Best­selling au­thor Rain­bow Row­ell talks ado­les­cence, lit­er­ary gen­der stereo­types and why she’s prob­a­bly the most suc­cess­ful writer you’ve never heard of...

Friday - - MOTORING -

Type Rain­bow Row­ell’s name into Google and the search re­sults, all 2,360,000 of them, may sur­prise you. Hun­dreds of fan blogs, fo­rums, tum­blr pages and on­line com­mu­ni­ties, a healthy 42,000 twit­ter fol­low­ers and it’s her own web­site that comes out on top.

Take a closer look and you’ll find fans happy to de­clare the “life-chang­ing” magic of her books. That’s the thing. She’s an au­thor who, in just three years, has been pro­pelled to the lofty heights of pro­fes­sional suc­cess, thanks to best­selling novel At­tach­ments (2011) and her young adult hits Eleanor and

Park (2013) win­ner of the Printz Hon­our award, and most re­cently Fan­girl (2014).

Her young adult of­fer­ings ap­peared on The New York Times Book Re­view list of seven No­table Chil­dren’s Books of 2013. And while she’s busy work­ing on a Fan­girl spin-off, the wheels are in mo­tion for a Hol­ly­wood movie of

Eleanor and Park, for which Row­ell is also writ­ing the screen­play.

If you haven’t heard of her, don’t worry. The unas­sum­ing (and par­tic­u­larly cam­era shy, she’s only posed for this pho­to­graph, left) Amer­i­can mother of two doesn’t quite un­der­stand the hoo-haa ei­ther.

In fact, talk­ing from her home in Omaha, Ne­braska, where she lives with her hus­band Kai and their two boys aged 10 and six, she’s quick to con­fess: “I think I’m a bet­ter reader than a writer. I would rather read than do just about any­thing!”

The softly spo­ken 41-year-old has just rushed back from the ba­nal­i­ties of a school run for our phone in­ter­view. “It’s an ex­hil­a­rat­ing, com­fort­ing and mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence. Writ­ing is scary, hard work, but in its own way kind of re­ward­ing too.”

A re­luc­tant writer maybe, but Row­ell is aware of her over­rid­ing pull to put pen to paper. “I al­ways knew I was go­ing to write be­cause that was what I got the most ap­proval and at­ten­tion

for at school,” she says. Com­plet­ing a de­gree in jour­nal­ism from the Univer­sity of Ne­braska in 1994, Row­ell cut her teeth at the Omaha

World Herald, be­fore be­com­ing a colum­nist “some­times writ­ing about our com­mu­nity, some­times hu­mour pieces, my per­sonal life and at the end of my ten­ure I was a pop-cul­ture colum­nist”. It was a po­si­tion she held for 12 years, dur­ing which she was ac­cru­ing the ex­per­tise in the ob­ser­va­tional sharp hu­mour, pop­u­lar cul­ture ref­er­ences and per­sonal re­flec­tion that make her books so mem­o­rable and hon­est.

Row­ell ad­mits her ado­les­cence in the ‘80s wasn’t all rain­bows and uni­corns. Is it a time that still haunts her? There’s a wist­ful­ness that clouds her voice when she re­sponds. “Grow­ing up in Omaha city with three broth­ers and a sis­ter, I was re­ally poor in re­la­tion to the people I was sur­rounded by. I was al­ways big­ger than other girls. I had so­cial anx­i­ety. My par­ents sep­a­rated when I was in sec­ond grade and I didn’t know my dad well. Life from the age of 13 to 16 was very dif­fi­cult.”

It was these dif­fi­cult years that saw Row­ell, an aloof and lonely teen, dive head­first into her make-be­lieve world of

Xmen and Star Wars comic books while lis­ten­ing to U2 and Wham!

“Read­ing and then fan­ta­sis­ing was my source of es­cape,” she says. “My rich fan­tasy life helped me stay true to who I was, sane and not get lost in the pain.”

Row­ell seems to chan­nel her strug­gles into the tri­als and tribu­la­tions her tit­u­lar hero­ine Eleanor Dou­glas un­der­goes in Eleanor and Park (her best­seller so far). She bravely taps into dif­fi­cult mem­o­ries of her own teenage angst and the un­cer­tain­ties of ado­les­cence. Par­al­lels with Eleanor, Row­ell sur­mises, are “not ex­actly the same, but very sim­i­lar”. Her first book,

At­tach­ments, a poignant rom-com about love in the in­ter­net age set in a news­room, was Row­ell’s at­tempt at “writ­ing for some­one other than ed­i­tors”.

It won rave re­views from au­thor Jodi Pi­coult ( My Sis­ter’s Keeper) and she hasn’t looked back since.

Eleanor and Park tells the a story of two high-school mis­fits – the chunky redhead Eleanor and Korean-Amer­i­can teen Park Sheridan – who dis­cover first love over comic books, Star-Wars and 80s mu­sic. “It was a story about my 1986 and my neigh­bour­hood,” says Row­ell. “I cried while writ­ing it in a lo­cal Star­bucks two years ago and now it’s some­thing people con­nect with the world over.”

It’s easy to un­der­stand why her vivid, lyri­cal story about the Romeo and Juliet star-crossed em­pow­er­ment of an

‘My life would have been dif­fer­ent if I’d grown up with the in­ter­net and had a vir­tual com­mu­nity’

im­per­fect first love forged a pro­found con­nec­tion with read­ers.

“All my char­ac­ters feel like they’re on the out­side look­ing in, strug­gling to fit in and ac­cept love and be­ing loved. I def­i­nitely felt that when I was younger.”

Amonth af­ter the book’s re­lease, fans were post­ing fan art as trib­ute to the char­ac­ters on­line. “It’s in­cred­i­bly mov­ing and overwhelming. It touches me to see my work has moved people enough to cre­ate their own fan art.”

In real life, how­ever, Row­ell found her happy end­ing in her “phe­nom­e­nally sup­port­ive” hus­band Kai, whom she ded­i­cates all her books to. “We met in ju­nior high when I was 12 and he was 11 but we only started dat­ing af­ter we grad­u­ated from col­lege at 21,” she says.

“Our love does shape the char­ac­ters that I write be­cause I be­lieve that meet­ing him was the most im­por­tant thing that hap­pened to me.”

Row­ell’s fans have her hus­band to thank for a lot. “If I wasn’t mar­ried to him I don’t even think I’d have tried writ­ing a book,” she pon­ders.

“While I’ve al­ways treated my writ­ing as an ex­per­i­ment, drag­ging my feet about find­ing an agent when I’d fin­ished

At­tach­ments, it’s my hus­band who was con­fi­dent about my writ­ing abil­i­ties and saw it as our fu­ture.” He’d even proph­e­sised Eleanor and Park be­com­ing a movie. “It’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing now,” Row­ell shares. “I’ve sold the rights to Dreamworks and I’m now busy writ­ing the screen­play.”

If her hus­band got her lit­er­ary juices flow­ing, Row­ell’s been-there-and-felt-that style made the books fly. “Whether you like it or not there’s al­ways a lit­tle bit of you in what you write,” she sighs.

The semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal na­ture of her nov­els per­haps kin­dled the spark to write Fan­girl, a com­ing-of-age novel that deals with book­ish, shy Cath who is a die-hard fan of the fic­tional Si­mon Snow se­ries, man­ag­ing her first year in col­lege and try­ing to fit into the reg­u­lar world that’s out­side of her fan­fic­tion com­fort zone. In parts, says Row­ell, “writ­ing Fan­girl I was think­ing about how be­ing so­cially anx­ious, my life would have been dif­fer­ent if I had grown up at a time with the in­ter­net, and had found a vir­tual com­mu­nity that liked the same things as me and served as an emo­tional crutch. For younger people to­day the in­ter­net is ab­so­lutely in­te­gral to their life and it’s how they so­cialise, make friends and ex­press them­selves.”

Row­ell has also con­fronted gen­der stereo­types sur­round­ing lit­er­ary male leads with geeky, so­cially inept Lin­coln from At­tach­ments, mixed race Park and ten­der, car­ing Levi from Fan­girl all achiev­ing heart­throb sta­tus while mak­ing the brood­ing Darceys and Ed­ward Cul­lens look some­what dated.

“I think it’s great for boys to read about men who are sen­si­tive. And it’s good for girls to know that there are great men out there.”

Row­ell makes no bones of the fact that she adores the char­ac­ters she cre­ates and Eleanor and Park’s story will have a se­quel that re­vis­its them as adults. “I want to know if they’d still be in each oth­ers’ lives and if they could ever fall in love with oth­ers they way the did with each other,” she says. “But I’m very in­tim­i­dated that I could get it wrong and dis­ap­point the people who love the books and the char­ac­ters.”

And she’s ap­proach­ing Hol­ly­wood with the same trep­i­da­tion. Even with pro­duc­tion sched­uled, Row­ell is adamant it won’t be ac­tors “who get their own TV shows on Dis­ney chan­nel or stars of movies” play­ing Eleanor and Park. “They’d have to be un­known ac­tors who aren’t fa­mous enough. And that’s what’s so ex­cit­ing about it.” First though, comes her lat­est book

Land­line, set for a world­wide re­lease on July 8 through Orion books. It sees her make a re­turn to adult fic­tion. She’s most en­thu­si­as­tic about her new char­ac­ters Ge­orgie and Neal, a cou­ple who were once deeply in love but whose mar­riage is now fall­ing apart at the seams. “When things look the worst Ge­orgie finds an old magic phone that lets her talk to Neal in the past,” says Row­ell, ex­cit­edly. “Is she sup­posed to fix her mar­riage or make sure they never mar­ried at all is what the book’s about.”

It will no doubt be a love story worth its weight in gold and bring with it a new surge of fan blogs, fo­rums, and twit­ter fol­low­ers and at­ten­tion. The most suc­cess­ful au­thor you’ve never heard of? Not for much longer.

A rare pho­to­graph of the cam­era-shy and unas­sum­ing au­thor

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