Earlier this year, at an event during the NYC Teen Author Festival, Rainbow Rowell read an excerpt from her fourth novel, Landline (out now via St. Martin's Press), about a woman, Georgie, who finds her way to present-day personal and professional happiness after discovering a magical telephone that lets her revisit the past. In the passage Rowell read, Georgie was reminiscing about her wedding day — in particular, the moment when she and her husband, Neal, danced their first dance to Stevie Nicks and Don Henley's "Leather and Lace." As Rowell recounted how the song had accidentally become Georgie and Neal's "song," she sang a few lines from the track, transporting the audience to that 1980s moment in the backyard where Georgie and Neal got married.
As Rowell describes in a phone conversation with BuzzFeed ahead of Landline's release, her relationship between music and writing is not accidental. "With each book I tend to find a certain mood, and tone, and vibe," she says. "When you're connecting to a song and it's making you feel open … I'm trying to reach that point when I'm writing." As Rowell writes, she crafts Spotify playlists to serve as soundtracks for herself and her readers. Rowell's day-to-day writing lifestyle in her home state of Nebraska is a solitary affair, so, for her, music serves as both a companion and inspiration. "I start with 10 songs and then I build and build," she says. "I go through and think, How do I want this to feel? What's the vibe going to be?" The result is distinctly different personas for each novel.
For her first three books, Rowell's playlists focused on her main characters: Lincoln and Beth, the two halves of the inter-office '90s romance that plays out over email in Attachments, are defined with songs by The Smiths, Beth Orton, Counting Crows, and Sean Lennon that are as much about place and time as they are about the characters. "I associate Into the Sun by Sean Lennon with Attachments because Lincoln is a character who is very different from me, so I would listen to a lot of mellow, thoughtful music as I was writing him," Rowell says. "There's a big epiphany that happens during 'Rocky Mountain High,' and when I hear 'Rocky Mountain High,' I always think of that scene."
Last year's acclaimed and devastating Eleanor and Park begins and ends with music: Within the first three lines of Chapter 1, Park references XTC, Skinny Puppy, and the Misfits; later on, the mix tapes he and Eleanor exchange are the emotional core of their relationship. "Music is so much a part of the setting, and so much of a part of what Park as a character is offering to Eleanor," Rowell says. "How could I have written that book and not said what Park was listening to? I like to make specific references because then it makes it seem like those people live in the real world, and I also think that pop-culture references are what we share."
Rowell allowed herself to freely indulge her feelings about getting and making mixtapes over the course of writing the novel, which struck a nerve with the book's fans. "People my age have really deep, deep memories [getting mixes on] cassette tapes, and I think younger people have a nostalgia for that time because mixtapes represent something they will never experience," she says. "Everything is more available, and because it's more available, it's less romantic. When he gives her a mixtape, that's a real gift." Rowell is signed on to write the script for the Eleanor and Park movie, a project that's in the very early stages and comes with no promises to let her consult on the music (though she says she'd love to give as much input as they'd let her). Still, she says with a laugh, she might just write the screenplay with musical cues and let the production team decide from there.
The emotional arcs of both Eleanor and Park and Landline were as visceral for Rowell as they were for her characters. "I did not enjoy writing Eleanor and Park. I did not enjoy writing Landline," she says. "I felt like I wanted to write them and I needed to write them and I needed to explore those ideas, but the actual writing process was often very wrenching." So, as something of a palate cleanser between the two, Rowell says she "needed to write a book that made me happy."
Enter Fangirl, about an 18-year-old twin girl, Cath, figuring out her own real-life identity for the first time (though she happens to be internet famous thanks to writing fan fiction about a Harry Potter-style series). "Levi [Fangirl's male protagonist] is prescription medicine for me. He's a loving, laid-back character, so my Levi playlist is really laid-back guitar music, very building but mellow," Rowell says. Cath and her twin, Wren, turn to "Emergency Kanye Dance Parties" during times of stress (they are delightfully exactly what they sound like). Rowell says she thought a lot about using West's name as the soundtrack to these moments: "There's a risk of saying, 'Who is Kanye West going to be in 10 years and what will people think that scene means based on that?' but I decided I was comfortable enough with his place. His music will stand on its own, no matter what changes."
Coming off of this present-day moment, Rowell found herself settling into the 1970s for Landline. Then, like when she finished Eleanor and Park, Rowell says she found herself wanting an emotional change after writing Landline — which led her to the YA fantasy novel she just completed the first draft for. Rowell said good-bye to Elton John and Stevie Nicks and hello to the "edgy, invigorating, and unsettling" sounds of Wild Beasts, Alt-J, and older Duran Duran for a tale centered around good vs. evil that questions "how can you tell the difference, and is our job really to fight the fights we inherit or to choose our own fights?" she says. "Every song on my playlist is one of those, 'something is about to happen, something is about to happen.'"
But, back to Landline. The book marks several firsts for her: On the writing front, it's the first time she's written a character who's in a similar place in her life as Rowell is ("someone who has two kids and who has been married and is creeping up on 40"). Musically, it's the first time Rowell's soundtrack breaks the story down by acts, rather than characters. "This is Georgie's story. She's in a completely lost place in the first act, she's desperately trying to figure things out in the second act, and then, in the third act, she's made the decision she's going for it," Rowell says. The result is an admittedly rom-com feel. As you'll see in her annotated playlist, Rowell consciously scored her book to play that up. "I've always loved movies that tell big love stories, movies that are going to have it all. You're going to get swept up in them," Rowell says. "When I'm writing, and I'm picturing [the scenes as] a movie, I'm not picturing those as someone else's movie. I'm thinking, How would I do this and how would this moment work for me? ... I'm writing wherever my heart and head are at, and what I'm listening to is where my heart and head are at."