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YA phenomenon Rainbow Rowell on how to write for a giant fandom

At BookCon, Rainbow Rowell talked headcanons, Wayward Son, and the joys of Baz Pitch.

Rowell poses with a poster for Wayward Son
Rainbow Rowell at BookCon.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

This fall, YA superstar Rainbow Rowell will publish Wayward Son, one of the most anticipated books of the season. It’s a sequel to her 2015 smash hit Carry On, itself inspired by 2013’s Fangirl: In Fangirl, the main character writes fanfiction for the Harry Potter-esque fantasy series Simon Snow, while in Carry On and Wayward Son, Rowell puts her own spin on the Simon Snow universe. It’s original fantasy inspired by fanfiction written within a best-selling contemporary YA novel, and if that sentence fills you with delight, you’re ready to become a Rainbow Rowell fan.

Rowell’s books are steeped in the lessons of fanfiction: embrace tropes, but also break them apart; have adventures, but also center interpersonal relationships and romances; do not underestimate how fun it can be to get two characters to kiss. They’re emotion-filled, smart, funny, and incredibly fun to read.

(I’ll also note that some readers have heavily critiqued Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, which features an Asian American character and which some have argued is racist. You can read a good overview of that discussion over at Bookstacked.)

This weekend at New York’s BookCon, Rowell sat down for a panel discussion with booktuber Kat O’Keeffe. Together, they talked Wayward Son, the perils of sequel-writing, and how to deal with a giant fandom. Here are the highlights of their conversation, lightly edited for length and flow.

On reentering the world of Simon Snow

Kat O’Keeffe

When Carry On first came out, you talked a little about how you “might” revisit this world. At what point did that “might” become “I’m drafting this now”?

Rainbow Rowell

I took about a year off from novel-writing after Carry On because I was really sick. I had a novel every year for a while, and I needed a break. I was working on Runaways — which is still going — and in that time, I was deliberately not working on novels.

What happens when you’re not working on something is your brain works on something. My creative process is the front of my brain is doing this and the back of my brain is doing a lot of other things. And the back of my brain just never leaves Baz Pitch.

Kat O’Keeffe


Rainbow Rowell

He just is there all the time. And I realized how much story was left for them.

Most of the time when I end a book, I feel like I’ve tucked everybody into bed, and that stage of the story is over. [Fangirl’s] Cath and Levi, [Eleanor & Park’s] Eleanor and Park, [Attachments’] Lincoln and Beth: All of those characters are at the end of their story arc. It just felt like I was in the middle for Simon.

Simon still doesn’t know who his parents are. He still has wings. He still doesn’t have magic. It was just so easy for my brain to work on it.

It was just like when I finished Fangirl. You’re all too old to remember this commercial where the tub of margarine talks to you, but it was like Fangirl was like [in a margarine voice] “Rainbow, it’s Baz, come on! You got a whole world figured out here, come write it.”

How to write an unplanned sequel

Kat O’Keeffe

This is the first sequel you’ve written. What was that sequel-writing process like? Did you have to reread the book and really get in there?

Rainbow Rowell

It was different. I had to reread the book. And also, when you’re writing a book, for me, you don’t really plan out — some people think I’ve got everything planned out, every character plotted, but for me, I write what I need. I’m just grabbing stuff and throwing it in there. And when you write a sequel, you have to reckon with that.

The thing I really had to reckon with were the dates and how old everyone was. Because I’d made references like, “Oh, in fifth year this happened, and in third year when I was 10, and blah blah blah.” I actually had to hire someone to go through the books, someone who’s very mathematically minded, and plot out possible birthdays for each character, so now I have birthdays for them.

That was kind of a mess, frankly. Because it wasn’t built into the foundation.

Kat O’Keeffe

Oh, like, characters couldn’t have birthdays during this part of the story, because why wouldn’t they celebrate them?

Rainbow Rowell

That was another thing people say: “Baz couldn’t have been born this day because there would have been a birthday party.” I’m like, “Really?”

Kat O’Keeffe

Okay, tell me that Baz’s birthday was not when he was kidnapped. I just need to know that he wasn’t imprisoned on his birthday.

Rainbow Rowell

But I wouldn’t even know! It’s not like there’s ever been a birthday party in any of my books. They’re like, “Baz definitely would have taken Simon out during his birthday.” I’m like, “At what point during the trauma and grieving process was that going to happen?”

The weirdest thing was that people are not normally invested in what I write when I’m writing it. I can tweet all day long about my next book and nobody cares, but if I tweet about Baz and Simon it’s different because people care about them already. Which I’m very grateful for. But the responsibility of it is heavy.

And the ownership feels different. Because once you write a book, it doesn’t belong to you, frankly. It belongs to anyone who picks it up, and they can do whatever they like with it.

So what does that mean for a series? It still kind of belongs to me, because I’m still in it. But people tell me all the time, “Don’t do this to my baby,” and I’m like, “Oh, I thought he was mine! Okay, shared custody.”

Kat O’Keeffe

Was that on your mind a lot while you were drafting, or did you have to not think about it?

Rainbow Rowell

You cannot think about it. Because if you think about all your potential readers — in anything you write, I think — you’ll try to write to every single person. And as soon as you start trying to make them happy, you’re in terrible writing land.

I know that from my years as a columnist. I was a newspaper columnist, and I had to make six different editors happy every time. But you can’t tell a joke that six different people find funny. You can’t create a character that six different people love equally.

For me, it ruins me, so I have to not think about it at all.

On writing fantasy after a career of writing realism

Rainbow Rowell

I’ve always been a fantasy/sci-fi reader. But I was a journalist, and I didn’t trust my ability to make things up. If you read my first two novels, they are set in Omaha, Nebraska, in very real places in real neighborhoods. The characters aren’t necessarily people I knew, but the environment and the situations — the newspaper they work at, the school they go to — I was very much about making things real.

But in Fangirl, I experimented writing a little fantasy. That’s what I like to read normally, and it felt so fun, but I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I thought, “Well, if it’s bad, I’ll just say, ‘That’s not me writing that, that’s Cath. Cath’s terrible! Gemma T. Leslie is worse!’”

There are some people who read Fangirl and they skip the Simon and Baz parts. My sister has never read them. And then there are some people who really got into it right away, which gave me permission to start writing fantasy.

How to write with a passionate fandom

Kat O’Keeffe

The Carry On fandom is very large and passionate. What is it like seeing so many people invested in your characters?

Rainbow Rowell

I can never tell if I’m just talking to the same 20 people. I can never have a sense of how many people care. Maybe it doesn’t matter! Sometimes I feel like I’m in a club with the 20 people who love Baz the most, and on Sundays I’m the president, but not always. It’s cool, because that’s how I am. I’m not someone who’s calm about the things I love.

Kat O’Keeffe

I imagine that it’s also hard, because everyone has fan art and fanfic and headcanons, and you don’t want to have to see too much.

Rainbow Rowell

Maybe because I’m a fandom person, I’m okay with it. I don’t get too freaked out by it. It doesn’t bother me when people are like, “My headcanon is this,” because I get it. My brain is flexible. I have many Sherlock realities that I embrace, and I don’t need it to be locked down.

But it is a little hard because I can’t be a fan with someone, because I’m protecting my headcanon. It messes me up sometimes when people drop big things on me, like, “Oh, I’m imagining this and this and this, and Baz chews gum, and he loves to listen to disco,” and I’m just like [mimes covering ears], “La la la la la la la!”

In some ways, I get to play and be with other people who love these characters. But then I have to keep a little bit of distance, which is a little bit uncomfortable. But it’s just a small thing. It’s not bad; it’s just not a situation I was born knowing how to navigate.

Kat O’Keeffe

Is there any possibility that you would revisit the Carry On universe a third time? Is there more story?

Rainbow Rowell

I would be foolish to say no, never, because I’ve already done that. I think I’m going to leave that door open. I’ve never liked closing the door on Baz. For me, he’s the most natural character to write, which is funny because he and I have not a lot in common. I do not come from a powerful vampire family. I find his voice to be a voice I can slip into almost instantly, and he takes over every scene he’s in.

I can’t say I would never write him again, because the idea of, like, middle-aged Baz is fascinating to me. I could write his hair through every stage of life.

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