Carry On, Rainbow Rowell’s new novel (out today!), is the much anticipated tale of Simon Snow and Tyrannus Basilton (“Baz”) Pitch, magicians and roommates whose adventures at Watford School of Magicks so inspired Cather, the college student and writer at the center of Rowell’s 2013 novel Fangirl. But Carry On is not a book-length version of Cather’s fanfiction, nor does it much resemble the excerpts from the “real” Simon Snow novels by “Gemma T. Leslie” found in Fangirl. This book — Rainbow Rowell’s fifth, and her first work of fantasy — is the story of “the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen” as well as an epic romance between longtime foes who find they are far more than friends. Last week, Rainbow and I discussed why she decided to return to these characters, what it was like to write her first fantasy novel, how she gets work done with all the other demands on her time, and why she loves Twitter so dang much.
Nicole Chung: In your Author’s Note at the end of Carry On, you wrote that after creating Simon and Baz and telling some of their story in Fangirl, you just weren’t ready to let go of them. Why did these two characters mean so much to you, and were you at all surprised to find yourself continuing their story?
Rainbow Rowell: I think I felt like I’d created these characters and this whole world, but I’d never gotten to play around in it. In Fangirl, I was always writing about Simon and Baz through other characters. They were a device, really. A book within a book. A painting on the wall inside a larger painting.
And I kept thinking about what I would do with them, how I would tell their story. I especially wanted to write Baz. He’s unlike any other character I’ve written, and he was already my favorite character to write. He’s melodramatic and self-loathing, and he makes me laugh.
At first I was just going to write a really short thing – like a 10,000-word short story showing Baz and Simon falling in love.
But once I got started, I realized that I wanted to take on the whole world of Simon Snow – and that I especially wanted to write about what it means to be a Chosen One. I’ve always inhaled Chosen One stories, and I just had a lot that I wanted to say.
That did surprise me, how quickly it turned into a whole book.
Carry On is your fifth book, but your first that’s pure fantasy. What are some of your favorite fantasy series, and how did they inspire you? Harry Potter is obviously one inspiration for the World of Mages, but were there others? (This is your invitation to go Full Nerd on us.)
I’m always going Full Nerd on you :)
Everything starts with Star Wars on me. Star Wars was my favorite anything-everything for twenty years. I read all the books. I went to the first official convention.
I got very into some Arthurian legend stuff for a while. Then The Lord of the Rings movies and Buffy. And of course, Harry Potter, forever.
I grew up in a strict evangelical Christian house, and I was always drawn to this idea of being chosen. That’s a common theme in the Bible – to be chosen for a specific mission. To be the one person God was counting on to build the ark or lead His people out of slavery. And I remember feeling like – you have to be ready for that. You never know when you’re going be to called into duty.
And wouldn’t it be wonderful be that chosen person? There’s so much clarity in being the Chosen One. You’d know what you were here to do. And you’d know that you were special. Singular.
So I think I had a huge appetite for all these Chosen One stories (and for every Disney princess movie). I wanted some strange old man to find me in the desert and offer me a lightsaber. Or look in my eyes and know that only I was pure enough to carry the one ring.
I guess you asked how this inspired Carry On … After living with these stories for so long, I found myself really interrogating them. And interrogating my own response. How would it really feel to have a strange old man take you away from everything you’ve ever known because he needed you to fight a war that started before you were even born?
Who are some of your favorite authors?
My favorite authors write fantasy, I’m realizing, as I make this list: Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, Margo Lanagan, Dave Duncan, Brian K. Vaughan, J.K. Rowling. I like people who really write. Who like to play with words. (I like authors who write magically about magic.)
The best book I’ve read this year was Among Others by Jo Walton.
What was it like for you, writing in the fantasy category/genre for the first time? Was it at all daunting?
At first it was such a blast. Because you can improvise! You can make anything true. And I was making all of these magical references, twisting things and turning them inside out. It was really so much fun.
I hit a wall about halfway through. The plot of this book is a different type of engine than anything I’ve written before. There are a couple of mysteries – and nine different narrators, I think. And everybody is holding a different piece of the puzzle. Also, I wanted the reader to stay a step ahead of Simon – but not too many steps ahead.
It was difficult. And I doubted my abilities. I’ve always trusted myself with dialogue, and with every book, I try to expand my repertoire. But this book really pushed me, technically. On top of the different points of view, it was all first-person and present tense. It was a lot of new challenges all at once.
I want to ask you about “worldbuilding” as a fantasy writer, but then vivid setting and background details are important in any story. Your other novels have more realistic settings – a college campus, a neighborhood, etc. Was it easier or harder for you creating Watford from scratch?
It was harder. Because I usually write about places that I know well – usually in Nebraska. But it was also so much more fun. There’s this infinite feeling that I sometimes experience when I’m reading fantasy — like wondrous things might wait around every corner. This was the first time I experienced that as a writer.
Was it challenging to figure out how to write this intense romance and still serve the overall gotta-save-the-magical-world fantasy plot? Because those two elements really seem equally important in this story, unlike in Harry Potter, where any romance is secondary.
I understand that some writers don’t enjoy writing romance, but it’s always seemed strange to me the way romance gets corralled into its own genre. Because romance and romantic love are so much a part of most of our lives. The desire for it, the search for it, finding it, losing it, holding on …
My favorite stories have romance and love in the mix, even if they aren’t always front and center. (This is why The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie.)
All that is to say, no, for me, it wasn’t challenging balancing the romance and the rest of the plot. Because every scene with Baz and Simon is a romantic scene. Even if it’s also a saving-the-world scene.
But you’re definitely right – this is my first book where other parts of the plot are as important as the love story.
Mallory and I were discussing Carry On, and she said she really appreciated how Baz is like, ‘yes, I’m gay, I’ve known a long time,’ and Simon is just like ‘HMM, EXCELLENT QUESTION? This is brand-new territory for me.’ Because when you’re writing about a boy and a girl who fall in love, you do not necessarily have to bring up the question of their sexual identity — but when you’re writing about two guys or two girls falling in love, you have to figure out if and how to address the identity issue. What does it sound like when two people are talking about not just whether or not they’re attracted to each other, but who they’re attracted to in general, and how do you acknowledge the fact that some gay people have known almost their whole lives, while other people are not so sure, or discover it over time, or are bisexual? How do you figure out what’s common to young people falling in love everywhere, and what might be unique to queer kids, and research and write that effectively?
That’s a really interesting point – that in hetero love stories, the characters don’t have to say, “So, yeah, I’m straight.” Because that’s where are our culture just puts people, automatically.
I don’t usually plot or plan characters; they take shape as I write. But as I was writing Baz and Simon and their love story, I was thinking about the people in my life, especially the people I’ve know for a long time, and how we all sort of figured ourselves out. Or didn’t. I’ve had friends who have known they were queer since grade school, and friends who didn’t figure it out until college, and friends who are just figuring it out now. And my own understanding of sexuality has changed so much since I was a teenager.
So it felt very natural, in Carry On, to have one character be very sure of his sexuality, and to have another character who’s never stopped to think about it – and who isn’t sure where to start.
Fundamentally, I came at Simon and Baz the way I do all my characters: I want them to feel real, I want them to feel like individuals, I want their voices to ring true. I want their love to feel real.
Do you usually come up with characters first? Or do you have an idea for a story and then populate it with wonderful characters?
I come up with the characters. And then the tension between them makes the story.
Like: “It’s about two twin sisters, and one of them wants some space, and the other one is scared of space, and they’re starting college, and their dad’s great, but he’s needy. And there’ll be a college roommate – surly – and a boy – sweet – and fanfiction!”
(Also: thank you for the “wonderful.”)
What was your favorite thing about writing Carry On? (Was it learning and deploying all the British slang?)
Ha! No. In fact, I really tried to rein it in, because my British friends and editors all said that was the biggest mistake outsiders make when they try to write British characters – going too far. I did go out of my way to watch and read only British stuff while I was working on Carry On, so I would internalize some of the rhythms.
My favorite thing was writing Baz. His voice and perspective are really different from my own, so writing him feels exciting and surprising and delightful. (The characters who sound like me never delight me.) I loved him, and I loved how much he loved Simon.
I know you created different playlists to inspire you as you worked on different books. Where is the Carry On playlist? I searched and couldn’t find it!
Yay! Thank you. Are you tempted to write any more Simon Snow books? (What if I begged you to, a lot?)
(Nicole, I am so easy. People asked me to write a Simon Snow book, and it’s my longest book ever.)
Yes. Totally. I loved these characters so much. And there are so many of them. And their stories aren’t really done … Simon still has a lot to figure out!
Also, there are a few adult characters whom I didn’t get to do much with, and I’m itching to sort out their stories. Baz’s aunt. Simon’s friend Ebb, the goatherd.
I also heard you’re working on a graphic novel with Faith Erin Hicks. Can you tell us what it’s about?
I can tell you that it’s a hidden world story. Young adult. It will be coming out later than we’d planned, and that’s all my fault. Carry On kind of swallowed my brain for two years. Meanwhile, Faith’s been winning awards and working on her new trilogy, The Nameless City, which kicks off in April.
I like to know how writers do their thing, so can you please describe your average workday for me – if there is such a thing for you.
It varies. When I’m in writing mode, I try to stay there for four to six days in a row, for four to six hours at a time. But editing and promoting books takes up so much of my time now, plus travel. Sometimes I feel like it was easier to find time to write back when I had another job. That can’t be true. It just feels that way.
I sleep late. Have tea. Answer email. Try to go to yoga. Then I move around my house, writing in different places until my kids get home. Usually I dive back in for a few hours after they go to sleep.
Please offer some advice for those who want to write books and other things that people will love. (I am not asking just for myself, although I would also VERY MUCH like to know.)
I was really scared to write my first book. I hate failing. (Everyone hates failing, I guess.) I just remember thinking that it would be better to never start a novel than to start a novel I couldn’t finish, or to finish a novel no one wanted.
So I danced around it and only sort of committed to it for almost ten years. While I worked at a newspaper, then an ad agency, and had two kids.
My advice is to try. And to try again if you fail.
And also – this is absolute truth I’m about to drop, and not a joke – if you want to write books, and you’re not rich, something else has to give. For me, it was cleaning. I had two kids and a more-than-full-time job when I wrote my first three books. I never, ever, ever would have finished if I didn’t let the house go. We didn’t live in our own filth – we still did dishes and laundry — and my husband (who also worked) took on most of it.
I just decided that I would look back and regret not being present in my kids’ lives. And I would regret never trying to write a novel. But I wouldn’t regret living out of laundry baskets.
What is your next novel going to be about?
I don’t know! Isn’t that terrifying?
I’ve been cranking out books so intensely for the last five years, and this is the first time I haven’t been at least one book ahead of myself. I’m really looking forward to the graphic novel, because it’s a completely different format – and it’s a collaboration.
Your Twitter (which is how we originally connected) is a delight. I think some writers do social media enthusiastically, others a bit grudgingly – with you it seems to come naturally. Do you enjoy interacting with readers on Twitter? Do you ever find it useful to your work?
Oh, thank you! I do it because I enjoy it. I work alone, and Twitter is where I go when I need fresh air. I love talking to readers there. And I love finding my people. Without getting sticky and emotional – Twitter has changed my life. I feel like I’ve been able to connect with people who make my world bigger and better. Who make me smarter and kinder. Who make me laugh.
Sometimes I think about how Twitter will inevitably change – or I will change and turn away from it – and that makes me so sad.
What is one fun fact you have never before revealed about yourself in any interview that you are willing to share with the good readers of The Toast?
Are facts ever really fun?
I’m trying to think of something I’ve never talked (or tweeted) about. All the facts I’ve got left are boring or embarrassing … Toast readers, I was obsessed with the TV show Beauty and the Beast. I have seen Clay Aiken three times live in concert. I don’t know how to cook eggs.
Nicole Chung is the Managing Editor of The Toast.