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Five questions for Rainbow Rowell

Photo: Augusten Burroughs

Everyone is swooning over Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction Award winner Eleanor & Park (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013), which Horn Book reviewer Cindy Ritter called “an honest, heart-wrenching portrayal of imperfect but unforgettable love.” With the acclaimed adult novel Attachments already on her CV and the much-anticipated YA book Fangirl just released, author Rainbow Rowell is pretty swoon-worthy herself. We asked Rainbow about her adorable protagonists, music that inspires her, and — of course — that bittersweet ending.

Ms. Rowell will be accepting her Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction Award at the ceremony on Friday, October 4th, and speaking at the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium on Saturday, October 5th. Register for Horn Book at Simmons now to see her at both events!

1. Which voice was harder for you to write: Park’s or Eleanor’s?

Rainbow Rowell: Hmm… I don’t think I felt a difference. Once I’d established them, it seemed very natural to switch between the two voices. And I didn’t consciously think about when to switch. Once I got rolling, I felt almost like a spotlight or a camera swinging between the two of them.

I will say that it was much more difficult to write scenes at Eleanor’s house than at Park’s. Her home life was so bleak that it was hard for me, emotionally, to be there. I always wanted to get back to Park’s house where everybody loved each other and there were three kinds of popsicles in the freezer.

2. You share extensive mix tapes for the novel on your blog. If you had to pick one quintessential song to epitomize Eleanor and Park, what would each of those songs be?

RR: Oh! That’s such a great and terrible question!

For Eleanor, I’m going to say “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” by The Mountain Goats. Because it’s about surviving and evolving and rising above. And also (I’m cheating now) “There is a Light That Never Goes Out” by the Smiths, which would play over the trailer if this book were a movie. Every lyric and the whole vibe of that song reminds me of Eleanor – devoted, but despairing. Almost fatalistic.

For Park . . . man, it should be a Cure song. But I’m going to choose “Wichita Lineman” by Glen Campbell. The thing I love most about Park is how steadfast he is. Park believes in love. And he’s brave enough to be earnest about it. To make a stand for it. “And I need you more than I want you, and I want you for all time.”

3. Park’s parents are so real — we know them and their backstory so well. But Eleanor’s mom is kind of an unknown quantity. Do you have a backstory for her? Was it intentional to leave her sort of sketchy?

RR: Oh, that’s an interesting observation. I always felt like Park’s mom, Mindy, was very closed down about her history. But maybe we know even less about Eleanor’s mom, Sabrina.

That’s probably because Eleanor has so many walls up around her family. She doesn’t want to talk to Park about them. She doesn’t want to think about them. She’s not a completely trustworthy narrator because some parts of her life are too painful for her to look at.

But, yes, I do have a backstory for Eleanor’s mom. I know that Sabrina’s parents died when she was relatively young, and that she’s geographically separated from her siblings. She had close female friends before Richie but they’ve drifted apart now. Sabrina feels isolated – like Richie is her only lifeline.

Eleanor & Park4. The story’s details ground it firmly in the mid-1980s. Why the ’80s? Could it have been set now, or another time in the past?

RR: Well, it’s set in the ’80s because I was set in the ’80s; I’m just a little bit younger than the characters.

I think a lot of artists and writers feel driven to revisit the time of their own coming of age. (Stephen King and Stand by Me, George Lucas and American Graffiti, Paul Feig and Freaks and Geeks.) It’s such a potent time in your life, and you can remember it with such clarity. I remember what 1986 smells like.

As soon as I started thinking about Eleanor and Park, they were teenagers in the ’80s. That’s how they were born in my head. (Though I did move the book from 1984 to 1986 because I wanted Watchmen to be part of the story.)

That said, I do think their story could take place in another era. So much of what they experience – wanting to fit in, wanting to stand out, wanting your parents’ love and approval, wanting love – is universal.

5. How do you envision Eleanor and Park’s future after the novel’s end?

RR: In detail.

There were so many scenes in the book that were upsetting to write. The characters were both hurting so much – and I knew there was no easy way to fix things for them. I knew I couldn’t give them a happy ending. (Seventeen-year-olds don’t get endings; they get beginnings.)

So I started writing the rest of their story in my head. To reassure myself. They’re going to be okay. They’re both going to be okay. By the time I got to the end of the book, I knew everything that would happen next – how their paths would cross again and what it would mean for them.

People often ask my about the last words of the book, and whether I mean for it to be a happy ending. I do mean for it to be hopeful. I think Eleanor and Park are reunited in a way, at the end.

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