Adler, Margot. Transcript of J.K. Rowling interview, All Things Considered (NPR Radio), December 3, 1998.
Audio version: NPR Radio
Transcript courtesy of Sugarquill.net's Transcription Project
Host: A new series of children's books has risen to the top of Britain's bestseller list. The books, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and its sequel, were writen by Joanne Rowling. She wrote part of Harry Potter on scraps of paper at a Scottish café when she was a struggling single mother. Her magical storyline and clever writing technique have been compared to Roald Dahl. The books have now come to the US, and Warner Brothers has optioned the film rights. NPR's Margot Adler has more.
Margot Adler: When a galley of Harry Potter arrived on my desk last June, I popped it carelessly into my bag. Perhaps, I thought, a book to read out loud to my son during summer vacation. Our whole family sat riveted for a week. Now the first book is out in the US, and already Scholastic, its publisher here, says sales are approaching 100,000 copies, a high number for a children's hardcover novel. Despite that, most people in the US have never heard of Harry Potter. It's not a title you see in the window at your local Barnes & Noble. A few weeks ago, author Joanne Rowling came to the United States.
Arthur Levine: We're celebrating the arrival of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter's publication in the US.
Margot Adler: Arthur Levine, who brought Harry Potter to Scholastic, is speaking at a book party in Manhattan. Rowling, who is in her early 30's, has never been to the United States before, and she had come with her 5 year old daughter. Rowling says the idea for 11 year old Harry Potter came to her in 1990.
JKR: I was on a train, staring out of the window at some cows-- that's the truth-- thinking of nothing in particular, and the idea for Harry just kind of fell into my head. It was the purest stroke of inspiration I've ever had. And I'd been writing in years and never tried to get anything published. Harry came pretty much fully formed. I could see him, I could see little round glasses and I could see his scar, and he was a very real boy to me from the beginning. The "acorn" that arrived on that train was Harry, a boy who doesn't know he's a wizard, who's always been able to make strange stuff happen but unconsciously and only when he's scared or angry, and the fact that unbeknownst to him, his name has been down at this amazing school for witchcraft and wizardry, since birth-- but he doesn't know this, because the relatives with whom he lives have hoped that if they're horrible enough to him, they'll be able to squash the magic out of him. They know what he is, but they've never told him.
Margot Adler: Much of Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone takes place in a phantasmagorical alternate world, at a wizard school called Hogwarts, a bizarre takeoff on a British boarding school, except that this school is filled with giants, and with Professors with names like Sprout, Snape, and Dumbledore. There are even ghosts for teachers, which Rowling says she did for amusement.
JKR: The idea is that Prof. Binns basically died in the staff room one night, and arose next morning without his body to continue teaching. I think we've at some point in our education met someone who may as well be dead-- that's how interesting they are.
Margot Adler: Rowling says she collects names from old books and street names. "Dumbledore," the head of the school, for example, comes from an old word for "bumblebee." And there's a word in the book that could actually enter general usage. Just as in the 1970's the word "grock" from Robert Heimline's Stranger in a Strange Land came to mean "understanding something deeply," and "caraft" from Kurt Vonnegut came to mean a group of friends with a really tight bond. The word in Harry Potter is Muggle. "Muggle is a word for someone within the books who is totally non-magic." It's what wizards call people who have no magical blood in their veins. But people are writing to me very often now and using that word, and slightly enlarging its meaning to mean someone fairly dull and unimaginative.
Margot Adler: In the book, the wizard world and the Muggle world are totally distinct. They have different clothes, different candy, even different sports. There is a rough-and-tumble sport called Quidditch, played on broomsticks, which reminds one ever so much of Alice in Wonderland playing croquet with live hedgehogs.
I brought a few kids into our studio to ask Rowling a few questions. One is Skyler, just about age 8.
Skyler: How do you get the idea of writing about magic?
JKR: When I was younger, I think my greatest fantasy would have been to find out that I had powers that I'd never dreamt of, that I was special, that "these people couldn't be my parents, I'm far more interesting than that." I think a lot of children might have secretly think that sometimes. So I just took that one stage further, and I thougth, "What's the best way of breaking free of that? Okay, you're magic!"
Margot Adler: The book begins with Harry living with his hateful relatives, including their spoiled son Dudley, who often beats Harry up. Rowling reads a scene at the zoo: Dudley has been tormenting a sleeping boa constrictor by knocking on its cage. When Dudley finally moves away the snake opens its eyes and looks at Harry.
JKR: "The snake jerked its head toward Uncle Vernon and Dudley…." (etc….) "Thankss, amigo."
Margot Adler: Harry Potter's rescue comes out of the blue. Joanne Rowling says Harry Potter rescued her, a former teacher who fell on hard times.
JKR: My marriage broke up. I had been living and working abroad. I returned to Britain without a job, with a very young baby. And I found myself in a situation in which I think many women find themselves. It's very, very hard for a single mother in Britain, and I'm sure in America, to get out of the poverty trap. If you sink to a certain point, it's incredibly difficult to get out, because you don't have funds for childcare, and without childcare you can't work. So it is true that I spent a lot of cafes, and I quickly found that the cafes in Britain were completely prepared to let me sit there for two hours while my daughter napped, over one cold cup of coffee.
Margot Adler: And Rowling says even before Harry Potter was a success, just writing the book saved her sanity. The thing about writing, she says, is that you don't need anything except pen and paper. In England, Harry Potter has won many awards, and has been so successful, number 1 among adults as well as among children, that there's even an grown-ups edition, so adults don't have to feel embarrassed reading a children's book.
But no one knows how successful Harry Potter will be in this country. Suzanne Barcell, the acting general manager of Books of Wonder, the largest children's bookstore in Manhattan, says the book has been spreading by word of mouth.
Suzanne Barcell: We have already sold well into the hundreds of this book, and we've had it since August. For Halloween one of our employees even dressed up as Harry Potter.
Margot Adler: Of course Barcell is the manager of an independent bookstore, and one with the title "Books of Wonder." It will be fascinating to chart how far HP will go in the Muggle world. …Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.