After hearing Rainbow Rowell’s hilarious speech at the APA librarians’ dinner at PLA in March and listening to Rebecca Lowman’s spot-on performance of Landline, I knew I had to talk to both of them together. They were kind enough to oblige me and the conversation was fun, flowing, and funny, and it was a pleasure to hear the clear mutual respect and admiration between Rowell and Lowman for each other’s craft. Read on for gruff Midwestern men, Rowell’s thoughts on marriage as codependence, and Lowman’s thoughts on Rowell’s writing style.
Rainbow, I’m sure you don’t remember, but we actually had our picture taken together at the APA librarians’ dinner at PLA. You gave such a wonderful talk at that dinner about your love for audiobooks and your experience with your own audiobooks. I was wondering if you could just briefly summarize your history and experience with audiobooks for all the librarians who weren’t lucky enough to attend.
Rowell: I started checking out audiobooks from the library and the miracle of it for me was realizing, as a lifelong reader, that I could be reading even while I was driving. I could be reading pretty much all the time if I wanted to, if I was listening to audiobooks. So I read tons and tons and tons, listened to so many audiobooks when I had that job [as a reporter in Iowa, spending a lot of time in the car] and then that just sort of established listening to audiobooks for me in the car, or while I’m cleaning or while I’m doing anything with my hands that I don’t have to be really focused on. So that’s how it started and audiobooks are a big part of my life now mostly because my kids listen to them so often. My oldest son, who’s a great reader now, had kind of a hard time at first but he really liked audiobooks. So they listen to audiobooks in the car almost always, they have a long commute to school and they listen to audiobooks in the car. And then they listen to audiobooks at night as they’re falling asleep.
You said at PLA that you initially did not want to be involved in even hearing the audio version of your books because you are picky.
Rowell: I’m very picky. I didn’t want to listen, yeah. I did not want to listen. I didn’t think it would serve me to listen. I thought I would question the readings. Because that had been my experience when I was writing radio. I’d write radio and then I’d listen to the performances and I would feel like they weren’t hitting the jokes the way that I wanted. So I was a very, very picky copywriter and creative director when I was in advertising. So I kind of felt like I don’t want to listen to, with Attachments, my first book, I don’t want to listen to this and feel … it tugs at your brain when you hear words that are familiar to you but they’re not being interpreted the way that you feel you that meant them, and so I felt that I’d just be better off not listening at all. … I kept getting tweets that Eleanor & Park was a fantastic audiobook and one person, I got engaged in a conversation with someone, and they were like, “You haven’t listened to it?” And I said, “No, I trust you that it’s good but I don’t want to listen to it.” And then this person was so convincing I thought, OK, I’ll listen to it. So I ended up listening to it for a few hours and really getting sucked in, especially through Rebecca’s performance.
Lowman: Thank you.
Rebecca, I know that in addition to audiobook narration, you’ve done a lot of film acting. How is narrating different from other types of acting?
Lowman: Well, first of all you get to play all the parts, which is pretty nice. You really can immerse yourself in the entire thing. A book itself has a tone and almost a personality unto itself and if you can get into that voice, the overall voice of the book, then something kind of magical happens. Because if you’re doing something that’s 300 pages you can’t make decisions about it all. It’s not like having one role where you learn your lines and everyone else deals with theirs. So there has to be something that happens in the moment. You can’t prepare every single minute of a 12-hour thing. So there’s kind of a beautiful letting-go that happens and I think at that point the book can be allowed to just come through. Oh my god I sound like a hippie.
Rowell: I think what you’re saying is true for the writing of a book, too. When you’re writing that many words you’re not choosing every line. You’re just getting into the tone and the voice of the characters and then letting it go.
Lowman: Yeah, I guess in a way we’re both conduits for the story in different ways.
Rainbow, how did you come to write this book and do you still use a landline?
Rowell: Oh, I do still use a landline. … Sometimes you’re talking to someone cell-to-cell and cell-to-cell connection, it’s hard to have a conversation because there’s no rhythm to it, there’s like a delay. … How did I come to writing this book? I had this idea initially for a story about a woman who loses her cell phone and her life just totally falls apart. But then she falls in love and she falls in love in a way that she wouldn’t have fallen in love if she’d had her phone. I hadn’t quite worked out the details. So that was the plan. And then I was talking to my agent about it, and then I came up with the idea of oh, what if she loses her phone, and I don’t know where it came from that she discovers a landline that she can call into the past. I just have no idea where that came from, honestly. But it was the first book that I’ve written about married people. And I’ve been married since I started writing books. But all of my characters have been looking for love or not looking for love, but they were younger, or in different parts of their lives. I hadn’t really written a book that took place in the sort of life that I have, married with children.
Rebecca, you said in an AudioFile interview, “Every book is written from a certain place, and if you get that place wrong, you’re going to get the book wrong.” Where would you say this book is written from?
Lowman: Well, it’s funny because in a way this book is written from, to me, it’s not sentimental because it’s written by Rainbow, but it is nostalgic. It’s a place where a crisis is happening and what happens is she sort of curls up in the warmth of that landline connection. And so even though it’s about the time in her life when she’s most disconnected, the book is about the time in her life when she’s the most connected. So somewhere between those two things, I think is the place.
Rowell: Rebecca, I have a question. Now that you’ve read three of my books, do you find that you are going to a similar place in your performance or in your reading? Do you think there’s an overall tone for my books? Or are they all different?
Lowman: Well, I think they’re all different. But you, there’s like a no-nonsense quality to you—I think, although I don’t know you—that makes the tone similar. You’re always coming from a place, even though there are wounds and there’s guardedness and people are being funny to hide their pain, there’s always an essential truth to everything that is a very sort of matter-of-fact, no artifice, authentic voice to it. And so I feel like in terms of getting the audio right, to the extent that I can or do, is that there can’t be too much put over the top of it. It’s like all just telling the truth. So over-the-top performances wouldn’t work. It would only obscure it. I feel like there is a similarity in Fangirl and Landline in that they are both coming from that same kind of age and relationship place, although not truly. I mean this is a couple years later. But I can see Cath growing into Georgie.
Rowell: Thank you. That was a nice thing to say. I think it’s interesting that you said that there’s little artifice because the thing that I really appreciate about your performance of my books … I should listen to you read someone else’s book, I never have. I’ve only heard you read mine. But what I really like about Rebecca’s performances is that I don’t feel like she’s doing voices. Each character sounds different but I don’t feel like she’s doing the voice. I listen to lots of audiobooks for children or for middle grade, with my kids. And some of the performances are just intolerable, like, “I want to get out of the car. I hate this so much.” … But when I’m listening to Rebecca I never ever feel like she’s, [Rowell imitates a faux deep voice] “And now I’m doing the boy.” Like her boy voices I quite appreciate. Sometimes when men do women in audiobooks it becomes very draggy. Almost like this very exaggerated female voice. So when Rebecca does different voices, or men, it isn’t as if she’s trying to sound like a man. She’s trying to shift into that character and she’s coming from where the character is coming from, not the fact that they are a man. So I feel like it’s a very authentic read. It’s not jarring.
OK, so I have a couple of things on that. One is, if you’re looking for something that she has narrated that’s not yours, The Girls from Corona del Mar is coming out in July and I highly recommend it.
Lowman: It’s a really good book.
Yeah, it’s a debut by Rufi Thorpe. It was really fantastic. So that’s one that I really recommend. And the other thing is I am curious if you get into the same place with each of your books, if it feels like the same person taking over in writing them or if they do all come from very different places for you.
Rowell: I think they all come from very different places and I’m in a very different mood when I’m writing each of them. Landline was a difficult book for me to write and Eleanor & Park was a difficult book for me to write. Because they both come from a crisis place. And when you’re with the characters they’re unhappy and there’s no happy ending, necessarily. I don’t even feel a sense as I’m writing it that it’s definitely going to have a happy ending where things aren’t complicated. Those two books get compared, even though one is about 16-year-olds and one’s about married people, there’s sort of a tonal thing between Eleanor & Park and Landline. Although Landline is a lot funnier, I think. So no, it’s very different for me. Each of them is different. But I imagine it’s kind of like a band, though. A band can have really different songs and all of their music still sounds like them. … I haven’t actually listened to Rebecca read Landline yet, but my husband … is listening to the Landline audiobook. … I was in New York and he was sending me texts about Landline and it was funny because they were about Rebecca’s performance. They weren’t about the book. “She’s doing a great job,” and “She’s really good,” and “She really brings something to this.” And I was like, “What about the book?” “She really elevates the material.” “What?” He was specifically talking about how she shifts from character to character and how they really feel very alive. [laughing] And I was like, “Well also they’re written really well.” Like, hey, that’s on the page, by the way.
Rainbow, you write “Georgie hadn’t known back then how much she was going to come to need Neal, how he was going to become like air to her. Was that codependence? Or was it just marriage?” What are your thoughts on that? Is marriage codependence?
Rowell: Yeah. I think it is. Most of the stuff that I’m writing in that book that’s Georgie being philosophical about marriage is pretty much me being philosophical about marriage. My marriage is not in the crisis that hers is but I’ve been married that long and I know that your marriage changes. It’s almost like you’re married to a different person every day. You’re constantly renewing that commitment to that person as they change, and as you change. I think that when you’re in crisis you kind of gang up together, you get very, very close. You really overlap and you exist in a very overlapped way. And then when you’re not in crisis you sort of get some air and so you’re constantly coming apart and then coming back together.
Rebecca, Neal is not the most instantly lovable character. He’s a little gruff and he’s a little hard to get at, doesn’t really laugh. But underneath he really is this wonderful, loving, lovable man. And while I fully acknowledge, Rainbow, that that is on the page, as well, I think that hearing Rebecca give voice to him made it a lot easier for me to see him the way that Georgie sees him and to fall in love with him. How did you get to his voice?
Lowman: First, Rainbow does those characters so well so I love him. I loved this guy who just drew his cartoons silently. And maybe because I’m from the Midwest, I feel like I know that guy. My dad is that guy. A sweet, soft-spoken man who every boy I dated in high school was terrified of. Because he seems very gruff and mad. I feel like he was written so well that I could see him.
Rowell: It’s interesting to think about how your own feelings about a character can be reflected in your voice. Because you could have read that character really jerky. If you had read this book and been like, “God, I hate this character,” I think it would have shown up and you would have made him … you can take everything Neal says and read it in a different tone of voice and he’s a completely different character.
Lowman: It’s funny, that’s also what you said about Eleanor.
Rowell: Yeah, that is what I said about Eleanor! In Eleanor & Park Eleanor has this sort of sarcasm and cynicism and she’s always making this sort of “ugh, Jesus,” and there had been another reader and they sent me a sample of her reading a teenaged character and it was very snarky and wisecracky, like you could practically hear the character popping her gum. And I just thought oh that would not be good. But they wanted someone who could be funny. They wanted a reader who could be funny because Eleanor could be funny. Rebecca had a more serious tone to her. And I think what ended up in her performance of that character is that she really nails Eleanor’s vulnerability and her softness. So even though Eleanor is being hard and the things she’s saying are kind of hard, Rebecca’s performance of her is very soft and vulnerable, so that you see that this is just a kid and that she is in peril and she’s scared and she’s experiencing all these mixed emotions. I think it made Eleanor a character people could connect with and sympathize with. And it could have gone a completely different direction.
Lowman: But did you think she was funny?
Rowell: I did think she was funny! You know what, I don’t like punchline, sort of zingy humor. So I’m not drawn to comedians who are very big. I like people who are just sort of talking and they’re funny when they’re talking. So that’s how she’s funny to me. … I thought you were really funny. It was hopefully what I wanted the book to be. I wanted the book to be funny and sad and melancholy and serious all at the same time.
I thought you did a great job with Neal’s funny lines. They were funny and sweet all at the same time. It wasn’t that sort of zinger kind of humor. When Neal has a funny line, it’s like, “Aw, I love you.”
The central plot of this obviously revolves around two people talking on the phone and there’s a lot of dialogue, sometimes just pages and pages of dialogue. Is that more taxing to narrate than a book with a lot of narrative?
Lowman: Not necessarily. Sometimes it can be. But in a way there’s something, especially when it’s two people and there can be a rhythm that happens, that’s really fun to do, actually. I mean, if you can get into the rhythm of the scene itself and just go through it, not have to stop too much, that really feels great. And then of course I get self-conscious about the “he said” and “she said”s, so I’m also really glad when there aren’t any. … Every once in a very great while it comes in handy. But if two people are talking it’s absolutely clear.
Rowell: I thought that I needed [dialogue tags] a lot more in Fangirl. I think Fangirl had the hardest dialogue because there were a lot of 4-person conversations, three girls and one man. I got pretty good in that book at, I wouldn’t use dialogue tags, but it would be like, “Reagan crossed the room,” and then whatever Reagan said. “Levi laughed.” But in Landline there are not a lot of dialogue tags. I added some; that’s what I always do in my second draft is I go back and add dialogue tags. Because I get self-conscious writing them. They feel interruptive to me.
Lowman: It’s so funny because sometimes I hear myself in life, too, because sometimes after you’re recording a lot everything you say sounds like you’re in an audiobook and then I start to drive myself insane. So then I’ll say something and then be like, “she said wryly.” But when you’re in the middle of recording a conversation and someone is going, “‘That’s not what I meant,’ he said. ‘Well then why did you say it that way?’ she said.” And you’re going back and forth between this neutral narrator voice and these characters and then I start to feel like I’m an inauthentic voice user like you’re talking about, Rainbow.
Rowell: [laughing] I’m so comfortable with Rebecca now. … I have this feeling that she’s going to be reading my books. And so as I’m writing I’ll be thinking, “OK, Rebecca’s going to read this.” [My fans] are now associating my writing voice with your voice. So in their head you’re what my books sound like.
Enjoy the clip below of Rebecca Lowman’s impeccable performance of Rainbow Rowell’s moving new novel for adults, Landline. Thank you to both of them for taking the time to share their thoughts on writing and narrating with us!
Landline by Rainbow Rowell. Performed by Rebecca Lowman. Published by Macmillan Audio. Available now.