How Rainbow Rowell Went From Newspaper Reporter to Superstar Novelist

augusten burroughs
augusten burroughs / augusten burroughs

This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

For 10 or 11 years, I was a metro columnist at the Omaha World-Herald. It was a great job, but I started young, and it involved doing the same thing over and over. I started writing Attachments at the end of my time there.

A friend asked me, “What are you writing for yourself?” I realized I’d never written anything just for myself—it had either been an assignment or a very ill-advised love letter.

Leaving the newspaper was incredibly important. A newspaper is very busy—you’re always focused on the next edition and you can’t really try something different. I left and got a job in advertising. Starting over showed I had it in me to do something completely different.

I remember finishing Attachments and thinking that was the accomplishment. My husband said, “No, you need to do something with this!” It got published in 2011. Last year, my literary workload became so big that I'm now spending 100 percent of my time writing books.

Things have changed so quickly, I’ve struggled a little bit to find my balance. For so long, I had a full-time job and was writing on top of that. I have kids, so I was writing mostly at coffee shops. I wrote my first three books at the same Starbucks. Then they renovated and changed the seating. It became much louder and more chaotic. I freaked out—I couldn’t write! So now I have a home office.

I wrote my first four books before I sold them, which was so freeing. I’d be writing, and I’d say, “I don’t have a deadline because nobody wants this.” If I tried to think about what readers expect from me, I’d be writing for the past. By the time it comes out, it’s two years from now.

My foreign agent told me Stephen King gets up and writes a certain number of words every day and doesn’t deal with anything else until he finishes. You know the metaphor “You put the big rocks in the jar first?” I thought, “I am filling the jar with pebbles.” I decided to write first thing every day. I wrote 20,000 words in two weeks and recently finished my first draft.

A good thing about working at a newspaper is you’re on deadline constantly. You turn in one thing and start working on the next. There’s no room for writer’s block. Having done that for 10 years, I’d trained my brain. I’ve felt stuck and scared with this latest book, but I still finished a first draft.

Twitter makes me feel I’m part of a community in a way I’m not in Omaha. I don’t see Twitter as a threat to my productivity. I see people there as my co-workers. I sit in a room by myself. When you think about working in an office, you get up, you get coffee. Talking to your co-workers can increase your productivity; sometimes just talking to people on Twitter helps with a problem.

I’m going on tour with Landline, and then I’m going to take a vacation with my family. The next project is to write a first draft of the Eleanor & Park screenplay and then a graphic novel. I’ve never done any of that before—it’s all new.

I started writing Attachments at the end of my years at the World-Herald. I didn’t really take it that seriously. It felt more like a hobby. I didn’t see it getting published; I didn’t really even see it getting finished. But it was a creative outlet.

I’d thought success was getting the job, holding on, getting better, and I realized for me success feels like growing and trying new things and testing myself, that’s when I feel most rewarded. It affects my approach. I don’t want to write the same kind of book, a book just like Eleanor & Park, or just Y.A. I never want to feel like “Oh, I have to keep doing the same thing because that’s what people expect.” It feels safe but I don’t think it’s safe in the long run. I think you’ll just fade away doing that.

When I’m writing fiction, I need to cut myself off from the Internet. I will lock myself away from the internet for 2 to 3 hours. But Twitter allows me to talk to readers in a way I can’t anywhere else. For a while I had a public email and I was never returning anyone’s emails. You feel bad. With Twitter I can say thank you or laugh at a joke or answer a question in seconds. I’m able to be open and accessible.

You expect your inspirations sometimes to do what you do, and I don’t feel like that’s the case for me. I’m most inspired by someone who’s doing something totally different than me. (Kanye West, for example, there was a time 7 years ago or so that I really felt like listening to him; his music and also listening to him talk was so inspiring to me. Not that he’s not inspiring now, we’re just in different places in our lives. When Graduation came out, I felt so inspired by it.) The Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats, that was so much a part of me writing Eleanor & Park. And even certain visual things, not that I’m inspired to do what they do but by their approach.

On Writing Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park was delayed almost a year. In the UK it came out in 2012, then in February 2013 it came out in the U.S. I had written that book and I’d written Fangirl and most of Landline before Eleanor & Park came out. I had this creative fever, those books were in me and I knew what I wanted to write.

If I tried to think about what you would expect from me and want after Eleanor & Park—when you think that way, you’re writing for the past. By the time you write it and it comes out, it’s two years from now. People act like I wrote Eleanor & Park as a response to The Fault in Our Stars. But no, I was probably writing that at the exact time John was writing that book.

I’ve always wanted to write the Eleanor & Park screenplay. It was more important to me that I got to write the screenplay than that the movie would be made. I don’t feel that about all my books, but with this one, I felt I could look after it in a way. To anyone who was looking into this, I’d said, I come with it, you have to give me a chance. They don’t have to use anything I write, but they gave me the chance.

When I was writing Eleanor & Park and Attachments, I felt like I couldn’t read anything similar to what I was writing. I stopped reading contemporary completely. With Y.A., everyone’s basically writing about the same 2 years, and it can make you feel like everything’s already been written. If I’d read all that, I worried, would I feel like I was doing anything original? I read comic books, I’d read them for years. With Eleanor & Park, I also read the Twilight series in there. I read fan fiction while I was writing Fangirl and before. I was reading a lot of Y.A. when I wrote Landline. I was meeting these Y.A. authors and wanted to read what they did. Last year I read a lot of contemporary Y.A., I felt like my head was full of it.

Books she loves 

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan. It’s a comic book, it’s sort of a Romeo and Juliet story, in which two different aliens/nonhumans/humanoids from warring planets fall in love and have a baby. It’s them trying to find their way in the world.

And Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris. I read it and it rocked my world. Having worked in an office, it was so true!

I’m reading The Rescuers, by Margery Sharpe, to my kids. I read aloud to my kids every night. It’s so good and funny and really sophisticated.

Also, I love The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan. She writes in that fable-y way, kind of like Neil Gaiman. She’s so poetic.