augusten burroughs
augusten burroughs

How Rainbow Rowell Went From Newspaper Reporter to Superstar Novelist

augusten burroughs
augusten burroughs

This story originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

For 10 or 11 years, I was a metro columnist at the Omaha World-Herald. It was a great job, but I started young, and it involved doing the same thing over and over. I started writing Attachments at the end of my time there.

A friend asked me, “What are you writing for yourself?” I realized I’d never written anything just for myself—it had either been an assignment or a very ill-advised love letter.

Leaving the newspaper was incredibly important. A newspaper is very busy—you’re always focused on the next edition and you can’t really try something different. I left and got a job in advertising. Starting over showed I had it in me to do something completely different.

I remember finishing Attachments and thinking that was the accomplishment. My husband said, “No, you need to do something with this!” It got published in 2011. Last year, my literary workload became so big that I'm now spending 100 percent of my time writing books.

Things have changed so quickly, I’ve struggled a little bit to find my balance. For so long, I had a full-time job and was writing on top of that. I have kids, so I was writing mostly at coffee shops. I wrote my first three books at the same Starbucks. Then they renovated and changed the seating. It became much louder and more chaotic. I freaked out—I couldn’t write! So now I have a home office.

I wrote my first four books before I sold them, which was so freeing. I’d be writing, and I’d say, “I don’t have a deadline because nobody wants this.” If I tried to think about what readers expect from me, I’d be writing for the past. By the time it comes out, it’s two years from now.

My foreign agent told me Stephen King gets up and writes a certain number of words every day and doesn’t deal with anything else until he finishes. You know the metaphor “You put the big rocks in the jar first?” I thought, “I am filling the jar with pebbles.” I decided to write first thing every day. I wrote 20,000 words in two weeks and recently finished my first draft.

A good thing about working at a newspaper is you’re on deadline constantly. You turn in one thing and start working on the next. There’s no room for writer’s block. Having done that for 10 years, I’d trained my brain. I’ve felt stuck and scared with this latest book, but I still finished a first draft.

Twitter makes me feel I’m part of a community in a way I’m not in Omaha. I don’t see Twitter as a threat to my productivity. I see people there as my co-workers. I sit in a room by myself. When you think about working in an office, you get up, you get coffee. Talking to your co-workers can increase your productivity; sometimes just talking to people on Twitter helps with a problem.

I’m going on tour with Landline, and then I’m going to take a vacation with my family. The next project is to write a first draft of the Eleanor & Park screenplay and then a graphic novel. I’ve never done any of that before—it’s all new.

I started writing Attachments at the end of my years at the World-Herald. I didn’t really take it that seriously. It felt more like a hobby. I didn’t see it getting published; I didn’t really even see it getting finished. But it was a creative outlet.

I’d thought success was getting the job, holding on, getting better, and I realized for me success feels like growing and trying new things and testing myself, that’s when I feel most rewarded. It affects my approach. I don’t want to write the same kind of book, a book just like Eleanor & Park, or just Y.A. I never want to feel like “Oh, I have to keep doing the same thing because that’s what people expect.” It feels safe but I don’t think it’s safe in the long run. I think you’ll just fade away doing that.

When I’m writing fiction, I need to cut myself off from the Internet. I will lock myself away from the internet for 2 to 3 hours. But Twitter allows me to talk to readers in a way I can’t anywhere else. For a while I had a public email and I was never returning anyone’s emails. You feel bad. With Twitter I can say thank you or laugh at a joke or answer a question in seconds. I’m able to be open and accessible.

You expect your inspirations sometimes to do what you do, and I don’t feel like that’s the case for me. I’m most inspired by someone who’s doing something totally different than me. (Kanye West, for example, there was a time 7 years ago or so that I really felt like listening to him; his music and also listening to him talk was so inspiring to me. Not that he’s not inspiring now, we’re just in different places in our lives. When Graduation came out, I felt so inspired by it.) The Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats, that was so much a part of me writing Eleanor & Park. And even certain visual things, not that I’m inspired to do what they do but by their approach.

On Writing Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & Park was delayed almost a year. In the UK it came out in 2012, then in February 2013 it came out in the U.S. I had written that book and I’d written Fangirl and most of Landline before Eleanor & Park came out. I had this creative fever, those books were in me and I knew what I wanted to write.

If I tried to think about what you would expect from me and want after Eleanor & Park—when you think that way, you’re writing for the past. By the time you write it and it comes out, it’s two years from now. People act like I wrote Eleanor & Park as a response to The Fault in Our Stars. But no, I was probably writing that at the exact time John was writing that book.

I’ve always wanted to write the Eleanor & Park screenplay. It was more important to me that I got to write the screenplay than that the movie would be made. I don’t feel that about all my books, but with this one, I felt I could look after it in a way. To anyone who was looking into this, I’d said, I come with it, you have to give me a chance. They don’t have to use anything I write, but they gave me the chance.

When I was writing Eleanor & Park and Attachments, I felt like I couldn’t read anything similar to what I was writing. I stopped reading contemporary completely. With Y.A., everyone’s basically writing about the same 2 years, and it can make you feel like everything’s already been written. If I’d read all that, I worried, would I feel like I was doing anything original? I read comic books, I’d read them for years. With Eleanor & Park, I also read the Twilight series in there. I read fan fiction while I was writing Fangirl and before. I was reading a lot of Y.A. when I wrote Landline. I was meeting these Y.A. authors and wanted to read what they did. Last year I read a lot of contemporary Y.A., I felt like my head was full of it.

Books she loves 

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan. It’s a comic book, it’s sort of a Romeo and Juliet story, in which two different aliens/nonhumans/humanoids from warring planets fall in love and have a baby. It’s them trying to find their way in the world.

And Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris. I read it and it rocked my world. Having worked in an office, it was so true!

I’m reading The Rescuers, by Margery Sharpe, to my kids. I read aloud to my kids every night. It’s so good and funny and really sophisticated.

Also, I love The Brides of Rollrock Island, by Margo Lanagan. She writes in that fable-y way, kind of like Neil Gaiman. She’s so poetic.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


More from mental floss studios