An in-depth interview with author Rainbow Rowell about her novel Eleanor & Park, aka underrepresented young adult protagonists. WARNING: I fangirl a lot throughout!
Roaming around my local bookstore, I see there are three new titles on the “Paranormal Romance” shelf (yes, I actually notice these things). There are also a few more books about girls my age leading revolutions in a post-apocalyptic society where the odds are completely against them, but somehow they manage to overcome an entire nation. My eyes graze pass these titles without much notice. Don’t get me wrong, some of my favorite books fall under the category of paranormal romance and are dystopian-driven, but after reading a of them back-to-back, I’m ready for something new. Then I spot it.
Perhaps it was the beautiful cover designed/art-directed by Olga Grlic at St. Martin’s Press and illustrated by Harriet Russel.
Or maybe it was the wonderful synopsis on the back of the book, perhaps it was the author’s awesome name (Rainbow Rowell); but all I knew was that a copy was coming home with me.
The year is 1986. Eleanor is the chunky new girl with voluminous red hair and odd thrift store clothing. She stands out in every way. Completely opposite from Park’s reserved, fly-under-the-radar demeanor. The narrative begins with Eleanor sitting next to Park on the bus. The real estate of school bus seats is in direct correlation with how cool you are, as it is in many schools across the nation since, well, forever. Neither is particularly enthused to be in such close proximity to the other. The beautiful thing about their relationship, however, is that it is so honest. Not everyone experiences love at first sight, least of all, judgmental teenagers. This story is simply real; the shyness between the two characters is lovely and refreshing. The way only this first love could evolve is through mix tapes, comic books, and long minutes spent waiting for the [landline] phone to ring.
When I first broke into Eleanor & Park, I had 11 books on my list to read that month. Having just bought Rowell’s book, it was on the bottom of the list. However, I simply could not ignore the phenomenal book review by John Green for The New York Times, so I started reading it that evening. Lemme just say, I did not stop until I had reached the end. I immediately messaged The Pulp Girls, saying something along the lines of, “WE MUST TELL OUR READERS ABOUT THIS BOOK”. This interview is the result of my new obsession with all things Rainbow Rowell and her graciousness to do this interview with me, being the spazzy fan that I am:
The Pulp Zine: So, I would just like to start off by saying, “THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS AMAZING NOVEL.” Not super professional, but this is a teen zine, and I just want to throw all my emotions at you at once. I love everything about Eleanor and Park. Their imperfections are the best and I found myself relating to Eleanor throughout the whole book! Is Eleanor a feminist? Can you tell us about what or who inspired her?
Rainbow Rowell: Thank you! I’m so happy that you enjoyed the book – feel free to throw those emotions at me! Is Eleanor a feminist? That’s an interesting question. I think, yes. I mean, Eleanor has a rough life; she’s more focused on getting through the day than taking a stand. But she hates the way her mother has let a man take over her life. She hates her mother’s submissiveness. She hates her father’s sexism. And she even calls Park out for the comic books he reads. Eleanor loves the X-Men, for example, but she’s quick to point out how sexist some of the comics are. Also, Eleanor never hides her true personality from Park; she isn’t afraid of being too smart or too strong – so that’s a feminist way to be.
TPZ: There just aren’t a lot of lead female characters nowadays, let alone in young adult fiction, that are as strong and vulnerable as Eleanor is. Would you agree? The fact that she wears attention-grabbing, “odd” clothing, but is secretly uncomfortable with people staring was one of my favorite things about her. I think many of our readers can relate, myself included. Was the way Eleanor dressed an indication of her personality in any way? Why did she wear the loud and super stellar clothing that she did?
RR: You know, I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the whole series, while I wrote this book. And I think Buffy is a great example of a character who is strong (physically, but more importantly – emotionally) and feminine. I also thought a lot about Dicey Tillerman, a Cynthia Voigt character, when I was writing Eleanor.
TPZ: Reading about Eleanor’s clothing, I thought about how I felt when I was a teenager (and even now, sometimes) – the way I wanted to be really adventurous in my choices, and wore really crazy stuff… but I still cried when people made fun of me. It was this tension inside of me: wanting to stand out, but not wanting to be looked at.
RR: A lot of Eleanor’s clothing choices aren’t choices. Her family is really poor. She wears thrift shop clothes because she has to – but she makes them her own. She takes this shameful part of her life and wraps it in Christmas lights; it’s a way of taking control.
TPZ: Eleanor is a thicker girl. This physical trait is one that is not used to describe many protagonists and I love it ever so much! Many times, the chubbier girls are cast as the best friends in the movies and novels. Was Eleanor’s weight a conscious decision when you were thinking her up?
RR: It was, and it wasn’t intentional. I get tired of reading books and watching TV shows and movies that don’t at all reflect the world around us. Why does the main character always have to be conventionally beautiful and thin? When so few people around us look like that. You don’t have to look like a movie star to fall in love. Or to be attractive to someone. Do writers/directors/producers/publishers think that we can’t sympathize with a character unless they look like a certain kind of model? Our world is full of chubby people. And fat people. And not-thin people. And they have full lives and adventures — and when they fall in love, it isn’t some sort of second-class, less-compelling love. (This is also true of short people, people with bad skin and people with receding hairlines.) So, I didn’t plan to write characters who are were fatter or shorter than most fictional characters. But I’m not interested in writing about people who are all the same kind of attractive. That just seems so boring and cynical to me.(Also, for the record: In my head, both Eleanor and Park are breathtaking.)
TPZ: YES! Right on! Then we have Park. At first, I was not a fan because of his initial reaction to seeing Eleanor, but then I got it. Park was a normal teenage guy. There is no such thing as “Prince Charming,” because real humans think really mean things sometimes, even the nicest ones. Park was a different kind of relatable character. First of all, he is a mixxie like myself. His dad is white and his mom is Korean. Can I give you a virtual hug for this? Bi-racial people are so underrepresented in media and in stories; it;s crazy. Not to mention Asian characters, who are even more underrepresented. Do you hope other authors follow in your footsteps when creating books, movies and television shows? What does that mean for people who read and watch this material?
RR: Oh! That’s so wonderful – I’m really glad that Park’s character resonated with you.This is something else that I didn’t do intentionally. I didn’t sit down and think, “I need to write a bi-racial or an Asian character to address a need in young adult literature.” But I want to write books that are as diverse as the world I live in, and I like to write love stories about people who don’t always get to star in love stories. So maybe my brain was already working in that direction . When I did a high school tour earlier this year, a number of students asked why I decided to make Park Asian. I ended up really thinking through my own motivations and inspirations, and I wrote about them on my blog. The answer ended up way more complex than I ever expected. As for the last part of your question — what does that mean for readers? — a friend of mine who is a youth librarian told me recently that books can be valuable you young people both as windows and as mirrors. I’ve really latched on to that metaphor. I’d love it if chubby/poor/Asian/biracial people read this book and feel like they’re allowed to be protagonists — that their lives are worth telling stories about. But I’d also love it if skinny/rich/tall/white/black kids get caught up in the book, and end up rooting for characters who aren’t anything like themselves.
TPZ: The simplicity of this relationship is astounding really. They struggle ever so much just to hang out, why is society so stressful and hard on teenagers?
RR: Falling in love as a teenager is so hard. You have the most intense feelings – you have this fathomless capacity to fall in love. But you don’t have much to offer the other person. You don’t have your own space. Your time isn’t your own. You can’t make promises. In so many ways, your life isn’t your own yet. So you have all these FEELINGS, but you have very little freedom. And if you’re smart and self-aware, you know that first love almost never lasts. There’s this built-in tragedy; when I wrote the book, I was thinking about how, in a way, every 16-year-old in love is either Romeo or Juliet.
TPZ: Now that I am done fangirling about E&P, can you tell us about your book that is coming out in September. Appropriately called Fangirl?
RR: Sure! It’s about a girl, Cath, who’s starting her freshman year of college. Her identical twin – who’s always been the more social, extroverted one – doesn’t want to be roommates, and Cath feels betrayed and alone. All she wants to do is hole up in her room and write fanfiction … which she’s really, really good at it. (She’s actually kind of famous.) So the book is about Cath trying to find a place in the world where she feels comfortable. Trying to sort it all out. Family. Friendship. First love. Fandom.
RAPID FIRE QUESTION TIME!
What are you reading right now?
“Soon I Will Be Invincible” by Austin Grossman
Who is your favorite Beatle
Are you more of a Luna, Harry, Ron, or Hermione?
Coffee or tea?!
What fandoms are you a part of?
Harry Potter, Sherlock
Thanks to Mrs. Rowell! If you read this book tweet @thepulpzine and tell us what you think! If we get enough people reading it, we can start a book club up!
Keep up with all things Rainbow! She’s very interactive with us readers!