Newsmaker: Rainbow Rowell

Building worlds with Spotify and specificity

January 2, 2020

Rainbow Rowell (Photo: Augusten Burroughs)
Rainbow Rowell Photo: Augusten Burroughs

Bestselling YA author Rainbow Rowell released two highly anticipated books in late 2019: Her debut graphic novel Pumpkinheads (First Second), illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks, is set in a pumpkin patch wonderland in Omaha, Nebraska, where two best friends have worked every fall throughout high school. Wayward Son (St. Martin’s), the sequel to 2015’s Carry On, explores what happens after the hero saves the day and is supposed to be living happily ever after. American Libraries spoke with Rowell about playlists, passionate fans, and upcoming projects.

Who were your favorite authors growing up?

As a young kid, I liked Leo Lionni and the Babar books. I loved, loved, loved Beverly Cleary (like I’ve loved almost no other author). Then I got very into the Little Women books. In junior high, I loved Brave New World. In high school, I got very into John Irving, Tom Robbins, and Lewis Carroll. I read almost everything by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck in my high school literature classes. In college, it was Isaac Asimov and Toni Morrison.

What role have libraries played in your life?

My family was broke. We didn’t have a car, and we moved a lot. So public libraries came and went for me—my mom would take me to the library, I’d have a stack of books, and then we might not ever go back. School libraries were really important, especially in grade school. My school librarian let me check out more than one book at a time, which was a very special privilege. I think I may have even gotten to volunteer in the mornings behind the desk. She could see I was hard up for books and gave me so much access.

As an adult, I’ve been grateful for the audiobooks at our local library. And my kids have checked out every age-appropriate manga in the entire system. Both my kids hang out in their school libraries, which makes me happy—that their libraries are so welcoming and feel good to them.

Covers of Rainbow Rowell's Pumpkinheads and Wayward SonThe Carry On fandom is so passionate and dedicated. What was it like writing Wayward Son?

There was more pressure! I’ve never written a book that people were waiting for. I tried not to think about readers’ expectations. I tend to be contrary, and I didn’t want to start purposely driving the story away from their expectations to feel like I was still in control. But mostly people were just excited that I was writing another one, and I was excited that I was writing another one.

What was building your own universe like with Carry On and Wayward Son?

I was nervous at first about writing fantasy. All my other books have been very grounded in places that I knew. I didn’t trust myself to invent everything. Thankfully, I created the Simon Snow characters and system of magic over the safety net of [my novel] Fangirl. It wasn’t the story; it was the story within a story. So, if it didn’t work, I could always say, “Well, I’m not a fantasy writer!”

What I learned is that I loved writing fantasy. And that it was fine for me to write fantasy my way. The Simon Snow books are written like contemporary novels where magic exists. I feel like I have the best of all worlds as a writer. I can write like me, and there can also be dragons.

Your characters are relatable, realistic, and multidimensional. Can you speak about the importance of diverse representation?

I think about representation in the framework of honesty and authenticity. Our world is diverse. We are different colors and different sizes and different religions. We come from different places. Each of us is so specific, that’s the thing. If you want your books to feel real and honest, of course they will be diverse. And if you want your characters to feel alive, you hope you can make them feel specific—so they read like themselves and not just like representatives of a larger category.

You put playlists for each book on Spotify. How would you describe the Wayward Son and Pumpkinheads playlists?

The Pumpkinheads playlist is full of good-time jams, one party song after another. And the Wayward Son playlist is tense and sad, with a few moments where love and sunlight break through. Music helps me moderate tone when I’m writing, and it works as an emotional bookmark. I listen to the same song over and over for a scene so that when I come back to that scene—and that song—I know where I am emotionally.

You’ve mentioned how in Nebraska, pumpkin patches aren’t just fields—they’re more like theme parks.

October is Nebraska’s finest hour. Our winters are cold and dreary, and our summers are increasingly unbearable. But October is just lovely. And we don’t take it for granted. People hang out at the pumpkin patch here. We buy annual passes. We have pumpkin patch culture. That’s what I was trying to put into the book. Faith Erin Hicks—my Pumpkinheads collaborator—was such a good sport. She flew to Nebraska, and we spent an ideal day at the pumpkin patch. For research.

What are you reading or watching currently?

I’m catching up on authors I’ve somehow missed over the years. I just read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and I was gobsmacked by how good it is. It might be a perfectly written story. And then I read Something Wicked This Way Comes, my first Ray Bradbury. Oh my god. I know the rest of the world already knew this, but that is some mind-blowing writing.

My favorite writer is Jo Walton. I ration out her books so I always have one to fall back on.

What are you working on now?

I’m still writing the Runaways monthly comic for Marvel. I really love that job and hope the book keeps going for a while. And I’m writing the third book in the Simon Snow trilogy—Any Way the Wind Blows. Simon, Baz, and Penny are headed back to England to figure out where they fit in the post-Mage World of Mages. I never ever thought I’d want to write a trilogy, but I’m still so caught up in these characters.


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