Rainbow Rowell – yes, that is her real name – is having a good couple of years. Her adult debut, Attachments, came out in 2011; her YA debut, Eleanor & Park (St. Martin’s Griffin, Feb.), hits stores soon, and a second young adult novel is due out this fall. She spoke with PW by phone from her home in Omaha – where Eleanor & Park, a love story about two outsiders, is set – about realistic romance, the power of music, and not being precious about writing.
Eleanor & Park covers a lot of ground, from difficult family situations to the way music can open up a new world. But most of all, it’s about first love. Is that what you set out to write about?
My motivation was to make people actually feel love, to give them a realistic view of it. If they’re young and never been in love, for them to know – yes, this how it feels. And if they’re older and they have, to feel it as a sense memory.
Emotions run high in the novel. Is it realistic?
I feel like it’s realistic. I feel things very intensely. And I also think that real life is more romantic if you allow it to be, if you don’t act like it’s immature to get excited. I want to consume love stories, but 90% of them feel totally inauthentic. When I watch a romantic comedy, I feel like they’re selling something that doesn’t exist. Two beautiful, but extremely unpleasant, people are terrible to each other for an hour, accidentally kiss, then decide to like each other during an extremely vague montage. That isn’t how people fall in love.
The book has garnered a number of starred reviews, including from PW, as well as pre-publication buzz from bloggers. What’s it like to get this kind of reaction?
When Attachments came out and people liked it, I’d have a warm feeling of having made a connection. But everything about Eleanor & Park is more personal – I feel like I’m out on a limb – and so for people to say that it touches them really touches me. In fact, I get tearful. It’s an embarrassing, Sally Field-esque moment: you like me. You really like me.
What makes it more personal and less safe?
With Attachments, my goal was to write a really good romantic comedy. I wanted the reader to be smiling throughout. As I wrote it, I was picturing each scene as if it were a movie. Eleanor & Park, well... it’s depressing. Eleanor’s life is really hard. And it’s more personal because their 1986 is my 1986, which was a time when there was suddenly all this alternative, underground stuff happening in popular culture and slowly making its way to Omaha. When you turned on the radio, you’d hear Wham, but then someone would give you a mix tape with a Smiths song on it. It gave me the sense that there were things happening in the world that I didn’t have access to. My junior high and high school existence was depressing, and this stuff made me think there was something else, that someday I’d be an adult and I’d be able to get to it. I wanted Eleanor to have something more than her difficult home life, and I wanted Park to have something to give her, and music did both those things.
The other pop culture element that Park and Eleanor share is comics, which is interesting, because comics are often understood to be something that appeals more to boys.
I was turned on to comics by a boy who lived near me and who would read them on the bus, like Park. My dad was a fan, but he was saving his old comics for my brothers. But I loved the X-Men and also a more alternative comic called Marshal Law for the way they challenged the existing world. As soon as I had any money of my own, I bought comics.
But Eleanor has a critique as well: she’s aware that the female superheroes, despite their powers, are more passive than their male counterparts.
Absolutely. When I read them I was aware of all the women drawn as pinups, and I was conscious that they were created by men for boys. That’s changing now, I think, but I had that critique all ready for Eleanor.
Girls will read books or comics intended for boys, but who is this book intended for? Do you think teenage boys will read it?
Well, it’s written from both a male and a female perspective. But I don't know. I hope so. I have two sons, and I’m reading them the Ramona books, and they love them. But they already pause about choosing things that are meant for girls. They love Ramona, but I don’t know if they’d pick up a book with a girl on the cover. I’m really happy that the cover isn’t skewed one way, that it gives boys permission to pick the book up.
You’ve said that in creating Park, you wanted a protagonist who was masculine but also capable of real feelings and tenderness. Is Park a fantasy?
No! He’s not a fantasy. They’re out there. In Attachments, which is told from a male point of view, people asked me if a man would really think that much about whether a woman likes him. But I have a husband and three brothers and they’re all like that. And I’ve worked in industries that were male-dominated, and I was surrounded by open-hearted men. They’re totally out there.
The jacket copy says: “Two misfits: One extraordinary love.” Do you see Park as a misfit?
He is in terms of the music that he listens to, so he’s a misfit in that John Hughes movie way. Eleanor, though, is “other” in another way: she’s a person who can’t be invisible.
Park’s also half Korean. Does that make him more of an outsider?
The neighborhood Eleanor and Park live in is the neighborhood I grew up in. And at that time, it was white and racist. There was a kid who was half-Vietnamese, and we didn’t actually know what he was. But he fit in better than I did. In a way, since there was no one else around like him, we didn’t have stereotypes; we had no idea about what he was supposed to be like. As a writer, I think there needs to be more diversity. Which means that white authors need to write about characters of other races. And that’s really scary. You have good intentions, but at the same time, you’re blind. I probably made mistakes with Park, but I don’t think I’ll regret writing him.
Park’s parents, though, are much more in the foreground than Eleanor’s. How did that happen?
I kept trying to expand Eleanor and Park’s world and add supporting characters, but when I did, it felt wrong. The only thing that worked was Park’s parents. You can’t be in Eleanor’s house too long, so I needed his home to feel like an escape. And, though I think Park would feel that he has a really hard relationship with his dad, as an adult and a parent, you can see the care there. Plus, in every book there’s one character I end up having a crush on, and here it was Park’s dad. I never planned to write so many scenes with him, but I realized that it was a way for Eleanor to have a relationship with an adult man who was different from the others in her life.
On your Web site, you have playlists for Eleanor and Park that include songs they couldn’t have listened to in 1986. Why did you include those anachronisms?
I always build playlists when I’m writing; it’s a game I play. With Attachments, I was very strict, and I only had things that came out in 1999. But with Eleanor & Park, it’s a mix of things they could listen to and songs I was listening to when I wrote. When I was writing the scene at the end of the book where Eleanor finds out something important, it was filled with tension, all the stuff that been built up and now had to pay off. It took weeks to write, so I used the song “Two Dancers” by Wild Beast [from 2009] to get back to that emotional place.
Your next book, Fangirl, comes out this fall. What’s it about?
A girl who’s a twin, and she and her sister have always been huge Simon Snow – think Harry Potter – fans. It’s been their life and identity. When they go to college, the more confident twin is ready to move on, but the main character doesn’t feel like she’s outgrown [that world]. Emotionally, it’s probably between Eleanor & Park and Attachments.
How did you end up with two novels publishing just a few months apart?
Eleanor & Park came out in the U.K. a while ago, so it’s partly just timing. But I was a newspaper columnist, so I’m used to writing all the time without being precious about it. As a newspaper writer, you feel like, I’m going to do the best I can, and then at some point you have to let it go. And that experience also makes it easier to work with editors. I left my newspaper job in October, and now is the time I’ve got to write. And people want to read it, which feels lucky.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. St. Martin’s Griffin, $17.99 March ISBN 978-1-25001-257-9
For PW’s review, click here.