How one freelancer jumped from anonymity to The New York Times

nyt2In 2010, when Gaby Dunn (@GabyDunn on Twitter) moved to New York, she had big ambitions but few contacts in the journalism business. So the Emerson College grad created the 100 Interviews Project, a Tumblr blog in which she interviewed 100 people she knew existed but had never met before over the course of a year. She interviewed a sex therapist, a rocket scientistsomeone who was left at the altar, and many others.

The project caught the attention of industry pros including best-selling author A.J. Jacobs and a New York Times editor, landing Dunn a book agent and plum freelance assignments. Ebyline recently caught up with this up-and-comer to find out she why embarked on a year-long interview blitz, how she built her platform from scratch, and what’s she been up to since. What follows is an excerpt of that conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

What was the inspiration for the 100 Interviews Project?

I wanted to get myself out of the slush pile. I wanted something that I would be forced to update consistently. Other people are more interesting than I am so I decided to talk to other people. When people have blogs and it’s just “pictures of my cat” or “here’s what I’m up to,” no one reads that.

I had been reading a lot of A.J. Jacobs. He does these stunts. He did something where he read the entire encyclopedia and another where he lived through the Bible for a year. Now he’s become a friend, which is great. But initially I thought, “He’s awesome. I’m going to do what he does.”

Some of your interview subjects like Stephen Colbert were tricky to nail down. Did you have other challenges in getting people to talk to you and how did you win them over?

One guy that I was going to interview is a rabbi and he looked at my site and was like, “I don’t want to do an interview for a site I wouldn’t show my kids,” which was fair. A couple of times people were just reluctant because of their own personal beliefs or whatever. I thought more people would be reluctant because it’s not a big name brand thing or it’s a blog they’ve never heard of.

I worked at The Boston Globe and I was brought up there to believe that you need to say that you’re from The Globe because that’s how you get people to talk to you. But that didn’t end up being the case. A Tumblr blog is just as likely to go viral as a New York Times post. It’s very interesting.

Gaby Dunn

Gaby Dunn

When I came to New York, no one knew who I was. I wanted to stand out from the other writers, so I became “that 100 Interviews girl.” When I would go to parties, people would say, “you should know Gaby. She does this amazing website. Check it out.” It gave me something that people could look at and say, “Ah. She’s really doing work.”

What have you done since finishing the project?

Right after 100 Interviews ended I heard from the culture editor of The New York Times Magazine, who was a fan of the site. I write for them every so often, which has been great and beyond my wildest dreams. I got an agent and I get to freelance for a bunch of different places like Cosmopolitan and Slate. Instead of pitching, I pretty much just field offers, which is really nice.

Any advice for other freelancers who want to build their own platform?

Pick something that people can easily follow, like, “I’m going to do this for a year or I’m going to do this until I get this person.” Post consistently; you have to keep it up and finish it.

Pick something that you already want to be doing. If you want to write about food, write about food. If you want to write about movies, write about movies. Once others see that they will bring you on to do it for money if you’re very good at it.

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About Susan Johnston

Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work appears in, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor,, Parade Magazine, and SELF, among other places. She is the author of The Urban Muse Guide to Online Writing Markets and blogs at The Urban Muse.