Author Rainbow Rowell gives insight into writing process following release of latest novel

Rainbow Rowell's new book 'Wayward Son' (2019) is pictured. via rainbowrowell.com

Rainbow Rowell’s latest novel “Wayward Son” (2019), the sequel to “Carry On” (2015), released Sept. 24, follows characters Simon Snow and Tyrannus “Baz” Basilton Grimm-Pitch as they road trip across the U.S. to save their friend Agatha from a pack of power-hungry vampires. Both of these novels take place in a magical world created by Rowell herself for her previous novel “Fangirl” (2013). As an author, she is most famous for the latter as well as another novel titled “Eleanor & Park” (2012). All of her novels center on the themes of attraction, young love and adventure that doesn’t always turn out as planned.

This Wednesday, Rowell came to Brookline, Mass., to discuss her novel “Wayward Son.” She spoke about her writing process and the way most readers feel about her characters; Baz is often the most liked instead of Simon, the protagonist, which is not the usual case, but as Rowell said, she “likes to flip things around” when it comes to the likability of her characters. Baz receives most of the attention from fans because of his suave style as well as his commitment to his family and friends, including his deep love for Simon. His abilities as both a wizard and a vampire add another layer of intrigue, but his heart is what draws most fans to him. Simon, in contrast, is much less calm and confident, and he often seems less in control of his own life. After the loss of his mentor and his magic in “Carry On,” Simon deals with depression, an experience to which Rowell was able to connect.

At the talk Wednesday, Rowell revealed how she had been struggling with depression linked to an illness she had been fighting for a long time. The way she got through this illness? Writing “Wayward Son.” She explained how the novel had actually been written in secret. After “Carry On” was published, Rowell said that she “wasn’t sure if she could even write novels anymore.” But the characters came to her, so she wrote a continuation of their story until a new novel was born. She disclosed that “Carry On” was always meant to have a sequel, and based on the ending of “Wayward Son,” no spoilers, there will hopefully be a third in the series.

Rowell also hinted that she found a point of similarity between herself and her character Baz because of her illness. This made it freeing to write the scenes where Baz, a vampire, was uncomfortable in the sun because she had felt that way for many years due to this illness. The excerpt she read at the talk surrounded Baz’s hatred of the sun. It felt very real to her, and the entire audience was able to see that as well.

One of the more informative parts of the discussion was when Rowell spoke to the many facets of her writing process. It was certainly inspirational for many aspiring authors in the audience, as one member specifically noted in the Q&A portion of the event. Rowell uses something she likes to call “emotional bookmarks” in the form of music. As an author who writes 4–6 hours a day, 4–6 days at a time, it can often be difficult to wade in and out of the story and to separate it from her personal life. To do so, she uses songs as scene markers so that the moment she hears a song on her playlist, she is brought back to the emotional feeling of the scene. When she was writing a particularly difficult scene in “Eleanor & Park,” Rowell explained how she used a song by the band Wild Beasts to return to the character Eleanor’s place of sadness and fear, and to this day, the song still gives her chills.

Another way she keeps her mind in the story is through her fantasy world’s encyclopedia: a book logging all of the terms, characters and phenomena that appear in her novels. She said how it showed her weakness as a writer in listing all of the repetitive ways she described her characters, but one can imagine how vital that encyclopedia must have been in writing within a never-before-seen fantasy world. This encyclopedia probably contained information such as common spells, all of which find their source in pop culture. For example, “These are not the droids you’re looking for” can turn something invisible, and “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets it wings” can give someone the ability to fly. With such a unique magical universe, this encyclopedia must have been very helpful in keeping track of it all.

Rowell got her start in writing early on, as she said she “often got attention for it as a child,” being very skilled in both reading and writing. When she got to college, she explained, she couldn’t imagine getting paid for anything else, hence her post-graduate career in journalism. She was a columnist for the Omaha World-Herald for around 10 years before she became a novelist, which she admitted was something she didn’t think people actually did. But writing a column three times a week for 10 years certainly aided in honing her craft, although the talent and love of stories was there from the outset.

During the Q&A portion of the book talk, an audience member stood up and asked how Rowell powered through and kept writing during her illness and struggle with depression. To that Rowell replied that we all have hard turns in life, and although she did keep writing, one doesn’t always have to. “In my experience,” she explained, “hardship leads to exhaustion, not great art.” The best way, in her opinion, to produce great work is to work on getting oneself better first in whatever way is helpful. Simon learns this lesson toward the end of the novel, as he goes from not necessarily caring about his mental illness to likely taking steps toward recovery, although readers probably won’t see that until the potential follow-up of “Wayward Son.” It has yet to be announced if there will be a third addition to the series, but from the positive reception of the first two, it can only be assumed that a third, and final novel would be cherished among fans.


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