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Rainbow Rowell Headshot

The Lost Art Of Telephone Conversation

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I always knew there would be a telephone in my new book, Landline.

I had the title and concept -- a woman finds a way to talk to her husband in the past - figured out more than a year before I started writing.

But I saw the phone as a plot device, nothing more. Like the fortune-telling machine in Big. Or the newspaper in Early Edition. It's just the magic thing that gets the plot rolling.

It wasn't until I started writing about that phone, a yellow rotary in the main character's childhood bedroom, that I realized how much tenderness and nostalgia I felt for landlines.

For the objects themselves, the actual phones -- but also for the way that they set the tone in so many of my relationships.

Writing Georgie and her husband's phone calls brought back years and years - and hour upon hour -- of talking on a landline. I was in my mid 20s when email finally took off. Until then, the phone was my primary way of connecting with the people in my life.

I talked on the phone a lot, and I talked on the phone in a way that I almost never do now. Talking on a cell phone is completely different from talking on a landline.

I'm not complaining about my cell phone -- all my friends are in there, and all my favorite songs and all my favorite Benedict Cumberbatch GIFs; I don't want to give it up. But cell phones are the worst for talking on the phone.

Or maybe landlines were just the best...

Having a conversation on a landline is more intimate than talking to someone in person. Your voices are so clear and close -- you're in each other's heads.

You don't have to raise your voice or enunciate to be heard on a landline. You barely have to use your voice. If it's been a while since you've had a landline-to-landline call, the intimacy is almost startling. (Well, hello.)

And if you've been talking on a cell phone for the last few years, you may have forgotten how immediate a landline conversation is. You can fall into a natural conversational rhythm because you're not doing that weird thing where you both start talking at once. Or where you keep stepping on each other. ("No, you go." "No, you.")

You also tend to have more focused conversations, because you're literally tethered in place. You're attached to the phone, and the phone is attached to the wall. And you can't go anywhere, so you end up sitting and staring at the phone itself -- and just listening.

Writing all these phone calls, I remembered what it felt like to carry a heavy rotary phone around, my fingers hooked behind the cradle, while I paced around my bedroom. Or the way I'd run my fingertips along the numbered slots on the dial during a call, accidentally pulling and having to wait for it to unwind.

I remembered checking to make sure there was a dial tone when the phone didn't ring - then worrying that someone was calling at that very moment.

The stress of watching someone else talk on the phone while I waited for a call. The panic when somebody's parents picked up the phone somewhere else in the house, and we wondered how much they heard of our private conversation.

You'd think that our phones would dominate our lives more now; we always have them in reach, and we check them every few minutes.

But our cellphones follow us around the world.

A landline is an anchor -- busy signals, long distance bills, missed connections and all.