The author behind Eleanor & Park, my personal favorite Attachments, and other YA and modern adult love stories that will make your cheeks hurt from smiling so hard and your eyes red from all the tears, Rainbow Rowell, is back with Carry On, and it’ll have fans of the author hyperventilating. Rainbow’s first full-blown fantasy book is an inception-y spinoff of her YA novel Fangirl – sort of the canon to the fake series that inspires the main character’s fanfiction – about “Chosen One” magician Simon Snow and his nemesis-probably-a-vampire-roommate Baz. This description sums it perfectly:
“Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story – but far, far more monsters.”
I spoke with Rainbow about her new book, which Hogwarts house she’s been sorted into, her favorite character she’s ever written, and more. Read the interview now, and fair warning: some Carry On spoilers ahead!
POPSUGAR: There was a recent New York Times piece about how ebook sales have dipped and that print books aren’t as doomed as we thought they were. Why do you think people still hold on to print? Do you prefer real books to ebooks?
Rainbow Rowell: I do prefer real books to ebooks, although I have nothing against ebooks. I think there’s room for both. To own a book now means it’s something you’re choosing to have in your house. People want to own their favorite books. People don’t keep books around for the sake of having books. I think if you have a book in your house, it’s probably a book that you love. As far as the reading experience, I personally feel more invested in a book if it’s a paper book. There’s a focus issue for me, even if I’m reading on a Kindle. I have a hard time staying focused on a book in the same way. I also like the physical sense of knowing how deep into the book I am. But there are plenty of times, especially when I travel, when I’ll download a new book, or if I finish one book and I want to read the sequel right away and I don’t want to wait for it, I’ll download a new book.
PS: Are you the type of person who writes in your books?
RR: No, I kind of wish that I was, because I feel like then maybe I would remember the parts of the book that I love. I never would have; I always felt like that was such a sacred thing. Now I’m a little more practical about it. If it’s your book and you love it, do whatever you want with it.
PS: Speaking of real books, your book covers are always so beautiful and bright, I’m tempted to buy every edition when I see them in a book store even though I own a copy already.
RR: I’ve been really lucky with the covers, and also I’ve been really involved. I care a lot about what books look like. I feel like if you love a book and you want it in your house, it should be a beautiful thing. If we’re going to bother printing them and making them real, it should be beautiful. I’ve been really fortunate with St. Martin’s Press to work with designer Olga Grlic, who has a great eye.
PS: Shifting gears to Carry On now, or rather, Harry Potter, since there are definitely some similar themes and I’m a Harry Potter fanatic. Which Hogwarts house would you be sorted into?
RR: I am a Gryffindor. I was sorted on Pottermore. At the time I thought I was a Ravenclaw, and I took the Pottermore quiz and I was sorted into Gryffindor. I was really dismayed because I was sort of irritated by Gryffindors. Then my friend had an intervention because I kept complaining about it. She was like, “No, you’ve got to face this, and these are the reasons why.” And I was like, “Yeah, you’re right, I just need to accept that I’m Gryffindor and get over it.” What house are you?
PS: I’m a Ravenclaw. I’m not as brave as a Gryffindor. I accept that.
RR: I’m too foolhardy, that’s why I’m in Gryffindor. I can’t walk away from a fight.
PS: As a Harry Potter fan, I couldn’t help envisioning those characters while I was reading Carry On at least, to start . . .
RR: Did you say especially at the start?
RR: OK, good.
PS: Is it hard to get other fantasy characters out of your head as you’re writing?
RR: No, it’s really not. These characters felt very distinct to me pretty much right out of the gate. The references to Harry Potter and other stories are really intentional in this book, especially at the beginning. So when you said especially at the start, I was like, oh good. I want you to feel like, oh this is familiar. How many times have you met an orphan who is supposed to save the world. That’s a very common theme. I want you to feel like, “Oh he’s the most powerful person ever, and he’s an orphan, and he’s gotta save the world.” I want you in that first chapter to feel like, “Oh, I totally know where this is going,” so that when it doesn’t go that way there’s a feeling of, “What?! What’s happening? Why is this not working?” So it was fun for me to engage with all these other stories that I love. As for the characters themselves and the magic itself it was really easy for me to keep that distinct. It’s a different kind of magic, it’s a different kind of magical world. It’s more of a modern world. There’s nothing really Victorian about Simon’s world. And Simon, himself, and Penny all felt very distinct to me.
PS: What gave you the hilarious and awesome idea for the spells in Carry On to all be common phrases and references to pop culture?
RR: That happened when I was writing Fangirl and I don’t even remember how it happened. It’s not a completely new idea because in American Gods, which is a Neil Gaiman book, I remember that the gods who had more people believing in them were more powerful. And then in this comic book called Fables, the fictional characters who more people believed in were more powerful. So like Cinderella and Snow White would have more power than a fairy tale character who no one’s ever heard of. Even in Peter Pan, when he brings back Tinkerbell by just saying, “I believe in fairies.” So that idea exists that belief gives people power; that if you believe in something magical you’re giving it power.
This is slightly different, and I don’t know where it came from other than I like clichés. I like them. There’s a reason we keep going back to a cliché. When people say avoid clichés, I think that’s really dumb because clichés function as words. We use it because I know that if I say a cliché you’re going to know exactly what I mean. So if I’m trying to communicate clearly, why wouldn’t I use a cliché? Why wouldn’t I use something that’s going to communicate to you what I’m trying to say? Those things become clichés because they’re so spot-on. And obviously I’m kind of a writing and a language nerd. It happened really quickly in Fangirl and I ran with it. It became a lot of fun. It was really fun to think what would make you a powerful magician if magic was language and speaking.
PS: What are your favorite qualities in Baz and Simon? What do you love most about them?
RR: Baz is my favorite character I’ve ever written. He’s just so much fun to write. He’s so self-loathing. [laughing] He’s just so defeated about himself, and there’s something really funny about that. And yet he still has things that he’ll fight for, and he’s incredibly loyal. He’s so loyal to his parents. There’s a moment where his dad refers to his step-mom as his mother, and you would think that’s the moment where the character would go, “You’re not my mother!” But Baz is like, I don’t mind, it’s OK. I feel like he’s very loyal and kind of generous, and you don’t expect that from someone who’s so melodramatic. He’s constantly like, “One of us has to die.” I find him very funny and very romantic. The thing I love about Simon is that Simon tries hard to do the right thing. He just tries so hard, and I admire that in people. Simon is supposed to save the world, and he has not managed that yet, and he is just going to keep trying. He’s just so doggedly stubborn. There’s nothing that’s going to keep him from trying to do the right thing. Even if someone were to say, “Simon, you’re the thing that’s getting in the way,” he would stop at nothing to try to do the right thing.
PS: There were parts of the book, especially The Humdrum, that reminded me a little of A Wrinkle in Time. Was that intentional?
RR: You’re the second person to tell me that this week, and I’ve never read A Wrinkle in Time. I started listening to it on audio book a couple of years ago, and I didn’t like the narrator’s voice. It was very gloomy and cold. I just couldn’t get into the story. I should have read it when I was younger. It did nothing for me as an adult, and I stopped after a couple chapters.
PS: What were some of your favorite books as a teenager?
RR: I was really into John Irving, who wrote The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire. I was also into Tom Robbins, who wrote Skinny Legs and All and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. So that was definitely what I was reading when I was in high school. I really loved the book Watership Down. I started reading a lot of science fiction in high school and college.
PS: I know it’s YA, but I couldn’t help but notice that the sexual content is very tame – did you have to hold back? Are there racy deleted scenes hiding on your computer?
RR: [laughing] No, I never hold back, and my YA books are probably more explicit than my adult books. I just don’t go there as a writer, and it’s not that I think it’s wrong. OK, here’s why I don’t go there. My characters are never really at the point where they’re ready to have sex. Most of my books stop before anybody’s ever having sex. I don’t want Simon and Baz to have sex yet. I want them to take their time to get there. I don’t need them to rush. I don’t think anybody should rush. I feel like sex is better – and this is my opinion – I think sex is better if you really get to know the person. In Fangirl they talk about having sex and don’t for various reasons. There is actually a sex scene in Carry On, but I won’t talk about who it is because it’s spoiler-y.
PS: Why do you think making Simon’s sexual orientation ambiguous was important for the character and the book?
RR: I personally think that we all figure out our sexuality at different speeds. That there’s not a schedule for figuring out who you’re sexually attracted to or whether you’re sexually attracted to people. So, for me it’s perfectly OK for Baz to have known for a long time that he’s attracted to men and for Simon to have kind of thought that he was straight and now kind of know that he’s attracted to Baz. I don’t think Simon has to figure it out. I think that if you ask Simon if he was gay or straight, I think he would probably have a hard time answering that and would shy away from answering that. And I think that’s OK. I don’t think that we all have to have that figured out by the time we’re 15 or even 50. We can figure ourselves out in the moment and change and be elastic. Simon wouldn’t say he was gay, he wouldn’t say he was straight. He might say he’s bisexual if he actually put that much thought into it. I think Baz might be the first person Simon has ever been attracted to.
PS: Who would you cast as Baz, Simon, Penny, and Agatha in the Carry On movie?
RR: I’m terrible about that. I have no idea. When I was imagining them I was imagining Baz like Andrew [Ridgeley] from Wham!, which is a pop band from the ’80s, with a little bit of Nicholas Hoult and a little bit of Ezra Miller. In my head nobody could play them. There are two – I’d really like Chris Pratt to play Lincoln in my first book Attachments, and I would really like Mark Ruffalo to play the dad in Fangirl.
PS: What are you favorite things about writing adult fiction vs. writing YA fiction?
RR: There’s really nothing different about any of my books other than the age of the characters. The tone is individual to each book, but I don’t think, “Oh yeah, that is written like a YA book and that is written like an adult book.” I’m not shifting, I’m just doing the best that I can to write a story that feels real and authentic and entertaining every time. I’m certainly not dialing it down or shifting it down when I’m writing about teenagers. I like writing about teenagers because there’s so much possible. It’s so dramatic and there’s so much big stuff happening when you’re 17/18.
I don’t necessarily think I’m always going to write about teenagers. I see this as a really nice part of my life because teen readers are just really great, passionate, engaged, generous readers, and they give back. An adult reads something and they’re more likely to be like, that was good, and move on. Teen readers will call you out on Twitter and tell you and they’ll come up to you at events and tell you about their feelings. I don’t necessarily see it as my calling, but I feel like it’s this really beautiful part of my life right now that I get to interact with so many young people.
PS: Do you have a favorite fanfiction?
RR: I have a few. My favorite fanfiction is a Harry/Draco fanfiction and it’s called The Pure and Simple Truth.
PS: This is your first fantasy book. Is there another genre you’d like to try writing next?
RR: I have this idea for sort of a space . . . Not pure science fiction, more like Star Wars science fiction, sort of like a space fantasy.
PS: Can you tell me anything about Kindred Spirits?
RR: Yeah, I can you tell you that that’s a working title. [laughing] It’s a short story I’m writing for World Book Day, and as of now it takes place on two separate islands. I haven’t done very much on it. I could scrap the whole idea. It’s a reference to Anne of Green Gables.
PS: What are you reading right now?
RR: I’m reading The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman. The first book in that trilogy is one of my all-time favorite books, but I didn’t let myself read any fantasy while I was working on Carry On, so I didn’t get to read the next two installments of the trilogy. I’m actually listening to it now and I love it so much. The Magician King is what I’m listening to. He’s an amazing writer.
PS: Do you have a Halloween costume planned?
RR: My son was just talking to me about this, because he’s going as a character from Magic: The Gathering and he wants me to go as a character from Magic: The Gathering. Like that is SO not going to happen.