Sensing His Place: Michael Shapiro

Sensing his Place: Michael Shapiro

By Kent E St. John, Senior Travel Editor

Growing up, dinner was family discussion time; a tradition I carried on with my own family. Every night the What If book was opened and the night’s topic revealed.

Frequently the question of “Who would you most like to have dinner with and why? opened up lively banter.

Michael Shapiro has lived my dream, meeting 18 top travel writers on their ground. I hesitate to use the term “travel writers” because after reading A Sense of Place Michael has given us insight into extremely gifted writing talents.

Writers who share their observations that cover the world and even some of their own backyards. Isabel Allende, Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, Tim Cahill and Paul Theroux are just a few of the subjects interviewed in the book. The book is published by the venerated travel authorities, Travelers’ Tales.

We applaud Travelers’ Tales for once again coming out with a book that goes beyond boundaries and into the heart of exploration.

The Half King

I had a chance to meet Michael Shapiro at a literary gathering at Sebastian Junger’s Half King pub in New York City recently, TheHalfKing. Michael has a thriving career as a writer himself.

He has biked through Cuba for the Washington Post, celebrated Holy Week in Guatemala for the Dallas Morning News as well as winning a Lowell Thomas award from the Society of American Travel Writers in 1998. He has also provided great advice for online travelers with his book, Internet Travel Planner. He has graciously agreed to do an interview for GoNOMAD.

Interview with Michael Shapiro

The sheer logistics of arranging the interviews and your travel plans seems overwhelming. For example, when you made a trip to New York to interview Peter Matthiessen the first time he said, “[he] just didn’t have the heart” to be interviewed. What other obstacles or set backs, did you overcome?

After I'd completed three of the eighteen interviews, I learned my father had been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas, a horribly quick-spreading and lethal disease. I canceled upcoming trips to the UK to meet Jan Morris and others and went just before my spring 2004 deadline to make this a Fall 2004 book. I discuss how the joys of completing this book were tempered by the imminent loss of my father in the introduction to A Sense of Place, to read it see this link.

I believe you stated that the book was originally going to be on the craft of travel writing. How did it evolve into such a deep insight into the lives and thoughts of the subjects?

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Yes, the initial idea was to write a book about the craft of writing. I'd served at a travel writing seminar and wanted to share some of the wisdom of the teachers there, including Tim Cahill, Bill Bryson, Simon Winchester and even Isabel Allende (who's not primarily a travel writer but who still has done some travel writing.) I first pitched the idea on Sept. 4, 2004 and we all know what happened a week later. After Sept. 11, I decided the book should be about much more – here's an excerpt from the intro:

Initially I considered interviewing each writer about travel writing, but soon realized I wanted to discuss much more: their lives, their hopes, their aspirations, and their thoughts about the world. That last part—their thoughts about the world's politics and people—seemed especially relevant after the September 11th disaster. Who better to shed light on global issues than the people who have explored the planet so widely and so sensitively, and who have written about it so eloquently?

The book covers so many writers with their own distinct personalities. Was there one trait or characteristic shared by all or most?

Each writer is unique but one quality that came to the fore is an insatiable curiosity and hunger to understand people and the places they live. Another quality is heartfelt compassion – Jan Morris and Tim Cahill have tremendously different backgrounds but they share this compassion, which is probably innate but has likely been deepened by their travels.

Your descriptions of each writer were intricate and revealing. What, besides the interviews, did you use to get your view? Which writers best give an open look to themselves in their works?

Well, the first step was preparation. I read as much of their nonfiction work as I could (not easy with such writers as Jan Morris who has published more than 40 books!), including almost everything written by Bryson and Cahill. Some writers, like Paul Theroux, write as much fiction as nonfiction so I focused on their travel books. (Although in Theroux's case some of his fiction contains nuggets of truth about him.) Next I used the Net to see what others have asked these writers and how they responded. My intent wasn't to duplicate others' work, but to get a feel for questions that would elicit the most fascinating answers.

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I also read about the places each author lives so I could ask intelligent questions about where they reside. And I'd met several of these writers already, most at the travel writers' seminar held annually at a San Francisco-area bookstore called Book Passage.

So I already had some relationship with Cahill, Bryson, Morris, Pico Iyer and Simon Winchester, among others. Occasionally I asked writers what they thought of one another's work. All this preparation culminated with the interview, which ranged from a single hour (Winchester and Peter Matthiessen) to an entire weekend (Cahill). Here is a sneak peak at part of the Cahill chapter.

The writers come from every style of travel writing; narrative, advice and investigative. You yourself seem to be in the midst of a change. What direction do you see yourself heading as far as your writing?

It's so hard to say. I'm still deeply immersed in this book, spending the fall promoting it.

I would like to do more interviewing and travel-related stories for magazines, but right now I'm seeking more work as a freelance editor, which I really enjoy and have been told I'm pretty good at. Unless you're a best-selling author, it's hard to make a decent living writing books, thus I'm seeking editing work and magazine assignments which pay better. (Shameless plug: Need a freelance editor with fifteen years of experience? Contact Shapiro by email)

Finally, what are your thoughts about the travel writing found on the web now? What are some of your favorite sites?

Much of the best travel writing online is found at the companion sites of print publications, for example at National Geographic Traveler ( and the travel sections of the Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle. One excellent online travel site is I also enjoy reading travel blogs, especially at and Jen Leo's

The publisher's site for A Sense of Place.


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