I’M A BETTER READER THAN A WRITER
Bestselling author Rainbow Rowell talks adolescence, literary gender stereotypes and why she’s probably the most successful writer you’ve never heard of...
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