Interview With Author Michael Shapiro

Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

I am a journalist and author who lives in Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco, California. I worked for years as a staff writer for newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area and now am a freelancer for newspapers and national magazines.

The Creative Spark is a collection of interviews with some of the most creative people of our time: musicians, authors, explorers and chefs. They speak about what drives them, what helps them to see the world in fresh ways, and what inspires them turn their visions into art.

During the past decade or so, I’ve interviewed some of our brightest creative luminaries. Among the authors are Amy Tan, David Sedaris, Barbara Kingsolver, Pico Iyer, and Frances Mayes. My work as a music journalist has led to interviews with legends including Smokey Robinson, Lucinda Williams, Graham Nash, Lyle Lovett, Melissa Etheridge, Merle Haggard, and Jethro Tull bandleader Ian Anderson. And I’ve spoken with creative masters in other field, such as film director Francis Ford Coppola and the late comedian Joan Rivers.

Each chapter starts with a short biography of the creative person being profiled then segues into Q+A. This collection brings together some of the best-known artists of our time with others who may not be as famed but who have something important to say about living an artful life. My earlier book is A Sense of Place, a collection of interviews with the world’s leading travel writers.

What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

In my stories for newspapers and magazines typically only a tiny fraction of the interesting material makes it into the newspaper article or magazine feature. So I decided to try to put the best of these interviews in a book that would allow more depth. In reviewing the material I realized that the topic everyone discussed was creativity. So that became the theme of the book.

What inspires/inspired your creativity?

I find thrilling the challenge of looking at a blank screen, or in years past a blank sheet of paper, and filling it with words that will inspire or illuminate. My writing has ranged from hard news and investigative pieces to travel writing to arts features. Yet whatever topic I tackle, I always seek to bring the highest journalistic standards to my writing.

How do you deal with creative block?

I honor it. When I feel blocked I think that is my body’s way of telling me I need to do something else, whether that’s go for a bike ride or play some poker with friends. It’s impossible to be constantly creative so I let myself do things that refuel my soul, like spend a weekend outdoors.

What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

As a journalist, for me the biggest mistake would be not getting everything right. When you are working with others’ words, it’s crucial to transcribe them accurately and represent them clearly. I guess other mistakes would include trying to include everything someone says. The role of the journalist is to be selective and to present as clearly and accurately the views of the person who is interviewed. Attention spans are short these days so being selective is crucial.

Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

My books are published by a traditional publisher (as opposed to self-published), so it is rarely the author who creates the cover. However my publisher, Solas House, did show me four cover options from the designer and asked which one I like best. They ended up choosing my favorite. They also chose the title, The Creative Spark, which was one of several that I suggested. I was leaning toward a slightly different title, either The Creative Leap or The Creative Flow, both of which sounded more original to me. When you work collaboratively you don’t always get your way, but when you put several good minds together, typically the result is better than when you act alone.

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

I haven’t had many bad reviews, but in some reviews there have been negative comments. It seems like the formula for reviews is to say three or four things you like about the book and then in the penultimate paragraph to say something that you don’t like or that could have been done better. And then there’s a summary paragraph at the end. I have had reviews where the reviewer made comments they probably would not have made had they read the whole book. I have written book reviews and always read the entire book, which I think every reviewer should do. But sadly, many often don’t.

How has your creation process improved over time?

As a writer I think the more you write, the more capable you become – it’s like staying in shape. Fortunately, unlike athletes, we don’t have to depend on physical skills which deteriorate over time. But it does take a lot of energy to write well and as one gets older – I am now 56 – it gets harder to work as intensely. I can’t put in 12-hour days anymore. Or maybe I choose not to.

What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the process of completing your book(s)?

The best part was definitely revisiting these interviews, going back to the audio to listen to them again. It was a pleasant surprise to realize how much valuable and compelling material remained unpublished, which gave me the confidence that I had a book on my hands. The next challenge was editing the interviews down to the most fascinating nuggets: I needed to trim but wanted to maintain the conversational flow. Then I needed to write engaging introductions for each of the interviews.

The only negative part was I had more interviews than I could fit in the book, which came in around 420 pages (longer than my publisher initially wanted). For example I had an interview with Dana Carvey, a fun conversation in which he was doing impressions just for me. But that was very timebound, in the first term of the Obama administration, and some of the material that was so great on audio would not have translated to the page. So sadly, Dana Carvey did not make the cut. But I guess that says something about how good the rest of the interviews are.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?

I almost always lean toward serving the reader. I guess that is just how I look at things as a journalist.

What role do emotions play in creativity?

A huge role. Melissa Etheridge told me: “I grew up in the Midwest where we didn’t talk about our feelings at all even though we were burning up from them. I started putting my passions and emotions into my music. I remember thinking in the beginning: Oh wow, this is so personal. Is it going to be too personal? And the more personal I got in a song, the more universal it was, the more that people all over could relate to it. I learned early on this is the key, to be open enough, to be able to corral your emotions and fire, and then put them in a song.”

Do you have any creativity tricks?

I wouldn’t say tricks but I do find that giving myself the space to go on a bike ride by myself or take a walk gives my mind the openness to be creative. Space is really important. This is what the brilliant author Pico Iyer says in The Creative Spark: “Living in Japan has taught me that creativity is a lot about taking things out. In Japan, they’ll make a room as empty as possible. The creative activity in Japan is really about sifting and minimalizing, making things as spare as possible, partly because that is how you spark creativity in a reader. And on this side of the Pacific, I go to a hermitage where the main blessing is being free of an internet or cell-phone connection. It’s amazing how even 72 hours in silence can completely clear you out. I often notice now that in airports we have so many recharging stations for our devices but very few for ourselves. And it’s really ourselves that need the recharging.”

What are your plans for future books?

Ha! I am so consumed with launching and promoting this book that it’s hard for me to think about the next project. I have started a work of fiction and in the not too distant future would like to release a collection of my own nonfiction work, a mix of travel stories, arts features, essays and interviews.

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself.

Not sure if this is quirky but I volunteer as a whitewater raft guide for an outfitter that takes disabled people on river trips. And I delivered a TEDx talk a couple of years ago about how travel can build bridges. I helped make a short film about a couple of artists who turn junk into sculpture – they’re quirky. The film, Junkyard Alchemist, was screened at festivals and even won a best of the fest award at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, in Northern California. My first book, written in 1996, was called NetTravel and was a primer on using the Internet for travel planning and booking. I won archery titles when I was young and when I went to Mongolia to write about the Nadaam festival for the Washington Post, I had a short archery lesson from a Mongolian master. And when I went on assignment to Wales, I drove (with supervision) a 19th-century steam engine on narrow-gauge rails through Snowdonia.


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