This is an interview transcript from an interview that CareerFear conducted with Ayun Halliday. She even has her own Wikipedia page, where you can learn more!
Ayun Halliday is a playwright, author, massage therapist, actress, and contributor to the OpenCulture blog, all wrapped in one. She is an adventurous, ambitious, and fun-loving freelancer with an eclectic set of skills under her belt. Her projects range widely and differ starkly, but they all have one thing in common: being random snippets of her passions in life.
She has been a part of Chicago theatre company called The Neo Futurists, which had its quirks—one included giving free pizza to the audience when a show sold out. She is the proud creator of The East Village Inky—named after her daughter—which she continues to write and illustrate by hand. She maintained a food blog for several years, adding further to her clear passion for culinary ventures by writing a cooking book in her style. Her first children’s book came later, and a guide to NYC.
Her most recent book is also her first graphic novel, Peanut. The New York Times review by Pamela Paul says, “In Peanut, a smart, affecting graphic young adult novel by Ayun Halliday, Sadie Wildhack, a sophomore new to her school, decides a deadly peanut allergy will give her just the right dose of offbeat cachet. If she wears a medical alert bracelet and fabricates stories about close calls with a peanut butter cookie, it will surely pique interest from her new classmates.”
What first drew you to pursuing a freelance career? Did you experiment with certain jobs or fields of study before settling on your combination?
I had a ton of low wage jobs when I was a low budget, Off-Off-Broadway style actress. Wait a minute, I’m still a low budget, Off-Off-Broadway style actress – but I took about 18 years off to raise—and manage—a family. During that period, I switched to writing books, and freelance writing opportunities arose naturally from that. It’s certainly easier to secure them when you can point to published titles (one of which, Job Hopper, currently available used for mere pennies on famous online book selling sites, was all about all the crappy day jobs I once held.)
You had a new play premiere recently. Where do you get your inspiration for the art that you create? Who are some of your favourite playwrights?
NURSE done come and gone, but it will be popping back up again soon. I intend to perform it for the rest of my life. I get inspiration from my favorite artists and writers—George Saunders, Lynda Barry, Kurt Vonnegut, Jonathan Safran Foer, Joan Sfar, Spalding Gray, Miranda July —and I also get a ton of ideas just wandering around New York City with my eyes and ears open. I love it so.
As a published author, do you have any advice for young people who are just getting started on their path towards professional writing as a career?
I would spend a few hours a day with all social media access on lockdown. Get out and explore your city or town the way a solo traveler might. I don’t keep a journal now, but I do write a lot. Write something every day—often times my freelance work is the only thing I write, but by gum, it’s words on a digital page! Speaking of which, try writing in longhand. It’s good for you!
Read, of course.
And don’t let envy overtake you. Immerse yourself in the generosity of artists you admire via interviews, essays, whatever you can scratch up.
Treat yourself to classes—a way to meet people, hold yourself accountable, and just play.
I’ve always thought writers have it easy that (for most of us) we are practicing an activity that we found relaxing, fulfilling and fun as children.
Throughout your life as a performer, writer, illustrator, and massage therapist (!), among many other things, have you ever thought about settling into more consistency in your life, or are you just absolutely content with the eclectic lifestyle that you have at the moment?
To quote Popeye, I yam what I yam. Yes, it would be nice to have more money, to command more respect, to have ease of access, but I am proud of the opportunities I’ve created for myself and others. I think if I were forced to choose another path, I would like to be a neonatal nurse, a midwife, a secular marriage officiant, a death doula, or a funeral director. I am good at beginnings and endings, and I like serving people—strangers included—in these periods of transition.
As a part of the OpenCulture team, how did you all get together to do this amazing internet project? Do you have anything to say to teenagers and young adults who would like to get involved in online projects like this?
I’m a hired gun! Open Culture (along within Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings) is such a great, and generous resource. It’s a much better option than Candy Crush or endlessly scrolling through social media feeds for those of us who are prone to procrastination. About six years ago, I saw that Open Culture was seeking additional writers. You had to pitch three stories as part of the application process. One of my three, Miranda July’s short film How To Procrastinate, ironically enough—became the basis of my first post.
My advice to younger writers who’d like to be part of something like this is: nothing ventured, nothing gained! You have to put yourself out there! But hedge your bets by holding yourself accountable to a certain standard of professionalism.
Be mindful that editors, agents, and other gatekeepers are busy people who dine out on stories of presumptuous whipper snappers sending them 3000-word emails riddled with misspellings, boastful claims, and presumptuous questions (along the lines of “I have attached my autobiographical screenplay for your reading pleasure.”) Don’t set yourself up to be the clueless dumbass they’ll gleefully tear into the next time they’re interviewed.
Save the mistakes for after you’re hired!
There seems to be almost nothing that you haven’t done! Do you still have a lot of projects to pursue?
I never lack for project ideas, though I tend to forget at least 80% of them, and will probably only realize 2% in any meaningful way.
Bonus question: What is your favourite time period in history?
I’m fascinated by ancient Rome, the Civil War, WW1 & WWII. Glad not to have lived through them, but can’t get enough of them as a reader and moviegoer.