The Joy of Blogging – An Interview with Gluten Free Girl’s Shauna James-Ahern

Shauna James AhernShauna James Ahern is the author of the popular food blog, Gluten Free Girl.  A former schoolteacher, she has been a long time blogger and has recently signed a deal with Wiley to publish her book, Gluten Free Girl.  The book is due to be released in October, but has already become a hot pre-order title on Amazon.  She has now been able to focus full time on her writing.  She has an infectious joy for life that comes through in all of her writing.  We asked Shauna about her experiences with writing her blog, building her readership and going from blog to book. 

FPP:  What is Gluten Free Girl all about and what made you decide to create the blog initially?

Shauna:  On the side of the banner for my website, it says food, stories, recipes, love.  That’s about it.

I choose to write about food, not only because I love it so, but also because great food is the springboard for memories, shared experiences, entry into other cultures, and a belly full of joy. In writing about food, I am really writing about all of life.

I’m always telling stories. Ask anyone who knows me – even a ten-minute drive yields a multitude of human stories. There’s a quote I love from Joan Didion:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” I think that the more we tell our own stories, the more we know our own lives. (And if I don’t write down stories, they threaten to bang around the inside of my head.

Recipes is a funny one. Sometimes, I don’t believe in recipes at all. people try to follow them too carefully. But they can be a guide, a finger pointing the way toward true experience. And especially for those readers who come to my site, worried they will never eat well again after they have been diagnosed with celiac disease, the recipes are a balm.

Love?  Ah, well. I write about my love for being alive in the moment, for discovering a new taste, for photogr phing light falling on roasted potatoes, for the possibilities of food and this live, and for my friends and the people who make up my world. For the past year and more, the website has also been a love story with the man who is now my husband, the Chef.

FPP:  You’ve been blogging a long time. How has your blog changed over time?

Shauna:  I started the site almost immediately after realizing I had celiac disease, and thus had to stop eating all gluten. After being violently ill all that spring – and suffering from fatigue and a series of maladies all my life – I was astonished to find that the answer was this simple. I was also angry that I had suffered with this all my life, and I had never heard of it. Since I have been a writer for as long as I could hold a pen, I began writing about this.  I wanted to teach, to help others. And when I realized that my only cure was through food, it became a food blog.

The blog has changed, enormously. Thank goodness for it, or I would be so bored.

When I first started, the blog was intensely personal, full of discoveries and mistakes, and mostly about “What is gluten and what can I do to avoid it.”

Within four or five months of that, I realized this was really a website about food. I began discovering great food and how to make it at home.

Then, it really became a story of a woman finding herself, her voice, and realizing that she was creating a new life, one based on food and writing.

Finally, it took a huge turn when I met the Chef.  Not only did he feed me foie gras for the first time, but he has also taught me the joys of eating seasonally, simply, and in the moment. The blog really became a love affair, told through food.

Now, I’m not sure where it will go next. The love story still continues, of course, even though we finally got married!  I have plans to make it more regularly updated, twice a week, a bit more intentional about what I write, now that I know more and more people will be reading it.

FPP:  What do you think accounts for the popularity of Gluten Free Girl?  Have you seen increased readership as a result of recent concerns about food safety and quality?

Shauna:  Oh, I think there are a number of factors as to why people have been reading the blog in increasing numbers. I’m sure I don’t know them all. But I think I have a handle on a few….

First, more and more people are being diagnosed with celiac disease every day. One out of 100 Americans suffers from this, but only 3% have been diagnosed. Now that awareness is on the rise, for various reasons, more and more people are starting to wake up. When they are first diagnosed, people google “gluten-free” and find my website. You have no idea how many people write to me to say they spent the entire weekend reading every single essay I ever wrote.  Yikes!

yes tattooThe next reason is my attitude toward life, I believe. Whether or not you can eat gluten, you want to be inspired. I have the word “yes” tattooed on my wrist, and that spirit imbues every word I write as well. Given the condition I have, it would be easy to be glum or bitter. Instead, I regard everything as a chance to learn, to embrace the world as fully as I can. This is not in a Pollyanna sense, but in a thoughtful, well-considered decision as to how I want to live my life. I’ve been told by readers that they love that, and keep coming back for more.

People love stories.  And they certainly love love stories. That I can provide. Many readers have mentioned my openness as one of the reasons they return.

Sometimes, I make them laugh.

I also love taking pictures of food. Some people just come to look at those and be inspired in what to make for dinner that night!

I think that the recent issues of food safety and quality are just part of the reason people want to investigate their food more carefully. After decades of living in a processed-foods coma, people are starting to wake up. The ideas of eating locally and seasonally seem revolutionary at the moment, but maybe we can make them a little more mainstream.

FPP:  Are there specific things you have done to increase readership or has it grown more or less organically on its own?

Shauna:  My readership really grew organically, at first. I didn’t start the blog to find readers, believe it or not. I really wrote from passion and that urgency that says, “Write it down!” I was astonished when people started leaving comments. I’d look at their sites, and then I’d leave comments, and this web of readers began forming.

Now, I do a few things to increase readership. Updating regularly and trying to keep the post lengths down a bit (although not with the piece i put up about our wedding, of course!), mostly. Some blogger friends have suggested that I create titles for pieces that include the recipe in them, and some other formulaic suggestions. But I just want to keep what I am doing and let people come to me.

FPP:  How did you come to work with Wiley & Sons on your book? Were there specific metrics or other characteristics of your audience that they were interested in?

Shauna:  I started working with Wiley because my agent connected me to them. When she (Stacey Glick at Dystel and Goderich) sent out my book proposal, she sent one of the first copies to Wiley. There were other offers, but I just loved the way they looked at my book.  Afterwards, I found out how lucky I was – my editor is a dream.  I would work with them again, and again.

They were interested in how many readers I had, how regularly they came back, and the loyalty they seemed to have. It’s pretty clear to me that publishers are just starting to understand the power of the blog.  I’m lucky I got my book deal when I did. I have a lot of readers, and very very loyal readers especially. But there are plenty of blogs out there that have more readers than I do.  I’m willing to bet that in two years or so, publishers will have a minimum monthly readership before they will even consider blogs.  But they were impressed by my stats, because this is all so new!

In the end, though, publishers still want a great story, a strong voice, and a persuasive passion to publish a book.

FPP:  How have your readers responded to the news of your forthcoming book?

Shauna:  Wow. That’s all I can say about that one.

Gluten Free Girl book coverThey have been fantastic. When I announced that I had a book deal – and could quit my teaching job to write it – they flooded me with comments. Readers have been fascinated by every step of the process, and especially kind in not emailing me with questions the last couple of weeks before the book was due. I have felt fully supported and firmly held by this community.

Now, the book is on pre-order on Amazon. That has been amazing, as well. For the past month, it has been on the top ten list of popular pre-orders for mind, body, and health. That makes me gasp with delight.

I run into people on the street who recognize me from the website (now that’s weird!) and they always say, “I ordered your book! I ordered three copies!”  People feel a really personal connection with me because of the website.

FPP:  How much of the blog content went into your book? Did you have a process for selecting blog content for the book? Did you have to alter your writing for the book vs. the blog?  And what difficulties, if any, did you encounter in converting content from the blog into the book?

Shauna:  I tried to use as little from the blog as possible, actually.

Even though I had done a year and a half of writing on the blog by the time I was given the book deal, and essays every day for much of that time, I didn’t want to repeat myself in the book.

I’m aware that writing for a website is temporal.  When I first started writing, I would eat something great for dinner and blog about it that night! There’s something marvelously immediate about a website. (When my husband and I were married, fans were terribly impatient and wondered why it took me nine days to put up a post about it. “We want to see your wedding dress!” they wrote.)  I love that rush and play, the feedback from readers, the immediacy.

However, as someone who has loved (and venerated) the book all my life, I know that books are an entirely different medium.  I wanted my book to be more enduring, something that people could pick up ten years later and still find relevant.  I wanted every word to be considered and consciously chosen.

Also, on the website, the story is constantly unfolding. I didn’t really know the story line of it until I had written for a year and could see what I had done. With the book, I used the knowledge that came from stepping back a bit and created a story arc that worked throughout the entire book. Events that I make glancing reference to in my website – such as the near-death experience I had in a car accident three years ago – became entire chapters.

In that way, the readers of my website will still have something new to read.

That being said, after I stayed away from the blog for awhile during writing, I finally did go back and use some of it. After all, there are great stories, phrases I loved, references that still made me laugh.  So I would say that about 1/3 of the final book came from the blog.  Sometimes, I just stole a single sentence from myself (that’s how it felt!). no use in re-inventing the wheel for everything!

FPP:  Where would you like to go with your blogging and publishing in the future?

Shauna:  I want to do this for the rest of my life.

Unlike teaching high school (which I did, off and on, for ten years), there is no schedule with this.  When I was a teacher, late August always meant the gearing up for school.  Sometimes, my body felt on autopilot.  But now, I hear back to school ads, and it feels like a story from a different country.

Writing excites me.  It also scares me, and it keeps me on my toes.  I feel alive when I write every day. That it connects with other people and gives them some joy is one of my greatest places of gratitude.

I have a solid sense that I am helping people with my writing, in a way more direct than teaching could ever be. That means the world to me.

So, I have plans for a second book (it’s hush for now, but it’s in definite formation).  I would like to be writing about food and the stories it inspires, for the rest of my life.

I would also love to explore the world with my husband, going to the cultures where the food is naturally gluten-free, and spending time there, imbibing the culture, living stories, eating great food, and then coming home to write it all up.

Other than that, I have no idea. That’s why it’s so exciting!

FPP:  What advice could you give other prospective blogger / authors?

Shauna:  Ah, some people are not going to like this answer…

Please don’t start a blog just to get a book deal.  It isn’t the way.

Everyone I know (including me) who has gotten a book deal out of a blog was, in some way, surprised by it.  Sure, by the time I wrote my book proposal, I was more intentional about it.  But when I started the blog,  I had no idea it would lead to a book.  Honestly.

Instead, I wrote from passion and urgency, in my own voice, with a story I felt had to be told.

And in the end, that’s where all great literature begins.

Blogging to make money or get a book? It’s pretty empty.

Telling your own story? It’s endlessly fulfilling.

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