Spoonie Authors Podcast Episode 9: Coping with a New Disability with Rue Sparks

Don’t like the podcast format? You can also view the podcast on YouTube. (Closed captions are available for the YouTube video; transcript can be found below video.)


Transcripts done by CJ Clougherty, @PadfootPGH

Dianna: Hello, and welcome to The Spoonie Author’s Podcast: a podcast where we explore a different disabled author’s stories each week. I am your host, Dianna Gunn, and today we have Rue Sparks. Rue spent a decade working in graphic design, illustration, and animation at top advertising agencies in the US. They’ve now stepped down from this fast paced life, and spend their time writing. They combine short stories, poetry, illustration, and photography in inventive ways that span the speculative and literary fiction genres. Hello, Rue! 

Rue: Hello, it’s so great to be on here!

Dianna: Very excited to talk about your work. The main thing you’re working on right now is a zine? 

Rue: Yes, so I’m releasing a quarterly zine in January, July, and October. Each of them are going to have a short novella as well as a couple of poems, a little bit of artwork, but the bulk of it is short stories. Uh. This year I’m really focusing a lot on mental health in the short stories. So the first one (not to give too much away) but there’s – mental health is a big aspect. Deals a lot with trauma and that kind of stuff. 

Dianna: Interesting! So you have chosen specifically to tackle topics like mental health and chronic illness in your work. Why is this decision what you landed on? Why is it important for you to tell these stories? 

Rue: Uh, well, chronic illness affects me, my loved ones, my friends, in both the non-neurotypical way as well as actual physical illness. Um – my wife who passed away a couple years ago had a chronic condition – um – with her heart, as well as some issues with anxiety, that kinda stuff. Um. And I actually have developed some autoimmune disorders too, so it’s kind of touched me in a lot of different ways, so…it’s kind of natural for me to, now that I’m writing just for me not for an advertising company, to not try and sweep it under the rug. 

Dianna: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about your experience working in advertising agencies? What was that experience like? Why did you end up deciding to leave that and pursue other things? 

Rue: Um, so, initially I was dealing with a lot of grief, and I came to the decision that advertising wasn’t healthy for me mentally, but it also wasn’t what I want to be doing with myself. And at the time I had originally planned to start working as an illustrator as well as taking on odd jobs, doing what I had to do to pay the bills. But when I started developing my autoimmune disorders, a lot of that has to do with pain. So unfortunately my big pain area is my hands. So that kind of cut out doing illustration too much. I still can do some, but i’s very limited. And so then that stopped me. So I made the decision to stop doing advertising. Then I had to stop doing illustration. Then as my autoimmune disorders sort of raised, I got to the point where I had to file for disability. So writing is kind of my way to reach out to the world and be a part of the community – the world again. Rather than just, I don’t know, sitting around. *laughs* I was such a workaholic, it would be hard for me not to be doing something, so. That’s what it started as, at least. 

Dianna: Yeah, and I know that at a lot of big advertising firms you really just are expected to be a workaholic. Especially animators and illustrators. So that must have been a huge mindset shift. How did you actually cope with that? How did you make that transition tolerable for yourself?

Rue: Uh, it did not go well at first. Um. I had a bit of a breakdown, honestly, because it wasn’t just that I was a workaholic. It was that I was a person that people would go to when they had a problem. The longer that I was – the further along I was in my career the more I realized that I wasn’t really focusing on illustration or design, I really liked solving problems. And when you’re basically on your own, having to do a lot of things self motivated things, being disabled, that’s not really part of your life anymore. And so I had to find kind of creative ways for that to be part of my life again, and that’s where the writing came in. It’s a lot of problem solving. It is a lot of, you know, trying this and that, see what works, what doesn’t. So that was me trying to transition into something that was healthier for me. And it’s also been very therapeutic, the writing has. I deal a lot with, especially this year working on mental health issues, things that I’ve struggled with personally. So trauma, loss, grief, depression, anxiety. They’re all kind of things I’m going to be touching on this year. So it’s of therapeutic in a way.

Dianna: And is that in a way of catharsis, or?

Rue: Yeah, yeah. So I like to say that I write around and through my grief and trauma and loss. It’s a way for me to approach it in a way that is healthier for me, because what happened was very hard to deal with. Um. And if I approached it head on, I was going to have a lot of problems. But if I’m writing through it in a way, by writing people who have similar experiences, it’s a way to approach it in a way that is more gentle, I guess. So that’s kind of been the main, um, draws doing mental health related. It’s catharsis, it’s therapeutic, it’s a gentle way to do it. 

Dianna: Absolutely. I lost my dad when I was rather young, and you know I hear a lot of people complaining about having characters never having parents, especially in YA, but like really in a lot of fantasy and science fiction in general. I don’t really know about other genres. I don’t really explore other genres. But especially in fantasy it’s quite common for the main character  to have no parents, dead parents, whatever. And I understand why people complain. It would definitely be nice to see more depictions of actually healthy families and healthy dynamics between parents and children. But that’s just never gonna happen for me because a huge part of my work is, you know, actually working through that and showing other characters working through that. Partially for myself,  but also to show other people it’s possible. 

Rue: Yeah, absolutely. I think what it comes down to is having a variety of representation. And I think that – um – getting into disability, a good motivator for me to even be including characters who have disabilities where it’s not their main concern. Like it’s not all about them having the disability. It’s all about representation. And that goes for having characters who have a more traditional upbringing and having ones that don’t. Like it’s a matter of showing kids and teenagers and even adults “Hey, there are characters and people out there that are just like you that have dealt with the same things you do. They’ve been able to maybe not overcome with it, but deal with it.”

Dianna: Oh, absolutely. That’s a really important thing for people to hear. And honestly part of why I started this podcast is as well. It’s just another way of making sure these stories are heard and making, hopefully, some people feel less alone. And maybe hopefully be able to teach some abled people some things too. 

Rue: Absolutely, absolutely. 

Dianna: Um, so you touched on disability representations – and I usually save this question for the end but since you touched on it – what do you see in terms of disability representation in our current media landscape? What are issues you’d like to see change and be addressed in the coming years? 

Rue: So I would say there’s two main things that I really want to focus on in the upcoming years. The first thing is representation of own voices as far as like, writers and actors, even artists like having them, who actually have those disabilities being represented, be having their voices heard, versus having able bodied writers writing disabled characters. I mean, I wouldn’t say that I don’t ever want able bodied people to write disabled characters. That’s not at all what I’m saying.

I just mean that we need more visibility of the people who are disabled because it’s just not being done. We’re not seeing own voices with disability representation. Um.  And the other thing would be: having disabled characters who the whole purpose of them being there isn’t to be like an inspiration or to overcome their disability. I think a good example of this that I’ve seen recently was this Netflix show called Dragon Prince. There’s that character who is d/Deaf, and it’s not about her being deaf at any point. Like it’s… That’s just how it is. And she kicks butt! It’s just amazing. And even having, like, those moments in that show where she’s having conversations in sign language and it’s not translated. That really just, like, made me so happy. Because then the people who understand that, it was a gift for just them. So I thought that was just, like, so beautiful such a moment. So having disabled characters represented by their own voices, and not having it be about them overcoming their disability. 

Dianna: Yeah, I think that about sums it up. Are there any stories you have encountered, other than Dragon Prince, that are already doing this well? Any places where you have seen people approaching this narrative with more thought than what you’re used to? 

Rue: Um, you know, I don’t want to point out just another animated version but The How to Train Your Dragon series. He loses a leg and it’s like…not considered this big terrible thing he has to overcome. It’s just like “Well, that happened,” So like, especially representation for things like kids’ stories are just fantastic. Like it’s part of the character, but it’s not all that character is. So.

I’ve not seen a ton of good representations of mental health so far but I’m admittedly not as into binge watching Netflix as I probably should be. *laughs* And as far as stories, um, I haven’t really read a ton that are really good own voices representation yet. Yeah. I’m looking forward to the interviews on the podcast. We’ll have more people to read. *laughs* More stories to read. 

Dianna: Absolutely fair. You know, when you were like “I don’t want to talk about just animations” I half expected you to mention Toph from Avatar The Last Airbender.

Rue: Oh yeah! See, there’s some great ones, Toph was amazing! Oh, there are some great kids’ – well, “kids’” , geared for kids but good for adults too. That has some representation. Is, um, it makes me happy that that generation is seeing the representation even if it’s not as much with adults. 

Dianna: Yeah, it is isolating to have a disability at any age in the society that we currently live in, but it is particularly isolating for children who face a lot of ostracization who can’t do the things that kids typically do and too often get flat out disbelieved. 

Rue: Yeah

Dianna: I think representation in those genres is particularly important. I’ve been really excited to interview a couple of authors who are actively writing middle grade and YA books and even picture books with disabled main characters. I think that’s really incredible work. 

Rue: That’s great. I’m excited to keep you up with who else you interview. 

Dianna: Well, by the time this comes out, you actually will have a lot of episodes, so. 

Rue: That’s perfect!

Dianna: Because I am – 

Rue: My reading list will grow! 

Dianna: I am bulk recording. So we are recording in January right now, but this episode is probably going to come out in March. So by then you’ll have heard several amazing interviews with some fantastic authors. 

Rue: Amazing, perfect, can’t wait! *laughs*

Dianna: So let’s bring things back to your work. First of all, you say you draw a lot on your own personal experience. Is that just relying on your memory, is that going back to journals, or is it more of a vague sense of inspiration from your experiences? 

Rue: Um, I’d say it’s more of the vague sense. More like the feeling. So for example, the first thing I’ve released is called Daylight Chasers.Um. And at its core it’s about loss and trauma, but it’s kind of put in this package of: there’s the main character Keenan who works with this company that they do time zone hopping with like high speed travel. So they – have you ever read –

Dianna: What is timezone hopping? 

Rue: It’s not really a thing, it’s totally made up! Um. So, there’s – part of this inspiration came from a story  They Both Die in the End where they call you the day that you’re going to die. And similar to that, if you say “I don’t want this day to end” within a certain time in the morning, this company Daylight Chasers calls you and they’re like  like “Hey, we heard you don’t want this day to end we can extend this day a certain amount of hours by hopping timezones with high speed travel.” It’s really ludicrous speculative fiction, but the core of it is really about mortality and bravery and how people change their trauma. It’s in this really ridiculous wrapping, and that’s what I really like to play with. But the inspiration is always something really near to me. This next one that I’m working on, The Fable of Wren, the main character is nonbinary, which I’m also nonbinary. Um. But she’s gone through this trauma, and throughout her – them – and their friend Jethro, they kind of meet at the records office that she works at. And she – they live in the South, so it’s like it’s really insular communities. So they don’t like outsiders. And this guy Jethro, comes in and he’s like trying to stir stuff up. Um, and it’s like this sleuth detective murder mystery, but at the core of it is all about her coming to terms with what happened with her with trauma, with her loss. It’s all – I like to play around with the wrappings. But at the core, it’s always something very personal. 

Dianna: Do you think that having a speculative element to the story, but having that distance from reality, helps you get more authentically to the emotional core of the stories you’re telling? 

Rue: Absolutely. I think  – it’s very hard for me to…it gives me that distance almost,

so that way I can handle the core of the story. I can handle the trauma because everything else is completely ridiculous. So I can really have fun with that, but also tell myself the things I need to hear through the story. I almost call them fables, like they’re lessons I need to teach myself, things that I need to learn, so I learn them through these ridiculous situations. 

Dianna: I love that. That’s a great way of approaching stories, very much in line of how I approach my own writing as well. 

Rue: Yeah. And I actually at some point wanted to go into art therapy because, I mean, I was an illustrator, an amateur writer, and no matter what technique you’re using at the end of the day it’s about learning about parts of you. Even if you’re doing something, like, decorative, like, you’re learning about yourself in the process, like you’re learning how you handle pressure, how you handle like when things go wrong, how you handle mistakes. Especially if you’re dealing with things that are clearly more than just decorations, you’re learning more and more about yourself.

So creativity in general, um, I just think it’s so therapeutic, so cathartic. Even if you’re just knitting, I think it’s well worth it. Especially those of us who have own voices where we’ve had to deal with things that are represented. So.

Dianna: And at this point you have created – you have released one zine, and you have largely completed your second zine, which will be coming out shortly. Cuz this is going to actually go live in March. So this will be coming up. Yeah. You do them at the beginning of the month, or? 

Rue: It will be midway through, yes. I’m aiming for the 13th but – Um depending on how editing goes, but around mid April I’ll know around mid March exactly what date.. That’s the downside of doing it quarterly, I’m kind of flying by the seat of my pants a little bit. *laughs* It’s good. It keeps me focusing and doing something. 

Dianna: So my final question is on the two zines that you have worked on so far: what has been the most enjoyable part of the process? What is the most fun for you? 

Rue: For one, it’s been finishing something. So I’m a tinkerer. I will tinker with something forever if I was allowed to.  And so just having this deadline of like, Hey, I’m doing it quarterly, have to have something out, it gives me a motivation to complete things and not get so worried about the nitty gritty details. And because it’s also a therapeutic thing that’s great, because I’m actually learning the lessons from the story instead of just tinkering infinitely with like..sentence –  sentence structure, or whether to use this word or that word or whatever. So having that motivation is a good help. 

Dianna: And it is really amazing to finish something especially if you are usually done halfway. 

Rue: Yeah, yeah. The interesting thing I found was the first story Daylight Chasers was about 14,000 words. This next story is probably going to come in around 25,000 words

Dianna: Oh wow, you’re saying short stories, these are more like novellas. 

Rue: Yeah, this basically like in between a short story and a novella. And I’ve never finished anything that long. So it’s like really been a great motivator to actually complete things. How crazy is that? *laughs* 

Dianna: Well, congratulations on completing your longest project ever. That’s amazing. Where can people go to check out this zine, and to stay in touch with you and see all of  your creative work?

Rue: So Daylight Chasers is on Amazon as an ebook. It’s also on Kindle unlimited currently, so if you have unlimited you can read it for free. I have a Patreon page where you can pledge I think the minimum amount is like $3. And then you get zine as it releases. That’s patreon.com/rue I’m also on Twitter as @sparks_writes,  that’s probably where I’m the most active. Just talking with the writing community and letting people know when things are being released. 

Dianna: Awesome! And do you plan to release the next story on Kindle unlimited after the zine goes up? 

Rue: Yeah, so my plan right now is: so on Kindle unlimited you commit to a 90 day period. And then you can renew after 90 days. So the first month is going to be paid. I think $2.99 has been what I’ve been releasing it under, because I have the Patreon pledges that I have to fulfill. And then after that we’re going to go on unlimited. And then at the end of the year, I’m actually going to do a printed anthology of all four of the novellas together.

Dianna: Awesome. That sounds very exciting. I am thrilled for you. And I want to say a big thank you for joining me on the podcast. It has been a pleasure chatting, and I wish you all the best in your creative endeavors. 

Rue: Well, thank you so much, it was great to be on here.

Dianna: Awesome. We are done. This will probably go up in the last few week of March. But I’m still finalizing the schedule, and the first episode of the podcast is going to launch next Friday. So will also let you know when that happens so you can have a listen and discover some other great disabled authors.

Rue: Oh yeah! Great!

Dianna: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Spoonie Authors Podcast. The Spoonie Authors Podcast is part of the Spoonie Authors Network: a community initiative devoted to sharing the stories of disabled authors and educating abled people about what life is like for disabled creatives. Transcripts of this podcast are also available on the Spoonie Authors Network. To learn more or become a contributor visit spoonieauthorsnetwork.blog.com And of course, if you enjoyed this podcast make sure to leave a five star review on your favorite podcast streaming platform.

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