A Conversation with Jason Cochran

I had a great time reconnecting with an old friend from college, Jason Cochran, whose book Here Lies America just dropped last week. Jason is a well-reputed travel writer whose love for history inspired him to trek across the U.S. to destinations where horrible tragedies have taken place. Whilst you may think that a dark and heavy topic, Jason's wry sense of humor and quick wit carry you on a fascinating journey through time—think Bill Bryson, but edgier! He weaves in the unraveling of his own family history along the way, too.

Jason Cochran has been a travel authority and consumer expert for 20 years, starting in 1998 when, on a two-year round-the-world backpacking trip, he created one of the first regular travel blogs. He is currently Editor-in-Chief of and co-host with Pauline Frommer of the weekly Travel Show on WABC, broadcast out of New York City.

What would happen if you took a long road trip–but only visited the tourism attractions that opened because something really horrible had happened? In his new book Here Lies America, Jason Cochran romps through American disaster zones, battlefields, Confederate memorials, and terrorist attack sites. Along the way, he takes a look at why these places matter, why some really don’t, and what motivated the people who built the monuments. And when he pauses to seek the meaning behind the early demise of one of his own ancestors, he uncovers a tragic race-based murder plot that had been buried for a century.


KARIN GUTMAN: Where did you get the idea for this book?

JASON COCHRAN: I'm a travel writer—I have been basically about 20 years. I was working at Entertainment Weekly and burned out on that. I went backpacking around the world for two years, and when I came back, I thought, “Okay I'm a journalist, but what kind?” Well, I became a travel writer. Arthur Frommer hired me. It became my job to go to places and then come back and tell other people how to repeat the tourist experience for the best value. My type of travel writing was never about the machismo of conquering the mountain or the adrenaline rush of jumping out of the airplane. I'm not a consumeristic traveler.

I realized pretty quickly after I started, that many of my fellow travel writers always had one aspect of travel they looked into the most—the folks always writing about food when they travel, or spas when they travel. I found myself most interested in history. I realized that I was less interested in the aspect of the active travel I did, but in the discovery of past worlds wherever I went.

I realized I was a historic person, but you need to travel to cover history because it didn't happen where you're sitting, most of it. In a way, being interested in history is like travel, it's just traveling backward through time. You still have to put yourself in a different mindset to go back to a generation that's not like yours and to try to see things the way they did, just the way you try to go to other countries and then figure out how to fit in. It's almost the same in a lot of ways mentally.

I thought it'd be fun, in a dark way, to go to all the historic sites in America—the battlefields and graveyards that tourists go to—and observe the ridiculousness of what we're doing. I imagined this would be a book of descriptions of fat kids eating ice cream cones on Arlington graves, and inappropriate souvenirs and that kind of thing. But very quickly when I began researching this, when I started in Georgia, I realized that wasn't the story.

KARIN: What happened in Georgia?

JASON: This was in Andersonville, which was an old Civil War concentration camp run by the Confederates near Americus. It's not too far from where Jimmy Carter was born and raised, and still lives. I was in Americus that night at a really old hotel from the 1800s. It was quiet and there was a young kid running the desk. He was asking what I was doing in town. I said, "I have this idea for a book, but I had a hard time today. There wasn't much." He said, "Did you notice the monuments?" I said, "How they're all clustered in one corner?" He said, "No, did you notice how Maryland's is huge, and the other states are much smaller? They didn't lose nearly as many people as the other states did."

I said, "Oh, that's interesting." Then we started to talk about the hotel, and he said, "This was built basically to house people who wanted to come to Americus to go see the concentration camp remains from the 1890s in the beginning of the century." I thought, that's interesting too because there was barely anyone there when I was there. I went back to Andersonville the next day and I looked at the monuments, and sure enough they were very disparate. I noticed, though, that the years on all of them were either at the very tail end of the 1800s or mostly in the early 1900s, which is 50 years after the Civil War.

That was the beginning of me realizing that this is really about the historic sites and who shaped them, and what they wanted you to believe when they did it.

In Georgia, also that same trip, I went up to Atlanta where I have ancestors. I'm from Atlanta originally. My people go back to the 1700s in Georgia. My great-great grandfather reputedly was buried in one of the most famous graveyards in Atlanta, one that attracts tourists. I found him in the graveyard and learned he wasn't very old when he had died. I realized that if I'm going to be fair about this whole thing, I have to look into my own family tragedy while I'm talking about all these other people's tragedies.

The book takes twin paths. While I'm going to all these various sites across the country, and I do from Hawaii to Florida, to everywhere in between, I'm also trying to figure out what happened to the person buried there in Oakland Cemetery. It was my great-great grandfather, and very quickly I find out he was a train engineer who died in a wreck. That much I knew. But when I went up to South Carolina to do a bit of research in the libraries up there--South Carolina is where the accident happened--I found out something that my family had never talked about which is yes, he died in the train wreck but it was sabotaged, and two African American teens were held for his murder and tried for it.

No one in my family had never known this. We had just known about the death. No one ever talked about this murder thing. So the book becomes an exploration of my own family's path and some questioning of how we got to where we are, and why this story fell out of the story, and finding out what other things fell out of the stories at these other sites as well.

KARIN: I love the concept. It sounds like you discovered the personal aspect of the book organically…

JASON: It happened purely by accident. I think even for the first month or so, I wasn't quite connecting the two. I was like, "Oh, I can research my family while I'm out and about." But when I found the clips on microfiche at a local library, that these young men had been held and arraigned for murder, I was furious. I was really pissed off that no one in my family had told me this.

This family that allegedly venerated our ancestor never happened to mention maybe the most salient part of the story of his death. I started to connect my anger with what I was discovering about these sites, how these major aspects of American history had been bent and twisted so they would be more pleasing mythology.

KARIN: Did you ever find out why the boys killed him?

JASON: It's part of the climax of the book, when you finally find out what their story was. There are still some questions. I don't want to give it away obviously, but you do find out the result of the trial.

KARIN: The book sounds more like a narrative than it does a travel guide…

JASON: Right, it's definitely not a guide. There are no websites, phone numbers, opening hours, or admission prices.

There's a rough narrative. As you move along, as I structure it, the uses of these sites become more tactical by political groups, people who want to venerate people or venerate themselves until we get to present day, which I think it's too early for us to really have a clear picture of why we tell our stories the way we tell our stories now. We need for someone else to look at us through the distance of time. But I do talk about what I'm seeing us do that other generations didn't do when they re-told their stories and how they theatrically presented their own worst moments of mortality.

It's not a gruesome book. I tried to keep it very light. I have a sort of self-effacing, wry voice, I'm told. I'm told that I sound like a guy named Bill Bryson, who's an American writer who works in England. I have my very strong feelings about what all this means to the mythology of my country, but it's not a political book.

KARIN: What does your writing practice look like? Do you dedicate a certain period of time to writing every day? Or does it depend on the ebbs and flows on what you're working on?

JASON: I have to fit my writing in alongside my full-time job. My full-time job is also writing, which can be difficult because if you spend all day writing, you don't necessarily want to spend another five hours in front of your computer at night writing. I try to balance that. It's very much when either inspiration or guilt hits me hard enough that I get in front of the monitor. I'm very much one of these writers who has required periods of gestation. That's what Stephen Sondheim called it. He gets the information he needs, he gets the character in the situation, and then he goes away to think about it, and then he comes back and somewhere there it is. That's what I need. I need to not think about it for a while.

For me, sitting in front of a computer for three set hours every single day is not always the best course for me, because I've written a lot of useless things that way, that I've just had to do over again. I mean, I always do it over again anyway, but I find that I'm much better if I walk away from the thing and then I just reach an emotional point where I just have to get back there and get it down.

KARIN: Tell us about your full-time job with Frommer’s… Are you going to an office?

JASON: As far as my work for Frommer's goes, I run the website editorially. I do the assigning and the editing of everyone else. I write two of their books every single year, so my springs are shot because I go to London for a month and a half or two months, and I also do Orlando. I'm there for less than that. Every single spring and early summer I write those books so they're out in December.

KARIN: I see, so you're basically updating your book every year.

JASON: Right, it's all mine. No one else works on it, so everything in it is my keystroke and I can decide what to change every single year. But it's an evolving thing every year because the world evolves.

The nice thing about Frommer's is they've changed as well with publishing. They don't have a bricks and mortar. It's a piece of overhead they don't need, especially with a travel company, with so many people always on the road. Each of us works independently, but of course with computers and everything, we're always “getting together.” I've always been at home, which is terrific. I don't work on my book during the day. I don't take time away from my day job, because I find it too hard to shift gears. The book thing is one set of muscles and one set of emotions, and the day job is much more technical and it's just an old skill. I try not to mix those. I just write at night or on weekends with my book.

I do, interestingly, tend to work in different spots. I work at my standup desk for my book writing, and I go anywhere else basically for work.

When it came to editing my book, I did most all of that out of the house. I worked a lot on this book at Mousso & Frank at the bar. I was the guy at the end of the bar with a stack of papers. I did it at Disneyland, too, believe it or not. There's a bar in the Lagoon at California Adventure, and I would bring my stacks of papers, and edit and cut. Both places had the same question, "Are you a teacher?"

KARIN: Grading papers?

JASON: Yep, that's what they thought. I told them, "No, I'm writing a book."

KARIN: You graduated from Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, trained as a journalist. I'm curious what your experience has been as a journalist? Obviously, publishing is changing, but journalism is changing too.

JASON: My Medill training in a way did form this book, in that at Medill, you're always told to find primary sources, not secondhand sources for any historic or current fact that you have. I think my always asking that question, trying to find, “Has this been filtered before it got to me?” helped me interpret a lot of these sites I was going to, because I was always looking for the most essential, most basic, most primary truth. I think it has likely informed my entire world view. It's being very critical with my thinking.

Also, there's a joke... My last line in the whole in the afterward is, “This book was made without Wikipedia,” because I very much wanted to find either primary sources or a newspaper account, something that goes back to the source of things rather than from an interpretation of the source of things.

Ever since the day the Huffington Post was big, far too many journalists do what I used to call “clip jobs.” They just collect all this information from all these different places they've found, and they present what they think the story is, or what they interpreted the story to be. I think that a lot of these journalists and outfits today like BuzzFeed, and most of their departments, encourage that kind of behavior because they set minimum posts you have to do every day, minimum clicks you need to get to get paid. When you start thinking that way, obviously you're starting to skew things in order to pay for yourself and speed things up as well.

KARIN: Do you feel like being a journalist today is a viable path, given that there is more “clip job” reporting and less on-the-ground reporting?

JASON: I'm not sure if it's an entirely viable path. There are very few places that I would say still honor wholeheartedly that kind of quality. You're more likely, especially if you're a millennial, to wind up at one of these post mill places where really they're hiring you for your judgment rather than your journalistic ability which are not the same thing.

Now I have to go back and think, was it ever viable? I think in the 1800s almost every journalist was a yellow one, and to sell papers, that was always the name of the game. In a way, we just had an anomalous heyday of lawyer-like standards for journalists, which maybe was never realistic given greed, and corruption, and economic pressures of the world. Maybe we just had a luxury of trying to be as unbiased as possible, because economic circumstances favored us briefly. I also think there's no such things as journalism without bias. I think it doesn't exist.

For example, if you choose to cover a story you already have exhibited a bias by choosing that and not the other thing. I go into it in my book. I ask the question, “Why do we go to all these historic sites?” When all these are forgotten, and maybe more people were killed at those.” So there's a bias to why we record certain things. There's a bias in journalism—do you give it the first story or the third story, the front page or the 10th page? That's a bias. How long is the story? So it's impossible to have journalism without bias. My book, it's very much saying… ultimately, it's impossible to have history without bias. There's no such thing as a fact in history. Physics has facts. Particle physics, the way things move—laws, rules. There are no hard and fast facts on how you interpret how something went down. It's always a bias.

KARIN: Right, even if you have first person testimonials…

JASON: Yes, that's part of it. Even the sources might be wrong, or skewed. Secondly, there's so much that went unrecorded that you may not even know about, because that's history—things just don't get recorded and they don’t get down to you. You can get four dots of the picture and expect to come up with something much more complex out of those four dots; and it's ridiculous, because you're never going to know the truth.

Ultimately, that's what I realized about my own personal experience with my family in the book. I'm never going to know the truth. The truth, as I imagine it might be, isn't very pleasant. But I'm never going to know really what happened. I go to Stone Mountain in Georgia, which was the KKK ritual spot. My great-great grandfather’s son became a photographer for the newspaper. On the side, he would shoot KKK meetings for them. The debate is, was he or wasn't he? We'll never know. That's not the kind of thing people write down.

KARIN: I know you had to travel quite a bit to write this book, right?

JASON: Yeah, I went to more than 70 places.

KARIN: What’s the secret to carving out time for your passion project—the thing that you want to do, the thing that wants to be birthed—while maintaining your job and life?

JASON: My circumstance is that I am a travel writer. I happen to have very generous bosses, who will let me go places. We don't have a bricks and mortar. They don't expect me to be there all the time. So if I'm working one day from South Dakota, they're okay with it. I would tag it on to other trips I was taking, for work often, so I slipped things in when I could. Sometimes it's vacation time, sometimes it was business trips, sometimes it was working while I was traveling.

Which is one of the reasons it took years, because I had so many places to get to. I went to a lot more places that I had to cut from the book too, maybe another 40%, because the lessons I was learning at the places were repeated things that I had already learned at other places that I had decided to include.

KARIN: How long did you work on it?

JASON: About eight or nine years, off and on. A lot of off, but with the on, it was pretty intense.

KARIN: How do you feel, now that it’s out in the world?

JASON: I'm very proud to have it in my hands, and kind of never thought it would even happen because there were so many setbacks and roadblocks. Structurally, it was difficult to arrive at what we finally arrived at. I feel proud and grateful. I have yet to hear much feedback from people, because it's just out.

I have an uncle in his 90s that's an old school Southerner, who loved it, but says that there are some people who are going to get really mad at me because of some of the things I say about the South. “So, be careful.” Yeah, that's fine. You know, I've always been a little bit marginal. This book is about disillusionment, especially when it comes to my nationality in a lot of ways. I'm sort of prepared to be further disillusioned by the reception of it. When I wrote this, I really only cared about it being read and respected by people I respect and like. I'm not doing it for fame or fortune. I want like minds to dig it.

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