A Sense of Place at the Pan Pacific San Francisco
There are few occasions when champagne is not important. If Jan Morris, Tim Cahill, Isabel Allende, and Jeff Greenwald are in the room ready to talk about their writing lives, it is one of them.
As you know, I went to the book release party for Michael Shapiro’s A Sense of Place at the top of the Pan Pacific in San Francisco. And if my friend Jim hadn’t gone to get me my glass of champers, I wouldn’t have even bothered with it at all.
The event was sold out and the Terrace Room was standing room only. Book TV camera crews lined the south wall, two long rows of chairs faced the elevated panel tables. Book Passage was selling books from all the attending authors in the entry hall and I paid for a Travelers’ Tales book for the first time in nine years. Michael tried to stop me, but I wanted one. Right then. Straight from the first batch. That’s right, books were rushed from the printer straight to BP for this event and the Travel Writer’s and Photographer’s Conference this weekend. The TT office would get their shipment later. (Here's a sample chapter as a preview)
I’ll give you 19 reasons why this book is going to be a knock out. 18 of them speak for themselves.
Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer, Jan Morris, Simon Winchester, Peter Matthiessen, Redmond O’Hanlon,
Tim Cahill, Jonathan Raban, Isabel Allende, Brad Newsham, Frances Mayes, Jeff Greenwald, Sara Wheeler, Arthur Frommer, Rick Steves, and Eric Newby
The 19th is the authorMichael Shapiro. I’ve known Michael for several years throughout my time with Travelers’ Tales. But I’ve only known him in the way that a seventh grader dances a slow dance at the high school gym. At arm’s length. Michael has been in and out of Larry’s office for three or four years, and a few times when I happened to be in town. I never heard what they were talking about, but it was always kind of weird. They were quiet meetings. Meetings that Susan didn’t even really know about. I knew Michael wrote the Internet Travel Planner and had a tech column in several travel sections, I knew he had worked with CNET, but what was he doing with us? Was TT going to do some travel website book I didn’t know about? And if so, why wasn’t Larry telling me about it so I could help!
Michael was polite in his greetings and always asked about my current projects with positive interest and encouragement. But still, I felt that we didn’t know each other well enough to be giving the hugs that we always used to greet one another.
After Wednesday night, I think I’m going to break Michael with every hug that I give him. His presentation of this book blew me away. It was as if every small essence of Michael that I’d received through previous meetings or cursory reads of this web travel columns were just a bartender’s glasses lined on the counter after a washing up. All I had known of Michael before meant nothing because until Wednesday I simply hadn’t seen him as he sees himself.
Larry handed a check of $3000 to the City Lights Foundation and Lawrence Ferlinghetti was even in the audience. Then he introduced Michael, and Michael then introduced those who really need no introduction. From the audience’s view, Michael was on the far left in a black suit with a silver tie. Isabel was on his right, in a black dress with blue accents and a sparkling necklace. Then Tim in all black who has never looked more trim in the nine years I’ve been going to see him. Jan to the right of Tim was in a white and black striped shirt, and Jeff was on our far right in a lavender shirt and tie.
Michael let us know right away that the authors in this book will tell you that they are writers not travel writers. And that this book is about them, and their places. He then asked the present authors a variety of questions and here are some of the ones that I was able to loosely jot down. As a teaser, I’m going to follow it with a small bit from the book…
For Jan Morris
M: Tell us why for half a century you write about great cities, but then always return to Wales.
Jan: I’m not a natural wanderer. I get homesick and I want to go home. I’m homesick right now…In the case of most Welsh people, we don’t want to leave.
Morris’s home is down a narrow country lane fronted by a sign reading “This is a Welsh speaking district.” The River Dwyfor sings sweetly nearby; a proud stuffed red kite, magnificent in its tawny plumage, casts a watchful gaze over the living a real and the eighteenth-century stone walls promise protection from the capricious outside world. During the interview, conducted in the presence of the forty some volumes Morris has authored, Ibsen made himself comfortable on top of my Cordura briefcase. When we finished talking, Jan, and avowed cat-lover, said, “I hope Ibsen’s not still on your bag,” and before I could finish saying he’d moved, she continued, “because if he was I wouldn’t let you move it!”
Afterward, Jan gave me a quick tour of the sturdy house with it’s models of old slate ships, drawings of Venice, and two bronze busts, one of herself and one of Admiral Jacky Fisher, about whom she wrote a biography and with whom she plans to have an affair in the afterlife.”
For Isabel Allende
M: What has home meant to you?
IA: I decided to settle down early. I fell in love and married the most boring man I knew. Then in 1973 we were forced to leave. We left to Venezuela and lived there for 13 years. I’ve been married to an American for 17 years and I love him still. I became an American citizen but I’m feeling rootless again. Every time I move to a place, things go wrong – revolutions, etc. I may be responsible for the War in Iraq….Home? My roots are with Willie and my books.
For the interview, I met Allende at her home on a brisk November morning. The sand-colored house, built just a few years ago, was blasted with treatments to make it look like a century-old Chilean home. The wrought-iron balconies around the windows lend it colonial elegance, while the sage and rosemary that border the walkway add a distinctive California touch. Affixed to the house was a thick wooden sign reading “La Casa de los Espiritos”
The bay glistened in the scattered sunshine and the living room windows offered sweeping views of three Bay Area bridges. Inside her home were museum-quality pieces that Allende has collected during her travels: an alabaster Buddha from Burma, a Tibetan trunk bought in Nepal, a blowgun from the Amazon jungle…
For Tim Cahill
M: You always say Livingston is the best place in the world to live. Why?
Tim: Because they don’t have any warrants out for my arrest….I like the mountains, the water. I like this small town of 7,000 people. But the drawbacks are that the wind blows like snot all the time.
The next day Tim asked if I’d like to see his cabin in the woods and help him pull his plastic water pipes out of the creek. As yellow aspen leaves rustled in the breeze, we drove on dusty roads past the small house where he lived when he first moved to Montana in the late 70s. “See that long drivewayit wasn’t plowed in winter so I had to post hole it up that road with bags of groceries and the dog.” Nearby ranches belong to Tom McGuane, Robert Redford, and Tom Brokaw. “See that place up there on the hill—you’ll never guess who used to own it; Whoopie Goldberg,” he said. “But she sold it after a year.”
For Jeff Greenwald
M: You split your time between Oakland and Nepal. Where do you feel most at home?
Jeff: Gertrude Stein said, “There’s no there, there.”
As a Buddhist, that appeals to me. In 1979 I went to Kathmandu chasing a woman. And when I saw the monuments and the yaks and the people I said, “Whatever miracle landed me here, welcome home.” When I’m in Oakland it is impossible to tear myself away and go, and when I’m there it’s impossible for me to come home.
On a wall was a bronze and wooden plaque earned by his father, Robert Greenwald, a sales manager for General Electric for flying 100,000 miles on United Air Lines. Awarded in 1965, it reads: “In Appreciation of Your Valuable contribution to Air Transport Progress.” The plaque contains a globe with four circles around it, representing a distance of 100,000 miles. “That’s what they gave you in the days before frequent flyer miles,” he quipped.
Greenwald, who spent much of his twenties pursuing the visual arts and sculpture, has some of his own art decorating his walls. One piece, showing a watch, symbolizes time slipping away. “I felt like I was wasting time not being in Asia,” he said.
Jan told a story that she’s told 8,210 times about returning from Everest in 1953.
Jan: We were at a banquet at Lancaster House. I sat next to a Major Domo with silvery hair and an English voice. I do hope you will enjoy the Claret he said. It’s the last vintage in the world that exists and this is the last case. Tensing, was there looking princely and a glow…he had been enjoying the wine. Then the English guy said “Oh how good it is that Mr. Tensing knows a good Claret when he sees one!”
Tim on adventure
A good adventure only becomes an adventure when it’s done and you’re thinking about it later. [IA interjects: Just like sex! Better to write about it.]
Writers often have epiphanies at the climax. Only days or weeks later, you’re lying in some developing country with a circling fan about the bed and dust-mites all around, I think—maybe that was an adventure. And sometimes it doesn’t come to me until I’m writing about it.
Jeff on writing for the Internet ten years ago
That was some of the freshest writing I’ve ever done. I felt like I was having a conversation with the world. There’s something about it that’s very addictive. It’s wonderful to know that my freshest most current writing is coming out unadulterated.
Isabel on grief and India
My daughter had died and I was grieving. I tried to write and couldn’t. We ended up going to India and I got over the grief.
I saw life. Hot life. The space between people is so close there is no separation. Grief blended into the landscape of the place. When we left India, we left with the beauty, not the poverty or the struggle. When you leave India you immediately think, when am I going to come back?
Where is everyone going next?
Tim: Kenya on a 200 mile walk with camels. He leaves Monday
Isabel: Scandinavian countries. No camels, but a lot of room service!
Jeff: Just back from Israel
If you could take Bush anywhere in the world, where would you take him?
Jan: Back to meet with Tony Blair
Jeff: A three month trip to India just with our backpacks
Tim: coffee houses in Iran to have him listen to people talk (with an interpreter)
Isabel: with a backpack in Iraq
Michael: to Cuba
Any advice on getting into the business of writing?
Tim: Without being sarcastic, write. The more you do it, the better you get.
Jeff: Find what you love and take a look at it in a different light
Michael: Read relentlessly and critically. Think about what they do.
Jan: DON’T have a role model. I believe you should find your own style. If you follow someone else, it doesn’t come from the heart.
One funny moment of the evening was when Tim poured Jan a glass of water while she was talking. She stopped to accept it and said, “Oh, gin! Thank you!” The audience roared. And even though I’m trying to relate this to you, it is impossible for me to tell you about her smile, or the inflection in which she speaks that has everyone in stitches. I can’t show you the energy of the room, the excitement of new travel writers asking the same question these legends have heard time and time again…how do we start? How do we become you?
I also can’t begin to explain how this night for me was like looking through a window into Michael’s heart. His true passion. Reading travel literature. He got next to no money to do this book, and still he remained strong in his belief that this book was a Travelers’ Tales book and only a Travelers’ Tales book. So why did Michael spend two years working on this project? Because he saw it as his grad school. He wanted to become a better travel writer himself. To prepare for the 18 interviews in A Sense of Place he had to know the authors’ work. He read several of their books to the point where he knows their writing with confidence. You should’ve seen him lead the evening. I know he spent hours upon hours preparing for the panel, going over their chapters, making sure he was ready. But you wouldn’t have known it. He was speaking from his heart, about his heart’s work. And when anyone does that, really does that, after having given their work 110%they shine.
As a presenter myself, I was amazed at how effortless he made it look. Isn’t that the best? When people have a dream, go after it, and get it. Like I always say, it can be done.
Michael, you impressed me. I’m looking forward to reading your book, and can’t wait to get the inside scoop on these writers we look up to so. Thank you, Michael.
Photo credit: Tom Stryker