Rainbow Rowell interview: Landline, fangirls, the internet

Interview Sarah Dobbs 22 Jul 2014 - 06:45

Sarah chats to Fangirl and Eleanor & Park author Rainbow Rowell about geekdom, romance, YA, and her new novel, Landline...

Rainbow Rowell writes love stories. Wait, yes, this is a geeky site, but just stay where you are. Rainbow Rowell writes love stories, and they’re amazing – and geeky. Her first novel, Attachments, is about an IT guy in the 90s who accidentally falls in love with a woman whose emails he’s paid to read. Eleanor And Park, her acclaimed second novel, is rammed with references to 80s pop culture, as her characters fall in love through their shared appreciation of music and comics. And Fangirl, well, as the title suggests, Fangirl is about fan culture, and a fanfiction writer learning to turn her online emotions into real life ones.

Basically, Rainbow Rowell writes characters you’re going to identify with. I gulped down all of her novels to date in a single serving, finishing each of them in one evening (and in at least one case, turned back to the beginning to start reading it again). So when Rainbow came over to the UK to promote her fourth novel, Landline, I sat down with her to talk about writing, the internet, and true love…

I just read Landline this week, and it’s wonderful. Where did the idea for it come from?

I wish I had a good story about it. It started as a really boring idea: a story about a woman who loses her cell phone and her whole life falls apart, which sounds like a really clichéd idea. So I was thinking about that and it very quickly became a woman who has a phone that calls into the past; she loses her cell phone and has to use a landline, and discovers it's a magic phone.

It's different from your previous two books, in that the characters are older. Was that a conscious decision, to write about adults rather than teens or young adults?

It was not a conscious decision. My first book, Attachments, is about adults; late twentysomethings, and when I wrote Eleanor And Park I didn't intentionally set out to write a YA book. I just had an idea. That's how it works for me. I had a lot of freedom at that point, because Attachments was out but it's not like it defined me in any way. In a way, if I’d been really successful with my first book, that may have made me feel hemmed in, like, “oh I have to keep doing that,” but I wasn't so I felt like I could do whatever I felt like doing. And no-one told me not to!

Eleanor And Park has a very open ending. How often do people ask you about what happens after that ending?

Constantly. Constantly. Every day I wake up and there are five to ten tweets from people specifically asking me. Or when I tweet, people see I'm online, and I'll get kids in, like, Brazil, saying "hey hey hey, what are the three words at the end of Eleanor And Park?"

I feel like people think they want to know, but they don't really.

If you confirmed what they were—

It would be a let-down! It would be like, “oh, I guess that makes sense.”

I think people want a happier ending for Eleanor and Park: a cleaner, neater, more settled ending. Like, they're dating, they're gonna get married, they're kissing. But I think if I had written that ending they would have hated it because it would have felt so out of sync with the book, it would have felt so fake and false at that point to shift gears and say “and then Park fixed everything.”

Well, also, the person you fall in love with when you're sixteen isn't necessarily the person you're going to grow up and be with forever. At the end, I felt like I didn't need them to end up together forever, but I wanted to know that they would be okay.

They are, they are okay. That was something I reassured myself because I felt like I wasn't taking care of them as I was writing, I felt like I had put Eleanor in a really bad, dangerous situation, and I felt like in a way like falling in love had not been good for Park. It was really good in some ways, but it made him miserable too.

So by the end I had thought a lot about what was going to happen with them and where they would end up. I actually think they are true love. I think they're perfect for each other and I feel like the tragedy of them is that they fell in love too soon. I'm not sure you're supposed to meet your great love at sixteen. You can't cope with it. You have nothing you need to cope with that love at that age, so it's almost like it saved both of them, but in another way it was really destructive. In the book, Park tries to date somebody and it's just empty and dead. And if you were Eleanor, who would you date after Park?

Maybe they can get back together after a few years then.

Maybe they can!

Are you tempted to write a sequel?

Yeah, I plotted out a sequel right away and told my agent that I was gonna write the sequel next. He told me not to. He must be kicking himself now. He said to me, "you're writing fanfiction of your own characters now."

Now it’s so well-loved that there is fanfiction about it, and people have written their own endings, so maybe they don't need you to write the sequel. They’ve written their own.

They can do that even if I write the sequel. Plenty of people ignore the epilogue of Harry Potter!

What I really love about your characters is that they feel real, and they don't just feel like fantasies. I love that the way they are attracted to one another and the way they fall in love isn't just because they're perfect and gorgeous, but they're attracted to specific little things about each other.

I think that that's unconventional for books and movies and TV maybe, but not real life. In real life, that's exactly how we fall in love. I think in real life, it's not like you're just attracted to the person who is the most conventionally handsome in a room. It's never happened to me. I've never walked into a room and been like “that guy.” You get to know someone and then it's almost a chemical reaction between the two of you, and it's not like anyone else gets to vote on whether you are attracted to someone. You just are. To me, that just seems like the way you fall in love, so why wouldn't I write it that way?

I think there's a lot of fantasy in [something like] Twilight, which is a book I really like - I love Twilight, I'm not gonna be a Twilight denier! You think of Edward the vampire being the fantasy character, but Bella's a fantasy character too. She's the fantasy of every girl who thinks she's plain being secretly beautiful. I don't write that way, but I don't necessarily think it's wrong. I think it's wrong for everyone to write that way, because then I think girls get the message that they have to be a certain kind of beautiful, and boys too. So I don't mind it in other people's books but it would never occur to me to write that way.

Both Landline and Eleanor And Park have important phone conversations in them. Do you think talking on the phone is a skill we’ve lost?

We have lost phone conversations, because talking on cell phones is no fun at all, and it's harder than texting or typing. I do think we've lost that, but we've gained a lot with the internet. I feel like the internet has turned us all into letter writers. I think of my mother when I was a kid, she never wrote down anything but a grocery list. People didn't write, because you'd call. Why would you write anything? But now we're all writers.

So when people complain about grammar and punctuation, I think it isn't that our grammar and punctuation have gotten worse, but that it used to be that only writers wrote. Only people who were in education wrote, but now we all write: we all text, we all post. I feel like we've lost phones but we've gained this whole different type of correspondence that hasn't existed since the age of letter writing.

Speaking of the internet, and writing, brings us to Fangirl. I feel like there’s a lot of snobbishness that springs us around fandom, and a lot of sexism, too, because fanfic seems to be a very female thing.

I love fandom. I think that the internet has given fans a different way to connect, a way to be more vocal and that's something I didn't have when I was younger. I would have felt so much less alone.

I got the internet at home when I was sixteen and the first thing I did was go on a Buffy forum.

The first thing I did was go on a Dawson's Creek site!

I feel like if you are a woman who likes geeky things, which I always have – those things are less accessible to you. It was hard for me as a woman in the 80s and early 90s to find other women who liked those things. My best friend was really into Star Wars and that was it, she was the only one I knew.

I remember going to comic book stores and they weren't rude to me, but you're conscious of being ‘other’ and they're conscious of you being ‘other’. They're talking to each other about what's going to happen next in X-Men but they just give you your comic and that's it. I was never mistreated, I just felt like I didn't fit in. I think the internet has given girls and women a place to be fannish together, and to be fannish in their own way. I see girls on the internet doing all the stuff I wanted to do, or that I was doing all by myself, and they have a community. I feel like fanfiction is a community.

Teenage girls are really intense, and that scares people. It scares people how intense they get and it's kind of scary when you are a teenage girl. You feel things so strongly, and I think that scares people, so they want to turn it into something cute and be dismissive. But you have so much energy and appetite for things as a teenager.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about adults reading YA lit, but with Landline, will it work the other way? Your younger readers will be reading a story about adults. Do you think they'll relate to the characters?

Not in the same way, but I think they will. When I was a teenager, I was reading about adults. My favourite author was John Irving. It's not like somebody told me to read him, I just found his books and really loved them. There's this idea that people only want to read or only should read about people in the same situation as them. That's so dumb and weird, why would you do that? Why would you ever say, “you're sixteen and you live here, so you need to read about other sixteen year olds like you?”

Both adults and teenagers read Eleanor And Park. When we published it as YA in the US, we had this conversation about how it's set in the 80s, so will that bother teenagers? It doesn't bother them at all. Adults and teenagers just get a different read. For teenagers, it reminds them of what they're feeling now or what they would like to feel, but for an adult it stirs up all these old memories. One read isn't more valid than the other, you know?

The movie rights to Eleanor And Park recently got picked up. Is there any news on the film adaptation?

The news is that I need to start writing the screenplay.

Ha! Why are you sitting here talking to me? Go and do that! Is that your next project?

That's the very next thing, but I don't have that much time to do it so it won’t take up too much of my life. I have to write it fast. And I just finished the first draft of my next YA novel, which is a fantasy.

Amazing. Rainbow Rowell, thank you very much!

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