Sunday, March 20, 2011

Write Now! an Interview with Author, Journalist and Pop Culture Maven, Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell is a solid fixture in Omaha journalism. She is also a blogger, author, busy mother and wife. I was thrilled to read in one of her recent columns that her first novel, Attachments (Dutton, 2011), will be released in April...and is getting great reviews! Bestselling author Jodi Picoult blurbed, "Cracking-laugh-out-loud-dialogue, characters that feel painfully real, and a sweet premise about love in the information age..."

It was only natural I get to know my literary neighbor with possibly one of the coolest names ever. And I'm not disappointed I did. Rowell's grasp on the writing life is solid, especially with what she has to say about the perfect time to write a novel; it should be printed out and taped to your refrigerator, mirror or pinned to your corkboard to reflect on daily. Read on.

Here's my Q&A with Rainbow Rowell:

How has your training and background as a journalist helped your novel writing process?

"It probably helps me in more ways than I even recognize. Definitely, I was already used to deadlines, and once I got going on the novel, I was able to be very disciplined about writing. And working at a newspaper takes the mystery out of writing, in general; it doesn’t feel like tricky magic that only great wizards can do. Writing is just something that you DO. It’s an action.
Also, interviewing so many people over the years taught me to listen to how people talk. That helped with all the dialogue and with trying to create characters with distinct voices."

Did you face any challenges switching from nonfiction to fiction? If so, how did you overcome it?
"I didn’t have a problem with that until I started my second manuscript. (The book after Attachments.) It has some autobiographical elements, and I realized that my 100-percent fictional characters seemed more real than my based-on-actual-people characters. I think it’s because I felt free to do whatever I wanted with the made-up characters, but my journalist brain kicked in whenever I was writing about something real. I felt more allegiance to the truth than the story. (I ended up cutting most of the true stuff. The story has to be king.)"

You’re a mother of two, busy journalist, novelist and now book promoter – how do you manage your time?

"I don’t clean.


When I was writing Attachments, I read an interview with Diana Gabaldon (who writes the Outlander series). She was also a working mom when she started, and she said that she had to give herself permission not to do EVERYTHING. That was such freeing advice for me.

I still get overwhelmed – I especially feel like I don’t make my health a big enough priority, working out, taking the time to eat healthy – but I try to let myself off the hook for the cosmically smaller things. If I go three months without putting my clothes away (thank God my husband does laundry), but I hang out with my kids, write good columns and finish a book – hooray for me!"

About your path to publication story - how did you find your agent and how long did it take to find a home for Attachments?

I finished the book in July 2007 during my maternity leave and started querying agents one by one. I’d bought a book, a guide to the whole process. I queried my first-choice agent first (which I know now is stupid) because I had a good vibe about him. And then I waited (again, stupid).
He did get back to me and asked to see chapters, then he suggested that I cut my novel practically in half. Which I did -- gladly! I was so hungry for feedback. I sent it back to him, then waited and waited and waited …

When he didn’t get back to me, I slowly started querying other agents. I e-mailed him again more than a year later, almost on a whim, when I was ready to give up on the whole process. (Another agent had taken me on, then let me go because we couldn’t agree on a major aspect of the book.) Anyway, he’d never received my edited manuscript.

After that, things happened very quickly. He sold the book in July 2009, about six weeks after we officially started working together. I’m so glad that things happened the way I did, even though I was frustrated for two years … I love my agent. I feel like I ended up in just the right place."

Has any step of the book publishing process surprised you?

"I had no idea how long it would take -- almost two years between selling the manuscript and the book hitting shelves. I also didn’t realize that this was such a tumultuous time for publishing. That had never affected me as a reader. Now I feel like I’m tied to two industries that are in major flux – journalism and publishing."

In one of your recent columns, you’ve lamented the drought of good ROM COMs (romantic comedy). What are your top three faves?

"My favorite romantic comedies are the ones that make you believe that the characters are really falling in love. My top three are When Harry Met Sally, Fifty First Dates and Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist. I’m re-watching tons of romcoms now and blogging about them on I’ll have to see how those three hold up."

What’s the best advice you can offer writers wanting to break into writing: journalism or fiction?

"Hmmm. Well, neither of those are extremely lucrative career choices right now. I think that journalism is a great place to be if you love journalism; I wouldn’t suggest it as a pathway to getting a novel published. I guess my advice would be: Write. Writing is good practice for writing. And don’t put off your dream project to some distant future when your life is less complicated. Your life will only get more complicated. If you think you might want to write a book someday, decide to do it now."

Very well put, Rainbow! Writers, I want you to print out this interview, cut out Rainbow's bit of advice about writing and then tape or pin it where you will see it often. Reflect on it every day and start writing. It doesn't have to lead you anywhere, but just get in the habit. You'll see with more practice, it'll become easier and you'll find your flow. Nobody runs a marathon without warming up and spending years training on the road. Put one word after the other. Just do it! (thanks, Nike).

And before we wrap up, here's some of my best advice about deciding on an agent submission strategy: Always research the best agents for your type of book and send out carefully tailored queries to at least 10 agents at once, as they would prefer to receive queries. Give them a week or two to consider, then follow-up with a polite email asking if they've had an opportunity to review your query. Some may respond, others won't. See what happens. If still no bites, send off the next round of carefully crafted queries to another round of agents. Do this until you get some bites and for goodness sake, follow-up to confirm receipt of your manuscript. Then follow-up again in about a month to see if they've had an opportunity to review, if you haven't heard from them. Many of you may feel like you're being a nudge, but you're not. If you email a few times in a week? Yes, that's too much. Be respectful of their time but understand your follow-through is what can make your career. It worked for Rainbow, in the end!

So here's the question: How many of you have put your writing on hold? Why? What are you waiting for? Oh, and what is your favorite ROM COM? Mine is without a doubt French Kiss. Discuss.


About the Contributor:

Rainbow Rowell is a columnist for the Omaha World-Herald. When she's not writing, she's reading comic books, planning Disney World trips, and arguing with people about things that don't really matter in the big scheme of things. Attachments is her first novel.

For those in Omaha interested in meeting Rainbow and buying a copy of Attachments, mark your calendar with the following dates:

Book Launch Signing at The Bookworm, Thursday, April 14 · 6:00 p.m

Author Talk at the downtown Omaha Library, Saturday, April 23 · 1:30 p.m


  1. Attachments sounds great.. I almost wish I lived in Omaha after all these interviews. Almost.
    When Harry Met Sally is a no-brainer for me! I've watched it a million times and yet, the hilarity always makes me LOL. And the tension is

  2. Thanks, Laura! I can't wait to pick up my copy at the signing.

    I think I need to watch When Harry Met Sally's been ages. I also liked One Fine Day.

  3. Thank you for this interview! As weird as it sounds, hearing that from beginning to end this author worked for 4 years to get published- 2 of them looking for an agent- is totally heartening! Like Miss Rainbow, I was told by an agent I liked that I needed to cut my book in half. I agreed and started to work on it very slowly, but I crab a lot about it (usually only internally). Over the last few months I have begun to doubt whether the editing would be worth the effort, But now I feel totally inspired.

  4. It's worth the effort if you're clear about the direction you've received and you feel making the changes makes you a better writer and makes the story better. It's totally NOT worth the effort if you're just trying to please an agent - that's not writing. Good agents will work with you to make your novel better. Not so good agents will either tell you it's their way or the highway OR, try to make your work fit into a cookie-cutter market mold that doesn't fit your voice or raison d'etre as an author.

    And yes, as if writing a novel didn't take enough time, the actual selling, editing and publishing the novel can take a healthy 18 months to two years to finally be ready for consumption.

    Good luck with your revision, LA!

  5. Great interview and I look forward to reading 'Attachments'. I'm particularly impressed with how Rainbow has been able to make the leap from journalism to fiction. While I appreciate how a background in journalism might help with novel writing, I appreciate too how it might interfere, especially with literary fiction. The magic of memorable fiction for me is in the deep multi-layering of scenes and character and setting and story, something modern journalism seems to lack, isolating instead the one or two essential dry details while ignoring the 'costumes' that make it unique.

  6. Thanks, everybody!

    And thanks for inviting me to your blog, Erin. I agree with you -- you shouldn't change your book only to please an agent.

    When the first agent asked me to cut my book, I was hungry for editing, and his reasoning was rock solid. I was nodding along as I read his comments.

    When the second agent asked me to change the setting of my book from 1999 to a more timeless present, it felt really wrong to me. That agent gave me other great advice and feedback. But I just couldn't change the setting, and in the end, I was willing to walk back into the wilderness of no representation. (Which was terrifying, at the time.)

  7. Thanks Cathy, for your response. Would love to know what you suggest I read next. I need a good recommendation.

    Rainbow, thank you! I'm glad you had the courage to follow your gut and creative direction.

    Writers, yes, many agents have degrees in literature, English, creative writing, etc., and others don't. Most of them, the good ones, give the best editorial direction to writers who need it based on what they feel would make the novel solid, first and what's marketable, second. Ideally, at least. But agents make mistakes and overstep their "creative industry authority" from time to time and are just wrong. That's fine, we all make mistakes. If you can't come to agree on elements of your work that are important to you with your agent, it's better to not be represented at all and go back to developing the book you DO want to write. Like I said, good agents will work with you on this.

  8. Erin -

    Thank you for your commentary re: agents. Fascinating.

    And asking me for a book recommendation is rather like trying to dodge traffic in Rome - so many possibilities but not all of them will get you safely to the other side of the street! Without knowing your preferences, here are a few of my most recent, favorite reads:

    The Ministry of Special Cases (Nathan Englander); The Disappeared (Kim Echlin); The Piano Teacher (Janice Y. K. Lee); A Winter's Tale (Mark Helprin); The Mistress of Nothing (Kate PUllinger); Girl in a Blue Dress (Gaynor Arnold); Mr. Ive's Christmas (Oscar Hijuelos); Five Quarters of the Orange (Joanne Harris); Ten Thousand Lovers (Edeet Ravel).

    And recent rereads: Bel Canto (Ann Patchett); Seven Houses (Alev Lytle Croutier); The Radiant City (Lauren B. Davis); A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry); The Lizard Cage (Karen Connelly), The Passion of Mary Magdalen (Elizabeth Cunningham), Fugitive Pieces (Anne Michaels); Mariette in Ecstasy (Ron Hansen), Seduction of the Minotaur (Anais Nin); Lives of the Saints (Nino Ricci).

  9. Great suggestions, Cathy! Thanks!

    I'm off to a book signing tonight for Mermaids: A Twist on The Classic Tale by Carolyn Turgeon. Really looking forward to it.


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