Monday, October 22, 2007

Travel Book of the Week: 'A Sense of Place' by Michael Shapiro

Imagine being in a room with all your favorite travel writers and having conversations about writing, travel, and life. That’s what Michael Shapiro’s A Sense of Place is all about. It’s a virtual smorgasbord of information about the effort and thought that goes into writing a travel book.

A travel writer himself, although at that stage mostly writing about travel-tech issues, Michael Shapiro was looking to ‘learn from the masters’ by interviewing successful travel writers in their own homes. He saw this as a means of creating his own ‘personal graduate school‘ where he could ‘soak up knowledge and wisdom by osmosis‘. Luckily, we are also allowed admission to this school.

The book interviews 18 travel writers with diverse and interesting stories to tell. Not only are some my favorite writers, such as Pico Iyer and Bill Bryson, featured but I have also discovered a few new ones.

The information they impart ranges from Isabel Allende discussing how to create a sense of place in your writing - “…describe it with the senses. ..describe the smell, the color, the temperature, the texture, how you feel time, because time varies in every place.” (pg 119) - to Arthur Frommer on advice for aspiring travel writers - “…I tell people who want to write guidebooks or magazine articles to simply perform a audition - make believe they are writing about some aspect of their own community for a guidebook…go out and do the research and write it up. If you are good at it, if you are truly talented, it will be recognized.” (pg 181) But the secret of success, according to Bill Bryson, is that “…you just pound a path to the top of the mountain. You don’t just sort of levitate your way up.”(pg 148)

But it’s not all about writing. The conversations that Michael has with the writers also addresses so many other issues (such as politics and history) and this allows us a wonderful glimpse of the people behind the writing.

Needless to say, my copy of ‘A Sense of Place’ shows constant use. Pages are earmarked, sentences highlighted, and comments written wherever there is room.

Anyone who loves travel books will love this.


PS. Come back later this week for ‘Interview with a Travel Writer’ featuring an interview with Michael Shapiro.

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Keith said...


That's what I was going to call MY book! :)

I did do some research, because I thought Lawrence Durrell brought one out with a similar title ... turns out Durrell's book was called 'Spirit of Place' ... spoofed by his brother, Gerald, in an article called 'Fillets of Plaice'

Don't suppose there's any way of 'registering' a book title before you've written the book?


Keith, looks like you're a little late on that title. One of the writers Michael interviewed, Jonathan Raban said the same thing about a Bruce Chatwin book called 'What Am I Doing Here! Jonathan's response to that book as 'dammit, you've stolen the title that I should have used for one of my travel books.' So you're in great company anyway.

If you haven't already read 'A Sense of Place' do as it's a great insight into some of the best of today's travel writers.

Cheers, Liz

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