Brenna Ehrlich spoke with Rainbow Rowell about creating her silliest work while emerging from depression, losing a ball as a child, valuing context while sharing her innermost thoughts and how her first name helped her overcome a fear of standing out.
I needed a place for my brain that was totally warm and happy. And I’ve always wanted to write a book that was like a prayer to autumn.
First of all, what’s happening with all your projects? I heard some of your books might be movies soon? Fill us in! What are you working on now in terms of books?
A lot is happening! I’ve got my dream job at Marvel. I relaunched my favorite comic series, Runaways, with artist Kris Anka. So I’m writing that every month, and the first paperback collection comes out in April. This project has kind of brought me back to life, creatively.
I’ve also got a graphic novel coming out next year, drawn by Eisner-winner Faith Erin Hicks. It’s called Pumpkinheads, and it’s about two best friends on their last night working at the best pumpkin patch in the world. I wrote this story when I was coming out of a depression, and I think that’s why it’s my most rollicking, silliest book so far. Like, I needed a place for my brain that was totally warm and happy. And I’ve always wanted to write a book that was like a prayer to autumn. Faith has just started the art, and it’s as earnest and pumpkin-spiced as I was hoping.
I’d optioned Eleanor & Park to DreamWorks, but the rights came back to me when that fell through. I’ve got two movie things I’m working on now, but I don’t want to talk about them until I’m pretty sure they’re happening.
I am writing a new book, though! A YA novel. I’m more than half done, and it’s so hard not to talk about it. After Carry On, I wasn’t sure I’d write another book. So it feels really good to be up to my ears in words again.
The world is kind of a messed up place right now, and you have a pretty important role: you’re a person that younger people listen to. Does the responsibility ever scare you? Do you think, as a YA author, you have to censor yourself more than most?
I don’t really censor myself, but I am thoughtful about having a teen audience and also an international audience. I try to give background and context when I’m sharing my opinions. I try not to be petty or flippant.
If anything, having a YA audience makes me feel like I have to be less scared. In the way that being a parent makes you want to be less scared. When your kids are frightened, and they look at you, you want them to see that you’re brave and that you care about them. You want to make the world safer and more accepting for them.
What’s the earliest memory you have as a child? What do you think it says about you as a person that this memory has lingered?
Ha, well, my actual earliest memory is my ball rolling into the street when I was three, and me knowing that I had to let it go and not follow. So, do what you will with that one.
But this is interesting — my mom, who doesn’t follow me on social media or even read my books, just told me that the very first movie she took me to was The Rescuers at the drive-in when I was four. That blew me away. I don’t remember that specific night. But my avatar online is Bernard from The Rescuers, and that movie pretty much sums up my worldview and preferred aesthetic. It must have programmed me.
Please find the nearest window and tell us a quick story about what is happening beyond the frame.
I am sitting in a coffee shop attached to my favorite comic book store. I just looked out the window as two people were coming in with a gigantic service dog, and now they think I’m staring at them, so I have to deliberately look away.
This is a bit of a simple question, but you obviously have a pretty interesting name. Is there a story behind how your parents chose it? Also, when you see rainbows in everyday life do you have any special affinity for them? Aversion?
The story is just that I was born in the ‘70s, and my mom is a free spirit. The name has been a liability and an asset. People usually assume that I chose it myself, and thus that I’m the sort of flake who would choose a name like “Sunshine” or “Lollipop.”
I think it’s so un-serious that some people can’t even say it aloud; they can’t imagine buying a book with that name on the cover. I genuinely think it’s partly why I had a hard time cold-pitching literary agents, who are already looking for a reason to say no to you. But there was never a good time for me to change it. And what would I change it to?
“Rainbow” does become an asset over time in most situations. Once people get over the silliness, they tend to remember my name. And it made me get over my fear of standing out. I was always going to stand out and get teased with this name. So, there was no point in trying to be anonymous.
Oh, and I love rainbow stuff, especially as I get older. Why not lean into it?
What did you do last New Year’s Eve? I’ve heard that what you do that night sets the tone for the year ahead. Do you think that that’s true?
It’s a nice thought, but no, I don’t think it’s true. We let our kids stay up late this year, and we watched superhero movies. I hated New Year’s Eve when I was younger and still expected to go to parties. I hate situations where everyone gets really drunk, then drives home.
I remember thinking of depression as a weakness. Like, I never thought I would succumb that way. I saw myself as someone who just got through things.
You’ve mentioned therapy a few times on Twitter. Why do you think more and more people are being so open about mental health these days? How does this differ from when you yourself were a child?
I hope it’s a sign of greater acceptance and sensitivity. I grew up with a pretty positive opinion of therapy, I think. But I do remember, as a teenager, thinking of depression as a weakness. Like, I never thought I would succumb that way. I saw myself as someone who just got through things.
I talk pretty openly about therapy because it’s been so much a part of my life. I only go twice a month now. But for six months or so, I was going once or twice a week.
What is one smell that always sends you to a different time and place? Please describe said place and time.
I can’t think of a smell that I associate with one moment. In grade school, my mom had a cedar chest where she kept all our clean sheets and wool blankets. I associate the smell of cedar with everything being fresh and clean and new, and also with being allowed to climb into the cedar chest and close the lid, but only once or twice.
Curated by: Brenna Ehrlich
Conducted by: Email
Edited by: Morgan Enos
Published: March 20, 2018
Total questions: 8
Word count: 1163
Reading time: Four minutes
acceptance, anonymous, asset, association, author, autumn, avatar, background, blanket, Brenna Ehrlich, cedar, context, depression, Dreamworks, drive-in, Eisner, Faith Erin Hicks, flippant, Kris Anka, lollipop, Marvel Comics, moment, Nebraska, New Year’s Eve, novel, Omaha, paperback, party, petty, prayer, pumpkin, Rainbow Rowell, sensitivity, succumb, sunshine, superhero, The Rescuers, therapy, weakness, YA
About the guest curator
Brenna Ehrlich aspires to write a novel that’s a classic album. She enjoys taking solitary trips to distant locations and scoring the whole experience with the perfect book, record and restaurant. She often dreams (literally, while sleeping) of getting lost in unforgiving locales sans shoes or socks.
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