Pico Iyer

in conversation with Michael Shapiro

Recorded Saturday, October 17th, 2020

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Pico Iyer in conversation with Michael Shapiro

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Pico Iyer’s A Beginner’s Guide to Japan  draws on his years of experience — his travels, conversations, readings, and reflections — to craft a playful and profound book of surprising, brief, incisive glimpses into Japanese culture. His Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells is a moving elegy on the passage of time and the passing of loved ones, including Pico’s Japanese father-in-law.

Pico is a British-born essayist and novelist, often known for his travel writing. He is the author of numerous books on crossing cultures including Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk and The Global Soul. An essayist for Time since 1986, he also publishes regularly in Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, and other publications. He has travelled widely, from North Korea to Easter Island, and from Paraguay to Ethiopia, while writing thirteen works of non-fiction and two novels. Since 1992 Pico has spent much of his time at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur, California, and most of the rest in suburban Japan.

Michael Shapiro writes about travel, food, entertainment, art, and environmental issues for magazines and newspapers. A former staff reporter and editor at newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area, he’s the author of The Creative Spark, a collection of interviews with many of the world’s most creative people, as well as A Sense of Place featuring conversations with leading travel writers. His stories appear in National Geographic Traveler, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications. 

“A person susceptible to ‘wanderlust’ is not so much addicted to movement as committed to transformation.”

– Pico Iyer

A Personal Note from Pico Iyer & Michael Shapiro. 

Sent following their Conversations with Authors session.

Greetings, friends—and thank you, so much, one and all, for joining Michael and me in conversation this afternoon! We first hatched this event with our great old friend Elaine, at Book Passage, 373 days ago—just over a year ago to the day—and even as we saw it get postponed, and then go online, that only quickened our excitement and deepened the towering pile of notes and thoughts we’d assembled in advance.

More than any time in memory, this strange, displacing Year of the Virus has reminded me that books are among the most constant, deep and stimulating friends we have; they’re always there for us, they seldom get old and, even as they talk back to us, it’s with the most human and most spirited voices we could imagine.

In my own tiny bubble, I’ve been so grateful to this season for allowing me to transport myself with works of literature rather than with airplanes. As well as giving me unprecedented time to write, a chance to be with my family every hour of every day, the opportunity to take walks every morning and afternoon, this stay-at-home year has offered me one hour every afternoon in which to read. Each time I emerge from an hour’s encounter with somebody else’s pages, I can feel myself more attentive, more nuanced, more intimate, than I was before, a far better version of myself.

As mumbled in our talk, I turn to the news, and I feel cut up, powerless and stripped of hope; I read the real news given to me by writers, and I feel opened up and awakened to the beauty, subtlety, power and wonder of the world—and to a much larger sense of time.

Among the reading (or, more often rereading) highlights of the year, for me:

  • THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT, by Hilary Mantel (so titanic and uncanny that it seems to lift the roof off literature and render everything else very small indeed).
  • OLIVE, AGAIN, by Elizabeth Strout (yet another masterpiece from one of our wisest, most humane and most penetrating novelists)
  • THE NINTH HOUR, by Alice McDermott (quiet, and deeply moving, an explanation of what devotion truly means)
  • TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, by Virginia Woolf (re-read this January in Antarctica, after forty years, and more than worthy of all the sublimity around me)
  • THIS DIVIDED ISLAND, by Samanth Subramanian (dazzling reportage from war-shattered Sri Lanka).
  • THE CONVERSATIONS, by Michael Ondaatje (far and away the most inspiring and imaginative book on creativity I’ll ever read—and reread and read again).
  • IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME by Marcel Proust (the master of solitude, of society and of the secret life, as well as one of the wisest Buddhist teachers I’ve ever encountered).

Finally, please read LISTENING, by Jonathan Cott, the most brilliant and intuitive interviewer (of the most interesting souls) that I’ve ever encountered

Which reminds me: if you enjoyed this session, Michael and I will be reuniting with our friends from Book Passage to offer a class in The Art of the Interview—how to talk to the Dalai Lama, how to draw indelible stories out from your grandmother, how to get a yes from David Sedaris—on the afternoon of Saturday, November 14th, at this same site.

Please stay well, and I hope you can find happiness and health even in this difficult moment.


Dear friends of Book Passage,

Thank you for joining our uplifting conversation with Pico Iyer. It’s a joy and a privilege to speak with Pico as he has a knack for inspiring all of us to be our best selves. To prepare for our talk, I re-read Pico’s recent books about Japan, a true delight.

Autumn Light is an elegiac look at impermanence and how inevitable loss can lead us to appreciate every moment. It’s an insightful and often wistful view of Japan. In a way it feels like the sequel to The Lady and the Monk, the 1991 book about Pico meeting the two loves of his life: Japan and the woman who would become his wife.

A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, the other book he published last year, reads like an illuminating series of tweets. The book sees Japan as a riddle inside an enigma wrapped in koan, a place that becomes more beguiling and endearing every day. Here’s one entry: “Japan is the land of the bento box. Portions are small, and divisions absolute.” 

My recent book of interviews is called The Creative Spark, with 32 of our most visionary artists speaking about their creative processes. Each chapter begins with a biographical introduction, then segues into Q+A. Among those interviewed in The Creative Spark: Amy Tan, David Sedaris, Smokey Robinson, Barbara Kingsolver and Francis Ford Coppola. Pico Iyer’s chapter bats leadoff.

For those interested in the essay we discussed about the silver linings of the pandemic, here a brief excerpt: “What I’m feeling is nostalgia for a time that’s not yet over, a time through which we’re still living, and I know of no word for that. Maybe we could call it ‘prestalgia.’ This is similar to a sensation I have on a fantastic trip: I start missing Nepal a night or two before flying out of Kathmandu.” My essay is titled “A Month of Sundays” and can be read in full here: https://thebolditalic.com/a-month-of-sundays-im-already-missing-sheltering-in-place-ddbb0b7acfdb 

Among the authors I’m reading at the moment: Ijeoma Oluo whose So You Want to Talk about Race is eye-opening. I just re-read Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, sheer pleasure from the first page to the last.

If you enjoyed Saturday’s event, please join Pico and me again on Saturday, Nov. 14 at 1:30pm PT for a two-hour Zoom class called “The Art of the Interview.” We’ll be discussing tools and techniques for anyone who wants to hone their interviewing skills, whether for journalistic writing, podcasts, or simply to speak with loved ones about their lives; we may even touch on job interview skills. 

We look forward to continuing the conversation!

– Michael Shapiro