Interview with Rainbow Rowell

Posted by Goodreads on December 10, 2013
Rainbow Rowell is having one very good year. She's published two books, which have won the top two YA Fiction spots in the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards. And she created three characters who have become instant favorites: the titular couple of Eleanor & Park, a pair of high school misfits in love, and Cath of Fangirl, a fan fiction star who is having a hard time navigating her way through college. Whew!

The Nebraska-based author writes with a rare mix of wisdom and ease. In her hands difficult truths feel simple and heartache is somehow totally delicious. Read on as she answers your questions about amazing boyfriends, becoming a writer, and some Eleanor and Park backstory.

Martha Forgrave-macfadyen asks: Do you think your name has influenced your perception of who you are? Are you defined by your views of what your name signifies?

Hmmm. That's an interesting question! I think my name starts out as a liability in most situations. People think I chose it myself, and then they wonder what sort of person would choose a name like "Rainbow." (Not someone who wants to be taken seriously.) I think it made my job harder at first, when I was a newspaper columnist, and I don't think it helped when I was looking for a literary agent.

But people always notice my name, and they remember it. So after I've gotten through the "is that your real name?" phase, it becomes an asset, I think.

And growing up with a weird name kind of gave me permission to be different from my peers, if I wanted to be. When your name is "Rainbow," you never get to blend into the crowd. Once I got over that painful grade-school desire to be anonymous, it became very freeing. If I can't blend in, I may as well be who I am.

Tabitha: I want to know what your journey has been as a writer. Were you that weird girl (like me) who was always with a book and constantly writing story ideas down?

I was definitely a weird girl with my head in a book.

I started writing really early—because it was the thing that I always got the most attention for from teachers. So I edited my high school newspaper and went on to major in journalism, advertising, and English. (There was one semester when I was studying advanced newswriting, advanced copywriting, poetry writing, and fiction writing.) When I graduated from college, I went to work at a newspaper and was a columnist for about ten years. Then I worked in advertising…

I didn't really write fiction—or anything for myself—until my late twenties, early thirties.

I think I was scared to try. It felt so much safer to write for an editor or a client, to not put myself out there. I kept my first novel, Attachments, a secret for a long time because I just didn't know whether I could pull it off, and I didn't want my friends to know if I failed.

The last five years of my writing journey have been all about taking risks. There's nothing safe about writing a novel; it's just too personal and too big. You have to put yourself out there.

Susan: Does any particular moment stand out as that moment when you considered yourself a "real" writer? Abigail also wonders, What is the most encouraging thing anyone has ever told you about your writing?

It's still hard to believe that I'm a novelist, that I can call myself that—that it's actually the most accurate word to describe what I do. I mean, I never thought as a kid, "Someday I'll write books." That didn't even seem possible to me. That would have been like saying, "Someday I'll walk on the moon or be a movie star." I thought books were magic.

So it was incredibly surreal to hold my first novel in my hands for the first time. Just the physical existence of it. A book. With my name on it.

As for the most encouraging thing…When Attachments was published in the UK, I flew to London to meet my editor there. (I didn't have to go, but I thought it would be so cool to see my book on the shelf in another country.) So I went to this Thai restaurant with my editor, and she told me that I didn't have to write books that everybody likes, that I shouldn't even worry about that. She said that having a writing career is about finding "your people," the people who specifically appreciate you. She said, "Your people are out there. You just have to hang in there while we find them." It was so encouraging at the time.

Tae: Your characters are very interesting, and it was scary how well I could relate to Eleanor's situation [Editor's note: Eleanor's mother is married to a man who makes home life very unpleasant for the whole family.] I was wondering what inspired the creation of the characters or where their traits (like their epic taste in music, among others) come from.

Thank you! I'm glad that you find them interesting and relatable—though, whenever people tell me they relate to Eleanor, I want to pull them aside and make sure they have a good support network. (I hope you're safe and with people who care about you.)

My characters come to me almost fully formed. I think they get put together in the back of my brain, in my subconscious. Sometimes when I think about a character later, I'll realize that I was inspired by people I know or by a situation. I think I end up putting at least a little bit of myself in all of them. So Park gets my taste in comic books, and Eleanor gets my boredom with Batman, and Cath wears all the sweaters because so do I.

It's always really interesting to me how quickly the characters distinguish myself in my head. Like, I'll invent somebody, and a few hours later I feel like I know that person.

Of course every Eleanor & Park fan wanted to know about the ending. Nikkie says, "What are those three words in Eleanor's postcard? My guess is 'Park just stop,' but I'm still hoping it's 'I love you.'"

You probably don't want to tell us (unless you do?!), but maybe you can answer Julia's question: Did you always think Eleanor & Park would end the way it did?

Maybe not always. But I had the ending pinned down really early in the writing process. I even had that last line—"Just three words long."

I won't tell you what the three words are, because I'm not quite done with these characters; there's still a chance that I'll write about them again someday. I will say that the three words are happy and hopeful words.

People have guessed "Park just stop" or "Leave me alone"—but if you look at Park's reaction, you know that he's happy.

"He sat up. He smiled. Something heavy and winged took off from his chest."

That's hopeful!

Rainbow's fans enable her fangirl tendencies—here she is at a signing in Omaha with a framed photo of UK actor Martin Freeman (Dr. Watson in Sherlock), courtesy of a fan.
Maya L.: This question has been bugging me ever since I finished Eleanor & Park, a book I love. Why didn't Eleanor ever tell Park that she loved him? He said it to her often and with such emotion. And I don't doubt Eleanor's love for Park for one second, but why couldn't she say it? Why couldn't he hear those three words with his own two ears? I would really love to know the answer to this question.

Oh, I agree, Eleanor absolutely loved Park. But she didn't trust her love or his love—or the situation. If you look at Eleanor's life, nobody has ever loved her the way that they should. Her dad doesn't care about her. Her mom loves her but has exposed her to this abusive, neglectful situation…

Park's life is the opposite. His parents are still madly in love with each other. They love him, they're there for him. Park has faith in love. He believes in love.

But why should Eleanor have faith? All she's ever been is let down and hurt. I think she already feels like she's let Park in too deep. It's dangerous enough to love him—it would be terrifying to put that into words. She's so sure she's going to lose him.

Jez Layman: Your book Eleanor & Park has recently come under a lot of fire for its use of "offensive" language and abuse. How do you respond to the claim that the book is inappropriate for teens?

Well, I feel like I should say that I've only heard about one parent having a problem with the book. But that parent was able to rally support and have me disinvited from visiting a Minnesota school and a public library.

I was really shocked at the time. (My visit coincidentally fell during Banned Book Week.)

There is profanity in Eleanor & Park—but the two main characters rarely curse, and when they do, they regret it. I don't personally object to profanity, but in this book the profanity separates Eleanor and Park from all the crude and cruel things happening around them. When Eleanor even thinks the F-word, she feels tainted by her terrible stepdad, who uses it all the time. The book is about rising above your circumstances.

When people call Eleanor & Park an obscene story, I feel like they're saying that rising above isn't possible. That if you grow up in an ugly situation, your story isn't even fit for good people's ears. That ugly things cancel out everything beautiful.

A lot of readers wanted to know more about your relationship with fan fiction. Hunter Schmuck asks, "How did you so skillfully create a whole fictional book series—along with fan fiction that was a companion to it—inside of your book Fangirl? I was fully convinced that it was real, and I was shocked to find out that it is not." Mary Crockett says, "I've heard that you wrote and read a lot of fan fiction prior to writing Fangirl. What were some of the story lines you wrote (and is there anywhere we can read them)?" Danielle Neldon adds, "Have you ever read any fan fiction based on your own books?"

Well, first of all, thank you, Hunter! I loved writing the Simon Snow excerpts in Fangirl, and I'm glad they felt real.

The short answer to how I wrote about fantasy and fan fiction is—I've read a lot of it. I mean, a lot.

I've always been a very fannish person. If I like something, I probably love it. And if I love it, I can't get enough. So I was immersing myself in Star Wars and the X-Men when I was a teenager, and I was making up stories about them—usually with me as a main character—but I never would have called that fan fiction. We didn't have that term, or even that concept, back then. What I was doing felt like weird fantasizing.

After the end of the Harry Potter series, I got really into Harry Potter fan fiction, and I started thinking about what my life would have been like if I'd had access to fan fiction and fandom as a teenager. I think it would have changed my whole life.

That's what inspired Fangirl.

None of the fan fiction I've written is online. (Though I'm sure it would have been if my teen years hadn't predated the Internet.)

I do know that there's some Eleanor & Park and Fangirl fan fiction out there, but I don't let myself read it; there's still a chance that I'll write more about these characters, and I don't want to pollute my head canon.

But I'm so excited that people are writing fan fiction and making fan art about my books. I can't think of a higher compliment for an author—to know that your work is inspiring other people to create their own art. It's amazing.

Karen: You said that Fangirl came from NaNoWriMo—how many drafts did you write after that November? What was the editing process like?

That's right it did. November 2011. I'd already written two books, so I knew that I could finish a book and that it would take a few drafts, but I wasn't sure I could write that quickly. And I was skeptical about writing anything good that quickly.

I ended up being really surprised: I kept almost every word I wrote during NaNoWriMo.

I wrote about 50,000 words that month and then kept writing until January, ending up with about 110,000. I revised heavily for my second draft, which I finished in April. All my initial character work and dialogue was strong, but I had to make some pretty significant structural changes. That's something that was hard for me to do when I was in the thick of NaNo—herd the plot along.

I revised one more time with my editor and finished in June.

Rainbow's favorite books!

Andy Lillich: You write the very best boyfriends ever in my opinion. Who do you model these characters on? Friends? Relatives? Fantasies? And do you have someone you rely on to give you "reality checks" on the things your boyfriends say and do? And where is the best place to look for these kinds of boyfriends in real life?

Thank you! This is the best compliment!

I don't base my male characters on specific people, but I've been married for 15 years. I have three brothers, a great stepdad, close male friends and coworkers. And I think most of the men in my life are kind and romantic enough to be in my books. (My husband is too good. I have to tone his qualities down for them to be believable.)

I really believe in good men. I think that men can be sensitive and romantic; I think they care about love, finding love. So it comes naturally for me to write about them.

As for where to find a guy like that—my strongest romantic relationships have grown out of friendships. With people who already liked and respected me, and vice versa.

The only dating advice I have to offer is: Expect the guys in your life to be kind and respectful. Don't make excuses for garbagey behavior—"Oh, that's just what guys are like." It isn't true. Expect them to be good, treat them like they're good. And if they're garbagey, move on. Don't let your world get cluttered up with people who think they have some gender-based right to be awful.

Kristen Kim: Do you hold "emergency dance parties," too?

Ha! Yes! I throw Kanye West dance parties every time I'm stressed about something. And also every time I'm excited about something. I have a playlist especially for Cath that I just put on Spotify—Fangirl: Emergency Dance Party. (There are playlists for all my books there.) Dance away!

Comments Showing 1-29 of 29 (29 new)

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message 1: by Crystal (new)

Crystal I've been looking forward to reading this interview for a month! Thank you Rainbow!! I love all of your work and think that you are an excellent writer. I fall completely in love with your stories and characters. Keep 'em coming!

message 2: by Taylor (new)

Taylor Alcantar Thanks! It feels like Rainbow week for me. I just read two of your books this week and then I saw this here. I can't wait to read your next book and yay to the possibility of more Eleanor and Park.

message 3: by Heather (new)

Heather I listened to the audiobook of Eleanor & Park and I'm now listening to Fangirl... I love your books and I'm urging my 15-year-old daughter to read them too, because I know she'll love them! She'll relate especially well to Fangirl because she loves writing and used to write a lot of Warriors-inspired fan fiction. I really loved learning more about you, your characters, and I thought your dating advice was spot on. Thanks for such a great interview!

message 4: by Daniela (new)

Daniela So nice to read this! My Goodreads book club (and by that I mean my friend and I) have just read Fangirl and we're so delighted with it! Attachments is so beautiful as well! I still have to read Eleanor & Park and it seems I'm in for a treat :)

message 5: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Great interview, both questions and answers. I'm hoping that more books appear at such a fast clip....

message 6: by Ally (new)

Ally How cool, I see that one of your favourite books is Neverwhere!

message 7: by Sara (new)

Sara Kiplinger I recently read Fangirl and LOVED it, I'm waiting for one of my students to return Eleanor & Park so I can read it next and I can't wait! The characters were so easy to relate to, get to know, and develop feelings for. I have been recommending Fangirl to my students and colleagues. Keep it up!

message 8: by Danielle (new)

Danielle Neldon Very excited that she answered my question! I think she may be my new favorite YA author.

message 9: by Tae (new)

Tae Yay! I'm glad she took the chance to answer my question, and it was interesting to read her other answers.(If GR ever gets the chance, tell her not to worry, I am in a good environment.:)

message 10: by Tishimishi (new)

Tishimishi Eleanor and Park= UNBELIEVABLE! The interview was amazing, thank you so much!

message 11: by Hazel (new)

Hazel For the last lines, I always thought it was "I love you" - I better be right, or along the right lines or else I'm gonna cry.

message 12: by BookBlerd (new)

BookBlerd I want to get Fangirl as a Christmas present! I've seen the book everywhere and I want to read it because I used to read and write fan fiction when I was in high school. I'm in college now and I don't write fan fiction anymore but I still read it from time to time.

message 13: by Tishimishi (new)

Tishimishi Janet wrote: "WOW nice article, i just got the phone call from my hubby as promise by Dr Kamiru i just want to share a few testimony about how my marriage got saved by . I had a fight with..."

I didn't think that had much to do with the interview? If I'm wrong i apologise, but an explanation by anyone would be appreciated to how it is related.

message 14: by Laura (new)

Laura Oh Dios mio, I've been waiting for this a long time. And i was waiting to find about the three words. I hope to find "Eleanor and Park" and "Fangirl" on Target next week!

message 15: by Fortunate (new)

Fortunate Circumstance Ooh, I love Rainbow Rowell! I'm so glad I got to read about this interview. I feel like no one can write a teen/young adult romance so earnestly and wonderfully like she can. Hoping I can get her books sometimes for my very own!

message 16: by Tishimishi (new)

Tishimishi thank you!

message 17: by Ann (new)

Ann OConnell Such a good coming of age story - character driven, smart and funny. It was a real surprise, I didn't think I would like this book meant for teens as much as I did.

message 18: by Kirstie (new)

Kirstie Aw I love her so much. After J.K Rowling she is my favourite author hands down. I have loved all of her work but I think Fangirl has to be my favourite. I was a huge fanfiction fan when I was in high school and I'm also 18 so going though allot of changes and stuff just like Cath so found it very relatable. The relationships within her writing are outstanding and in my opinion extremely realistic, which I think is why I love her writing so much.

message 19: by Clarissa (new)

Clarissa In Spanish it says that It was only two words long, so i was thinking about "te quiero" or "te extraño". Which means "I love you" and "I miss you".
Waiting for more of Eleanor & Park!

message 20: by Katherine (new)

Katherine Lockhart Earlier today in Reading class, my friend and I happened to glance across the room and see a brilliant grey book entitled Fangirl on a classmate's desk. Both being major fangirls ourselves, we decided to do a bit of investigating while Chloe was out of the room.
I had heard the name "Rainbow Rowell" before, but I couldn't quite place a finger on where. Emma recognized it too. After a bit of snooping around on the internet...
Rainbow, I'm rather surprised it took me so long to realize I had seen you on NaNoWriMo.
Also, Rainbow, you went to college with Emma's mother.
In the exact words of my best friend's mother: "It's hard to forget a girl named Rainbow."

message 21: by Lena (new)

Lena After reading this interview I'm so excited for the possibility that "Eleanor and Park" may have more adventures! Can't wait, so excited! :)

message 22: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm so excited for the possibility of a sequel, I loved Eleanor and Park so much; I was seriously crying by the end. Regarding the 'ending 3 words' situation, I feel as if I'm the only person who doesn't think it will be 'I love you'. Throughout the book, Park tells Eleanor that he loves her and she never says it back (tell me if I'm wrong) so I personally don't think that she would say it after all that time. She knows that she loves him and he knows that she does, but I feel like 'I love you' is just too obvious. To be honest I'd be disappointed if it turned out to be that, I think that their relationship is so much more than just love; they need each other more than they love each other. Also, after he reads the postcard the line says: 'It filled his head with song lyrics.' I don't know if this has anything to do with it but I first thought that it might be a song by The Smiths or another one of the bands that they listen too. I might be completely off but I just think that there is more to those three words than 'I love you'. Personally, I think the three words are 'Nothing ever ends' from the final issue of Watchmen. I think this sums up everything Eleanor said about them just stopping. I really look forward to hearing more about Eleanor and Park in the future. The last thing I'm going to say is if they make a movie, I will scream. The story is so raw and real and if Hollywood glams it up then it just won't be the same. Although I guess I'd watch it anyway!

message 23: by Mcarbonneau (new)

Mcarbonneau Has anyone thought about how great the sound track will be? So much material!

message 24: by Keri (new)

Keri Engel I have a question for Eleanor & Park fans, and mostly for Rainbow herself! My book club read this a couple months ago and we cannot stop debating about what Eleanor looks like! To me, I pictured her as a larger girl. All of the comments that the other students make lead me to believe that she was "THAT girl" that the school children knew for being large. To me, this made the story so much sweeter to say that anyone and everyone can be amazing, and to not judge people based on what you THINK their life is like. Eleanor had such a difficult childhood and early life but meeting Park, and learning how incredible love and friendship really can be, I see her as growing into an amazing person with an incredible life... proving that even "THAT girl" can have a great life. (Perhaps even a better life than her school chums? She will never take anything or anyone for granted.) Many of the people in my book club disagreed saying they thought she was "an average size 12 who thought she was big because she was insecure" but I feel this makes Eleanor too ordinary for me. Readers, fans, and Rainbow... what are your thoughts on this?? I'd love to know! :)

message 25: by Suzy.M. (new)

Suzy.M. Fernandez i am in love with the book, i have read it about like 20 times and i cry every time at the end,i really hope that a movie will come out!!

message 26: by Fizzy (new)

Fizzy Hi, I just wanted to say I really loved ur books, I read them twice each and they're my favourite. Thnx for writing such an amazing book

message 27: by Ursula (new)

Ursula Rosien Why oh why the ambiguous ending????? Ugh - I know is more elegant to write the ending this way - but I’m still breathless at the ending -

message 28: by Ariella (new)

Ariella when i am older i want to be like you! when i red this interview i wes afrad that you will not live up to my expectations, But not only did you surprise me for the better, I feel that not only i ralated to what you wrote, i felt that all the books you wrote are the story of my life. even if my life is more like that of a park's, I feel very related to Eleanor. i to am going through my most difficult Years of my life, i to am going through the same Insecurits and you gave me a now Perspective on the trouble of teen problams.

message 29: by Rajeswari (new)

Rajeswari Roy All of your books are just so awesome...i enjoy them very much..💞

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