The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with Inspired Taste food bloggers Adam & Joanne

When a friend from work suggested these next interviewees, I immediately went to their site and spent the next twenty minutes drooling. Adam and Joanne Gallagher are the creators of Inspired Taste, a popular food and recipe blog, and they’re here to share the details about their success.

Adam and Joanne of Inspired Taste

If there’s anyone you’d want to invite you over for dinner, it’d be Adam and Joanne Gallagher. Chances are, the couple would start the evening off with some spicy maple bacon wrapped shrimp as an appetizer, serve up some lemon chicken with fresh chickpea salad and focaccia bread on the side, then finish up the meal with panna cotta in blueberry sauce for dessert. After a few cocktails, they’d even send you home with all their recipes. Sharing their culinary secrets is kind of their thing.

As the chefs, photographers, and writers behind the food and recipe site Inspired Taste, these high school sweethearts share a dream job and are “lucky” enough to be able to do it full-time. (We all know “lucky” is code for “they bust their butts.”) Hours of prepping, trial and error, and of course taste testing go into each and every new recipe Adam and Joanne concoct, and Inspired Taste has their personal stamp all over it. What started as a hobby became so much more for this ambitious couple, and they’re only just getting started.

Welcome, Adam and Joanne!

 

You guys are high school sweethearts, which is utterly romantic. How did your shared love for the culinary arts grow and evolve together?

Oddly enough, we only started to get to know each other two weeks before our high school graduation. From there, we didn’t really connect over cooking until the last few years of college. We both had apartments with kitchens so we began cooking together. Since we both enjoyed it so much, it evolved from there.

What did you each do for work before going full-time with Inspired Taste? Did your work lack in creative fulfillment?

Ready? We worked at the same engineering firm! Joanne’s parents owned a small business and we both worked full-time spending our days working on proposals and contracts. While the engineers were super creative, our particular jobs were not. That’s why the moment we came home we got to cooking—both nights and weekends.

When and how did the realization sink in that you could take your blog full-time? What did that feel like?

Our blog grew slowly and our road to making enough money to cover our lifestyle was, at times, painfully slow. Now, though, we often wake up in the morning and feel the need to pinch each other—it’s kind of still sinking in.

What were your family and friends’ reactions when you explained to them your plans of becoming professional bloggers? Did you have a lot of support?

Everyone has been really supportive, even when they don’t exactly understand what it is we do on a daily basis (not that we blame them). I’m not even sure we can explain it that well.

Adam and Joanne of Inspired Taste

Do you ever feel pressure to maintain and build upon your success? How do you keep it in perspective?

Sure, but our blog has a built in reminder—comments from our readers. Our blog is all about food and cooking so when we get a comment telling us how well a recipe worked out for them and their family/friends it feels good. Like most people, we feel pressure all the time, but the comments keep us grounded.

Do you ever worry about running out of inspiration for new recipes or content?

Not at all—inspiration really is everywhere. Sometimes it takes a little longer, but we always get there in the end. If we’re feeling down, we pick ourselves up and either go somewhere like the beach or a park. Or, we’ll try tackling a crazy recipe—something like sourdough bread, homemade pasta or croissants. All just for fun.

Stuffed-Shells

Describe the joy that cooking (and writing about cooking) brings you.

Food makes us smile—fresh produce in the grocery store or markets, garlic hitting hot oil or tomato sauce simmering away on the stove. It hits all the senses, and since we both love it so much it gives us things to chat about and connect over. Plus, we get to eat it.

What are some of your favorite books (or cookbooks)?

Tough question—we’ve got so many! We absolutely love anything from Alice Waters, Julia Child and of course fellow food bloggers—so many have transformed their passion into amazing cookbooks.

Adam and Joanne of Inspired Taste

Some professional bloggers let their work consume their lives. How much time do you spend cooking, writing, editing, promoting, cleaning, etc.? Does it become tedious? How do you avoid burnout?

We try to keep some balance, but sometimes work takes over. We cook all the time, but try our best to keep things like writing, editing, responding to comments and promoting to the day and not evenings. As far as cleaning—we hate it, but probably spend as much time doing that as cooking. It’s worth it, though.

Yes, sometimes it is a little tedious, but the pros outweigh the cons.

Are there plans or dreams of Inspired Taste taking on forms in other mediums like, say, a book?

Sure—lots of them, but for now, we’re happy growing what we have. We love what we’re doing today.

What sacrifices have you made to make your dreams a reality and sustain them?

Lifestyle. Just like many small business owners, we have found that we need to give up a few things to keep the business growing. For example, we absolutely love to travel, but have held back a lot since working full time. We hope in the future we’ll be able to travel more. It’s worth the wait, though. We are completely in love with what we do on a daily basis.

 

Thanks so much, guys! I cannot wait to try out some of your recipes. Have questions or comments for Adam and Joanne? Leave them in the comments!

The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with The Innocents novelist Francesca Segal

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to receive a copy of my next interviewee’s book in the mail. Embarrassingly, it sat unread at the top of my book pile longer than I intended. When I finally picked it up, I was only sorry I hadn’t read it sooner. And now that I’ve had the pleasure of reading her book, I can finally introduce you to author Francesca Segal.

Francesca Segal

Photo by Nick Seaton

Growing up, London-born author Francesca Segal spent much of her time between the UK and America. First establishing herself as a journalist, she contributed to publications like Vogue, the Guardian, and Newsweek. Her debut novel, The Innocents, was released last year and received praise from the ObserverPublishers Weekly, and People magazine to name a few.

As is often the case with writers, Francesca’s love for words came at an early age. Crediting her father Erich Segal, author and screenwriter of the bestseller-turned-box-office-hit Love Story, Francesca recalls practicing mock interviews as young as age four. The bug has stayed with her since.

The Innocents is a stunning novel about commitment, betrayal, and family ties. With her exquisite prose and witty storytelling, Francesca elegantly captures the complex inner workings of a loving yet dysfunctional family. It’s a captivating story and, hopefully, the first of many for Francesca.

Welcome, Francesca!

Every published author, it seems, gets well-intentioned but maddening comments from others such as, “Oh, how fun! I wish I had time to write a book.” Does it drive you crazy? What do you say to those people?

It used to bother me far more before I was published, because I felt intimidated by all of them. But now I just understand it’s how people are. I’m married to a scientist and he gets exactly the same thing – when he talks about his work, everyone asks where he’s “studying”. No one can understand that being a scientist is a job, not an extended degree. And no one really thinks writing is either.

What these people don’t seem to realize is that this kind of undertaking is about shifting priorities and making sacrifices. What did you have to sacrifice to write your novel?

I turned down a lot of work; I turned down a lot of social engagements, and I lived like a hermit for a very long time – blissfully – but quite isolated. And of course you have to finish a first novel before you can sell it, so you’re doing a huge amount on trust. It’s hard to quantify, but it is an enormous undertaking.

Many people assume fiction writing is heavily inspired by the author’s life. Is that at all true for you?

It’s true that people assume that, but my novel is very much fiction and not remotely inspired by my own life, or my own family. The tapestry beneath the story – the community I’ve described, is one that I know very well, and that social climate is drawn from real life. But that’s it. No real people.

The Innocents

Does the current state of the publishing industry create pressure for you to be successful? Have you had a lot of support?

I’ve had wonderful support from my publishers everywhere, and so I have nothing to compare it to. But yes, I think now that everyone can see sales figures at a keystroke, there is less opportunity for a slow trajectory to success. Authors are expected to get further, faster.

How do you deal with negative reviews?

Lie face-down on the sofa in fit of abject misery and self-pity, rant about it to my husband, then pull my socks up and get on with it. I’ve been very lucky, in general, I think. But you can’t listen to every voice.

What was it like finally seeing your book on shelves? Did it live up to your expectations?

It was heartstopping. It’s all I’ve dreamed of for so long, it was almost impossible to process.

How much of the time spent on your novel was dedicated to revision? And are you ever truly done, or do you just have to make the decision to let things be as they are?

About half and half, I think. No, I believe the maxim that books are never finished, merely abandoned. At some point you feel you are doing more harm than good with your revisions, and then you stop.

Francesca Segal

Photo by Tom Craig

“Writer’s block” is a much debated-over topic. What’s your take on it?

I sometimes think labelling it akin to pathologising it. I would try and just call it a hard week/month at work, which we all have sometimes, and know that it will pass. “Writers’ block” sounds terminal.

Besides your own, of course, what are some of your favorite books?

I love Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie; Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels; I adore Jane Gardam, AS Byatt, Jennifer Egan, AM Homes, Naomi Alderman, Hilary Mantel – I could keep going, and those are just the contemporary novelists.

For you, what is the greatest reward for writing and exposing your work to others?

It’s wonderful to hear that a work has touched readers, and hearing their reactions is amazing after crafting something alone for so long. Everyone finds something different in your work, and it’s a privilege to talk about it. But being able to do the work is the greatest reward – that how this book has done means I can go away and write another book.

Do you have any advice for aspiring or struggling novelists?

It’s not very original but reading is the key to everything – you must be a passionate reader in order to write. Everything you need to know about beautiful prose, about crafting a character, about pacing a plot, can all be found in the Canon.

 

Thanks so much for sharing your insight, Francesca. I’m always fascinated  by the writer’s process. Were you equally as fascinated with Francesca’s interview? Let her know in the comments!

Do you think you or someone you know would be a good fit for The “Lucky” Ones series? I’m on the hunt! Check out past interviews, then shoot me an email at wittycassiehere [at] gmail [dot] com.

The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with farmer-artist McKenzie Ditter

If you haven’t stopped by WTH since before last Thursday, don’t worry—you are in the right place. Things just got a whole lot prettier. A reminder that if you purchase an ad between now and the end of March, you can get 20% off the regular price with the promo code “REDESIGN.” (Etsy shop owners, you get 25% off—email me your shop link and I’ll email you back your own promo code.)

More special redesign-related posts are coming your way soon, but right now, here’s an interview that I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Meet my good friend McKenzie… and her adorable farmy animals.

McKenzie

If you know McKenzie Goetz (and I do!), then chances are you’ve been welcomed to her home countless times and were treated to whatever home-cooked meal was in season. (And it was freaking amazing.) Then, you probably not-so-casually asked if you could go hang out with her eight sheep, 24 chickens, and two aplacas—the latter of whom are aptly named Oliver and Abraham.

McKenzie and her husband Jamie are not your typical 20-somethings. Though they consider themselves new to farming, these homesteaders have dedicated their lives to building a foundation that they hope will allow them to support themselves completely off their land. And it’s been hard work. Car troubles, living without heat, and Jamie’s nearly life-threatening wrist break and subsequent infection have been true tests of their will. But they’ve also had a lot of success to keep them motivated. The satisfaction of self-sufficiency is the greatest reward, and McKenzie’s art and blog (named after Oliver and Abraham) have helped them support their endeavor. Another fun fact—their wedding photos from last June went viral on the Internet and landed on Rock ‘n’ Roll Bride, the Etsy blog, and the Free People blog to name a few.

Now say hello to my wonderful friend, McKenzie!

 

Maintaining a farm and growing a business on top of a day job must make for a busy schedule. What does your daily routine look like?

My alarm goes off at 6:40am on weekdays, and I’m up by 7. I get dressed, go outside to feed and water the sheep, let the chickens out, and breathe some fresh air. By the time I come back inside I’m much more awake and prepare myself some breakfast. Right now I’m on a plain yogurt-maple syrup-muesli kick, but I switch it up with oatmeal sometimes. For having eggs out the wazoo, I certainly don’t eat them enough… they make me queasy in the morning. Then I’m off to work at 7:45, usually eating said breakfast in the car. I work at a Montessori preschool from 8-1, and when I come home I feed the animals again. When the grass is dormant I leave them in their barnyard and we feed grain and hay. During the rest of the year, we use a portable electric fence that’s powered by solar energy. We mow the pasture that way, and don’t feed hay anymore. We only feed them grain when we move them from one spot to the other, or if we have nursing mamas. Anyway, after feeding (or moving the fence) I come in and take about an hour break to eat lunch and waste time on the interwebz. Then I get down to business. I divide my time between spinning yarn, drawing, filling custom orders for my shop, and blogging. Somewhere in there I clean the house, make food, and tend to the garden. I think the turning point for me was when I decided to treat my time at home as a disciplined “second job.” I’m still guilty of checking my email way too much though. Working on that part…

Why did you decide to become farmers and raise animals?

It was a leap of faith. I’d just graduated from high school, moved out, dropped out of my second semester of college, and my new roommate (now husband) moved in. Once we realized we had the hots for each other, we took one look at our 2.5 acre backyard and decided to grow our own vegetables to “beat the system!” Back then we were on the cusp of the 2008 market crash and things looked pretty grim. Our thought was that if we could provide our own food when the shit hit the fan, so to speak, we’d survive. We still have that idea in the back of our minds, but it’s turned into much more than that. We got alpacas and sheep and chickens and honeybees, we moved several times, we faced hardship that we never imagined possible. But it’s all been worth it because there’s a resurgence of young farmers in America, and we’re proud to be a part of that. Preserving biodiversity and caring for soil is something I never thought about before having a garden. Back when we only had a garden, I watched so many documentaries. The World According to Monsanto and Food Inc. are the most memorable and life altering. So many people are starting to wake up to these issues and are buying local or organic these days. It’s all about community and ethical eating. The future is much more promising than it was just five years ago!

babies!

What are the biggest challenges of being a farmer? Has there been a lot of trial and error as you gain more experience?

Land acquisition is a big issue for young farmers. Pretty much you either get lucky or you rent. Balancing time is also hard. It’s not easy to work at your day job and still have energy for working at home. We both work part time jobs and we struggle to pay the bills. I have faith that this will get easier as we become more firmly rooted, but we’ve had a rough start and I know we’re not alone. We’ve really come to learn a lot about wants vs. needs since making the conscious choice to be farmers, and yes, there has been a lot of trial and error. Thank GOD for the internet, but nothing comes close to befriending real-life farming mentors.

In those tough moments—emotional or physical—do you ever question whether the hard labor is worth it?

Over a year ago, my husband Jamie broke his wrist, had surgery, got an infection, and was on IV antibiotics for months. He’s still not 100% and it’s a challenge seeing him not have the same physical or emotional strength as I know he wants. The workload on the farm became my sole responsibility for a long time. There were moments when we questioned if we should just give up, but imagining a life without our alpacas and sheep was just heart-wrenching. We asked the question, “why us?!” more times than I can count. Yes, we’ve made some stupid choices in life and we’re not perfect, but on a whole we’ve always tried really hard to live with morals. It’s been a tumultuous year in ways I can’t even explain, but we’re at the point now where we would like to think that Karma balances herself out in the end. I guess it’s the only way to feel less distraught about hardship.

Oliver & Abraham

You’re often told that you lead a very “different” or alternative lifestyle—what’s your reaction to that? Is it accurate?

At first, the people who told me that were being very understandably judgmental. My family disapproved and thought it wiser to continue with college. I didn’t want to get caught up in a load of debt though, and I knew my personality was not such that I’d squander away my talent. I’m strong-willed (or stubborn) and farming just felt right. I don’t regret it.

Do people have any other misconceptions about what you do? Why do you think people jump to such conclusions?

Sometimes people think I get way more done than I actually do. But the truth is, I just make choices about what gets done and what doesn’t. Sometimes the laundry goes unfolded until it’s ready to be washed again. Sometimes the dishes sit in the sink for days and my dirty oatmeal bowl gets forgotten in the car for a week. Sometimes my hair goes unwashed. Sometimes I cheat and buy boxed mac & cheese and cheesy poofs. I think people jump to these conclusions because they have insecurities about how they spend their own time. It’s really easy in the blog world to read about someone’s life and assume that they “do it all” and then the self-loathing starts… and then the outwardly reflected judgement. But the vast truth is that we’re all quite imperfect and that’s okay.

Do you hope/plan to always be a farmer? What do you envision for your farm and family in the coming years?

Yes. Jamie wants to start growing edible mushrooms this year and make a good portion of our income that way. I want to expand my shop to sell my handspun yarn, and I also want to start a fiber co-op for our local knitting community. We plan on getting a market booth for the first time this year, and eventually we want to have a couple dairy goats for milk. Someday we want to have a little tribe of children and homeschool them on our farm. It would be nice to own land, but we’re not heart-set on having that happen.

You’ve established your blog in a very distinct niche. How has documenting your life and finding like-minded bloggers inspired and motivated you?

It’s been wonderful feeling connected to other people who are going through the same hardships. I’ve met some amazing friends through my blog, one of whom I talk to on a daily basis now. It’s pretty awesome. I also organized a “Farmy Pen-Pals” group on my blog this year and connected 20 women all over the world. I like the idea of encouraging people to take a relationship off the internet and growing it at a slower, more deliberate pace.

MOAR BABIES

What are some of your favorite books?

What advice would you give to others seeking a more self-sustaining lifestyle?

Take the plunge. Yes, you will make mistakes and probably cry when it gets hard, but you can always go back if it’s not for you. On a lighter note, if you know that you don’t want to be a farmer but would like to grow food, get over the fact that you weren’t taught how growing up. (Neither was I.) Stop saying you don’t have a green thumb. That’s what the internet is for. And manure. You could also do a work-share at a local CSA and get food in return. If you’re still nervous, email me. 🙂

McKenzie's art

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned over the past few years of farming?

My friend Meg who blogs at Brooklyn Homesteader recently wrote, “farming is heavy, beautiful and one of the few opportunities man has to witness the absolute truth of existence, which is to say, that we are totally entwined in everything and everything is totally entwined in us. It’s hard to feel alone in the world with that understanding.” That’s it in a nutshell.

 

Thanks, McKenzie, for your story and your friendship. If you enjoyed McKenzie’s interview, let her know in the comments! And an added bonus: get 25% off all prints, cards, and originals from McKenzie’s Etsy store with the code WTH25, and feel good knowing you are directly supporting her and Jamie’s farm. 

Would you or someone you know be a good fit for The “Lucky” Ones series? Email me at wittycassiehere [at] gmail [dot] com and introduce yourself!

The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with budding country music star Rachel Rhodes

This week’s interviewee was suggested to me by the lovely miss Rachel over at Existation. I’m so glad Rachel introduced me to Rachel. (That’s a lot of Rachels.) You’ll see why—read on to hear her story.

Rachel Rhodes

Rachel Rhodes does nothing halfway when it comes to pursuing her dreams. While the country music artist may seem like a Nashville native—what with a hot off the press Music Row-inspired EP under her belt and all—she’s actually a Midwestern small town girl. Growing up in northwest Iowa, Rachel trained as a classical singer, performing in operas both nationally and internationally. While she loved the art of operatic singing, it was country music that her heart gravitated toward most. So, wasting no time, Rachel packed up and moved to Nashville with her dog Dolly in tow. Within just a year of relocating, the 24-year-old wrote and recorded her debut EP alongside a notable producer and several talented musicians. Her labor of love, Heartland, was released just last month.

Aside from her passions for singing and songwriting, Rachel also plays the piano (and, as she modestly puts it, “a really terrible attempt” at guitar). She loves reading, bargain shopping, and exploring her new town. You can find Rachel and her music here, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

Welcome, Rachel!

Where and when was your first public performance? Describe what that was like.

My first public performance was as a kindergartener, playing Gretl (the smallest girl) in The Sound of Music. I started out performing in musicals and choirs, because that was what was available. But I remember begging my parents to let me go to a music camp when I was a high school freshman, and they were shocked I had any interest. They actually kind of tried to persuade me out of it! And when I finally got to go, I was hooked on singing. It became pretty much my only interest.

When did you decide you wanted to pursue music as a career? Was your family supportive?

Honestly, I decided right away. I had never felt so passionate about something, and I’d never had something that made me stand out as talented. I was hooked immediately, and because I knew the music business was a one-in-a-million kind of dream career, I started as soon as possible to try and make it happen for me.

You started out as a classically trained operatic singer. What made you decide to go back to country music, and how did that classical experience prepare you for becoming a country singer and performer?

Sometimes people will ask me if I regret pursuing opera, now that I’m loving life in country music. The reality is that classical training teaches the building blocks of vocal production–exactly what is happening inside your body to make certain sounds. I’m so glad I got the opportunity to learn those lessons, because hopefully it will help me keep my voice healthy for the long run.

I chose to go back toward country because it felt like home. I’d stayed away from it for so long because I wanted to be different, and opera was about as different from my hometown roots as I could possibly get. And of course, once I did it, I really did love it. But when you’re an opera singer, you’re always going to be singing music that was written by someone else, and once I started writing my own music, I just couldn’t imagine going back.

album cover

What has living in Nashville been like since you moved? Has any part of the transition been difficult or unexpected?

I moved to Nashville with no furniture—just my dog and an air mattress. So the first month was pretty bare bones, but eventually the furniture came! Even though I was basically sleeping on the floor, I knew immediately that Nashville was where I was supposed to be. I LOVE this city! The thing about Nashville is that it’s a big city with so much to offer, but it also has a very small town feel to it. You’re constantly running into people you know, and everyone is so friendly! I’d actually never been to Nashville in my life before the day I showed up here, but it couldn’t be a more perfect fit. Guess I got lucky!

I’d imagine recording your first EP would be surreal. Can you explain what that process was like—both in terms of recording logistics and just the overall emotional, learning process?

It definitely was an interesting experience and process. At the beginning, it was terrifying to hand over any control to my producer, because when I’d written these songs, they sounded a certain way in my head, and I was SO scared they would end up nothing like that. My amazing producer, Eric Arjes, lovingly referred to me as a total control freak, but I was so blessed to work with a producer who understood exactly what my vision was for the album and then made it a reality. We had a blast in the studio and are so happy with the final product. Our goal was to make something that could compete (or at least not sound out of place) next to artists who spend millions recording a record. Our budget was TINY, but with a little bit of luck, we had A-list players agreeing to contribute to the album just because they believed in the music, and because of that, the album sounds like we spent WAY more than we did. I told you I love bargain shopping!

As a relative newcomer to the scene, what’s your take on the state of the music industry? Do you worry about potentially being taken advantage of as an artist?

You can only be taken advantage of if you allow it to happen. I think trust is something earned and built, and I also think it’s so important to educate yourself. Have trusted lawyers look over documents before you sign anything, and always go with your gut! Intuition is a very valuable tool, especially in this industry.

It’s hard even for established musicians to make a living off their art. How do you get by? Like so many others, do you also have a “day job”?

I definitely, definitely have a day job. Especially during the “making the album” phase (which was the busiest, most stressful time), I was always balancing my day job and my music. That being said, when I first moved here, I was offered a position that could have quickly grown into a full-time career with benefits and stability, and I didn’t think twice about turning it down. I know it sounds crazy, but I knew it would have taken away from what I came here to do, which was to make music and build a career doing what I love! And because of the opportunities and relationships that grew from my current (much less prestigious) day job, I was able to record an album that I’m so proud of. I can almost positively say that I would be nowhere near an album release if I had accepted that first job.

single

There’s no questioning your talent. But do you ever doubt pursuing a musical path? Will you always be a songwriter, even if for nothing other than the pure joy of it?

Nope! Honestly, there have been times that I WISHED I doubted pursuing a musical path, but it’s been tunnel vision all the way. I find it so extremely difficult to focus on things I’m not passionate about, and music has always been #1. I don’t think I could live a fully happy life pursuing any other career path.

What are some of your all-time favorite albums? Favorite books?

Well, I’ve always been a book worm. I will read almost anything, but my favorites are either Jane Austen novels, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (childhood memories) or… Harry Potter. I’m a huuuuge Harry Potter nerd.

Musically, my taste is really eclectic. I listen to a lot of country music, and my favorite classical composer is Richard Strauss, but usually I’m listening to Lightning 100 Radio—lots of indie musicians. I also love Coldplay and always jam to Kanye West in the shower.

Has luck or persistence brought you to where you are now? Which do you think plays a bigger role in success?

Absolutely persistence! I can say without a doubt that I’ve never worked harder for anything than I have for this album. And there are so many behind-the-scenes type of things that went into it, which were things I’d never even thought about before. For example: Designing a website, designing album art, hiring studio musicians, choosing people to produce, mix and master the album, handling financial and legal aspects of creating a record, marketing, advertising, etc. It has been crazy! I’ve been so lucky to discover that I love the business and marketing aspects of being a musician as much as I enjoy the actual music-making.

I think we always get upset when things we plan for ourselves don’t work out. So when the original plans I’d carefully laid out for my life weren’t making me happy anymore, I was so frustrated and confused, but I knew there had to be a reason why. And when I got to Nashville, and it felt like home, and the album came together in less than six months due to the generosity and kindness of complete strangers and their belief in my music, that was a huge sign that changing the course of my entire life had absolutely been the right decision. I am so happy to have the opportunity to pursue my one-in-a-million dream, and I can’t wait to see what’s next!

The “Lucky” Ones – An interview with book-loving librarian Shannon McNeill

Anyone who appreciates books and the people who write them will love this interview with someone whose job it is to share them. Librarian Shannon McNeill is here to give you a little insight as to what it’s like in her world of books in this week’s interview.

Shannon McNeill

Shannon McNeill had what Oprah calls an aha! moment. It happened like this: One day, she woke up and realized she wanted to be a librarian. But she started out as a teacher. After graduating college, Shannon taught preschool for a year, and later earned her certificate in English as a Foreign Language. With that, she spent a year in Greece and taught English—it was the best year of her life. It was after Shannon moved back home and spent three years teaching at a Montessori School when she had the realization that teaching wasn’t quite for her. When she decided to become a librarian, Shannon began volunteering at her local library, applied to get her Masters of Library and Information Science (MLIS), and landed a job almost immediately upon graduating.

Working as the Assistant Director in a small Pittsburgh library, Shannon maintains the book collection and purchases books for adults and children. She hosts and plans programs including children’s story times, the book club, and visits to local schools. This is clearly the fun part for her. The enthusiasm and energy Shannon brings to the job is infectious. You can find her on Twitter and at her blog, A Librarian’s Lists & Letters.

Welcome, Shannon!

Book lovers have this way of pinpointing exactly what it was that sparked an interest in reading—what was the catalyst for you?

I actually don’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t love books. My mother tells stories  of her walking me to the local library twice a day when I was younger. And though I don’t actually remember this happening, I vividly remember that library. I remember always reading and I kind of remember always knowing how to read. We always had books in our house, I always got books as presents, and the hardest decision growing up was choosing which book I was going to order from the Scholastic catalog on a very meager budget.

Did you always love spending time in the library growing up? What kinds of books and genres did you like to read?

I definitely loved spending time at the library when I was a very young girl. The first neighborhood I grew up in had a library just a block away from our house. But we moved when I was just about to start the first grade to a town without a library. I remember being crushed, but I learned to rely on my school library.

And when I was in middle and high school, I never used the library. I think it’s a time that most students fall out of the habit and I think something librarians are always trying to fix. In college, I only used the library for assignments, but I finally found my way back to libraries as a young adult. And when I did, it just fit.

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What is the library like where you work? Is it an integral part of the community, or is it something you have to actively work toward making sure it stays running?

My library is a medium-sized library in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a great place to be a librarian because we have a huge library system that allows all of these local neighborhood libraries to be connected through a consortium. You get the benefit of having a true community library that really allows you to become an important place in the community, but you get the benefit of a large system and endless books and resources.

Describe some of the day-to-day tasks you do as an Assistant Director. I’m particularly interested in the book purchasing process (how do you make your selections?) and program planning.

Because I work in a smaller library, my role as Assistant Director really means I do a little of everything. I host all of our story times, plan programs for children and adults, take care of tech questions, perform reader’s advisory and reference, and I share the ordering responsibilities with our Director.

In terms of making purchasing decisions, I always keep the patrons in mind. So much of what I order is best-selling material (authors like James Patterson and Janet Evanovich), but it’s also about finding interesting and informative material. One of my favorite things to do is find quirky reads, music, DVDs, etc. that I know other libraries might not have the budget to purchase. I’m always thinking about my own community first, but because we share materials with the greater Pittsburgh area, I find that material that has larger appeal is harder to find. It’s like a puzzle I’m creating and solving each month.

I don’t worry about censoring material because as long as I am following my library’s purchasing policies, the material that I buy will find its proper place within our collection. Instead, my biggest worry is always buget. Sometimes I want to buy ALL of the books, but have to scale back and weigh my priorities.

You seem to especially love planning programs for children. In what ways is interacting with these kids rewarding?

Well, I was a teacher for five years before I went back to school for my MLIS and became a librarian, so I have always enjoyed working with children. For me, the reward in working with children is just to see how excited they are about learning. Children just want soak up as much information as they can, and they have such a love of reading, it’s impossible not to find joy in hosting a storytime or other program.

Plus, how can you not love a bunch of preschoolers shouting your name and telling you how much they love the library? 

It may seem obvious to some, but why is instilling a love for reading in children so important? Have you witnessed any transformations (big or small) in the children you meet when they find a story that resonates with them?

Instilling a love of reading at an early age is a gateway to success. It gives children so much, including self-esteem and awareness. But really, it helps to make life-long learners. It’s the first step in showing children that they have a world of discovery out there and that they have the tools to figure it all out.

As for transformations, I think I see them every week. They are happening around us all of the time, and I’m just thankful that I get to play a part in helping children learn. It never stops warming my heart to have a child come running to me to talk about their newest favorite book, or to tell me about their latest achievement, or to ask me to choose something special for them. Those are all little transformations and if we don’t pay attention to them, we miss out.

What is your take on the hard copy vs. digital book debate? Is there any right or wrong way to enjoy a good book? And does technology affect the library system negatively?

There is absolutely no wrong way to enjoy a good book. If you are reading something that makes you happy, no matter the format, that’s what matters. I want to help people discover the books that speak to them, and if they read them on an eReader or on paper, it doesn’t really matter. Sure, the world of publishing is changing, but if anything, I think it’s made libraries more relevant. Chances are your library has free eBooks for you to borrow and my library even offers digital subscriptions to magazines. We’re the place people go to for questions about iPads and Kindles and everything in between. Librarians are tech-savvy. We manage to be on top of trends and respectful of traditional methods, too. Really, I don’t think there is much in terms of technology that a good library couldn’t tackle and for those reasons, I don’t think we’ll be disappearing into the dark anytime soon.

On a similar note, said e-readers, along with academic search engines, make it easy for readers and students to not have to make a trip to the library. Why is the brick-and-mortar “search engine” still needed?

The library is more than just a book depository. It houses informed professionals that can help locate things that even Google can’t manage to find. It’s a place where people can come for free education and entertainment. It’s a place where people go when they need someone to talk to. It’s a community center that hosts speakers and teaches skills. It’s a place to find employment help and someone to show you how to build a resume. It’s where you can send a fax, scan documents, and make copies all for very little money. It’s a place that lets you read newspapers and magazines for all day long for no cost. It’s a warm place to find shelter in the winter and a cool place to relax in the summer. It’s where anyone can go and not be judged for needing assistance. The library is more than just books and computers. It’s whatever is needed, for each unique person who walks in the door, each and every day.

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Clearly you love your job, but are there aspects of it that are tough? Monotonous?

Of course, just like any job librarians have their rough days. I do love my job very much, but sometimes I am so busy it’s hard to come up for air and breathe. It’s not always dealing with demanding or rude patrons. I’ve been yelled at, cursed at, and I’ve even had tennis balls thrown at me. And on those days, of course the job is tough. But more often than not, people are good, caring, and kind and that makes up for the small amount of people who are unreasonable or hurtful.

Would you say that library work is your calling? Would you ever want to pursue other paths?

I woke up one day and knew that I was meant to be a librarian. I was feeling lost and lonely in my life, and something had to change, but it took me awhile before I realized that librarian was a profession that I could actually do. And since then, I haven’t looked back. At this point in my life, I am absolutely certain, with every fiber of my being, that I am supposed to be a librarian. Will I think the same in ten years? I don’t really know. I’ve learned that life doesn’t always happen the way you think it will and to just accept the way it may twist and turn. I’m just thankful that I am happy being a librarian now.

I ask every interviewee this question, but it’s especially fitting for you: What books would you recommend to others?

Oh, I always find this so hard to answer. A librarian takes her recommendations very seriously and knows that each reader is different so there can be no blanket answer. I always write a list of my most favorite books I read each year on my blog, and I keep a pretty extensive Goodreads record of what I’m reading, too.

But if you really want to know, I’m recommending Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple to just about everyone these days. It’s snarky, witty satire at its finest. But it also has depth and and heart. A fantastic mother-daughter coming-of-age tale that not enough people are reading.

And for children? One of my all-time favorites is A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead. It’s a Newbery winner and just an adorable tale of a sick zoo keeper and his animal friends. I’m also a huge fan of Jon Klassen. I’d highly recommend anything he’s written and/or illustrated for any level.

 

Thanks so much for sharing your insight and expertise, Shannon! It’s encouraging to read about your thriving library and the kids who relish in it. Have a question or compliment for Shannon? Leave it in the comments! For more of The “Lucky” Ones interview series, click here.

photo credit: annais via photopin cc and Ozyman via photopin cc