An Interview with Michael Shapiro

You might know Michael Shapiro’s work through his investigative reporting, his lifelong love for the Guatemalan people, or A Sense of Place, his recent two-year project to travel the world and interview the world’s greatest travel authors. Whether he’s doing a feature on Jan Morris for National Geographic Traveler, documenting Holy Week in Guatemala, or writing about his favorite musicians, Michael’s work is sure to be illuminating, insightful, and most of all, fun.  Check out his website here for some sample stories and to read more about him.

You’re the author of a great collection of interviews with famous travel writers, A Sense of Place. What did you learn from that research about what separates the big successes from the also-rans?

That’s a question that takes an entire book to answer, but briefly I found that the writers I interviewed, the masters like Jan Morris, Bill Bryson, Redmond O’Hanlon and Peter Matthiessen, are driven by curiosity and are extremely diligent and disciplined. But each has his or her own rhythm. Simon Winchester will divide the number of words due by the days he has to complete a book and will write that many words per day. Some writers, like Dervla Murphy, work seven days a week. But most are not workaholics, they take time for other pursuits and for reading. My sense is that most of the great writers lead balanced lives; many start very early – Cahill told me he starts writing within a half hour of waking up, and many are done with the writing part of their workday by early afternoon. My rhythm sadly is different. I’m often like an old pickup’s motor on a winter morning – it takes me a while to get going and then I do my best work late afternoon or early evening. But no matter what the rhythm, all great writers are deeply committed to their work and very disciplined.

How did you “break in to travel writing”? What have been the keys to your success?

I started in news, reporting for daily newspapers. I traveled to Guatemala to learn Spanish and began writing travel stories from there in 1990. In 1994, I got a job with Global Network Navigator, the first major directory of World Wide Web sites, back when the Web was fun and noncommercial. My first job there was “What’s New editor” cataloguing all the new web sites each day – in late 1994 there were 12 to 15 a day. I worked for GNN’s travel section and wrote the first instructional book about using the Net for travel planning, NetTravel. Then I began writing about this topic for newspaper travel sections, including the SF Chronicle and Washington Post, developing relationships with editors. Because I was trusted reporter, these editors were inclined to give me feature assignments, such as a piece I wrote in 2001 for the Washington Post about biking through Cuba.

My next leap began when I embarked on the interviews for my book of conversations with travel writers, A Sense of Place. I should jump back in time for a moment: in 1992 I attended what’s become a legendary seminar for travel writers, the Book Passage Travel Writers Conference, in Corte Madera near San Francisco. This helped hone my skill and seven years later I was teaching there, astounded by the wisdom and insight of veteran writers such as Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson, Isabel Allende and Simon Winchester, all of whom were my co-teachers.

So I thought I’d write a book of interviews with 18 of these writers about the craft of writing – it turned into much more, a collection of short biographies united by the theme of place: what the places they’ve seen have meant to them and why they’ve chosen to live where they do. Why, for example, has Jan Morris kept returning to her windswept corner of rural Wales while Pico Iyer has landed in Japan? The editor of National Geographic Traveler appreciated the book; that led to an assignment to write about Jan Morris and Wales, published as the cover story of the May-June 2006 issue of National Geographic Traveler.

But even a big break like that isn’t enough to keep the assignments coming. I’m constantly hustling to get more work – and then hustling again after the fact in too many cases to get paid. Another key to the moderate success I’ve had is self-promotion; this hasn’t come naturally, but I’ve managed to get myself out there through appearances, email notices, social networking (both online and in the old fashioned sense, such as attending conferences like Travel Classics, where writers meet editors and pitch stories).

Where do you see your career as a travel writer being three years from now? How will your income mix change and what are you doing to adapt to the changing media landscape?

Hard to say as changes are happening so quickly, but probably less print, more online, and more self-generated income as opposed to writing for publications. And more multimedia: I’ve done photography for years, now I’m trying to learn video skills. Editors are saying they want more packages with writing, photos, and video. Until recently they dismissed people who both wrote and photographed, now it’s seen as valuable if you do both.

Knowing what you do now, if you were starting from scratch today to become established as a travel writer, what steps would you take to ensure success?

I’m quite happy that I didn’t know then what I know now or I may have never attempted to battle the odds. And I’m not sure anything can ensure success, but I think key is learning how to write, to recognize compelling stories, and reading voraciously to learn from the masters. I read everything from travel magazines to travel classics. And I don’t confine myself to travel; I write about music, do feature interviews, investigative stories, etc. I enjoy the variety and it gives me more opportunities to write freelance stories. In sum, focus on the writing not the travel.

What advice would you give to someone near and dear to you who wanted to become a travel writer—assuming they had zero credits to their name. (Besides “Don’t do it”?)

Keep your day job; get feedback on your work (a good way is by joining a writers group), submit in lots of markets, and pay attention to the craft of writing. And write about topics that stir your passion – it’ll show in the final work. Make connections at conferences, especially seminars for aspiring writers. The Book Passage conference (bookpassage.com) was an integral part of my learning the craft of travel writing – it’s usually held during the second Thursday-Sunday of August.

You’ve written a lot over the years about Guatemala. What draws you to that particular country?

I felt I’d come home as soon as I walked off the plane: the land is stunning with its volcanoes and lakes, but mostly it’s the Mayan people and their crafts, festivals, and outlook on life. Because Guatemala was the first undeveloped country I visited on my own (in 1989 when I was in my mid-20s), I have a special affinity for it, just like you never stop loving your first love. Everything just unfolded beautifully for me there. One example: I met some guys on a bus wearing Teva sandals; back then just about everyone who wore Tevas was a river guide, so I asked if they were on their way to Costa Rica to work. No, they said they were just finishing working a river in Guate. I had no idea there was rafting in Guate, so I called the company owner. “Mike,” she said, “where the hell are you; you were due here yesterday; the trip goes out tomorrow!” Ok, I’ll be right there, I told her. Of course when I got to her office she realized I wasn’t the Mike she’d hired, but I could get a boat down a Class IV river and she had to hire me. She put me in a raft with a Guatemalan guide in training who knew the river and we teamed up on the Rio Cahabon for a memorable trip through the Alta Verapaz region.

I write about my appreciation of the country in: Guatemala: A Journey Through the Land of the Maya, a pictorial book with luminous photos by Lonely Planet photographer Kraig Lieb.

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See Michael Shapiro’s website and bio here.

Interview conducted in December, 2010 by Travel Writing 2.0 author Tim Leffel and edited by Kristin Mock.

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