Photo by Augusten Burroughs; Interview by Hilary Miller
Rainbow Rowell is having a very good year. Well, couple of years, actually.
The author was awarded a 2014 Printz Honor for her beloved Young Adult novel, Eleanor & Park, the movie rights of which were picked up by Dreamworks in April. Rowell will be writing the screenplay (which we hope means that there will be at least one Benedict Cumberbatch cameo… perhaps as the school bus driver? Just imagine that curly mop poking out of a blue cap. Sigh.) Her other two novels Attachments and Fangirl, have inspired countless Tumblr posts dedicated to fan art, fan fiction and casting the perfect actors in the movie versions. In addition to the screenplay she is also currently working on a fantasy, and a graphic novel with writer/artist Faith Erin Hicks. Perhaps most exciting of all, Rowell is about to release her fourth novel, Landline.
Rowell’s popularity has no doubt stemmed from being one of the most modern authors writing today. She utilizes her social media followings to connect with her readers on their level—reblogging fan art on her Tumblr, cracking endearing jokes about life with her husband Kai and their children on Twitter, and posting almost daily photos of Benedict Cumberbatch in what she has dubbed “The Cumberbatchery.” But Rowell also has a penchant for writing characters that are all at once real, unique, relatable and crazy-charming.
“My goal with all my books is to write characters who feel real,” she says. “I want to get inside their heads and stay there.” For her, there’s no difference in approaching a book based on its genre, YA or Adult. “I’m writing with the same intensity and sophistication – or lack of it.”
And while all of Rowell’s novels are about love at their core (romantic love, yes, but also familial love, friendship and passions like work, hobbies and, of course, fandom) her female characters never feel one-dimensional. In a climate where so many dystopian heroines are seen strictly through the prism of rebellion, where YA romance novels become more about submission than connection, Rowell is helping to turn the page on old tropes for women in lit.
“When I’m writing female characters, I’m just trying to make them real,” she says. “I don’t worry about making them strong. If a character is complex and well developed, they’ll never feel like a prop or a placeholder.”
The women that Rowell creates are captivating for their quirks, both in personality and physically. Eleanor of Eleanor & Park happens to be a full-bodied, red-headed and freckled teenager with a knack for standout fashion statements. Cath, of Fangirl, isn’t quite as thin and conventionally attractive as her twin sister Wren, choosing to wear glasses, ponytails and some combination of jeans and t-shirt. The great thing about Rowell, though, is that she embraces characters who aren’t perfectly beautiful, while not berating those who are.
Rowell says these decisions are intentional, “I’m definitely rejecting the idea—which I think is present everywhere, not just in YA—that there is a narrow standard for beauty. That readers and viewers are only interested in stories about specific types of beautiful people. I just don’t think that’s true. I know it isn’t true, because I haven’t written any characters that fit those standards.”
That same intention follows Rowell throughout her work, all of which is at the same time distinctly hers while being incredibly different from each other. She has somehow managed so far to sidestep being pigeonholed by the publishing world, releasing novels both for teens and adults, exploring different genres and expanding into the world of graphic novels and screenplays.
“Part of it is that, once I finish something, I want to try something completely different,” Rowell says. “I feel so done with whatever it is I just finished, and I want a new problem to solve. I’m always drawn to ideas that I’m not sure I can pull off, which is definitely how I feel about my next few projects. The other part of it is that I have an agent and editors who encourage me to follow my heart.”
We couldn’t be more excited that Rowell’s heart led her to write Landline, her fourth book and second adult novel which is destined to become a summer favorite when it’s released on July 8.
“It’s about a woman whose marriage is in trouble, and she discovers a way to communicate with her husband in the past,” Rowell explains. “Spoiler alert: it’s a magic phone. You just have to trust me when I say it isn’t as silly as it sounds.”
The novel is contemporary through and through, but the surreal, almost mythical addition of the “magic” phone adds another layer to the plot that has Rowell’s distinctive stamp of smart and thought-provoking story telling.
With Landline, It’s clear that Rowell isn’t planning to slow down any time soon, and book lovers everywhere are gearing up for another great year in the life of Rainbow.
To see more check out the Summer Issue of Lydia Magazine!