Rainbow Rowell’s characters are a lot like people we know—except funnier, more honest, and likely somewhere in Nebraska. The same can be said of Rowell, who regularly tweets about her favorite TV shows, interesting ’90s fashion choices, and news about her books, which she writes almost as fast as fans can read them. Rowell’s now best known as a YA author who appeals to adults and teens alike, but her latest novel marks a return to adult fiction.
Landline explores how a married couple can become so intertwined yet be disconnected at once. The protagonist Georgie McCool recalls the happier, earlier days of her relationship: “You don’t know when you’re twenty-three. You don’t know what it means to crawl into someone else’s life and stay there. You can’t see all the ways you’re going to get tangled, how you’re going to bond skin to skin.” Then in a sci-fi twist, Georgie learns that she can communicate with her husband Neal in the past through an old rotary phone. Should she call things off now that hindsight’s 20/20?
Rainbow Rowell, meanwhile, is full steam ahead. We discussed the writing advice she refuses to follow, what she’d do with her own landline to the past, and why we can all stop making a big deal about adults who read YA.
The Rumpus: You’ve been enviably prolific in the last few years. In 2013, you published Eleanor & Park and Fangirl. This January, you got a two-book deal with First Second for graphic novels. DreamWorks bought the rights to Eleanor & Park, and you’re writing the screenplay. Landline’s out now. And I just saw on Twitter than you finished another first draft! How are you pulling all of this off?
Rainbow Rowell: I really like to write. I don’t know about gambling, but there must be a term for when you put everything on one number. After I sold Eleanor & Park, I decided that this was the time in my life that I was going to write books. I had to really do it while I had this window.
My first book wasn’t a big financial success. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, now I’m popular and making money.’ It was more like, ‘Well, I have an agent. My book got good reviews. I should just double-down and write.’ So I went part-time at my job and wrote two books—Fangirl and Landline—in a year and a half. They were both written by the time Eleanor & Park came out.
Rumpus: You previously worked at a newspaper and ad agency, so you’re familiar with sitting at a desk and writing all day. Did that help you set a work routine as a novelist?
Rowell: It took me five years off and on to write Attachments. Then I had a full-time job while writing Eleanor & Park and a part-time job while writing Fangirl and Landline. I’d done that so long that I got used to working long hours every day. I stopped feeling depressed about the amount of writing I had to do. I just felt like writing is my life, and I had to do it whenever I could.
It definitely affected my social life. And I started doing this at the same time I had kids, so my life all of sudden felt very adult. I abandoned my hobbies, including watching television, which I love. I just got very focused and knew I had to work. So that was my mindset. Even now that I don’t have a job, it helps.
Rumpus: People love to read productivity tips from writers. Are there any you’d like to share?
Rowell: I used to answer all my emails before I wrote. Now that my books are being published in other countries, the emails have multiplied. So now if I answer my emails first, I’ll be emailing for six hours at least.
Just in the last month or so, I’ve decided to write first. All of the emails are about my books, and I feel like the people emailing want me to continue writing. Someone told me Stephen King does this, actually. It’s been amazing.
Rumpus: That’s a good one. It’s definitely more doable than the advice to wake up early to write.
Rowell: I know a lot of people start writing early in the morning. I’ve tried it, and it’s not me. My mom always made me feel so lazy about sleeping in. I like to sleep late, and I’m so done feeling guilty about it.
Rumpus: You actually do a lot of your writing at Starbucks, among all the people goofing off on Facebook and hogging the outlet.
Rowell: I wrote three-and-a-half books at Starbucks, because I can’t write in a house with kids in it. Now I have an office in my house, but I still can’t write when they’re here.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about all the different types of writing you’re doing. I think of you as a sort of shapeshifter. Adult fiction to YA to comics to screenplays and back. How do you know what format is best for a particular story?
Rowell: I come up with the story, and I start writing. The victory of Attachments was that it did well enough that people would consider publishing a second book, but not so well that anyone expected anything from me. No one was going to buy my second book sight unseen. I had to write it first. Some writers get three-book deals and have to pitch their editors their next idea. On one hand, it’s nice because they know the book will be paid for. On the other hand, it’s nice to just write whatever you want.
I didn’t know Eleanor & Park would be published as YA when I wrote it. Being a YA writer wasn’t really on my radar. I just wrote the book. When an editor purchased it and wanted to publish it as YA, I was fine with that. I didn’t feel like it was a step down. I never thought, ‘This changes me. This makes me a YA author.’ So Eleanor & Park was published as YA and did really well, and I did feel a shift in readers. The YA community is great—I noticed that right away.
By this time, Fangirl was already written. It was also published as YA, though it feels like a shift in category from Eleanor & Park. I had Fangirl and Landline outlined at the same time. I write Fangirl first, because it was happier and I wanted to write something happy. But all this time, I wasn’t wondering, ‘Who am I?’ I was just writing what I wanted to write next. My editor and agent have been very supportive.
Rumpus: I hear so many writers—whether they writing magazine articles, books, or TV—complain that they’re pigeonholed, because it’s easier for an agent to sell a writer who does one thing.
Rowell: Absolutely. I had an editor once tell me that I needed to be very careful with my second book, that readers would expect something like Attachments. She meant well—she wanted me to establish who I was, because it’s so hard to stand out. But it didn’t fit who I was. I remember asking her, ‘Can’t I be Pixar?’ Pixar does something different every time, and their brand is ‘We’re just really good.’
Fortunately, my editor who publishes me said nothing like that. The book I just finished is fantasy, and she was really open to that, too.
Rumpus: And then there are readers who might want to pigeonhole you. I think the first Rainbow Rowell book someone reads really colors her expectations. I imagine there are many readers who wanted the sequel to Eleanor & Park, not a new adult novel.
Rowell: Too bad! [laughing]
The thing is, each book is going to be a shift. If you start talking to a friend about your favorite albums by a band, you’re going to have different favorite albums. I try to keep that in mind. Every book I write can’t be someone’s favorite book. I can’t think of any author who wrote four books in a row that I loved all the same. I love Marian Keyes, but I can’t say that about her work. I actually think Landline is most like Eleanor & Park. There’s more at stake. There’s more sadness.
Rumpus: What do you make of all of these trend pieces about adults reading YA? Is there really a difference between YA and adult books?
Eleanor & Park and Fangirl have as many adult readers as teen readers. I don’t think many of the adult readers exclusively read YA. As a reader, I never got hung up on whether a book was YA or not. And even now as a writer, I really don’t think of them as separate genres. They’re categories. I’m reading The Rescuers now to my kids, and it’s just a great book.
Rumpus: In Landline, the protagonist Georgie finds that she can revisit her past—and possibly change her future—through the landline phone at her mom’s house. If you could go back and change something in your career, what would it be?
Rowell: I would’ve left my job at the newspaper earlier. I was pretty depressed at the end, and I’d wanted to leave for years. But I didn’t think I was capable of doing anything else. I took fiction writing in college and some of my classmates were writing novels. I remember thinking they were so self-indulgent and should get real jobs. I was so judgmental! I’d grown up really poor, so the idea of being a starving artist did not appeal to me. I wanted to write, but I also wanted a car that worked and health insurance. So I pursued a salaried writing job that was stable.
If I had grown up differently and felt I could take risks, maybe I would’ve had more confidence to write novels sooner. But I don’t think I could’ve written a great book off the bat. Writing for the newspaper every day for 10 years made me a better writer. Without that job, I would’ve had to write a lot of other novels before I could’ve written Attachments. Writing books was a goal I was working toward, but the idea of being a successful author seemed pretty far-fetched to me.
Rumpus: You’re so realistic.
Rowell: Pessimistic even. After writing Attachments, I wasn’t going to send it out. I knew getting an agent was going to be so much work. At that point, I’d already established who I was. I wonder if part of it was feeling my job in life was to be stable. It wasn’t until I’d been stable a long time that I could try to be fulfilled. My husband was really encouraging and said I had to do it.
I don’t know how to reconcile this, but I was pessimistic, yet I also gave it my best shot. I wanted to be able to look back and know that I did my best when I had the opportunity. I didn’t think I’d be able to afford to keep doing this. At some point, I’d need to go back to work. How many years could I make very little money to do this?
Rumpus: We read so much about women suffering from imposter syndrome once they’re successful. Has that been your experience?
Rowell: Before, I thought of writers as magicians. I didn’t imagine them as real people at all. But when you meet an author, you immediately see them as human beings who aren’t so different from you.
I don’t think I suffer from imposter syndrome. I’m terrified of doing a bad job, so my anxiety isn’t that I don’t deserve it or I’m not as good as everyone else. It’s that I’m going to run out of good ideas or people will get tired of me.
Rumpus: Do you feel the pressure to publish a new book each year?
Rowell: There’s a feeling of that. It gets worse when I’m around other authors who are concerned about it. When you’re writing for teenagers, they’re growing up and changing. It’s sort of the way MTV constantly shifts to keep up with them. But setting a goal of one book a year would be shortsighted in the end. If I were too focused on that, I wouldn’t have agreed to write the Eleanor & Park screenplay or the graphic novels, and I wouldn’t have written another adult novel.
I do think it’s true people will forget about me. We get tired of people really quickly. People get tired even of things they like! Then I think of people with careers that transcended that, like Stephen King. I’d like to have a career like Neil Gaiman so I could do something else and my audience would follow wherever I go, or I could find a new audience.
Rumpus: Professional ambition is a big topic in Landline. Georgie is the breadwinner as the co-showrunner of a popular sitcom. Her husband Neal is a stay-at-home dad who never really had a career of his own.
Rowell: When I think of it, Neal isn’t the unusual character for not pursuing his dreams. Georgie’s unusual, because she’s known what she wanted to do since college and now she’s doing it. If you think about it, most people are making do. They’re not living their dreams, but they’re not living a miserable existence, either. That’s kind of what life is—you mostly just do jobs that you can get and that pay for things. If you marry someone who’s sure of what they want to do and you’re not, you follow their lead and support them.
I think they love each other, but marriage is a constant renegotiation. Georgie really does want a lot. She wants to be married and have kids and her own show. She might not be able to have all of that at once.
Rumpus: You’re often asked if you’re the real-life Eleanor and your husband’s Park. But maybe I should ask if you’re Georgie and your husband’s Neal.
Rowell: I’m in all of my characters, but they’re all very different. You take parts of your life and build worlds around them. In Attachments, the characters work at a newspaper. The way Eleanor grows up in Eleanor & Park is very similar to how I grew up, and I met my husband in junior high. Fangirl is about someone who wants to be a writer and has social anxiety. Like Georgie in Landline, my husband’s a stay-at-home dad, and I’m very driven.
Rumpus: How exciting for your kids to read your books one day and get to know you as not just their mom, but as a writer.
Rowell: I’ve thought about that. I wrote these books when my kids were in grade school. My older son’s 10. I think there’s a pretty good chance that Eleanor & Park and the other books will still be in a library in a few years and girls in his class will be reading them.
Rumpus: He’s going to get so many points with the ladies!
Rowell: It’s interesting the way they talk about my books. My six-year-old knows all the titles of my books and the order they came out. He wants to know what they’re about and what I’m writing now. When we go into a store, he wants to know if they carry my books.
My older son is less interested, but still very conscious of it. One time I was sitting and signing a box of books to be given away as a prize. He was like, ‘What are you doing?’ When I explained it, he said, ‘Huh. Well, it doesn’t seem like such a prize to me, but I guess it’s because you’re my mom.’ He wasn’t being disrespectful. He just thought about it and finally seemed to get it.
There’s a little girl who comes over from down the street. I know she gets it. I’ll be in my office typing and she’ll walk by, and I’ll think this must be kind of crazy for her as a super reader.
Rumpus: She’s in awe, thinking, ‘This is where the magic happens…’
Rowell: Yes! My office is kind of clichéd, too. I have a bookcase of all of the editions of my books, and I’m sitting here writing a book. If I were a kid, I’d think that was the coolest.
Rumpus: And isn’t that what we all want—to grow up and become that adult we so admired as a kid? It’s amazing and so rare. And I’m so happy you’re doing it.
Rowell: Me, too. Thank you! I’m so grateful. I’d love to do this forever, you know what I mean?