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One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Rainbow Rowell

Check out previous interviews in the One Thing Leads to Another series here.

I don’t mind telling you that I was sophomore in high school in 1986.  I was (as so many of us were) 15 going on confused, and everything was new and weird and cool and hard and sometimes both better and worse than I’d ever imagined.  1986 was not a great year for me (understatement!) and 1987-1989 were only marginally better.  I spent a lot of time working on the school newspaper, almost as much time playing D&D with the Science Fiction and Fantasy club, and I got grounded for going to a Thompson Twins concert on a Sunday night.  I spent what little money I had on books and record albums (yes, I was a snob and only used cassette tapes for making mixes) and I shaved the sides of my head and wore a lot of black.  It was a thing.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.  When I first started to hear the buzz about Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park I was torn.  I’m a genre reader through and through, I won’t lie, and even though I love so many works of realistic fiction, it’s not always easy for me to willingly pull them out of the pile and crack the cover.

But…1986.

So I did, and as soon as Park sat down next to Eleanor it was all over.  I won’t even start on Fangirl, except to point you back to exhibit B (D&D) above and then raise that a couple of Buffy Posting Board parties and more conventions than I can count.

Thank you so, so much Rainbow, for working with me on these questions, for your thoughtful answers, and your books.  I hope you know what I mean when I say you make it better down here.

rainbow_about_headshotAlways Something There to Remind Me

Please describe your teenage self.
Agh. This is so difficult to think about in an honest way.

I had a really painful, chaotic life as a teenager. I don’t think I had much hope for myself or for the future. So, looking back, I’m amazed that I wasn’t more self-destructive.

I was very focused on school, because school was an oasis for me. But I wasn’t every focused on grades. The high school newspaper was my life; I was editor, and I wrote a column – called Of Cabbages and Kings – and I took it all very seriously.

I took everything very seriously. I’ve never been someone with moderate emotions. If I like something, I love it. And if I’m angry, I’m outraged. That was even more true of me as a teenager.

I think I felt like a misfit, but when I look back at those years, my memories are full of friends.

What were some of your passions during that time? 
Definitely our high school newspaper and my column. I really felt like I’d found my place as a columnist, and it’s interesting because I wrote a column in college, and then that became my career. I was a newspaper columnist for more than ten years.

I was really into the Beatles. I collected books about the Beatles that I’d find at thrift shops. And I learned the words to every Beatles song. (Mostly by listening to my friends’ parents’ records.) When I had money, I spent it on Beatles posters – which I left rolled up and in plastic, so that I could put them up in my house someday. (These posters are in my attic. I haven’t given up on them.)

I had one very best friend in high school, and our mutual interests were Wham!, art-house movies on VHS and Star Wars.

I haven’t even mentioned books because books were just air for me. In high school, I was into reading all the huge books of the ‘70s – which thrift shops were full of at the time. I was really into John Irving.

Did you have a favorite/s quote/motto/lyric as a teen and has it changed over the years? 
No, I don’t think I did. I’ve never hung onto phrases like that. If I remember a phrase, it’s usually because it’s so beautifully worded and constructed, not because it’s inspirational.

Can you tell me about Nebraska? I’ve driven through it a number of times (it’s beautiful!) and I’ve read a lot of Willa Cather, but I’d like to know more.  Both of your YA books are set there, which is sort of unusual, and I wonder what it was like growing up there and what makes it special? 
Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed your drive :)

Most of Nebraska is rural and sparsely populated. There’s green farmland and fields, but also sand hills and ranchlands, which have more of a desert feel. I live in Omaha, the biggest city in Nebraska – probably the only city. As cities go, it’s very sprawled out. You have to have a car to get anywhere. And it’s made up of very different neighborhoods.

Eleanor & Park – and my first book, Attachments – are set in Omaha. And Fangirl is set in Lincoln, the university town an hour away.

I set my books here because I know this place really well — and because Nebraska shows up so rarely in books or television or movies, it’s fun for people who live here to see Nebraska in my books.

Now that I travel so much, I have a better sense of how Nebraska is different from other places, and how Omaha is different from other cities: I think things move more slowly here. There’s less urgency. It’s definitely more casual. Unpretentious. (We think we’re unusually friendly here – but I travel a lot, and I find that people are friendly almost everywhere.)

Could you describe the road from teenage Rainbow Rowell to published author Rainbow Rowell?  In other words, how did you become a writer?
I’ve always been a writer. Writing is the one thing I’ve always felt most comfortable and confident doing. So I wrote for my high school paper, I wrote for the college paper. I studied journalism and advertising and English. I wrote for the city newspaper, I left that job to write ads, then I started writing fiction.

The big shift for me was fiction-writing, because it was the first time that I was writing for myself – writing what I wanted to write and not getting paid for it,  at least not immediately. That was a very scary thing. And it took an entirely new type of discipline. I had to learn to write even when I wasn’t on deadline.

Where did you spend the most time as a teenager and who were you with? 
I probably spent the most time at school, in the journalism room. (All my closest friends and my future husband were in journalism.) Or at my best friend’s house, watching MTV and renting movies.

Are there books or authors that were important to you growing up?  What about now?  What books do you recommend to others?  Do you have any comfort reads? 
In high school, I read whatever I could get my hands on. I loved science fiction; I think that’s when I first read Isaac Asimov. I loved John Irving and Tom Robbins. I read comic books, if I could borrow them. I read almost everything by Hemingway and Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. I loved Catcher in the Rye.

My comfort reads in high school were (I can see this shelf in my head so clearly): The World According to Garp, Watership Down, Little Men and Brave New World. I read all those books multiple times – though none of them seem very comforting, now that I think about it!

Books that are important to me now …

I absolutely love The Adrian Mole Diaries. And I love Marian Keyes. I’m evangelical about this Canadian fantasy writer, Dave Duncan (King’s Blades, A Man of His Word.) Lately I find myself recommending Margo Lanagan – Tender Morsels and The Brides of Rollrock Island – to everyone. Also, I read everything by Brian K. Vaughan.

I’m looking back at these paragraphs, and they don’t make any sense. I don’t think there’s any through-line to my reading. Also, you could ask me this same question tomorrow, and I’d list completely different books. There are too many books to talk about.

Is there anything that would absolutely surprise people about you?
God, not much. I tweet all my secrets.

Every Day I Write the Book

EleanorPark_cover2-300x450Almost every review of your work mentions the mesmerizing way you build a love story, the “emotionally heightened singleness of mind…the way falling in love with someone makes you an antenna tuned to their every word, look, movement,” and your relationships are indeed exquisite collections of precise details that perfectly capture what it’s like to be young and falling in love.  In a broader context, though, you use that same uncanny ability to evoke emotion to describe in brilliant, excruciating, exhilarating detail what it’s like to be a teenager, whether in 1986 or 2013, from the fizzy thrill of discovering and sharing things that you love with people that you like, to the complicated feeling of being powerless in the face of Adults.  How do you do it?  Is it simply a matter of drawing on your own memories or do you use techniques to help take you back to that mindset? 
Oh, well, thank you.

I think that I’ve always been open to emotional details. Almost too open. Like, I soak up ambient emotion. I think about how other people are feeling. I think (too much) about my own feelings.

When I’m writing about being young and in love, I’m remembering how it felt. Or I’m imagining how it would feel to be in a certain situation. When I’m writing a character, I feel very much inside that person — and then I feel frustrated, because I’m full of all these feelings, and I can’t put them into words.

I don’t know what my process is, but I’m glad it’s working – that people are connecting with these stories.

I was reading through the “director’s commentary”on the playlists you’ve posted because I wanted to ask a question about music, which plays such a central role in Eleanor & Park, and makes an important cameo appearance (Emergency Kanye Dance Party!) in Fangirl as well.  But halfway through the Eleanor & Park playlist I got blindsided by this: “Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about an Eleanor & Park sequel. I find myself thinking, “There is a light, and it never goes out, there is a light, and it never goes out …” and I lost my train of thought.  A sequel?  Really?  And then could you talk a little about music?  Your song choices seem very deliberate, chosen to both add dimension to your characters and to propel the action, and I wonder if you could talk a little about how music influences your writing.  Do you share the musical tastes of any of your characters? 
Ha! Yeah. An Eleanor & Park sequel . . . I still think about these two characters all the time. Normally when I finish a book, I feel like I let go of the characters. But I haven’t let go of Eleanor and Park.

Music is really important to me when I’m writing. I build soundtracks for each book in my head, and I associate each scene with a specific song. The song gives me an emotional anchor for the scene. So even if I’m writing the scene over a week, I can stay in the same frame of mind and emotional place. (You can see all my book and character playlists on Spotify.)

Pretty much any time I’m talking about music in a book, it’s music that I love. Park’s taste is a little noisy for me, but I’m with him on XTC, the Cure and Joe Jackson. Cath, the main character of Fangirl, throws herself emergency Kanye West dance parties when she’s stressed – which is right out of my repertoire.

FANGIRL_CoverDec2012-300x444I have to ask about Simon Snow and the World of Mages. You’ve said in the past that even though you write realistic fiction, you read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and your love of genre fiction absolutely shines through in the Simon Snow sections of Fangirl.   Could you tell us a little about how you created the World of Mages and whether there’s more Simon and Baz than what appears in the book?  And since you were “surprised by how natural it felt — and how much fun it was,” to write about Simon, what are the odds of seeing a straight up Rainbow Rowell science fiction or fantasy novel one day?    
Thank you. That’s so kind of you to say! (The shining through part.)

I think the odds are really, really good. Fangirl let me experiment with fantasy writing without committing to an entire book. And I loved writing the Simon Snow sections of that book so much. I’m working on a fantasy now. Honestly, I don’t know if it will work out. It’s very ambitious and very difficult, and maybe I won’t be able to pull this one off. But I think I’ll write a fantasy or a sci-fi novel someday, and probably sooner rather than later.

Fangirl tells the story of a girl who isn’t just content to consume the series she loves, but wants to participate in it, contribute to it, be part of it in some way, an urge that many fannishly-inclined readers will find very familiar as we’re compelled to move beyond the book or movie or television show we love and actually attend a convention, write fan fiction, create a costume, or even simply engage in online fandom.  You yourself have mentioned on several occasions that you’ve always been “a very fannish person,” and that if you love something you’re very likely to immerse yourself in it.  Could you tell us about some of your own experiences with fandom (like attending the first Star Wars Celebration—wow!) and what draws you to particular stories/worlds?  Has your fandom changed significantly over the years?  Do you think active participation in various fandoms changes the way you view your own work, especially once it’s released out into the wild? 
That’s like a million good questions.

I don’t love with moderation. So I tend to fall for something and then consume everything that I can find on that subject. And then I think about it. And fantasize about it. And work it into my DNA.

I spent twenty years thinking about Star Wars . . . (And, yes, I went to first official Celebration. I also went to see the Star Wars Smithsonian exhibit on my honeymoon.)

Most of my extremely fannish years were pre-Internet, so I didn’t get to participate in fandom the way you can now. “Fandom” wasn’t even a word I knew about. I’d find one or two people who loved what I loved, and together we’d dig as deep as we could.

Even post-Internet, I’m much more of a consumer and an observer than someone who openly participates. My most active participation is probably reblogging and commenting on Tumblr. Beyond that, I’m a chronic lurker.

I think my own fandom affects me as an author in that I get really excited when people get excited about my books and my characters. Fan art of my books is my very favorite thing. I just LOVE it. I know what it means to be that moved by a piece of fiction, and it blows my mind that people are connecting so deeply to my books.

Just Can’t Get Enough

This question comes from A.S. King: Hi Rainbow! I read somewhere that your first draft of Fangirl was completed in thirty days during National Novel Writing Month. (And I think that’s awesome.) I have done similar things with several of my books and I wondered if you can share with readers how you write during these short stints. Do you eat? Do you shower? Is it as easy as a certain word count every day? (Additionally, are you mathematical in that way?) Do you still participate in NaNoWriMo or has publishing travel taken those larger chunks of time away from you? I know this was more than one question, but really, I just want to know about your process during an allotted time frame. Thanks!
Hello!

IT’S TRUE.

Sort of. I didn’t write the entire first draft in November, but I wrote more than 50,000 words, which is enough to “win” NaNoWriMo. And it felt like a first draft. It gave me something to work with and build on.

During that month, I tried to write 2,000 words a day. And I didn’t let myself go back to reread or edit; the rule was that I had to start wherever I left off and push forward. It was tough. I missed my family. (I was working at the time, too. I took at least a week off, I remember.)

It really surprised me how well NaNoWriMo worked. I stayed inside the story in a way I never had before; I stayed immersed. And I was looser and braver than normal. I created a character, Levi, that I think would be scared to write under normal circumstances.

It was so effective that I’ve written NaNoWriMo style since then. My schedule hasn’t let me carve out a November since 2011. But I’ll take three weeks and write 30,000 words.

 

Rainbow has contributed a question for the next author in the series, Shannon Hale.  Watch for an interview with her in a couple of weeks!

 

Rainbow Rowell writes books.  Sometimes she writes about adults (Attachments and Landline.)  Sometimes she writes about teenagers (2014 Michael L. Printz Honor book Eleanor & Park and 2014 L.A. Times Book Prize finalist Fangirl.)  But she always writes about people who talk a lot. And people who feel like they’re screwing up. And people who fall in love.

When she’s not writing, Rainbow is reading comic books, planning Disney World trips and arguing about things that don’t really matter in the big scheme of things.

She lives in Nebraska with her husband and two sons.

You can find Rainbow by visiting her website, blog, or Tumblr, or look for her on Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter.

 

–Julie Bartel, currently reading Dangerous by Shannon Hale and Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith

 

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Julie Bartel

Julie is a writer and librarian living in Salt Lake City, UT.