In Search for Inspiration, Studio 360 Finds ‘Spark’ at the Source


spark.jpgWith the motto “where art and real life collide,” the public radio show PRI’s Studio 360, hosted by novelist and journalist Kurt Andersen, has featured hundreds of well known artists, writers, musicians, scientists and other inspiring people since November 2000.

Their stories are now told in a new book by longtime Studio 360 producer, Julie Burstein. ‘Spark: How Creativity Works,’ published Tuesday, draws on interviews with nearly 40 creative minds to draw lessons about what it means to be creative.

Burstein has kept that original motto alive throughout “Spark,” telling intimate stories of how artistic leaders have experienced that “collision,” and used their craft to overcome times of personal challenge and crises.

Kurt Andersen and Julie Burstein talk about their own creative process in writing

[Transcript after the jump]

This is a fun read. I was expecting it to be straight-up interviews from the show, but I like how you turned it into stories — I mean, they really became characters.

KURT ANDERSEN: One of the bigger themes — and this idea of the subtitle “How Creativity Works” — seemed to be a theme that was present in enough of them that Julie could use it as a way to surgically go through all of the interviews we’ve done and have them make sense. By the end of the book, I think there’s a kind of argument made. Not like an essay, but still, it’s not random Q&As.

JULIE BURSTEIN: The book really goes back to our early days where we, as we’d say, “where art and real life collides.” We really looked for the stories that resonate both on a level of, “OK, here are these people who make extraordinary works of art,” and also, “here are these people who are people who have parents that they wrestle with, and run into roadblocks in their lives that they have to get over.” And looking at both of those at the same time makes it so much richer.

In the forward Kurt wrote, “the prerequisite for doing exciting work is to be excited about it yourself, reaching to do or make something that you haven’t done or made before and which seems at least a little scary, just beyond your comfort zone.” Was that the case with writing this book? This was something a little different for you?

JULIE BURSTEIN: Absolutely. I think my two major fears that didn’t have to do with the actual writing itself was, one: I was so used to being part of this extraordinary team at Studio 360, and to feed off of the ideas of all these other people, and I was also worried because radio is an incredible immediate experience. When I was an arts reporter, I would get an idea in the morning and it would be on the air that night. And writing a book has been — this is the longest project I’ve ever worked on.

KURT ANDERSEN: It was sort of an interesting role reversal, given that eleven years ago, I didn’t know about hosting a radio show and Julie did…


KURT ANDERSEN: And now, at the other end of that decade, I, in the last thirty years, have written a bunch of books, and so Julie was the amateur. I hadn’t thought of that exactly, but our experience at both ends — me doing the radio show, you doing this book — are kind of applied case studies of what I posit as the theory of pushing yourself out of your creative comfort zone.

You had about ten years worth of material to choose from; what were the qualifications for the stories you selected?

JULIE BURSTEIN: Initially, we just looked at them to see what are the bigger themes and ideas that are surfaced. So Kurt and I sat down with the team at Studio 360 and we just said, “OK: childhood.” And everybody would say, “Oh, I remember when so-and-so did such-and-such.” And from that we had, I don’t know, I think I chose from over 150 different artist interviews…

KURT ANDERSEN: But as Julie says, we sort of let, under this general rubric of how creativity works, we let the themes float to the top. We let the dots connect themselves, really.

JULIE BURSTEIN: Yes. Then it was looking for the story that makes you think, but also makes you feel something. The stories in this book I really chose because I felt these artists had a way — their stories — of helping me see the world differently, but also helping me feel what was going on in my own life differently.

In recalling all of these interviews, it’s an indirect anthology of Studio 360’s first decade. As you were going back over these interviews, did you recall how the show had changed in that ten years? Was it reminiscent for you?

JULIE BURSTEIN: It was. I was thinking — one of the things we tried to do about five years ago in Studio 360 was to make it new, too. We had a very different format in the beginning, and there were things that came out of that that were very powerful and surprising. And then listening to the interviews that Kurt’s done in the last five years, which go in different directions, which also were really wonderful and surprising. But, I could hear the difference in the two formats of the show.

Did you feel the same way, Kurt?

KURT ANDERSEN: Oh, absolutely. First of all, there’s the rank amateur first year or so. I don’t think I screwed up horribly, but I was learning on the air. When Julie talks about the formats — for the first part of this decade, each show had a very clear theme and all of the stories and all the conversations for each week were around that theme, which is sort of forming the conversations in each case. There was probably a higher ratio of great ideas than great emotion and perhaps more emotion these days, because we’re not as tied directly to illuminating a given thematic thing…

JULIE BURSTEIN: But one of the things in those early years that I found that is so much harder to do is there was so much surprise, at least for me, when we were producing them. And that is something I can hear in some of the things that you’re doing now, that you get surprised, which is really great.

KURT ANDERSEN: I think one of the things also, that I think we do well on the show — Because I’m not just a guy on the radio, journalist asking questions of these artists. Because I write novels, because I’ve written films, because I’ve written theater, and all these things. I’m not Susan Sontag’s equal or Richard Serra’s equal or anything like that, but, I have a real hands-on daily sense of what it is to live your life doing creative things, which enables a different kind of conversation, which is more like a conversation than a traditional interview.

Do you feel like that vantage point helps you know even what questions to ask?

KURT ANDERSEN: Yeah, I do think it enables me to be, on the one hand sympathetic to the daily terror of trying to create things, but also it enables me to not let people get away with certain answers because I know they’re perhaps BS-ing me in the same way I would BS an interviewer if I were in their position.