An Interview by Jackie Houchin
For about a year and a half, I have been receiving by subscription ‘LETTERS FROM AFAR’ through the (snail) mail. They are stories about real places written by the “fearless explorer” Isabelle. I am an avid traveler myself, and these letters feed my wanderlust in between my trips. As a writer, I got curious about who wrote the letters, how they got started and a bit of the process. Was Isabelle really her name? Did she actually travel to these places?
I read up on it on the LETTERS FROM AFAR website, but I wanted more. As writers and readers, I thought YOU might be interested too, so I interviewed the gracious gal and she responded with lots of interesting and encouraging facts.
Jackie – I love your “fearless explorer” Isabelle and her history, but what is your actual name and history?
My name is Shawnee Mills. I’m originally from Texas, but have lived in New Mexico, Colorado, Kentucky (where I met my husband), North Carolina, and now New York City. I was homeschooled from the second grade and attended college early at age 14. From there, I decided to pursue cosmetology, and I worked as a stylist for 8 years. Throughout my career, my true passion was always creating art and traveling as often as possible.
Jackie – Tell me about your family. I know you have a husband, but do you have children and pets?
I’m the middle of 3 girls. My parents chose quite a different pathway for us, and I firmly believe it’s led to my current career and lifestyle. When I was nine, my parents decided to sell everything they owned and begin living off the grid in Colorado. My father built our home (a log cabin), and my sisters and I spent our days exploring, pursuing our own unique interests, and avoiding our daily lessons as much as possible. 😉
After that adventure was over, we again sold everything we owned, bought an RV, and traveled the country on a year-long quest to find our next home base. We eventually settled on Kentucky, where I began my adult life and career as a stylist and met my husband, Palmer.
Palmer and I do not have any children, only of the furry variety 🙂 Our two dogs’ names are Izzy and Bronco.
Jackie – What did you do before the LETTERS FROM AFAR? Did you travel for business? Was the painting for pleasure or business?
When Palmer and I decided to sell everything we own (see the theme here? ;)) and move from Kentucky to North Carolina, I left my job as a stylist behind. I decided to dive right in and attempt to make it as a full-time artist…. Which was daunting, to say the least.
My medium of choice back then was oil painting, and peddling my works in local coffee shops and art markets was not panning out as planned. After doing a lot of research on profitable business models, I decided to try to find a way to blend my passions for art and travel into the world of subscriptions.
While I had traveled the United States extensively, I had never actually left the country. In a roundabout way, creating LETTERS FROM AFAR manifested my current life of travel and adventure. My actual life and my business fuel each other.
Jackie – How did the idea come to you for the letters? Was it an “Aha” moment? A passing suggestion from someone? Your hubby or your muse? Which painting were you doing? Were you sitting in a café in Bangladesh?
One day, I was brainstorming and jotting down ideas in my journal. It was a scorching day in July, and I was sitting on the beach on a random weekday.
I had no job, and after my failed attempts at selling my artworks, also had no money. Around that time, I had been reading a fiction novel (cannot remember the name of it), and the main character was traveling and writing a letter to her mother. The idea hit me hard and fast…. Write letters about faraway places, include illustrations of the location, and send the letters to readers on a monthly basis!
I drove home so quickly, and excitedly told my husband all about my idea. His exact words were, “I love the idea. Go for it… if it even pays the water bill, it’ll be worth it.” 😉
Jackie – What was the process from that first idea, to the actual addressing and mailing out the letters? Did you imagine it would spread so widely around the world?
That same day, I pulled out my dusty and rarely used watercolors and a piece of paper and hopped onto my computer to learn as much as I possibly could about Marrakesh, Morocco.
I had never been but had always dreamed of going. After researching, I wrote a letter from the perspective of someone who was there. The character was telling their friend all about the sights, smells, and wonders. At the bottom of the page, I sketched out a scene of Marrakesh and added a splash of color with my watercolor paints. Voila! The very first LETTER FROM AFAR was born. I made copies of the original, folded them with care, and prepared them to be mailed to my future readers
We decided to name the fictional writer of the letters Isabelle. My dad came up with the name. She’s inspired by the real-life Isabella Bird, an explorer that lived in the 19th century and bravely traveled solo.
I created an Instagram page and a website and began advertising my little idea. That first week, five people subscribed to receive my monthly letters. I’ll never forget the feeling. It paid for the water bill in just seven days.
The letters have come a long way since then in terms of style and skill… but this very first letter was and is very special to me. Even then, it somehow felt like the start of something big…. Not in terms of finances but in the idea that I was on my way to “making it.” AKA, truly doing what I love.
Jackie – How many subscribers received the first letters, and about what is your readership now? How did you go about building your mailing list?
We were very fortunate that LETTERS FROM AFAR basically grew on its own. Through word of mouth and occasional posting on social media, it grew to over 1000 subscribers in the first year. 3000 by the second year. My husband was able to quit his job to help full-time. And the third year? That’s when covid hit.
Like many small business owners, I was in sheer panic when the world shut down. Would my little company survive? Would the postal system even be able to deliver my letters? To our complete shock, the pandemic was the catalyst that skyrocketed our monthly readership.
While everyone was stuck at home and no longer able to travel, my letters became a small way to see the world without having to leave. In 2020, our readership grew to over 8000, and in 2021, to 10,000. It’s steadily continued to grow each year since.
Today, we grow and maintain our readership by continuing to post on social media and doing some light paid advertising.
Jackie – I personally began with the letter about Predjama Castle in Slovenia. How many letters came before this one? (I see on your website; you can order past letters. How would a person go about that, and how much would they cost?)
I’ve created a new letter each month since July of 2017. In short, there are many, many letters! Some of them are out of print, and some are still available in our “archives.” The previous letters can be purchased for $7 on www.pastlettersafar.com.
Jackie – Do you write and illustrate ALL of the LETTERS FROM AFAR yourself?
I research, hand illustrate, and write each monthly letter. The process is long, but it’s my favorite part of this whole endeavor. My goal is for the colors of the letter and the story told to portray the true magic of each location.
In the beginning, I started each letter by heavily researching each location. Nowadays, I’m so happy to say that some of the letters are written on location. The eventual goal is for all of them to be written on location. That means a LOT of traveling, the idea of which makes me smile.
Jackie – What gave you the idea to hide objects in the letters for readers to find? (Very clever and fun!) I like the Field Notes and the actual map too. Why did you decide to include that extra insert?
From day one, our audience has been mixed. While half of our readers are children and homeschooling families, the other half are adults who simply love to travel and learn about new places! I added the “hidden images” to entertain my littlest readers. 🙂
I decided to start including the field notes insert so I could be sure to include as much information as possible. LETTERS FROM AFAR is inspired by old-world exploration, and I imagine an explorer would always carry their trusty journal to jot down interesting facts or “field notes” from the journey. It’s just a way to make it a touch more special, in my opinion.
Jackie – I like that you help (with a portion of all sales) to sponsor education in Third World Countries through ‘Pencils of Promise’. A perfect charity for explorers. Thank you.
You’re welcome! I’ve always wanted this project to have some sort of an impact, so I was happy to partner with them.
Jackie – Thank you for joining us today, Shawnee. It’s been fascinating to learn about what you have accomplished in “doing what you love” through the LETTERS FROM AFAR. I look forward to the monthly LETTERS, and when I see that yellow airmail envelope with the golden seal, I open it first, find a comfy chair, and dive into whatever new place you are taking me to.
You are welcome. Thank you and have a great week!
Website to subscribe – LETTERS FROM AFAR
About – Idea/Destinations/Process
Isabelle – Meet your new Pen Pal
Instagram – letters.from.afar
Facebook – Letters From Afar