William Herbert, AMD’16, and his longtime friend, Xina Graham-Vannais, will soon embark on a 50-day, 17,000-mile adventure across the continental U.S. in a used pickup truck, hoping to capture the spirit of 21st-century America in poetry, prose, and photographs. Herbert—a fifth-year digital arts and game design major with a minor in writing—plans to pen up to eight short stories on the road, pieces of fiction which will be inspired by the cities he explores and the people he meets.
Earlier this month, he and Graham-Vannais launched a 26-day Indiegogo campaign to raise $15,000 in support of their quest in search of the country’s modern soul. The majority of the money will be used to purchase food, gas, and supplies, including 35 mm film for Graham-Vannais’ Nikon FM10 single-lens reflex camera. And their appeal to potential donors is nothing if not earnest: “We will travel the same roads that have been the paths of great migrations and quests west for generations, and we will redefine them with the photographic and written works they inspire in us,” Herbert wrote on the crowdfunding website, reflecting on the forthcoming journey. “Let us prove to you that we have the motivation, talent, and intelligence to make something really great.”
Here are five things to know before Herbert and Graham-Vannais set out on their artistic expedition.
On the Road
One of Herbert’s favorite authors—and biggest inspirations behind his journey—is Jack Kerouac, the literary iconoclast whose 1957 novel On the Road is widely considered to be the defining work of the postwar Beat Generation. “I’ve been inspired by a lot of artists that have taken road trips and captured America in the eras in which they’ve lived,” he explains. “In the wake of all that has changed since then, I feel that it’s time for someone else to hit the road and see what America is like today.”
Herbert pointed in particular to the rise of the Internet, which has made it easy for people to download information on any city in the world from the comfort of their home. “You can get a sense of the country as a whole by logging on to the Internet,” he says, “but its sense of grandeur is somehow lost in this age of media frenzy.”
He adds: “We want to explore every nook and cranny of the country and recapture things that have been lost in the past 100 years. That includes places that ended up in flyover zones or have been eclipsed by the construction of a new highway.”
Setting the scene
Herbert has been writing short fiction for the past five years, turning out page upon page of descriptive prose. His stories—the majority of which focus on the underbelly of humanity—rely heavily on setting. One takes place in a Washington, D.C., mall, another on a cruise ship leaving New York City.
Stopping to explore the “nooks and crannies” in dozens of cities on his forthcoming quest West—among them Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco—will offer Herbert no shortage of source material. “The most important thing to capture is the nature of the scene and the essence of the characters themselves,” he says, explaining his writing philosophy. “This experience,” he adds, “will give me the opportunity to be constantly renewed and re-inspired by new cities and new scenes and new people. It feels right to me that someone interested in capturing small moments and subtleties of character would have so many characters and so many places to draw from.”
Herbert and Graham-Vannais will pick up and leave in mid-July, beginning their cross-country adventure in Philadelphia. All in all, the duo will stop in 45 states, surveying landscapes, interviewing locals, getting lost in the new and unfamiliar. Graham-Vannais will shoot up to 12 rolls of film per day, while Herbert will scribble his observations on a notepad. “This is not a vacation,” Herbert stresses, “and we’re not looking to check out any particular landmarks.” On the contrary, he explains, “We don’t have a particular plan for each of our stops, but we definitely want to get a feel for what it’s like to truly live in each of these places.”
Herbert will chat with the locals, getting a sense of their vernacular and their vocabulary. And he’ll ask them a few questions about their lives, picking out particularly story-worthy details. “I’m not looking to write non-fiction,” he says, “but little fragments of people’s lives might make their way into my stories in one way or another.”
People who fund the Indiegogo campaign will receive perks based on their donation, including hand-numbered short story manuscripts, postcards with Herbert’s poetry, and color photographs from Graham-Vannais. At the end of their journey, the new-age American pioneers will publish a collection of their work in hardcover form and Graham-Vannais will hold an exhibition of her photography in Brooklyn, New York. According to Herbert, the audience they seek to capture includes the curious art-lover who craves insight into everyday life in the new America. “Gone but not forgotten,” he wrote on the crowdfunding website, “my work will imbue these places with the lore and legend of our rebel generation.”
‘Thinking outside the box’
Herbert, to be sure, is well prepared to capture the zeitgeist of America in 2015. His courses in math, psychology, and computer science, he says, have trained his mind to consider problems in new ways, while his classes in illustration, sculpture, and graphic design have shaped his creative approach. “I’ve learned to draw from all forms of media and find ways to bring them together,” Herbert explains. “One of the greatest skills I’ve learned is how to solve problems by thinking outside the box, and when it comes to writing, nothing could be more valuable than knowing how to tackle challenges from any direction.”