The question Rainbow Rowell set out to answer in her new novel, a sequel titled Wayward Son (Wednesday Books), follows logically from the end of the bestselling first book, Carry On: What happens to the Chosen One after he saves the world?
For Simon Snow, her hero, the “after” has been completely awful, for reasons which will be understandable to those who have read Carry On. Simon has no appetite or ambition. He’s spending a lot of time on the couch not watching the television. His Watford School of Magicks classmates, Baz and Penny, are busy doing what he’s supposed to be doing: studying.
“Simon had shaped his whole identity around being the Chosen One and now it’s like he’s the star quarterback who can’t play anymore,” Rowell said. “The only thing he ever felt any confidence about was his magic. Now who is he?”
In Carry On, Rowell was keen to explore that Chosen One archetype, since it had been her favorite kind of story growing up. “I was very deep into Star Wars from a young age—obsessed with it. Then I moved on to Lord of the Rings and, as an adult, I was super into Harry Potter, which I began reading when I was 28.”
But she very deliberately chose to subvert the archetype. “I just decided to turn everything the other way. What if the grizzled mentor is actually using you? What if your nemesis is really the good guy? What if everything you understood about the world is wrong?” she said.
What if there is no happy-ever-after?
It’s Simon’s friend Penny who instigates an intervention to get him out of his funk, one which comes in the form of something else Rowell was keen to engage with: the classic road trip. Though the first book was set in England, this time she brought her characters closer to home.
“I’m not English so if I had them come to the U.S., I would have a little bit more freedom because I’m so familiar with this part of the world,” she said. “And it allowed me to comment on America through them, which was also fun.”
Rowell lives in Omaha with her husband and two sons, one middle school-age and one in high school. She says one of the most frequent questions she gets is about being from Nebraska. “Some people are almost indignant. You can tell they want to ask why I haven’t left,” she said. “But I’m from a very big family and everyone is here. Emotionally it would be difficult for me to leave.”
The new book will set her on the road, however, with an 11-city tour that will take her from New York to San Francisco. She is excited because her fans are. Rowell has never written a sequel before (and never really thought she would), although Carry On was based on characters who first appeared in her novel, Fangirl. Most of the events are ticketed; those that are are close to selling out. The Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga. offered 300 “live-signed” tickets for $25 that include a seat at the event, a place in the signing line, and a copy of the book. Few tickets remain. “Most of the tickets we sold in the first couple of hours after the event was announced,” said Madison Hatfield, a bookseller and part of the store’s events team. “She has a huge social media following and readers adore her.”
Similarly, the event sponsored by Brookline Booksmith in Massachusetts is also nearly full; events co-director Alex Schaffner suspects Rowell is drawing not just from the Boston area but surrounding states. “Whenever we sell more than a hundred tickets for an event, it usually means people are coming from pretty far away to be here,” Schaffner said.
In addition to her first sequel, Rowell has also just released her first graphic novel, Pumpkinheads, with Faith Erin Hicks (First Second, Sept.), a book that resulted from a fan’s suggestion on Twitter that she try the format. “I responded by saying that sounded like a good idea and, wouldn’t you know it, someone from First Second sent me an e-mail asking if I wanted to write one,” she recalled. “I said yes because I’m the type of person who says yes to everything and because I wasn’t sure people would ever ask me to do these kind of things again.”
That exchange occurred in 2014. In the years that followed, Rowell learned she had a debilitating illness that had gone undiagnosed for years, a thyroid disorder that made her bones brittle and sapped her energy. She started Pumpkinheads while recovering from having a tumor removed.
“At first, the story was much darker and heavier, a love story with an element of struggle,” she said. “But it turned out I was not physically well enough to be in a dark place and I wound up writing the sweetest thing I’ve ever written, a story that’s purely joyful.”
Hicks and colorist Sara Stern also brought her vision to life with illustrations, set in a pumpkin patch where two teens have had seasonal jobs since they started high school. “Nebraska in summer is brutally hot and the winters go on forever, but fall here is my favorite time of year,” Rowell said. “I had hoped the story would capture how beautiful Nebraska is in the fall, and it did.”