Rainbow Rowell believes every story “is driven by relationships—whether we tell it that way or not.”
This will come as no surprise to readers of her five novels, as Rowell’s ability to depict deep, genuine connections between diverse characters is her hallmark. Her first novel, Attachments (about an Internet security officer who falls in love with an employee through monitoring her email), was dubbed one of Kirkus’ “Outstanding Debuts of 2011.” But it was in early 2013 that Rowell was vaulted into the literary spotlight, as her runaway crossover Eleanor & Park took its place among such hits as The Fault in Our Stars and The Perks of Being a Wallflower as a title equally recognizable in high school halls and at adult book club meetings.
A tale of first love between teens with disparate backgrounds at an Omaha high school in the 1980s, what makes the story stand out is the viscerally real—and, at times, heartbreaking—portrayal of youthful romance between the two title characters. It’s Romeo and Juliet with less melodrama and more comic books. In addition to being a No. 1 New York Times bestseller, Eleanor & Park won the Michael L. Printz Honor for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, and was named one of the best books of 2013 by Publishers Weekly, NPR and The New York Times Book Review.
Rowell’s follow-ups, the adult novel Landline (in which a 30-something Los Angeles TV writer attempts to mend her marriage through a magical telephone) and YA smash Fangirl did not disappoint. In the acclaimed Fangirl, college writing student Cath attempts to find her narrative voice by composing fan fiction about her favorite books—a series of children’s adventure stories starring a gifted wizard named Simon Snow. As Cath struggles to adjust to life on campus, her story is interspersed with passages of her fan fic—a device that took on a life of its own, prompting Rowell to undertake a Simon Snow novel from her own perspective.
The result, the October release Carry On, takes metafiction to a whole new level. Rowell’s play on the “Chosen One” paradigm—a la Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings—Carry On was named one of the best books of 2015 by TIME magazine, School Library Journal, NPR and The Millions. It quickly joined Fangirl on The New York Times bestseller list, where both books sat together for 14 weeks.
The plot revolves around supernaturally gifted Simon and his group of friends in their last year at a British boarding school for witches, wizards and the occasional pixie. While it’s quickly clear that a magical war is afoot, the real core of the narrative is the budding “will they/won’t they” romantic tension between Simon and his nemesis, Baz. Think Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy slash fiction—a genre of fan fiction in which admirers imagine mutual attraction between characters of the same sex.
Which brings us back to where we started: “If you’re building relationships,” Rowell says, “and those relationships make sense to people, that’ll take you most of the way.
Always one to challenge herself creatively, Rowell is now taking a crack at writing graphic novels, as well as translating Eleanor & Park into a screenplay for DreamWorks. She took a breather to chat with WD.
In these outtakes from our May/June 2016 issue, the bestselling writer talks about how her beginnings as a journalist influence her fiction—and how she recently came to apply her novel-writing skills to a screenplay.
[CAUTION: If you have not yet read Eleanor & Park, beware—there are spoilers below.]
You wrote a column for 10 years as a journalist for the Omaha World Herald. Were there any habits you established or lessons you learned from writing for newspaper that influenced your career as a novelist?
Yeah, for sure. I mean I wrote a lot. Some people—a lot of novelists when they get published it’s their second or third novel. Attachments was my first, but I wrote thousands of columns. As a writer, you need to write a lot to get better. So for me, that was my exercise and building up those muscles. And that skill was working for a newspaper. And I think I’m good at … one of my strengths is writing voices. That’s probably why I was drawn to newspaper work—trying to capture people’s perceptive, in their own style of telling a story. Making it more clear. And so of course that helps with novel writing and just listening to people talk. And also going into so many people’s homes and situations. Just the diversity of perspective. Everyone has their own thing going on. It helps when writing books to think about how different people are living, and how your characters are living. Listening to rhythms of how people talk.
Definitely writing on deadline made me … I don’t think I’ll ever be the sort of author who takes 10 years to write a book. I get to a point where I’m like, It’s done now. It might not be perfect, but that’s OK. In newspaper you have to let go of it. Just a couple hours, couple days, then it’s gone. You never make it perfect. I left newspapers and went to advertising, where you might work for two months on a headline. It was a good counterbalance to get time to make something really, really good. I don’t feel like I’m overly precious. I want things to be good, but can take editing. And I can let go usually. It’s funny, because as I say this, Carry On took me the longest [to write].
Eleanor & Park has been optioned by DreamWorks, and you’ve written the first draft of the screenplay. So much of E&P takes place inside of the main characters’ heads. Was it difficult to translate that into a more visual storytelling medium?
I don’t even know what finished means. I’ve written drafts and I’ve revised, but don’t know how that … it is really alchemy there, you know. I have to get the right director, right people to say yes, so it seems complicated in a way that I can’t even wrap my brain around. But I have written the screenplay and enjoyed it.
It was super hard to translate visually! The executives involved kind of weren’t sure until after I did it. So much of it is inside their heads. Both are very reserved characters, which is kind of interesting when you think about it. Normally, when you have one character fall in love with another, one is talkative and the other is quiet, but here they’re both quiet. And they think so much about each other. Who knows if or how it’ll happen, but a lot will have to be the actors, and how they bring it to life. The director, and how they use the space and music and who knows what else. But I did have to make them talk more [in the screenplay]. I made the decision for this not to be a silent film. I ended up writing scenes that don’t exist in the book because I felt like it was a different animal. I hope they have the same dynamic in the movie, though they needed to talk more and say a few things in different ways. You end up cutting so much, too—70 percent of the book right away unless you do a lot of fast-forwarding. When you cut that much of the plot, you cut relationship building. So if it’s the same relationship, it has to be built in a different way. You just don’t have the reader lingering over the character for seven hours, watching their chemistry build. I felt they had to fall in love in a different way. DreamWorks could literally sell it away tomorrow. With a book, you the author are the final word. So it’s different to be like, I don’t know if they’re going to use this and the director could do something different. I assume that because I wrote the book they’ll respect the book. They’ll still fall in love, and are still not going to end up together.
You’re writing two graphic novels with First Second Books, and Carry On was your first foray into fantasy. Are there other genres you'd like to try?
I think that writing the graphic novel … I’m not scared to try new things in writing. I kept shifting genre, in a way, to keep myself interested. To keep from writing the same book over and over. Shifting to a different medium with a graphic novel will hopefully keep me interested. I decided to do this two years ago—I’m going to write this fantasy, screenplay and graphic novel and that will really push me. Now, in 2016, I’d say that was too much pushing. I thought I needed to be pushed. I’m excited to write the graphic novel because I’ve read lots and lots, but I’m also very scared.
What has the response been like from fans of Fangirl to the Simon Snow book? And how much did you have those fans in mind as you wrote?
I specifically did not have those fans in mind. I shut the door in my head. It’s not that I didn’t want them to read the book, I just didn’t want them standing behind me as I wrote. I didn’t want to feel too married to Fangirl in general. There were a lot of questions after Carry On was announced—if Cath and Levi would be there. The idea came around that I’d be writing as Cath, and that Cath and Levi would interrupt the story, but that was never my intention. I really set that aside in my head because I knew I just wanted Carry On to be something radically different. I didn’t think about pleasing people who read Fangirl, or meeting expectations. I think that once the book was out, especially people who enjoyed the Simon and Baz sections in Fangirl really quickly got what I was doing. Normally, within a chapter, they’re like, “Oh, I get it,” and a lot of them really love it. If you like Simon and Baz in Fangirl then you’ll like them in Carry On because they just become more complete characters. People worried I’d write it and they wouldn’t fall in love. Fangirl fans seem to like it. And it’s really interesting for me—a lot of people who like Carry On haven’t even read Fangirl yet.
To read our full interview with Rainbow Rowell, check out the May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest now.