INTERVIEW: Ryan Rae Harbuck, Author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Chair

Interview by Lara Lillibridge

Ryan Rae Harbuck: I’m glad you had no idea.

LL:  None at all. I reviewed your book for Mom Egg Review, back in September, but that wasn’t the first time I heard of it. I saw your book all over social media—you really got the word out.

But let’s start with the actual writing of the book. Your book has so much grace for your parents, and even friends that that I would not particularly have much grace for. For example, you wrote,

But it took me a long time to see that my parents had feelings and emotions. And that they were both very, very unhappy during those gravitationally pulling years of my and Abby’s adolescence.

And I was curious, did you feel that way before you started writing? Or was that something that came to you as you were writing the book?

RRH: I think that there was a little bit of both honestly. When I first started writing, it wasn’t supposed to be a book. It was I think, about 15 years ago, that I started writing what turned into this book. When I first started, it was more of a ‘I have all of these things inside of me that don’t really fit anymore, and I need to give them a home somewhere else.’

And so I think that I most definitely used my writing to make peace with a lot of things. And to sort of actually give words to the things that I had learned. Because I think so often we go through our lives, and we do a lot of learning and a lot of reflecting. But until we actually put words to them, sometimes it gets lost a little bit. I

I probably always have had, as you described it, grace for other people. And I think that I learned that very early on with having my car accident at 16 years old—I let go of a lot of things and learned a lot of things without knowing right away. One of those things most definitely was that people are good. And sometimes the way that they interact with you is in their best interest but it may hurt you in return. And if you understand that it comes from a good place then you can carry on.

LL: It certainly makes life happier if you assume best intentions of other people.

You said that you started this a very long time ago—writing things without necessarily thinking of it in terms of being a book. And one thing that I really found interesting from a writing perspective is the time ordering of your book. You start at what is presumably your first moment of true independence and teenaged defiance, which is a wonderful way for the reader to connect to the narrator. And then you go into the dress and the dance—I don’t want to give too much stuff away in this interview, but I was curious as to how you decided on the ordering of your book.

RRH: it’s really interesting because I didn’t write anything in any order—I would write a story based off of how I was feeling that day or some theme that I needed to work through. I originally thought it would be really cool to try to tell the story completely out of order and use those kinds of similar themes as the way to tell the story. And then it just got really convoluted because I was having to kind of retell everything as I went through.

One day I made sticky notes of all the titles, and I sat and tried to figure out where they needed to go. And I knew that that first story, that first chapter had to be first—I think because of what you said—it was like my first moment of real independence and sort of like, what is what is this life that I have now. And that’s what’s really important to this whole work.

Then I had to kind of go back a little bit and fill in some holes. I sat there for hours with sticky notes, trying to figure out where they’d all go. At one point I had it broken up into three parts, I had every chapter outlined for the last part. And then I met my husband, and every single chapter changed from there on—life changes without you expecting it and, you’re rewriting your story because of it.

 

Author ryan rae harbuck and husband

Author Ryan Rae Harbuck and Husband

LL: That’s always a question with memoir—when to stop, right?

RRH: I completely rewrote the last chapter like nine times because I was struggling with that, because I’m very much alive still and growing and having these moments– at one point I had l the pandemic in it. I knew that I wanted it to include my youngest child in the womb, so I knew that I had to go at least to that moment. I was really originally just writing about his birth, and then I realized that there’s such a mirror between giving birth and writing a book, and that felt like a really good finish for me.

LL: Your last line was, “Even though the writing has stopped, my story certainly isn’t over.”

One thing that I like about where you chose to stop is that it resisted the ‘I met my husband and lived happily ever after’ sort of expected female narrative. 

So you have this wonderful essay, “Recipe For My Acceptance of Your Acceptance of Accepting Me,” that I thought was really fun. Was that a prompt from something, or how did you come up with the idea?

RRH: I’ve have all these moments in my life that are a little bit funny and a little bit very serious at the same time. And I wanted to include sort of just a break of that. And I don’t know why I decided to do it as a recipe, but I definitely wanted something that was not just like a hard story line. And I just wanted to give the reader the understanding that it’s really important that I accept myself, but it’s also important that I accept how other people are accepting me. Because of how convoluted it was it became a recipe because if you’re going to get to the end of this, you’ve got to follow the directions.

LL: Well, it was great. And one thing that I think that you do well in the book is that it’s not a one-note narrator. There are these moments that are incredibly painful, and there are these moments that are funny. Your book has several different themes—you wrote about swimming, all of this international travel, and certainly independence, but also there is a lot about asking for help, and growing up and grieving and mourning. There’s so much going on, and yet it flows so beautifully. You have these different voices, but it doesn’t feel like commotion. And so I was curious, do you have writing partners, or a writing group that you work with? Or do you write at home alone in a cave?

RRH: I wrote about this in my book—I’ve always been writing, but I’ve never seen myself as a writer. I studied biology in college, and then I was a science teacher and but all the while I kept a blog and was still writing. I didn’t have any writing partners or anything, but once I decided that I wanted all these things I’d written to be a real book, I gave bits and pieces of it pieces of it to one of my best friends—she’s Margot in the book, actually—and she’s one of the smartest people I know.

And so she would give me a bit of advice, such as, ‘you forgot this person,’ because she knew the story, which was good, but also I eventually I needed somebody that didn’t know the story.

The whole reason why I self-published is because I just wanted it out there. I didn’t try to get an agent. I didn’t send it off anywhere. Once I decided I wanted it in the world, I just wanted it in the world. And so I did very minimal things with it—financially, I’d had to kind of cut a lot of corners. I didn’t do any developmental editing, any copy editing—just proofed. The editor that I used was really great.  She did help me with some things that were beyond what I was paying her for, and I’m grateful for that.

I really feel impassioned by writing, and completed by it. Once I published this book, it was like, now what do I do? And so I just started writing little personal essays and flash fiction pieces. Right now I’m working on a literary fiction novel as well as a middle grade series. But being a mom of young kids, I really have had to teach myself to write in seven minutes spurts.

LL:  I think when you have that passion to write, you just find ways to make it happen. I know for me, I couldn’t write when my kids were awake. I could sit on the floor and read while they played Nerf guns over my head, but I couldn’t write something vulnerable. We have to find a way to make those seven minutes here and there add up, because we might not ever get an entire weekend to write.

RRH: Yeah, I’m always very surprised at how I’ve just been able to read the last sentence I wrote, and then pick up where I left off in the middle of the night. I’m constantly thinking about it—I’ll be driving to soccer practice or something, and I’m like, oh, I need to add this one little thing about this person or whatever.

LL: I definitely get the most writing ideas when I’m driving—the less convenient it is to write it down, the better my ideas will be. 

You have this quote I really related to:

If only I had trusted myself more. If only I had tried harder. If only I didn’t care so much about what everyone else thought, if only I had let swimming feel this important to me before my accident.

And that to me was so poignant. Because I looked back at my own younger self. And at times, you know, I didn’t have the confidence. I didn’t have the courage. Many times during my life, I’ve looked back and said, if only…

 

Author photo of writer ryan rae hardback a white woman sitting in a wheel chair She wears a light blue gray sleeveless shirt

 

RRH: Yeah, I think when I was going back through and revising and doing my editing of all of my stories, all of a sudden I saw all these really intertwined emotions and also these lessons.

One thing that that really struck me that I didn’t outwardly recognize before I had gone through it is that pretty much every single one of my stories has to deal with being vulnerable, and finding my strength out of that vulnerability.

It was like this giant a-ha moment of my life to realize that there’s so much power behind vulnerability and to really trust it and to learn to embrace it, and I don’t know that I would have realized that without going through all of these stories, and really molding them and stretching them and giving characters to them.

I think that it really does serve me well to realize that because there’s so many moments in my life where I do feel out of control and vulnerable and naked and exposed. And now I know that that’s okay.

LL:  I think part of what helps tie the stories together in your book—that emerges as a very clear theme right from the beginning—the vulnerability and the strength—even in that very first story. I think it really helps us see the narrator as someone who is both honest and insightful, and not to be pitied. There’s never a part in your book where it feeds into self-pity at all, which I think is amazing as someone who has pitied myself a lot.

RRH: Thank you. I had the entire back blurb written out, and the graphic designer had created the whole back blurb sent it to me and I immediately was like, everything about that is wrong. And I sat there for 20 minutes and rewrote the entire thing and send it to her.

That’s when I all of a sudden realized, somebody else is going to read this, what do I want them to feel from this? This is for somebody else’s eyes. It’s not for my own. And that’s I think, when I really connected with all of those themes.

“That’s when I all of a sudden realized, somebody else is going to read this, what do I want them to feel from this?” —Ryan Rae Harbuck

LL:  So you had someone that did proofreading and someone that did book design? How did you find the people you worked with?

RRH: In a weird, twisted world of fate, I, when I decided that I want all these stories to be a book, I did one Google search, for self-publishing or something. I’m in Denver, and this local company pulled up and I clicked on it. The head of the company was a woman that I had met two other times, one time when I was teaching, and then I met her through another writer friend. And so I immediately reached out to her and she had started this self-publishing company, and we went and had coffee and talked. I asked, how can I do this with zero money? It took me almost three years working underneath her to get it done.

The real point of me saying I need to get this out in the world was when I was about six months pregnant with my youngest, and I realized if I don’t get this done now, it’s not going to get done. That’s when I did reach out to her and she connected me with all of those people and helped me in terms of getting it on Amazon, etc. Then from there, I had to wait until my child was born to actually finished it. I remember sitting in a rocking chair with him sleeping while I tried to finish up. But I finally did it.

LL:  And now it has been out a year. What have you learned or taken away from the experience now that you’re a year out from the process?

RRH: You’ve probably got this from reading my memoir, but I’m a very competitive person. And so I like want to win the book game, and I don’t know what that means. And it’s been, it’s been a lot of work. It’s like another child of mine, where every day I’m trying comfort and soothe this baby book.

There are weeks where I’m just totally over it. And I’m like, I’m not going to touch it, I’m not going to do anything, I’m not going to promote it. And then of course, something pops up, and I’m like, o’h, I could do this,’ or ‘I could write about this’. I’m putting it out there everywhere I possibly can, I think because I just care so deeply for the story and for it is its own little baby life.

I’ve done several book clubs in the last year. Those are really great, because I’ve gotten to go and chat with readers and learn about other people’s experience with my book, which is wild, you know, to think about.

I kind of l put some blinders on before publication and I didn’t really let myself think about who was going to read it and wonder what were they going to think about it—possibly because I knew that maybe I would back out or freak out or something.

And then, for probably the first two months afterwards, there was a lot of stress involved. But I think like now that it’s been about a year, I feel a little bit more stable. I’m not checking my rankings every five seconds, and I’m not as uptight if I get a bad review.

LL:  I have self-published and I have traditionally published and for me, I wanted to self-publish because I wanted control over the whole thing. It’s a business really, it’s not just the writing. You really have to be comfortable with self-promotion.

RRH: You’re so right and I think the whole of my life I’ve done things like that. When I was trying to go to India I was fundraising then, and the same with swimming when I was trying to go to all these different races all around the world. Whether I love it or not, fundraising and promotion are something I know, and I have a good support system. I give a lot of credit to that for the fact that my book has been able to reach more people than I know, just because of the people that I do have in my life that love and support me.

LL:  I also saw on your website that you have an audio version of your book and you have a narrator. Tell me how that came to be as a self-published author.

RRH: It was super important for me to have an audiobook version as a member of the disability community. There are a lot of people that just can’t physically read a book. When I originally published the paperback, I wanted to do the narration myself. And then I listened to Educated by Tara Westover and realized what a fantastic narrator can do for a story. I’m not an actor, and even though it’s my story, I don’t think that I would necessarily do it justice.

I posted for auditions on Audible. I got I don’t know, like, 15 people audition and they ranged from very young voices to very old voices—some voices I connected with and voices I very much didn’t. I really struggled with picking a narrator and I asked my best friend, who is Faye in the book, to listen to all of them. She said that the way that I write is not meant to be spoken, and so it’s going to sound a little bit different, and so you, pick something that feels okay. And so I when it came down to it, I just picked the narrator with the most neutral voice.

LL: Sure, that makes sense. I think that audiobooks, are about accessibility, but also someone said that when you make things more accessible you help all sorts of other people outside of the disabled community. When you make an automatic door at the mall, you help the mom with the stroller or the person with a bunch of bags—it helps everyone. Was it complicated to make the audio version?

RRH: In terms of the actual logistics of it, Audible makes it very easy. You create an audition script and you post it, and then people reply to it.

LL: Awesome. Well, is there anything that you want to say to a person who is struggling with writing or someone who’s thinking about self-publishing?

RRH: Well, I think in terms of writing, I think you just you do it, you write. It doesn’t have to be perfect. I think that getting the first draft words on a page is really meaningful. And it’s an it’s such a beautiful start—just go ahead and put the words on the page. I almost think of them as placeholders—eventually the right words will be there, but you have to put words down first to find them.

And in terms of self-publishing, it’s not as hard as you may think. And it’s very rewarding because it’s all you, but it can be kind of lonesome, because there’s no gatekeeper anywhere who told me that my story was good. I had to just believe that for myself. And that makes it a little bit more difficult, I think.

LL: I know I thrive on external feedback.

RRH: I mean, who doesn’t? Right?

LL: It is a wonderful book. It is a book that always lingered for me that I never forgot, and that I wanted to come back to.

 

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Chair is available wherever books are sold. Find Ryan Rae Harbuck on Twitter, Instagram, and her website.


Headshot of author lara lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge

Interviews Editor

Lara Lillibridge is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama (Skyhorse, 2019), Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home (Skyhorse, 2018) and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cynren Press, 2019). In 2019 she judged creative nonfiction for AWP’s Intro Journal Project and currently serves as a mentor for their Writer to Writer program. She also writes for children under the name L.B. Lillibridge.

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