Last April, I entered the gates of Santa Monica High School in California – along with 20,000 teenagers, librarians, teachers, and parents – for YALLWEST, the young adult book festival.
The main reason I attended for the second year in a row was because the event featured my favorite author, Rainbow Rowell. She wrote Fangirl, about a college freshman obsessed with a Harry Potter-like book series, and Eleanor & Park, the story of “two star-crossed misfits smart enough to know first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try.”
Doll Bones author Holly Black opened the interview with the question, “What were you like in high school?” as a nod to the mostly-teenaged audience. Rainbow grew up in poverty, so her answer wasn’t surprising: “Those were the worst years for me.” Working on the newspaper and yearbook saved her from being a miserable outcast.
At home, her mother wouldn’t allow her to watch TV shows in which people kissed. An acceptable alternative was books. “She would always let me buy one book at the thrift shop for 27 cents.”
Rainbow grinned. “I would read anything I could get my hands on.” These novels included The World According to Garp, From Here to Eternity, Exodus, My Name is Asher Lev, and science fiction short stories. She lamented her undirected reading. “I wish I’d had a librarian in my life,” she said.
Nevertheless, self-education served her well. The award-winning Eleanor & Park is set in 1986 and resembles her own high school experiences. Rainbow and her friend Scott were the only ones not into heavy metal music. “We’d sit together on the bus for safety,” she said, and he’d loan her comic books, much like the protagonists in the novel.
After graduation, Rainbow became a newspaper reporter and columnist, because it gave her a stable life. “I was so poor as a kid….” she said. “All I wanted was a car and health insurance.”
She didn’t begin writing fiction until she was in her 30s. Attachments was Rainbow’s first adult novel, a book initially released in the U.K. and read by “very few people.” It’s the story of a young man who works at a newspaper’s cyber-security department and is paid to read employees’ email.
Later, the author wrote Landline, about a TV sitcom writer named Georgie who struggles to balance career and family life. Like the main character’s husband, Rainbow’s spouse is a stay-at-home dad.
How does Rainbow craft such engaging fiction? “I like characters,” she said. “That’s what draws me in…I never start with plot.”
She drew from memory to create her characters. In Eleanor & Park, Eleanor’s mother endures domestic violence at the hands of her second husband. Park’s dad is white and his mother is Korean. They face racism in their Nebraska neighborhood, but his peers respect him because his family has lived there longer than any other.
“One of my best friends at that time was Chinese,” Rainbow said of 1986, when she was in high school in Nebraska. Paul, who was short, would complain to her about various things: “Why won’t Kristin go out with me?” Rainbow would reply honestly: “Because she’s tall.” In the novel, Park has similar conversations with a friend.
Some fans find her endings ambiguous, though she disagrees.
“I really served that up for you,” she said with a smile, referring to the final paragraphs of Eleanor & Park. “I tied a bow around that for you.”
Katherine Valdez, who shares with Ms. Rowell a love of the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer, restrained herself from yelling, “Rainbow, I love you!” Her sister later pulled her away and they cruised up Pacific Coast Highway to The Sunset Restaurant in Malibu, right on Zuma Beach, for a leisurely meal. (Which you should do, too, if you attend YALLWEST next year.)