For my professional interview I chose a freelance adventure writer named Brendan Leonard. Leonard is the sole operator of a blog called semi-rad which focuses on alternative styles of living and experiencing life, and has an emphasis on outdoor recreation. Leonard has published several books, and frequently writes for magazines such as Climbing, Backpacker, and Outdoor. He currently lives in Denver, Colorado.
What, or who, most influenced your lifestyle and your writing style?
- I think I got a lot from reading a ton of Ernest Hemingway, trying to learn how to be succinct with words in communicating ideas. Mark Jenkins, longtime contributor to Outside and National Geographic, was a huge influence as far as adventure writing. And I think even Dave Eggers was a big inspiration to me, even though I’ve only read two of his books—I realized it was OK to be a little neurotic, not perfect, and honest in personal writing.
Approximately how much writing do you do in a day/week?
- Depends if you’re including writing emails or not! (that’s not a joke) In a very light week, I only write my weekly blog post (500-1200 words) plus about 100 emails, and in a very heavy week, I’ll write a few longer pieces of 1,000 to 2,000 words, plus my weekly blog post, plus those 100 emails. And if I have a big assignment due, like a 3,000-word magazine story, I tend to gradually work on that over a number of weeks, and in the final push might write 2,000 or 2,500 words. And then I’m often writing book proposals or pitches for other projects and articles.
Tell us a bit about your work with nonprofits. What do you like about working with nonprofit organizations? What do you dislike?
- I don’t do a ton of work with nonprofits right now, aside from donations. I spent two and a half years working for Big City Mountaineers, a nonprofit that takes under-resourced teens on wilderness trips, and consider that one of the best, if not the most lucrative, jobs I’ve ever had.
How did your blogging start? Did you just write, and let the blog create itself, or did you tailor the blog with a target audience in mind?
- I started my blog in 2011 wanting to stay in touch with the outdoorsy side of my life while working a job writing marketing copy for a big tech company. I told myself I’d write a blog post every week until something happened or I got sick of it. I decided to write more for the middle-of-the-road outdoors folk as opposed to writing about the high-achieving athletes I saw media at the time focusing on (hence naming the blog Semi-Rad), and it’s worked out rather well. Thankfully, I started getting some funding before I got sick of writing for free, and the blog just celebrated its sixth anniversary in February.
Has the blog become self-sustaining, as far as a career, or have you had (even now) to rely on freelance journalism and other means of professional work?
- It’s a decent part-time gig, and I do all sorts of other things to supplement—magazine writing, web writing, film making, consulting, public speaking, copy writing. I would have to look at my taxes, but I would guess the blog is about 20% of my yearly income at this point.
What was your transition from blog writer, to published author?
- After I had been writing my blog for almost three years, I self-published a book in December 2013, and partly because the blog had a fairly big audience, the book sold 10,000 copies in about 14 months, and after that it was a lot easier to get book deals from publishers.
What are some major roadblocks you faced in your transition into the “real world?”
- I didn’t really have any roadblocks in my transition to the real world. I’ve had full- or part-time jobs since I was 15, so when I got out of school, I got another job. I had trouble right out of grad school getting a newspaper job, so I picked up a sales floor job at REI for about five months while sending out resumes and relentlessly calling people back. I eventually got a newspaper job but held onto the REI job as a part-time gig to help make ends meet.
An idea that carried over from our interview with Steve Merriam into this interview is that our writing is directly affected by what we read. Merriam had said that good writers read a lot, and Leonard said similar in that some of his biggest influences were authors Ernest Hemingway and Mark Jenkins. Hemingway is one of the classic authors in English, and Jenkins is a highly acclaimed adventure writer and frequent contributor to Outside.
This indicates two things: the first is that Leonard likely has stylistic devices ingrained that he has adopted from his reading and admiration of Hemingway and Jenkins, and second; through reading Jenkins and other outdoor authors Leonard understands the motifs that defined the genre. This last point can also be assumed to have been an influencing factor, regarding Hemingway, to Leonard’s book publications and memoirs.