Rainbow Rowell is very, very high on my list of authors to watch, and she writes both young adult and adult fiction, so you can catch her in not one but two sections of the bookstore. Why am I so in love with her? Well, for one thing, she's an amazing writer, with the kind of storytelling and style that will pin you to a couch reading until you're done (no seriously, you've been warned), and she's also compassionate, funny, and insightful.
It's really exciting to get a chance to interview an author and find out she's as amazing in casual conversation as she is in more formal writing. I was in love with Rainbow Rowell the author, and now I'm besotted with Rainbow Rowell the person.
I want to invite her over to my house for tea and cake, and then we can have a slumber party and eat popcorn and watch 80s movies. Is that creepy? That's creepy. I don't even care.
Here's Rainbow (and me, trying not to slobber everywhere):
xoJane: "Fangirl" reads as both an homage to fanfiction and fannish spaces, and a very classic coming-of-age story. So there's a lot to talk about here! Starting with: are you active in fannish spaces yourself? (And, if you care to share, which fandoms are you a part of? Also, have you encountered any "Fangirl" fic yet?)
Rainbow Rowell: I’ve always been a very fannish person. When I like something, I usually love it, and when I love something, I CAN’T GET ENOUGH. I’m active in fannish spaces in that I spend a lot of time reading fanfiction on AO3, and admiring and sharing fan art on Tumblr. But I’ve always been more of a consumer/observer/lurker. I get social anxiety even online.
Right now, the fandom that I invest the most energy/pain in is BBC Sherlock, but I still fan over Harry Potter and Star Wars and the X-Men. And no! I haven’t encountered any "Fangirl" fic yet, but there’s some gorgeous fan art already … (The fan art for my first YA book, "Eleanor & Park," is mind-blowing.)
xoJane: Slash in particular tends to be a maligned area of fandom (and one occupied almost entirely by straight women). I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on social attitudes about fanfiction; do you think the fact that women are heavily involved in fannish communities plays a big role in why it's so commonly discounted?
Rainbow Rowell: YES. I think anything that predominantly women like is discounted, and anything that teenage girls like is absolutely reviled. It’s the lowest of the low. If teenage girls like something, everyone feels like they can -- and maybe should -- hate it, even the girls themselves.
The thing that really enrages me is when women and girls are demeaned for wanting romance. Like there’s something weak and dumb about wanting characters to fall in love, or wanting love for yourself. THIS IS SO WRONG. Love is the finest thing. It’s the thing everyone wants and needs and searches for. We might not all yearn for romantic love, but most of us do. Men and women.
I need to see love in a story for it to feel complete to me; it’s Han and Leia that make "The Empire Strikes Back" my favorite Star Wars movie. And if I love something that’s missing romance or endlessly teasing it (*clears throat, hums Sherlock theme song, doodles picture of Mulder and Scully*), I want to read and write fic that completes the picture.
xoJane: I have to confess: I read "Eleanor & Park" in one sitting, and when it came to "Fangirl," I had to forcibly tear myself away to get work done (like an adult). I'm predicting a mass drop in productivity levels on 10 September(advice to readers: start this book when your day is clear of obligations), and I have to ask: are you a demon? Are the pages of your books impregnated with some sort of highly addictive substance? Does your editor have to wear protective glasses when dealing with the raw source material? ARE YOU A WIZARD?
Rainbow Rowell: HAHAHA -- thank you! I don’t think the pages of my books are impregnated with anything, but they can get you pregnant.
Also, yes, I am a wizard.
xoJane: This is a story about a very transitional time: the first year of college. Would you consider this a "new adult" setting, or are you skeptical about this whole YA, new adult, grown-up books thing?
Rainbow Rowell: I wouldn’t say I’m skeptical . . . But those categories aren’t something I think about as a writer. I tell the story I’ve got clawing at my brain, and then, when I’m done, I talk to my agent and editor about what I’ve wrought. And sometimes none of us are sure!
Neither "Eleanor & Park" or "Fangirl" is obviously, indisputably young adult. But I think "Fangirl" fits best on the YA shelf (not NA) because it has very classic young adult themes: First love. First physical relationship. Establishing your own identity. Figuring out who you are relative to your parents and siblings.
Also, I think it talks about college in a way that teenagers are really curious about. So I think of it as a young adult book that adults might like to read.
xoJane: Ever struggled with making a world come to life for you like Cath did? Do you have advice for writers who struggle with that beyond the wise words of her writing instructor?
Rainbow Rowell: Oh, yeah. I’m struggling right now! I think the best thing to remember is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. It will never be perfect. And when you’re just starting to write a book, it’s supposed to be a mess.
I’m about 40,000 words into a novel now, and it’s a disaster. I just realized yesterday that I had forgotten about a character -- just abandoned her ten chapters back. You have to remember that the books you love all started out as chaotic piles of words. Don’t get disgusted with yourself and decide to start over. Push through. Try to finish something. You can always go back and fix it later.
xoJane: Given that "Eleanor & Park" revolved around music, what are you listening to right now? And, as a followup, what's on your recently read and loved and to be read shelves?
Rainbow Rowell: Oh, fun question! The newish band that I’m listening to is Bastille [editorial note: I LOVE BASTILLE. I basically have "Pompeii" on repeat right now.]. Also I’ve been listening to the Walk the Moon album for a year, and I never get sick of it. I’m flying to Boston just to see them.
The best books I’ve read recently are: "Soon I Will Be Invincible" by Austin Grossman (superheroes, super funny, gorgeous writing) and "The Brides of Rollrock Island" by Margo Lanagan (the best book you will ever read about selkies, and one of the best books you will read ever).
xoJane: I loved your "Why is Park Korean?" essay and your larger discussion surrounding both Park as a character and the issue of ethnicity and representation in YA. Clearly underrepresentation is a big problem. What's your advice to fellow white writers who are nervous or unsure about writing characters of color?
Rainbow Rowell: Well, I think, ultimately the answer isn’t just white writers writing more diverse characters -- but also more writers of color getting space on our shelves [another editorial note: YES!].
As for my own experience: It’s a really hard question to answer because I didn’t plan for Park to be Korean -- I didn’t figure out until later why I had made that choice -- though I have thought consciously about writing stories that are at least as diverse as my own life. I think, as an author, you’re always putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. So it’s always a leap, and there’s always this feeling of presumption.
I remember when I realized my first book, "Attachments," had to be written from a man’s point of view – I was terrified. But I didn’t want to be hemmed in by that fear; I didn’t want to write books only about characters who were just like me. I sort of instinctively wrote a life for Park that I felt confident writing. His neighborhood. His school. Nineteen eighty-six.
I’m close to people who are second-generation Americans -- and second-generation Asian-Americans -- and I’ve listened to and been a part of their stories . . . Also, I told myself that I didn’t have to write a universal Korean-American story. I just had to write Park’s story. (Same thing for Cath; Cath isn’t every fangirl.) And I accepted that I was probably going to get some things wrong.
This isn’t practical advice (practical advice would be: live a life full of diversity; embrace people and stories from all cultures; listen when people are talking about how their lives are different; read). This is just encouragement, I guess: If you want to write great things, you can’t be guided by fear. You have to step outside of yourself.
xoJane: Finally, a key question for our readers: cake, or pie?
Rainbow Rowell: CAKE. OBVIOUSLY. I’m a wizard, not a monster.
"Fangirl" hits shelves on 10 September, and trust me, you will want to be lined up at the door for a copy, because it's freakin' amazing. If you were a nerdy girl in your first year of college, if you're active in fannish communities, or if you just love great writing, you are going to love this book.
But REALLY SERIOUSLY, LAST WARNING: When you sit down with it, make sure you have several hours cleared in your schedule.
For small doses of Rainbow Rowell, check her out on Twitter.