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My First Time...with Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, author of Harmless Like You, is a Japanese-British-Chinese-American writer ("hyphenation and ordering vary depending on the day," she says). She has a BA from Columbia University, an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is currently working on a PhD at the University of East Anglia, where she is mates with fellow Riff Raff author Paul M. M. Cooper! Her writing has appeared in, among other places, NPR's Selected Shorts, TriQuarterly, and the Tin House Open Bar. She has lived in London, New York, Tokyo, Madison, and Norwich.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan | The Riff Raff

Here's the blurb for Harmless Like You...

Written in startlingly beautiful prose, Harmless Like You is set across New York, Connecticut, and Berlin, following Yuki Oyama, a Japanese girl fighting to make it as an artist, and Yuki’s son Jay who, as an adult in the present day, is forced to confront his mother’s abandonment of him when he was only two years old.

The novel opens when Yuki is sixteen and her father is posted back to Japan. Though she and her family have been living as outsiders in New York City, Yuki opts to stay, intoxicated by her friendship with the beautiful aspiring model Odile, the energy of the city, and her desire to become an artist. But when she becomes involved with an older man and the relationship turns destructive, Yuki’s life is unmoored. Harmless Like You is a suspenseful novel about the complexities of identity, art, adolescent friendships, and familial bonds that asks―and ultimately answers―how does a mother desert her son?

What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write your first book?

Perhaps just that it’s hard to know what’s going to work and what won’t until you do it. So write, be in the world, and try not to get too anxious if life doesn’t resemble your five year plan.

What was the biggest tantrum you had while writing it?

When I was living in the Midwest to write, I came home exhausted and decided to make toast in the oven. It was a malfunctioning gas oven and in relighting the starter, I managed to create a mini fire ball. It burned off my fringe and the bottom of my hair. As I sat in the bath, cutting off my hair with kitchen scissors, I did indulge in a rather intense weeping fit. Why was I living alone so far from home?

Harmless Like You

What’s your go-to procrastination method?

I start other tiny writing projects, short stories, essays, which eat up my writing energy.

Best thing about writing your book? When the writing works and you forget that you even exist.

And the worst?

Waking up the next day and rereading the nonsense first draft.

Go-to writing snacks?

Diet coke, tea, apples, peaches, persimmons, popcorn.

Who or what inspires you to write?

Reading a really well made sentence always makes me jealous and want to do it myself. Also bursts of extreme emotion.

The book that changed you?

Many books changed me in many small ways. To choose one – Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo. I read it when I was young and had a ravenous longing to make good work despite not knowing how to begin. It made me feel that this was not a bad way to be and gave me a kind of foolhardy courage.

Your pump up song?

'Paper Forest' by Emmy The Great.

Tiny story: I interviewed her when I was in college and she was incredibly lovely and wise. Then the magazine I interviewed her for decided to stop publishing music features and focus on literature. I was too embarrassed to tell her that I couldn’t publish her interview. (Now, being older and wiser, I would’ve pitched it elsewhere.) I still feel guilty about the whole thing. Especially, because her music brings me so much joy.

If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer dead or alive, who would it be?

Sylvia Plath. She makes me laugh more than almost any other writer.

One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get a book published?

Be kind. You should do this for its own sake. But if you need more reasons, it is the people you’ve been kind to who you’ll need when the book comes out. They’re the people who will make their mothers buy the book. They’re the people who will come to your launch, who will sneakily put your books face out on the bookshelf. And they’re the people you’ll be happiest to have in your life.

This is cheating but my second piece of advice is just keep going. The more time and energy you put into it, the more chances you create for yourself.


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