“Michael Shapiro’s finely tuned, informed and intimate interviews strike to the heart of the matter.” ―Tim Cahill, author of Hold the Enlightenment
The Creative Spark: How musicians, writers, explorers, and other artists found their inner fire and followed their dreams
Creative people have a certain spark: a brightness in their eyes, an inquisitive way of looking at the world, a desire to make things. But that spark doesn’t reside solely in people seen as creators. It’s in all of us, just waiting to break out.
In this collection of interviews with some of the most creative people of our time — musicians, authors, explorers, and chefs — these makers 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, Michael Shapiro has interviewed some of our most creative luminaries. Yet it’s not simply that Shapiro has had access to so many supremely talented people — it’s that he gets them to go deep. These interviews serve as a gateway for each one of us to chart our own creative paths, enrich our lives, and bring our true selves into the world.
Each chapter starts with a biography then segues into Q+A. Among the authors and writers and other artists profiled in the book are:
Smokey Robinson • Barbara Kingsolver • Francis Ford Coppola • Jane Goodall • Amy Tan • David Sedaris • Graham Nash • Pico Iyer • Joan Rivers • Merle Haggard • Lucinda Williams • Frances Mayes • Judy Collins • Melissa Etheridge • Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson • Lyle Lovett • Robert Earl Keen • Dave Alvin • SF Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow • Jerry Garcia Band keyboardist Melvin Seals • Phil Cousineau • Godmother of soul Sharon Jones • Richard Thompson • Hardly Strictly festival founder Warren Hellman • Oceanographer Sylvia Earle • Oral historian Studs Terkel • Ukulele wizard Jake Shimabukuro • Irish author Dervla Murphy • and many more
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Amy Tan on truth:
I realized that if I described what I felt—the complexity of it, the history of it—in a fabricated story, paradoxically, I’d find truth through creating fiction. … Every single moment I’ve had is not a lost past; it is completely a continuum of who I am. All of these moments are who I am. Writing fiction is finding the meaning of my life, what I think, what I feel I have to remember, what I know about myself.
Photo by Julian Johnson
Francis Coppola on conviction:
Very often films start rubbing the audience the wrong way if they’re doing something a little different than what is the norm. So films like Apocalypse Now weren’t exactly heralded as “Oh wow, this is terrific,” at the time. But (those films) stood the test of time, and over the years, little by little, sort of changed what movies were like. I always say that the things you do when you’re young that get you fired are the same things that later get you lifetime achievement awards.
Photo by Sofia Coppola
Melissa Etheridge on passion:
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.
Photo by Lauren Dukoff
Barbara Kingsolver on originality:
It’s really important to me never to write the same book twice, not even close. What gets me to my desk every day is the thrill of doing something absolutely new that I’m not at all sure I can really pull off, because it’s exciting. I have no interest in the sequel, in doing the same book over again. Every time I construct the architecture of a new novel, I stretch myself in a new way and there’s always something that seems impossible. I could go through all 14 books and tell you the impossible thing, or the thing that seems impossible to me at the outset, the thing that scares the dickens out of me.
Photo by Steven Hopp
Folk musician Greg Brown on poetry:
Poems, good poems, are music really. And when you hear a good poet reading, they’re really singing their poems. Poetry without the musical element to me, it’s not poetry, it’s something else. … Poetry is not a position paper or anything, it’s a song. So people like Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, these all have been very important singers to me.
Photo by Roman Cho
Pico Iyer on spaciousness:
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. So that there is only one flower and one scroll left, and that means you have to bring all your attention to that scroll and that flower. That means you see everything you need—and more—there. 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.
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
Something magical happened as I completed this book. One evening just before sunset I was in our backyard watering the planter boxes. On a stem of parsley I noticed a startling pattern of color, concentric rings of orange and black dots. Looking closer I saw the segments of a swallowtail caterpillar and could identify its tiny feet. For the next few days the caterpillar chomped on the parsley plant, absorbing energy for the next stage of its life. I placed a stick in the pot, at an angle to give the caterpillar a place to hang its chrysalis.
The caterpillar’s appearance felt like a message from the universe. For many months I’d been working on transforming interviews I’d conducted with some of the world’s most creative people into a coherent set of chapters. I’d distilled the essence of these interviews into a tonic of ideas about the creative process. And I’d written biographical introductions that sought to put each person’s life in perspective and offer insights about the sources of his or her art.
As I write this, on 2019’s summer solstice, our adopted caterpillar (my wife has given it the gender-neutral name Jordan) is undergoing a miraculous transformation into a butterfly. During the past week, we’ve watched the caterpillar turn into a chrysalis that matches the color of the branch from which it hangs, its striated brown camouflage the antithesis of the colorful creature it was just a few days ago. Yet it’s what is happening inside the chrysalis that is truly astonishing.
The caterpillar is dissolving, using enzymes to digest itself. It’s being broken down into nonspecific cells that can be used for any part of the butterfly. Yet some “highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process,” according to Scientific American. Each of these constellations of cells is programmed to build a specific part of the butterfly. There are imaginal discs for wings, for eyes, for legs, for every part of the butterfly. Typically, after about two weeks, a yellow-and-black swallowtail butterfly will crack open the chrysalis, dry its wings in the morning sun, and fly off seeking nectar.
Why bring up a caterpillar in a book about creativity? First, because it offers such a rich metaphor, and the name “imaginal discs” suggests that making art depends on imagination. And to prepare for its transformation, the caterpillar needs to first feed itself, just as a musician or author must absorb the thoughts and influences that come from songs, books, conversations, memories, and observations. Then many creative people seek to isolate themselves, cocoon-like, to escape the relentless drumbeat of popular culture so they can hear their own voices.
“What I noticed at an early stage was that the writers I admire are living a long way from the world,” the author Pico Iyer told me. “The great originals are originals because they’re living outside the received conversation, outside secondhand words and secondhand ideas, to some extent living in a space of their own where they’re able to hear their deeper self and come up with things completely outside the norm. I think that’s why they really shake us.”
Isn’t that what we crave in this era of information overload: songs or stories that really shake us and offer new ways of seeing the world, of hearing ourselves, of feeling, on a soul level, our deepest truths? That’s why I’ve chosen the 31 creative people in this book. They’re original, pioneering, dynamic, and insatiably curious. The authors, musicians, and others profiled in these pages could coast on their earlier accomplishments, but every one has continued to seek adventurous new avenues for igniting their creative spark. And those who are now deceased, such as Joan Rivers and Sharon Jones, worked until virtually the day they died.
Of course, seeking solitude to hear one’s inner voice doesn’t mean we should shut out those who came before us. As Iowa folk singer Greg Brown says, “I feel links back to a time that not much is known about. Songs, poetry, whatever you want to call it, that urge, it just goes way, way, way back there. And that’s a good connection to feel to life. It’s hard for me to imagine life without that.”
Which takes us back to butterflies. As author Barbara Kingsolver notes, monarch butterflies that travel from Appalachia down to Mexico may live for just a few weeks. During a migration, one generation dies and the next is born—several times. That means a butterfly “returning” from Mexico to Kentucky could be the great-great-grandchild of the one that departed months before. And yet it returns to the exact spot from which its ancestors departed. Scientists don’t fully understand this phenomenon, but perhaps the butterflies’ internal compass is cellular. To consider this in human terms: the knowledge, dreams, hopes, and prayers of our ancestors reside within us.
Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
There’s something about the way Lucinda Williams sings—her songs just tear open your heart. It’s everything from her lyrics to her languid Southern phrasing to the emotion, longing, and desire in her voice. Ultimately it’s Lucinda’s authenticity that resonates with her fans, a legion that’s been building steadily since she released her eponymous album, Lucinda Williams, in 1988.
Though she’d put out a couple of albums nearly a decade earlier, it doesn’t seem coincidental that she titled her 1988 disc with her name. That album announced Lucinda to the world with the defiant “Changed the Locks” (covered years later by Tom Petty), the plaintive “Night’s Too Long,” and the upbeat “Passionate Kisses,” which became a global hit and earned her a Grammy for Best Country Song in 1994, after Mary Chapin Carpenter covered it.
Lucinda—most fans call her by her distinctive first name—is often seen as a pioneering Americana artist, blazing a trail for many who’ve followed. Yet to categorize her music would be to diminish her art. You know within seconds that Lucinda’s songs must be hers—she sounds like no one else.
Her breakthrough album was 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which won the Grammy in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category and which Rolling Stone called a “home-grown masterpiece.” It includes “Lake Charles,” a song about an old boyfriend who still held a place in her heart, and “Drunken Angel,” about a songwriter friend of hers who was shot to death in a bar fight. Both have become linchpins of her live sets. She views her 2016 album, The Ghosts of Highway 20, as a sequel. In Car Wheels, Lucinda is the kid in the backseat looking out the window, she told me, and in Ghosts, “I’m driving the car, looking out the window and looking back, thinking of the losses.”
On her album Blessed, Lucinda included a companion disc of raw early versions of the songs as she was working them up. It was like seeing an artist’s sketches before she paints, alongside the finished work. Many of her best songs have a deep sense of place—Southern locations, such as Slidell and Lake Pontchartrain, add texture to her songs.
I first saw Lucinda play in a small San Francisco nightclub in 1993—I had a girlfriend from the South who said we had to go see her favorite singer. The smoky club was packed—we climbed a stairway to get a better view of the petite firebrand as she set the hazy room ablaze with her singing and guitar playing. Between songs Lucinda would speak confessionally to the audience as if they were long-lost friends. My interviews with Lucinda, first in 2011 then again in 2016, confirmed how genuinely open she is.
Midway through our more recent interview, which was scheduled to be a half hour but lasted nearly an hour, Lucinda told me about a family controversy that surrounded her mother’s burial. It was almost like she was confiding in me as though I were a friend, which in hindsight felt ironic because though we’d never met, I felt like she was a companion because her music tapped into my deepest emotions and meant so much to me.
Lucinda Williams was born in 1953 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Her father, Miller Williams, was a poet and itinerant literature professor, her mother an amateur pianist. Her songs reflect a Southern gothic literary sensibility; in 2016 she told Rolling Stone: “I related to Flannery O’Connor at a young age. My mother’s father was a fire-and-brimstone Methodist preacher. I saw a lot of that kind of thing growing up, and I read about it in O’Connor. Her writing was really dark but also ironic and humorous. It informs a lot of my songs.”
In 2017, Lucinda succeeded in doing something few artists could successfully pull off. She re-recorded her 1992 album Sweet Old World, which she felt hadn’t received the attention it deserved, on its 25th anniversary. The new album, This Sweet Old World, illuminates Williams’ growth as an artist. She’s more confident now though her vulnerability still shines through on songs such as “Something About What Happens When We Talk.” Her voice sounds better than ever, aged and mellowed like a fine bourbon, on compositions such as the re-make of “Sidewalks of the City,” an overlooked gem.
Most recently, I saw Lucinda play at The Fillmore in San Francisco. My wife and I had spent the afternoon in the city at the Women’s March, a day after the January 2017 inauguration of President Trump. It rained heavily and we were drenched, but Lucinda lit up the steamy room. When we arrived we’d felt desolate about the political future of our country, but spending the evening with Lucinda was the perfect tonic. Her show was part protest rally, part revival meeting, and all no-holds-barred kickass rock show.
She opened the concert with the encouraging “Walk On,” and later played “Are You Down” and “Protection”—followed by an encore set that included covers of David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It was exactly what we needed to hear. Lucinda didn’t sugarcoat anything, but her presence helped a roomful of disparate souls come together and believe that someday everything would be all right.
Lucinda, could you speak about being so open about your emotions?
Well, I consider myself an artist first. It’s self-expression, which is what art is meant to be, is supposed to be. That explains why I’m able to put out that kind of depth with all that feeling and everything. Like an artist who’s painting or a photographer, I look at it in the same way. I do it for myself first to deal with it, to deal with the pain and deal with the situation and circumstances and all. It’s very cathartic and therapeutic. So it starts there and then comes out in the song and goes to other people. I just never felt self-conscious about doing that—maybe because I grew up around poets and writers and short-story writers. In the writing world, it’s done all the time. In other artistic worlds, nobody really questions that. I guess I’m kind of an anomaly in a way.
But isn’t there something more visceral about music that gets in your soul?
I totally agree. People don’t question the depth and all that as much in books and poetry. My dad’s writing, of course, really influenced me. I’m realizing that more and more, the older I get, now that he’s gone. I’ve turned two of his poems into songs, which was very challenging, and now I’m excited because I feel like, Wow, this is a whole new thing here, making a poem into a song really does show you the difference between poems and songs.
His creative writing students would say when Bob Dylan first came out: Bob Dylan’s a poet. And my dad would say: No, he’s a songwriter. When I took my dad’s poems and tried to turn them into songs, I understood what he was saying. He would write a poem about anything from a cat sleeping in a windowsill to a wreck on a highway. He has this one poem he wrote about passing a wreck on the highway on his way to meet with this woman—he has this dying need to be with this woman, and he passes this wreck and gets out. Later he feels guilty because he didn’t stay to help. This is really a tense poem.
My dad used to always say: Never censor yourself. I’m fortunate in that regard—I was very blessed because my father was a poet and sort of a mentor to me. I’ve always been somewhat of a rebel; it’s kind of in my blood. I like to push people’s buttons a little bit. I want people to be moved.
When we spoke years ago you suggested that the main similarity between poetry and songwriting is making every word count.
Exactly. Yes that’s it, and not sugarcoating things. There’s a place for those kinds of songs. I love great pop music—don’t get me wrong. But we’re talking about something else. Every single song doesn’t have to be this cathartic narrative. I saw Bob Dylan going through that. I saw him put out that album (in 1997) Time Out of Mind, that Daniel Lanois produced. I love that album. In the 1960s, half of us didn’t know what he was singing half the time. Time Out of Mind is more about feeling. I am not embarrassed to admit that Bob Dylan was my hero starting from when I was 12 years old in 1965. I just fell madly in love with him and his music and everything.
Right about the time that album came out, I was trying to put songs together for the Essence album. I had just come out of the success of Car Wheels, and Essence ended up being a whole different thing. I gave myself permission to come up with songs like “Are You Down.” At first I thought, I can’t put this out—it doesn’t have all of that lyrical intensity that people are used to, like “Lake Charles” and “Drunken Angel.”
Another folk singer who comes to mind when we are talking about sharing feeling through song and using words poetically is Greg Brown.
He’s great. Why don’t more people know who this guy is?
In 1994, he released an album that was lyrically beautiful and his fans wanted his next album to be similar, but he was inspired to do something quite different.
The only way to deal with that is just do what you’re in, and do it well. That’s one reason I feel blessed because I’ve been able—I’ve kind of worked on that. Like Bob Dylan and Neil Young, you can still be yourself and write good songs and just try and move around a little bit and let it move sloooowww. But some people get stuck and keep doing the same thing over and over. Some people call it the sophomore jinx. You put out one album, and it’s really well-received; then you get kind of stuck. You gotta write through that.
Do you feel that tension between expectations and artistic creativity and freedom?
Not anymore. But I felt it during that period after Car Wheels came out and the next couple of albums. I saw the reviews, and some of the fans’ responses; it was sort of a bumpy road I had to go through and get past. At some point, my fans just went, OK, I get it. This is who she is—she’s going to do this, she’s going to do that, whatever, but it’s still her.
When Essence came out, Robert Christgau (longtime music editor for The Village Voice) who was a huge fan, he was just like, “I don’t get it.” And then Robert Hilburn in L.A. (pop critic for the Los Angeles Times) wrote a glowing review of Essence at which point Robert Christgau went back and re-listened to it and then came out with a better review. It just had to sink in—it was just the shock of it all at first. I knew I was taking a chance—I just hadn’t written songs like that before, like (the song) “Essence.” I was kind of allowing the music to guide the songs more than I’d done before. I was just growing.
I’ve grown to the point where this is a good place to be. I am who I am. Oh God, I just quoted Popeye! (laughs). I am who I am and that’s all that I am.
I’d like to talk about the Ghosts of Highway 20 album because it’s so moving. I was in the South recently on Highway 20, so I’d like to ask you about the connection between road and place and memory.
What I’ve realized is that the song, “The Ghosts of Highway 20,” is like the song “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” part two. In “Car Wheels” I was the child in the back seat looking out the window, and in “Ghosts of Highway 20” it’s 40 or 50 years later. I’m driving the car, looking out the window and looking back. I’m kind of looking at the same thing, but in “Car Wheels” my parents are in the front seat driving, I hear the low rumble of their conversation, and I’m describing all these things. In “Ghosts of Highway 20,” I’m older. Now I’m an adult and I’m driving through and thinking of the losses. …
Michael Shapiro has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years and has spent the past decade covering the arts, especially music and books, for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) and national magazines. He’s become known for his ability to forge a personal connection with artists such as Smokey Robinson, Lucinda Williams, David Sedaris, Graham Nash, Melissa Etheridge, Amy Tan and Lyle Lovett.
His National Geographic Traveler feature, about Jan Morris’ corner of Wales, won the Bedford Pace grand award. And his story about sustainable seafood in Vancouver earned the 2016 Explore Canada Award of Excellence in the culinary category. He has contributed several in-depth interviews to The Sun, a literary magazine, including conversations with Studs Terkel, Barry Lopez and oceanographer Sylvia Earle.
Shapiro’s award-winning book, A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration (Travelers’ Tales, 2004) is a collection of interviews with the world’s top travel authors, including Bill Bryson, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, Simon Winchester, Peter Matthiessen and Frances Mayes.
Shapiro has written about the Naadam festival in Mongolia for the Washington Post, tasted tequila in Jalisco for American Way, and spoken with Jane Goodall for O the Oprah Magazine. From 2011 to 2018, he wrote a weekly column about gambling for the San Francisco Chronicle and for four years had a column in the Chronicle’s travel section.
He volunteers as a whitewater rafting guide and sea kayak trip leader for Environmental Traveling Companions, a San Francisco-based group that takes physically challenged people on outdoor adventures. In 2016, he co-led a river trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, rowing his wife and others through the river’s fiercest rapids, including Lava Falls, without incident.
In 2017, Shapiro delivered a Sonoma County TEDx talk entitled “The Space Between” about how travel can narrow the gaps between people all over the globe and why that’s more important than ever. A native of New York, Shapiro graduated from UC Berkeley with high honors and now lives with his wife in Sonoma County.
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