Harry Potter's world of witches and magic has both children and adults under its spell. Maureen Cleave meets its creator, J.K. Rowling
Our 11-year-old hero Harry of the Harry Potter books is about to go to Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry -- founded 1000 AD, non-fee-paying, boarders only, school motto: Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus. Here is part of his school list: 1 plain pointed hat (black) for day wear, 1 pair protective goggles (dragon hide or similar), 1 winter cloak (black, silver fastenings); 1 wand; 1 cauldron (pewter, standard size 2). Students may bring an owl OR a cat OR a toad. Parents are reminded that first years are not allowed their own broomsticks.
Name tags on everything, of course, and then follows the required reading list. The Standard Book of Spells (Grade 1) by Miranda Goshawk; Magical Draughts and Potions by Arsenius Jigger; One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by Phyllida Spore.
Harry is a young wizard, singled out from birth like the infant prophet Samuel for great things. He is an orphan, skinny, with glasses, black hair and green eyes. On his forehead, like the mark of Cain (to confuse my biblical references), is a scar shaped like a bolt of lightning. This scar is reassuring; it tells us that no lasting harm can come to Harry though we forget this as the plot thickens. He is a proper hero with moral choices to make between right and wrong, food and evil, loyalty and betrayal.
It is hard to think of a children's publishing success to rival in surprise that of the two Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) by JK Rowling, but then to few writers is it given to be very funny, very frightening and to touch the reader's heart at the same time. They have won almost every children's book prize (some twice) and sold 750,000 copies in the UK alone.
For one glorious week, they topped the children and adults bestseller lists here and even in the New York Times. To avoid embarrassment to commuters caught reading The Philosopher's Stone on the train, an edition with a boring cover was produced costing #2 extra (25,000 copies sold). This is no help if your problem is reading the books in a public place and laughing out loud, which I did when I came to the statue of Gregory the Smarmy and Moaning Myrtle, a teenage ghost who haunts a disused lavatory.
Of the 16 foreign editions, the Greek one most pleases JK Rowling, who read classics and French at Exeter. "Looks very impressive in Greek," she said.
At first no one knew who she was and children wrote fan letters beginning Dear Mr or Dear Miss Rowling, half and half. Then emerged the story, almost too good to be true, that she was a single mother on her uppers writing about Harry Potter in Nicholson's Cafe in Edinburgh because she was too cold in her flat. Her small daughter Jessica slept in a pram by her side. Only as long as Jessica slept could she write.
Now Jessica is five, Joanne Rowling 33 and -- the film rights for Harry Potter having been sold to Warner for a 'substantial' seven-figure sum -- they live in a nice old three-bedroom house in Edinburgh with a garden. Jessica goes to school and Rowling continues to write books in cafes. She was there, papers all over the table, more in a plastic bag on the floor, compiling a crossword for the wizard newspaper the Daily Prophet.
We cracked straight into Harry Potter who is as real to her as though sitting between us. Immersed in Harry's world, she forgets to eat. (The food at Hogwarts [illegible] ... magically replenished when consumed.)
'I think,' she said, 'it's a common fantasy that your parents aren't your parents -- scary but liberating, and so the orphan is a perennial image in children's literature. If you're orphaned you can't disappoint them and you don't have to take their feelings into consideration -- you're totally free but for your own conscience.' And the fact that you're going it alone engages the reader's sympathy.
Harry's parents, James and Lily, have been killed by the evil Voldemort, the Lucifer of the wizarding world. He tried but couldn't kill Harry; the worst he could do was leave the lightning scar. But he broods over all the books for he will surely try again.
There is explaining to do here. Ordinary people like you and me and JK Rowling are known as Muggles to witches and wizards. It is quite possible for Muggle parents to give birth to a witch or wizard, or vice-versa, in which case the offspring is called a Squib. To keep him safe, Harry, as a baby, is taken to live with his Muggle Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon Dursley who inhabit 4 Privet Drive in the Muggle world. Uncle Vernon has a company car, a large moustache that traps bits of fried egg and he spits when he talks. Aunt Petunia's little finger sticks out when she sips coffee. She calls their own Dudley Sweetums and force feeds him so his bottom droops over the edge of his chair. They are splendidly nasty to Harry, making him live in a cupboard under the stairs, so we hate them with relish -- indeed the Dursley bits are some of the best.
Harry's friends at Hogwarts are Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. Hermione is a bossy know-it-all swot whose hand always goes up first in class while she squirms in her seat with eagerness. Her tone is often described as sniffy or shrill, but she's a brick and how often she saves the day!
'Hermione,' said Rowling, 'is a caricature of me with a great insecurity about being plain and a compulsion to achieve, which is a very female way of coping. I loosened up a lot when I discovered make-up at 16 and realized the star at the bottom of the homework wasn't everything, though I still worked pretty hard.' She's very good-looking now with red hair and intensely blue eyes. 'I'm worried about Hermione in the film versions, in case they make her a pretty girl with glasses which are meant to say, "Oh no, I'm plain really.'
Rowling's father was a manager with Rolls-Royce in Bristol, making aircraft engines. 'His family were working-class. He did very well, pulling himself up by his bootstraps through night school. He met my mother on a train from King's Cross and it was on a train that he proposed to her. She was half French, half Scottish, very good-looking, very French, with dark hair and brown eyes which my sister Di inherited. I got the Scottish half of the cocktail. She died of multiple sclerosis when I was 25 and she was 45.'
In the first book, Harry is out of bounds when he comes across the Mirror of Erised (Desire spelt backwards). He sees not only himself but his dead mother and father waving at him, his mother crying but smiling at the same time. 'Harry,' we read, 'stared hungrily back, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through and reach them. He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness.'
It wasn't until she re-read this that Rowling realised its significance. 'I was taken aback to see how much of it came from my mother's death. It's what I would want to see if I looked in the Mirror of Erised: my dead mother living in front of me, if only for five minutes. She read hugely and she of all my family would have been proud to know what happened to me, so proud it's painful to think of it.'
Rowling has always written -- unfinished novels -- always in secret. After Exeter she worked for Amnesty International and it was then that Harry took shape. She was on a train from King's Cross which stopped for several hours. She had neither pen nor pencil. 'I was staring out of the window and I saw him very clearly: little, scrawny, and dark-haired. I knew he was a wizard. Then I thought, he must to to a wizarding school. I don't believe in any of this -- astrology, alchemy, goblins, trolls, elves, mandrakes, phoenixes, animagi, dragons, basilisks -- but it's a picturesque world. There's poetry to it and I have always found it fun."
By the time the train arrived she knew a lot about Harry, about Peeves the poltergeist who stuffs keyholes full of chewing gum, about portraits that leave their frames and visit each other when bored, and about Wendelin the Weird, a medieval witch who liked nothing better than being burnt at the stake. She began to write it down.
Now her life took several turns. She went to Portugal where she taught, married a Portuguese journalist and had Jessica, named after Jessica Mitford whom she much admired. She soon divorced and went to live near her sister in Edinburgh. There followed three lean years with Jessica and Harry for company. 'I liked thinking about Harry -- it was like thinking about a friend.
'I arrived back in Britain a week before John Major made his speech about single parents being at the root of society's ills. I had no money, no aim in view. I used to worry about Jessica outgrowing her shoes before I could afford another pair. It's soul-destroying having no money; you lose all self-esteem. I was grateful to be asked out for a cup of coffee, to have an adult to talk to.' She suffered briefly from severe depression. The third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, contains the Dementors, the most frightening creatures who destroy every happy memory you ever had and whose kiss sucks out your very soul. 'They represent the coldness and dreadness of clinical depression. Anyone who's had it knows that feeling of emptiness. You can't imagine not having it.
'But there was a silver lining to the three years -- boy, do you learn who your friends are.' It's a damn good way to remain level-headed when you start seeing your face in the papers -- something I never expected or wanted. I found the whole publicity thing quite shocking. And you remember your foulweather friends from the time when there was no kudos in knowing you. In the books the high price set on loyalty and bravery comes from me.' The character of Ron is based on her foulweather friend, Sean.
She finished the first Harry Potter and went to the library to look up the name of an agent in the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook and sent off some chapters to Christopher Little. He wrote back at once, saying he would be pleased to read the balance of the manuscript on an exclusive basis. 'It was the best letter in my life, including the love letters. I read it eight times.' Penguin, HarperCollins and Orion turned the book down, one of them keeping it for six months. 'My nerves were so stretched. Then one evening Christopher rang and said, "we've got a deal with Bloomsbury." I can't tell you -- it sounds so corny -- but with the sole exception of having Jessica handed to me after she was born, it was the purest unalloyed joy. It would be a real book with my name on it. Nothing since has come close to it.
She doesn't try to imagine what children will find funny but writes what she finds funny herself. 'It's my sense of humour. At the same time, there's nothing more unattractive than adults who don't grow up. I like adults. I [illegible] Peter Pan, Kenneth Grahame, CS Lewis, AA Milne -- there is in all of them a nostalgia for childhood. It's a big division between men and women; men turn the clock back. But I remember what it was like to be young -- vividly.'
Last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival she signed books for 400 people, many clutching several copies. At last, after two hours, a furious 10-year-old girl got to the front of the queue. 'She said, "I didn't want there to be so many people here. This is my book. I just wanted it to be you and me." I totally identified with that.'
The books sell -- all the has to do is write them -- and she finds the celebrity game not worth the candle. 'It's quite fun to begin with but then it's sickly, like candy floss.' Very few people know where she lives, she loathes having her photograph taken. Of course her life has changed. She has to restrain herself from buying Jessica too many presents, though when she found s lovely dress for herself for a three-figure sum -- 'not high three figures' -- she went back to the shop five times before paying up.
She writes one book a year. There will be seven in all, taking Harry up to the age of 17 when he leaves Hogwarts, and after that no more. Each book has been plotted, every character mapped out from the start. She would never be caught out like Dickens or Hardy. She can tell you the birthday of each member of Harry's class, how magic they are, how magic or Muggle their parents. They will grow into plausible adolescents, fall in love and so on.
The stories are getting darker, scarier. News is out there's a death in volume four. 'I hated writing it. I don't relish the thought of children in tears but if you're going to write about evil, about a person who's a psychopath, magical or not, with an unquenchable thirst for power, you can do it in two ways: make him a pantomime villain with lots of smoke and thunder and no one gets hurt; or strive for psychological reality. It's only by killing someone the reader really cares about that you will have a sense of how evil it is to extinguish human life.' Younger readers are worried that it will be the delightful Ron.
'Very, very few people I know had an unclouded childhood. Kids are aware; they know life isn't as sweet and rosy as The Waltons would have us believe. [illegible] violent fathers, abuse, and children [illegible] information. But they can come from the [illegible] backgrounds -- and I know because I've taught them -- and still have a sense of justice. "That's not fair" is a concept that floats above their heads, even though they don't always act on it, even if the herd instinct overrides it. My daughter has a clearly defined sense of right and wrong -- she sometimes catches me out.'
Once you accept you're in an enchanted world, there is no fantasy in the Harry Potter books; they are underpinned by steely logic. Rowling hates fantasy. Hogwarts is a closed and orderly society with regular classes, punishments and rewards. Pupils take their OWLs (Ordinary Wizarding Levels) and NEWTs (Nastily Exhausting Wizarding Tests) and are expected to pass.
She has a large working occult library and it's hard to catch her out on her magic. She was pleased to be quizzed by a boy on the difference between charms and transfiguration. 'A very bright boy. I see them as overlapping, like biochemistry. Transfiguration is utterly changing the molecular structure of something and turning it into something completely different. If you put a charm on something, you add properties it did not have before, eg: it's still a teapot but it can fly or sing.'
What do you do if you suspect your child is a witch or wizard? 'Anxious parents should on no account be discouraging, not least because they might find its powers turned unwittingly against themselves. In any case, its impossible to "grow out" of magic. A month before your's child's 11th birthday, if you are a resident of the UK or Ireland, you will receive a letter delivered by owl telling you your child is due at Hogwarts. At this point you accept the inevitable.'
And he may bring home useful things in his school trunk: a Pocket Sneakoscope, for instance, that bleeps in the presence of someone untrustworthy, or some tooth-flossing string mints, or a Grow-Your-Own Warts kit, or -- which I am dying to read -- a copy of From Egg to Inferno, a Dragon-Keeper's Guide.
By the way, the Hogwarts School motto translates: Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon.
Editor's note: typed from a PDF scan on March 1, 2007.