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This is an interview by Tessa Ryser, as part of a research project she was conducting at Utah State University in the fall of 2009. She has published it elsewhere, but she agreed to let me put it on this site, too.
Creativity Interview with Michael Spooner
Interviewer: Tessa Ryser
Interviewee: Michael Spooner
1) What inspires you? Why?
I don’t think my experience would be much different from anyone’s. That is, I’m inspired by beauty and pain, by the natural world, mechanical wonders, by exceptional moments in art of many forms, by extraordinary intellectual insights. And so on.
2) Who do you consider to be a visionary? Why? Who has been the greatest inspiration in your life? If you could interview anyone past or present, who would it be?
“Vision” is so contingent a concept that I really have trouble applying it. I do admire other people, and I find in their lives much to honor and respect. But I may believe that we are all too irreconcilably different--and too irredeemably imperfect--to hope for any real purpose in looking to their lives for patterns that I might be able to recapitulate in my own. Which is to say, I guess, that I don’t have any heroes. It’s quite sad, when you think about it.
3) What landscape or nature area inspires you? Is there a particular place where you feel the most creative? Can you describe the feeling?
I have a love-hate relationship with nature. I have been scraped, scratched, bitten, bruised, thumped, bumped, frozen, scorched, soaked, smoked, burned, and battered too often to accept the Romantic era’s empty-headed joy in the face of nature. I probably have something closer to Tennyson’s attitude, where nature is red in tooth and claw, utterly indifferent to human life--in fact, to life of any kind.
4) If you had the chance to live during a different artistic movement other than now, which one would you choose and why? What about a different historical period or event?
I tend to be caught somewhere between Voltaire, who suggests ironically (and with unassailable logic) that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and WS Gilbert, who derided “the idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone / all centuries but this / and any country but his own.” One could say I am content to live in my own place and time . . . or one could say that I’m resigned to it.
5) Does music strongly affect your work? What type of music inspires you the most?
I find music deeply enriching and sustaining, but I have extremely eclectic taste. I love everything from opera to sea shanties to Motown to string quartets and the music of Bimstein, who samples electronic noise and the sounds of Utah barnyard animals.
6) Who is your favorite author? Favorite book? Why? What books did you love when you were little? What children’s books do you admire now?
Ok. I don’t think you can get any better than Umberto Eco in his novel Foucault’s Pendulum, although Michael Chabon does come close, and so does Iain Pears.
7) What movies have inspired you? How?
What I like in movies is how compressed the timeline is, so that you can really see the story structure. Plus, I like dialogue, and in movies, the strengths and weaknesses of dialogue are pretty clear. But again, I wouldn’t use the word “inspire” to describe my own experience. I probably live too much in my head, but when I watch movies, I’m more attentive to how they work than to how they move me. Because of this, I tend to enjoy movies that are strong in dialogue and that explore complicated relationships. When I think of great movie narratives and dialogue, I think of those written by people like Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, the Cohn brothers, etc.
8) Do you ever have to purposefully search for inspiration? Where do you look?
I don’t think I search for inspiration so much as I watch for narrative tricks, gimmicks, ruses, and structural ideas to rip off. You can find those wherever you find narrative--in novels, short fiction, movies, TV shows, operas, wherever.
9) What physical activities inspire you the most? Why? How does it make you feel? (physical like running, swimming, drawing, hunting, etc.)
Anything that hurts.
10) Do you consider yourself to have a lively imagination? If so, how do you put it to good use? Do you daydream?
Yes I daydream altogether too much. The thing about human identity, according to me, is that we humans are inveterate story makers. We understand the world as a narrative with ourselves in the leading role, and this is how we create our individual sense of self--like, I’m the person to whom everything is happening.
1) Where do you get your ideas? Every Newbery speech and author’s website I have thus far read addresses this question and it often appears as number one on the most frequently asked question lists. Why do you think readers are so interested in the answer? Does understanding the origin of ideas assist the creative process?
See, I’m not sure that understanding the origin of ideas is really of any use to anyone. Ideas come from one’s own life experience, and that is really far too tangled a network of impulses and influences social and biological for anyone to sort out.
2) What is creativity to you? Do you consider yourself creative?
I’m not sure what creativity is to me. Probably, it’s all about incongruity: juxtaposition and surprise. What you want to do is put ideas and language into play with each other in ways that are just a little bit unusual. Familiar enough to allow the reader to track your train of thought, but strange enough (i.e., new enough) to keep their curiosity working.
3) Do you believe creativity is innate or learned? Please explain. What would be the most important action one should take to become more creative?
I think creativity must be innate, but innate in every individual. For example, practically every human child is capable of learning language, and that is an incredibly creative process. We can see creativity throughout the life of an individual, whether they work with their hands, with words, with other people, whatever. Even simply engaging another person in conversation requires a miraculous cognitive ability to invent, extend, refine, and respond to a welter of ideational input.
4) What do you do to get into your “creative zone” or get your “creative juices” flowing?
I need to be happy, or at least interested in what I’m doing, and I need music, and I need an extended period of time in which to work.
5) What are your experiences with writer’s block? And how do you overcome it?
Usually this happens to me at points of transition. I think I get focused on what’s happening currently, and that becomes a sort of box. The only way I know to overcome it is to continue experimenting. Stick with it. Butts in chairs.
6) What effect (if any) do you believe childhood has had on your creativity as an adult? Have any other events or moments had a substantial impact?
There’s no way around our own childhood, but I don’t think we have access to very much of how it influences us. I assume that the more we are encouraged to experiment and express ourselves as children, the more comfortable we will be with invention--the twin of creativity--as we grow.
7) There is a long history of extremely creative people, particularly writers and artists, suffering from various mental illnesses and often committing suicide. Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Allen Poe, Jackson Pollock, Paul Simon, Vincent van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, Sylvia Plath… to name a few. What do you think of the correlation between creativity and madness or psychological issues?
I think many writers and artists live with compulsion or a sense of being driven. Compulsion is an ally of imbalance and, while it can make the experience of creation a very intense one, it can be very hard to control, and, obviously, it can become self-destructive.
8) This summer, I traveled to Switzerland and took a class on creative thinking. We discussed the Swiss mountains and speculated on why people find mountains so inspiring. What is your opinion? Why do people find mountains and nature in general inspiring?
Personally, I find the natural world interesting because I know that I am of it, and yet I know it is utterly indifferent to me. I mean, a mountain will outlast me by an infinite measure, so in an important sense, I don’t even exist to it. Besides, a mountain has no nervous system through which to perceive me. So, again, I tend to think of Romantic-style sentiment about nature as hogwash.
9) Also, in Switzerland, we practiced bringing something “new” into our lives each day in order to inspire. What do you think of this concept?
Sounds great. Newness is what stretches us.
10) Please describe your own creative process. Please include how you feel during the process and what role your emotions play. What role does research and knowledge play?
I don’t have coherent answers for this, so I’ll just list features of the process of which I’m aware: