The power of social media combined with the relentless devotion of a mother’s love has brought tremendous success to Heather Shtuka’s Missing From Me
Heather Shtuka penned her #1 bestseller, Missing From Me, after her son Ryan went missing. In this insightful interview, she opens up about her grief, her son’s legacy, the power of social media for community-building, and how her story has gone on to support other families who have missing loved ones through her organization, the Free Bird Project.
I will never understand the concept that there is a reason this has happened. There can be no reason that makes sense that my son is not here living the life of his choosing. But I believe strongly there can be a purpose.
To get started, tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Heather Shtuka. I was born in Comox, BC, where I lived with my father, mother, and older brother for the first six years of my life. My father was in the air force, and when I finished kindergarten, we made the first of many moves to Trenton, Ontario. A far cry from the ocean waters and rainy weather I was used to, but still, I loved living in small-town Ontario. Despite a brief move to Ottawa, it was in Trenton that I graduated high school. Soon after, my dad made his final move with the air force and chose Edmonton, AB, for his retirement. Feeling the need for a change and wanting to remain close to my parents, I followed soon after. Even the chilly winters here could not mask the warmth and genuineness that I felt from the people living in this province. One of them became my husband, Scott. We met, fell in love, and married in seven short months. Looking back now, I can only imagine the fear our parents felt at the rush in which we began our relationship. But I knew that in Scott I had found a kindred soul. Twenty-eight years later, I still marvel at my good fortune.
I have held many titles that describe me as daughter, sister, friend, and wife. But my favourite and perhaps most fulfilling has always been a mom. I have been blessed to have had three imperfectly perfect children, Ryan John Marcus, Jordyn Delaney, and Julianna Michelle. I was a stay-at-home mom for most of Ryan and Jordyn’s childhood. During that time, I did carpools, hot-lunch programs and countless volunteer hours at their schools. Then, three years after the birth of our third baby, I ventured back into the workforce, accepting a position with WestJet Airlines. I loved the hustle and bustle of the airport and the people I worked with. I honestly never thought I would leave. I did not anticipate the loss of my son would lead me to other less tangible yet still significant holes that would never be filled. But perhaps the adage that when one door closes, another opens is correct. I completed my degree in public relations in the years since Ryan’s disappearance and embarked on a career in communications and advocacy. I also wrote my book, Missing From Me.
Your journey to authorship started in an unconventional way. I want to be sensitive to your and Ryan’s story. Can you speak a bit about your journey, and why a book seemed like the right fit for your circumstances?
For most of my life, I felt ordinary. I lived normally with my family handling all the day-to-day moments that make up an entire existence. Some days I was incredibly happy, and other days slightly bored. I imagine I felt the same as thousands of others. And quite honestly, it was a wonderful life until the notification that our firstborn and only son Ryan went missing. You will always remember the moments of what was before and the stark contrast of what the future now holds. When my husband and I received the text telling us that our son hadn’t arrived home the next night and hadn’t shown up for work the next day, we knew just how serious the situation was. Two months previous, Ryan had left home for the first time to travel nine-and-a-half hours away to take a seasonal position as a ski lift operator in the Sun Peaks, BC, community. All communication with him up until that point had been positive. He was enjoying the ability to snowboard every day. The news that he had disappeared after leaving a party in the early morning of February 17 devastated Scott and me. We immediately left home and travelled to Sun Peaks to begin the search for our son. A day after arriving, we learned that search and rescue had finished their investigation and that finding our son would be left to us, the family. My husband and I decided to stay in Sun Peaks until the snow melted and conduct our own searches. I was not able to participate in the searches for the first couple of weeks of our living there. I was recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and was just beginning to bear weight on my foot. I felt so helpless, like I should be doing more for Ryan to help bring him home. While I couldn’t search, I was able to keep people joining his “missing” Facebook page informed. I began writing memories of my son, our day-to-day experiences and the very real way I was processing this unimaginable tragedy. It started organically but soon led to this incredible community of people providing love and support to us and others. There became this legacy of love surrounding my son, and I felt honour-bound to continue in his absence. Writing a book about our experiences and the love for a young man who was so dearly loved and missed felt purposeful.
Social media played a large role in the aftermath of Ryan’s disappearance, with your postings to Facebook shaping some of the content in your book. How do you imagine your experience would have been different had we been in pre-social-media times?
We have been incredibly grateful for the widespread sharing of Ryan’s story. The level of engagement from not only people who knew our son but also those who didn’t is nothing short of miraculous. I recognize that our case would be vastly different back when social media was unavailable. However, social media is a double-edged sword. Along with the high-level support, we have also had our share of cruel and malicious people. That was difficult to navigate in the early days.
Many of our authors have to overcome certain inhibitions to move from writing a manuscript to having it published. Is this something you experienced, and if so, can you share how you surmounted it?
I think my biggest challenge was the fear that I would not do justice to Ryan’s story. Once it was released, I wouldn’t have another chance to refine my process, words, or experiences. Some days, I thought it might be better not to let the world see it than to have gotten it wrong. But I believe that some stories are meant to be told. That may also mean that they shouldn’t be rushed. Timing for me was essential. I wrote the book and then refined it for more than two years.
Was there anything that surprised you about the assisted self-publishing process with Tellwell, and why did you choose us over traditional publishing?
I had no idea what to expect when I was considering self-publishing vs finding a more traditional route. I think what surprised me the most was the careful consideration of everyone at Tellwell to ensure that they aligned with my vision for my book. It felt very much like what one would expect from a traditional publishing house, from consultations to editing to publishing.
From your experience, what are the essential questions new authors should ask a self-publishing company?
If there is a deadline or timeline that you feel very much tied to, clarify how the process will work to ensure you and your publisher will adhere to it. But understand that you are part of the process as an active participant.
Read reviews on customer service from different publishing companies. Not everyone’s experiences will be the same, but enough bad reviews should give you some pause.
You have had tremendous success with Missing From Me. Can you share some of the marketing strategies you implemented to garner exposure? What surprised you about the response you received?
I think it is important to market well before your book comes out. In our case, we had over 34,000 members on Ryan’s Facebook site. I used this platform to provide updates and sneak peeks along the publishing journey. There are so many different social media channels to work with. Really focusing on one and making it successful can be more beneficial than overextending yourself on several different platforms. A good way to market yourself is to create a newsletter detailing your journey, sign up people interested in your book, and create momentum before the release date.
I was overwhelmed by the response I received when my book went online. I wanted to give everyone an update that showed the book jacket and a projected December date for release. Within an hour, someone had located it on Amazon and it became a bestseller within twenty-four hours. I had hoped the book would resonate with readers, but had no idea how much traction and attention it would receive in such a short amount of time.
Missing From Me is a manifestation of a mother’s love for her children. You and three others have founded the Free Bird Project to empower and support other families of missing people. Where do you find the strength to support other families while coping with your own grief?
I will never understand the concept that there is a reason this has happened. There can be no reason that makes sense that my son is not here living the life of his choosing. But I believe strongly there can be a purpose. In those early days, we felt so helpless, trying to process our grief, having to logically focus on searching, and then navigating social media. It was so overwhelming. Everything felt frantic and every decision was filled with fear that we were either not doing enough or doing it wrong. The Free Bird Project is to provide resources and support to families of missing loved ones. We want people to know that while their journey is unique to them, those initial feelings of fear, disbelief, and grief are very similar. This is how I heal. This is my purpose.
The five-year anniversary of Ryan’s disappearance recently passed. Looking ahead, what do you see for yourself and the Free Bird Project in the years to come? Do you anticipate any additional books?
Our mission is to continue to provide resources to families across Canada, whether they reach out to us personally or locate the information on our website. We want to make it a seamless process to access the information no matter the location or the time of day. Personally, I think my writing journey has just begun. I would like to write a couple of children’s books, dinosaur-inspired, and perhaps a handbook on search and rescue.