 – Steve’s advice for people who want to be writers.
  • 53:20 – The power of a story.


Mark Twain
Robert Newton Peck

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