interview

Interview: Zora Ilunga-Reed on Political Podcasting, Journalism, and a Love of Public Libraries

9:00 am


Zora Ilunga-Reed is a political podcaster, journalist, and works in various kinds of media, all at the fresh age of seventeen! She's a perfect example of finding a gap in the market or something you feel the world desperately needs, and going out to create it. Her podcast, We the Ppl, is a response to the idea that people her age, who cannot vote, have little to no interest in politics, and therefore shouldn't be involved in the discussions this entails. We talk in depth about this passion project of hers, along with her writing, and how she stays organised. Zora is a fantastic young woman, and I can't wait to see all of the wonderful things she's inevitably going to achieve in the future.

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Magic & Musings:
Thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions, Zora! First of all, for any readers who don’t know your background, can tell me a little bit about yourself and where you are today?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I’m an almost-seventeen-year-old rising high school senior in New York City. I guess if I had to name my career, I’d say student. I think in almost everything I do, whether that’s working on my political podcast for people who can’t vote, We the Ppl, writing for small online magazines, or working in local NYC politics, although it’s cheesy, I am foremost a learner. My work with the podcast and on other media organizations though, in a word, is “journalism.”

Magic & Musings:
If you could describe your writing in three words, what would they be?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
Concise, factual, easy-to-understand. 

Magic & Musings:
When did you first get into writing generally? Was there something that drove you to write?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I can’t remember the first time I wrote and enjoyed it. I was probably six or seven. I have these horribly grammar-free, wordy poems and short stories in a bunch of notebooks from when I was little. I was always writing when I was in kindergarten and elementary school, but mostly fiction and poetry. Back then, to me, it was just another way of expressing all the weird ideas that would pop into my head. I was also definitely driven to write by a lot of the books I read. I used to get sucked into these fantastical stories and just want to be able to create my own.

Magic & Musings:
Tell me a little about your podcast! When did you start creating this and what do you talk about? Are there any podcasts that inspired you to move in this direction?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I created We the Ppl in the summer of 2016 out of two main things: angst and boredom. The former because of this utter lack of engagement of adults with teenage political perspectives (i.e. “Why does it matter what you think if you can’t vote?”). The latter because it was summer vacation. So far, in the year we’ve been around, we’ve covered a range of topics from Obama’s immigration policies to Trump’s budget proposal. Our goal with the podcast is to cover recent news and political phenomena in a way that’s interesting and engaging from the perspective of teens for people who can’t vote. 

I always get the question of where this idea came from and what podcasts inspired it. Honestly, I’m not even sure. I’ve been listening to podcasts since I was in middle school. This American Life and The Moth were the background “music” to my childhood. Recently, though, I’ve been inspired by political podcasts like Pod Save America, the NPR Politics Podcast, and Slate Political Gabfest. I have to attribute any storytelling or editing techniques I’ve picked up, though, to Ira Glass.


Magic & Musings:
And tell me about Clover! What does your role there requires of you?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I became a member of the Clover community last fall. As an ambassador, I’m in charge of getting more people to join the community (not a hard job at all, by the way) and sharing information about Clover online. On the Teen Advisory Board, I give some advice and provide a teenage perspective to Liza and Casey. As a big fan of everything Clover does, it’s been really wonderful to have the opportunity to work on the inside and go backstage on some of the content.

Magic & Musings:
You say you’re currently interning for a city council member. What’s that like and what does this entail day-to-day?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I am an intern for City Council Member Mark Levine. Day-to-day, my schedule differs greatly. I work about six hours a day, but those are often spread out all over the district and the city. Whether it’s doing research at the Legislative Office or helping out with constituent services at the District Office, I really get to be a member of the Mark Levine team. I’ve only been working there for three weeks, but thus far it’s been a really great experience and has provided a good look into the inner-workings of local government.

Magic & Musings:
Of all of your work, what are you the proudest of and why?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
That is, by far, the most difficult interview question I’ve ever been asked. It’s also a very good one. I’d have to say that the “Why Black Lives Matter” episode of We the Ppl that I put up last August is the piece I’m most proud of. It features two interviews of teens who were at a Black Lives Matter protest in NYC that summer and one who wasn’t, as well as art and music by teenage black artists based in New York. Putting it all together was one of the most stressful, yet rewarding, moments in the life of the podcast and perhaps my life in general. I really wanted to create this collage of black, teenage life in New York and paint a picture of the BLM movement through the audio from the protest and the visual and audio art. I think I got as close as possible to my vision for that episode and it remains my favourite episode from that first season of the podcast.

Magic & Musings:
On Magic & Musings I love talking about female-identifying or non-binary artists and their work. Which creatives, if any, would you say have been influences on your work? Do you have any favourites to look at when you need a spark of inspiration?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I have a ton of influences and role models. With so many high-powered, change-making people it’s impossible not to. First, I’d say Zadie Smith is a big influence of mine. Whether in my writing or the storytelling that I try to do on the podcast, her ability to string together narrative and language in a delicate yet telling and, above all, true way is something I’ll always admire. I’m also a big fan of Elizabeth Hinton, a professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University. I read her book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass-Incarceration in America earlier this year and loved it. Like Smith, Hinton’s ability to marry a history lesson and a looser narrative of black history in America is admirable and something I strive to achieve in a lot of my writing. Outside of writers, I’m a big fan of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor and most powerful woman in Europe. She’s one of the most down-to-earth, modest politicians I know of and has led Germany incredibly well for the past twelve years. 

I’ll keep the list short, although there are so many more (Kierkegaard, Rachel Carson, Jeffrey Eugenides, to name a few).

Magic & Musings:
This is a question I like to ask purely because of the variety of answers I get! I’m really interested in how people work and get things done. Do you have a particular place you work or find yourself the most productive? Are there a particular set of things that need to be in place for things to get done, like a milky cup of tea or a particular album of music you listen to? 

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I’m a big fan of public libraries. In New York, the library system is really amazing with stunning architecture, a range of workspaces, and pretty diverse locations. Whenever I need to get a lot of work done quickly, I’ll head over to the Schwarzman Building, that classic NYC library with the big stone lions out front, and head to the quiet research room. Music also helps me work, although I have to limit it to the lyric-free when I really need to focus. I have a couple writing and studying playlists on my Spotify (zora.ir if you wanna check them out!). My tastes range from classical (Bach, mostly) to rap (I have one playlist that’s just a ton of rap classics). Really I just like to listen to anything that’ll keep me focused.

Magic & Musings:
What do you do if you find yourself stuck in a rut creatively? Are there any books on writing and creativity you would recommend to others?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
First of all, I think being in a rut is actually a really valuable and inevitable experience. Sometimes creativity needs a little nudge and I like to use ruts or writer’s block moments to look for inspiration, visit some museums, or read some new books and articles. Specifically, David Foster Wallace has gotten me out of many a creativity slump. He has a number of short essays that I love rereading and, of course, his famous speech: This Is Water. 

Magic & Musings:
What are some things you like to do in your spare time when you’re not working?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
I joined my high school’s track team in sophomore year on a whim and, since then, I’ve fallen in love with running and strength training. After a long day of screen time and a general lack of physical activity, it’s really nice to go for a quick run or do a couple reps of with weights. I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as a fitness nut or anything, but I’ve found that working out frequently is a great break from work and provides a good opportunity for head-clearing. 

Magic & Musings:
How would you describe your relationship with social media?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
It’s complicated. I use social media a lot to promote We the Ppl and for personal stuff, as well, but recently I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed by it. There are so many resources on these platforms and the possibilities are endless, which can make all the accounts difficult to manage and control. I’m definitely hoping to take a couple weeks offline and just stick with email in August before school starts up again.

Magic & Musings:
What one thing do you wish someone told you when you were first starting out writing and creating podcasts?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
Another really good question. In complete honesty, I wish someone had reminded me that fame and success don’t come quickly and patience is key. I think, particularly among my generation, there’s this prevalence of an instantaneous, immediate fame mentality, in part due to all these viral videos we see on social media. I was definitely influenced by the belief that fame comes quickly and with minimal work, so in the beginning I would get frustrated when episodes would get fewer listens or shares. Now, after over a year of working on the podcast, it’s been easier for me to accept that these things take time and not every episode is going to be incredibly successful.

Magic & Musings:
Onto a fun question! Can you recommend everyone reading a book you've enjoyed recently, as well as a film and an album or song? 

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
Yes! I just finished NW by Zadie Smith which I really enjoyed. If you’re new to her writing, though, I’d recommend reading White Teeth or her newest novel, Swing Time, before NW to get a sense of the type of narrative she likes and her style. I’m currently steadily going through an 800+ page biography of Kierkegaard. I’m not far enough along to give a definitive “yes” or “no” to it, but so far, so good. I also adore Jeffrey Eugenides, particularly his The Marriage Plot, and can’t wait for his new book this September. 

Music-wise, I’ve been listening to a lot of the Beatles lately. My personal favorite album is 1, but I also like Rubber Soul. I haven’t seen too many movies recently, unfortunately. Although it’s kinda cheating since it’s a TV show, I am a huge fan of Silicon Valley.

Magic & Musings:
Is there anything else you would like to say before we finish? How can people find out more about you and your work? What’s on the horizon for you in the next few months?

Zora Ilunga-Reed:
My personal Instagram is @zilungareed and you can always email me at zora@wethepplpodcast.com. Oh, and you can find the podcast itself @wethepplpodcast on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, at wethepplpodcast.com, or on iTunes and SoundCloud at We the Ppl: Politics for Those Who Can’t Vote.

Interview: Michelle Nickolaisen on Determination, Blogging Emulation, and How They Stay (Super!) Organised

12:00 pm


Michelle Nickolaisen is a creator of all. They blog, make audio dramas, write books, run ecourses, market,  create YouTube videos...the list really does go on. They take self-employment to a whole new level! Today in this interview, they dig really deep into how they work and stay organised, and even though we have a lot of techniques in common, they've mentioned a lot more things that I'm definitely going to consider taking up for myself. I'm positive you're going to be as motivated by their dedication and determination as I am.

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Magic & Musings:
Thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions, Michelle! First of all, for any readers who don’t know your background, can you tell me a little bit about yourself and where you are today?

Michelle Nickolaisen:
Sure! I’ll try to keep it short! I’ve been self-employed since 2009 (to varying degrees of success - it was more of a decision of necessity than a 'follow your dreams' kinda deal, especially for the first two or three years) and have done a variety of things, mainly project management and writing. 

My business right now is fairly complex (which is a byproduct of wanting to never be bored), but most of my income comes from freelance writing and content marketing. I also make some income from my blog and related projects (which revolves around freelancing/productivity/creativity) - ad revenue through YouTube videos, people purchasing the downloadable products/classes, other ecourse income, etc. Then there’s the Freelancer Planner (a paper planner for freelancers that I originally crowdfunded, which I plan to slowly expand into a full line of products). And then there’s the creative projects - I’m working on an audio drama (two, technically), I published my debut novel last year, and I’m working on book two, and I have a few other things in the works as well. 

Magic & Musings:
Wow! That's fantastic!
If you could describe your writing in three words, what would they be?

Michelle Nickolaisen:
Action-oriented, fun, personality-filled (I hope so anyways?!) 

Magic & Musings:
When did you first get into writing generally? Was there something that drove you to write? Did you study it formally or come across it as a hobby?

Michelle Nickolaisen:
I don’t have a college education (well, I have a semester of it, I guess!) but I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil, basically. I’m not sure I have anything from Kindergarten, but I know there are stories I wrote when I was in first grade drifting around my parent’s house somewhere. 

Since then, I’ve been writing fairly regularly (often daily) - being a writer was an off-and-on dream (in between marine biology, artist, ghost hunter, and archaeologist, hahaha) while I was growing up. I’ve always wanted to tell stories and to persuade people to my point of view (I grew up in a very conservative area and was generally regarded as a total weirdo). Writing seemed like a natural outlet for both of those things. I was also really lucky in that one of my teachers when I was in sixth grade recognized that I had a flair for it and encouraged me to set up a blog and write every day, which was a practice I kept up with until I was eighteen or nineteen. It lapsed for probably 6-12 months, but not long after that is when I started freelance writing. 

Magic & Musings:
On Magic & Musings I love talking about female-identifying or non-binary artists and their work. Which writers and bloggers, if any, would you say have been influences on your work? Do you have any favourites to look at when you need a spark of inspiration?

Michelle Nickolaisen:
When I first started writing, I read a lot of Gala Darling and Danielle LaPorte, both of whom I don’t read much of any more (there are definitely some cringey posts somewhere on the internet of me trying very hard to emulate both of their writing styles, though!). At this point, I tend towards information overwhelm, so a lot of the inspiration I get is actually from people in my friends or acquaintances circles vs someone I don’t know. Two of my besties Shenee and Alexis are always creating really cool stuff, and another one of my besties does less 'internet'-y stuff, but is putting herself through nursing school while working at a domestic violence shelter doing mental health education, so I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who are all inspiring in their own ways. 

Past that, it’s hard to name anyone off the top of my head - as far as influences on my work, I think Diane Duane and Madeleine L’Engle both were to some extent (I devoured every book from both of them up until I was 18 or so and still wouldn’t mind reading all the rest of the Young Wizards series!). And Another Round is one of the podcasts that I listen to when I’m trying to take my mind off things - not that it’s always lighthearted but I’m definitely guaranteed at least a few laughs per episode. 

Magic & Musings:
Oh wow, I used to be a huge fan of Gala and Danielle too! They were such a solid foundation of my love of blogs, back in the day, especially Gala. Her style was, and still is, so unique. Another Round is also a solid favourite in my list of podcasts I listen to.
This is a question I like to ask purely because of the variety of answers I get! I’m really interested in how people work and get things done. Do you have a particular place you work or find yourself the most productive? Are there a particular set of things that need to be in place for things to get done, like a milky cup of tea or a particular album of music you listen to? 

Michelle Nickolaisen:
I could talk for ages about this (and have written a lot about it, too) but here’s the cliff notes: 

I have a massive Spotify playlist that I listen to (with another one for editing that’s growing slower, and is all wordless music) while working — the genres are all over the map but the one thing in common is that they’re mostly pretty fast-paced, which helps me stay energetic and focused while working

I use Asana to help me stay organized on the small-to-medium scale (I made this video on how I use it in 2014 and the way I use it has changed a little bit, but not a whole lot - I’ll be recording a new video on it soon) so I check that every day, multiple times a day, to make sure I’m on track 

If I’m having an especially hard time focusing I’ll use the Pomodoro technique and/or Cold Turkey to help me stay focused/get rid of distractions

Every day before I wrap work, I go over the next day’s agenda and create time estimates for each task to make sure that I’m not setting the bar way too high for the next day - I used to do this with an app (there are a few options here - Plan.io, Skedpal) but now I just do it with a post-it note (if all of the tasks won’t fit on the post-it note, that’s warning sign number one!) 

Magic & Musings:
We seem to have a lot in common. I stand by Asana as my external brain and don't know what I would do without it.
What do you do if you find yourself stuck in a rut creatively? Are there any books on writing and creativity you would recommend to others?

Michelle Nickolaisen:
I felt like this very recently and one thing that really helped was using 750 words. The idea is a riff on morning pages from The Artist’s Way; you write three longhand pages (in this case, 750 words) first thing in the morning to sort of 'clean the pipes; when it comes to your brain. At one point, I did it religiously, and now I don’t do it every day but I do it most mornings, after it helped me out with a really bad block a few months ago. 

I’ve also found that often, if I’m in a creative rut, there are underlying issues mental-health wise — I need to take some time off work, find a better stress outlet, etc. Another thing I’ve noticed is that if I’m not consuming good enough content on a regular basis, my output tends to dry up. Even my nonfiction writing/client writing gets worse if I’m not taking in good stuff on a regular basis (whether that consumption is TV/movies, podcasts, books, articles, etc.)

Other than that, my fave resources on writing and creativity are: 

Writing Excuses (super short & actionable episodes)

The Accidental Creative (a really good primer on creating systems around your creative work & making sure it’s sustainable) 

The Creative Habit (also really practical - I tend towards practical over precious when it comes to creative craft tips) 

99u (tons of tips on creativity & productivity) 

Magic & Musings:
How would you describe your relationship with social media?

Michelle Nickolaisen:
Love/hate. I have made so many close friends through social media — actually, many of my very close friends I met online first (whether through Twitter, Facebook, or, with one, the old Punk Rock Domestic forum like ten years ago) — and I know a lot of amazing people that I never would have met without social media. But at the same time, I get so frustrated with the darker aspects of it, whether that’s unfiltered vitriol on Twitter, unwanted advice (or just awful bigotry) on Facebook, etc. I’ve done a few social media hiatuses (hiatii?) at various points and found that disengaging with it to some extent can often be really good for my stress levels (and productivity!), but then I get sucked back in because I miss engaging with the good parts of it! 

Magic & Musings:
What does ‘success’ feel/look like to you?

Michelle Nickolaisen:
I think for me, success is very linked to the idea of freedom. Some of that is strictly financial-related (having the freedom to, you know, pursue a medical diagnostic process, for example - something I’m doing right now that I haven’t been able to do before) and some of that is more general lifestyle things. I moved to Richmond from Austin last year, and I really miss my friends/chosen family back in Austin, so I’m going to move back later this year - having that kind of flexibility feels like success to me. 

Magic & Musings:
What one thing do you wish someone told you when you were first starting out writing?

Michelle Nickolaisen:
Not necessarily when I first started writing, but when I first started freelancing, I wish someone had told me it was okay to experiment and fail really fast. I was so convinced that people were watching my every move for evidence of being a fuck up that I didn’t change things that clearly weren’t working, which created a lot more stress in the long run. 

Magic & Musings:
Onto a fun question! Can you recommend everyone reading a book you've enjoyed recently, as well as a film and an album or song? 

Book: I listen to a lot of my fiction because I can multitask while doing so and that helps calm the anxiety brain; the last full-length book I listened to was the Welcome to Night Vale novel, but I also listen to a ton of podcasts (full list here

Film: I tend much towards TV than film (which is something I always mean to sort of remedy, but then just...forget to see movies when they hit Netflix/downloads...); on that front, I really liked American Gods - I have some quibbles with it (just like I did with the source material) but it’s interesting and incredibly nice to look at

Song: 'On A Roll' by Icona Pop - I got this in my Spotify discover playlist recently and it’s very danceable and also ridiculous, which is basically my favorite combination 

Magic & Musings:
Is there anything else you would like to say before we finish? How can people find out more about you and your work? What’s on the horizon for you in the next few months?

Michelle Nickolaisen:
I think the biggest thing I want to say, which I know people talk about a lot already, is to just make sure to take care of yourself and focus on a sustainable workload (as much as you can). It’s super easy to get burned out or overwork yourself (especially if you have mental illnesses) and it’s always worse in the long run than just trying to create a sustainable workload in the first place. 

The best way to keep up with me and my various projects is probably via Twitter, Tumblr, or the Facebook page (but probably the first two more so — the FB page is more focused on the freelancing/business oriented projects/topics). On the horizon, I’ve got two audio drama podcasts that I’m working on (one coming much sooner than the other, but I’m excited about both!), the second novel, plus a host of nonfiction stuff (I’m just not sure what I’ll be able to finish first, so a little hesitant to speak more on that) and my regular blog/Medium posts. Plus the move back to Austin...like I said, I hate being bored!