Note: interview actually took place in mid-June.
FORGET THE PUBLISHED REPORTS. THE AUTHOR OF HARRY POTTER WAS NOT A STRUGGLING SINGLE PARENT WHO DECIDED TO WRITE AND--BING0--CREATED AN INSTANT CLASSIC.
SLIDE OVER MR. CLANCY, MR. KING, AND MS. HIGGINS CLARK. MAKE ROOM FOR J.K. Rowling. In three short years, the 33-year-old British writer has been transformed from a hapless, yet-to-be-published novelist into one of the hottest authors on Earth. Her First novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Scholastic, 1998), the tale of an orphan who is sent to the Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry, soared onto bestseller lists, and, for good measure, wowed the critics, winning Britain's Smartie Prize, and being named the U.K.'s children's book of the year. Beginner's luck?
Not by a long shot.
Harry's two serial siblings--Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (both published this year by Scholastic)--are even hotter than the original. The trio has sold more than two million copies in 115 countries. And not all of those copies went to kids. At the moment, Harry occupies the top three spots on Amazon.com's adult bestseller list. And the wizard-in-training's final curtain call is nowhere in sight: Rowling is already at work on Harry the Fourth and plans to write a seven-book saga. (She also plans to crisscross the U.S. on a book tour, beginning next month.)
Joanne Rowling is a latecomer to both fame and fortune. After graduating from Exeter University (where she studied French), Rowling landed a job as a secretary. (The best thing about the job, she once confided, was that she could "type up stories on the computer when no one was looking.") Seven years ago, she moved to Portugal and taught English. And then, of course, along came Harry. Nowadays, Rowling and her five-year-old daughter, Jessica, live in Edinburgh, Scotland. This telephone interview took place in mid-June.
What were your expectations for Harry initially?
I had no idea truthfully what kind of reception it would get. If indeed it would ever get published, because I never looked to publish before. I knew how difficult it would be just to get a book published. I was a completely unknown writer. I certainly could never have expected what's happened. It's been a real shock.
Are there any misconceptions about you?
When I read the inaccurate reports that I decided to turn my hand to writing out of poverty, I feel indignant. When I had the idea for Harry and when I started writing the [first] book, I was working full time, as I was for my entire adult life, and I was not a single parent. I finished the book under those conditions. But it obviously does make a better story. It sounds more like a rags-to-riches tale.
You're often portrayed as an overnight sensation.
That couldn't be further away from the truth. I actually started writing Harry in 1990.
What were you working on before that?
Short stories. A lot of started-and-abandoned novels before I sort of hit my stride. It would be totally untrue to say [my success] is overnight or it came out of nowhere. I'll even say that I am mildly indignant when people say that to me, because I worked very hard and served my apprenticeship in terms of writing before Harry.
Are the reports true that you were working on Harry in cafes while your daughter slept beside you?
It was more difficult to write because at that time I was a single parent and I had no money for child care at all. It is absolutely true that I used to go to cafes. I had to basically find out which cafes would allow me to sit in for a bit of coffee and let me just write for a couple of hours while my daughter napped. A substantial part of the [first Harry Potter] book was written and rewritten in those conditions.
How did you come up with the idea for Harry?
I had the idea for Harry on a train in the summer of 1990 .... I was sitting on the train. I was staring out the window. As far as I can remember, I was staring at some cows. Not the most inspiring subject. [Although cartoonist] Gary Larsen would disagree, now that I think of it. [The idea] just came. I can not tell you why or what triggered it--if indeed anything triggered it. I saw Harry incredibly clearly. The idea basically at that point was wizard school and I saw Harry very, very plainly.
Are any of the characters autobiographical?
Hermione is loosely based on me. She's a caricature of me when I was 11, which I'm not particularly proud of. She's quite annoying in a lot of ways. I like her as a character, but I'm very aware that some people wouldn't.
I know girls who are a lot like Hermione--endearing and pesky at the same time.
I've met a lot of girls who say they recognize themselves in Hermione. I think it's a very female way of coping, to try and be the best. Hermione is a character I understand really, really well. I consciously try to make it clear that underneath the aggravating surface is someone who is actually quite insecure, hence her constant struggle to be the best. I think boy readers can grudgingly see the point of Hermione. Girls tend to identify with her a lot more. It probably is a particularly female characteristic for young girls to cover up their insecurities about feeling plain, or whatever inadequacy, by trying to get the best marks. Hermione will loosen up a lot. In fact she does loosen up a lot in Chamber of Secrets--as I did as I got older.
What did you like to read when you were growing up?
I adored E. Nesbit. I think her books are wonderful. My favorite book as a child was called Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. I liked [Noel] Streatfeild, who did those girly books about ballet shoes and things. I was a bit old for Roald Dahl. I did read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was about 11, and I really enjoyed it. But a lot of his later stuff, like Matilda and The Twits, I haven't read.
Some readers compare the two of you.
I'll be honest with you, I take it as a huge compliment because he's very popular .... However, I don't actually think we're that similar. I think that superficially, very superficially-because from what I know about Roald Dahl, he was very good on quirky details--we have something in common. But at a deeper level, we're quite different. This is not at all meaning that I'm better than Roald Dahl. He's an absolute master at what he did. It's just that I think we set out to do quite different things. I think his characters are more cartoonlike than mine are. I also think--unfashionable a word as that is--that my books are a lot more "moral."
What were you like as a young girl?
My life's ambition has been to write full time .... This is all I have wanted from the age of six. I cannot overstate how much I wanted that. But I didn't talk about it at all. I just never really spoke about it, because I was embarrassed. And because my parents were the kind of parents who would have thought, "Ah yes, that's very nice, dear. But where is the pension plan?"
Talk about your earliest attempts at writing.
The first story I ever wrote was about a rabbit. [I wrote it] when I was six. The whole story was [about the rabbit] getting measles. I wrote stories about rabbits for a couple of years. I definitely have a rabbit fixation .... I actually own a rabbit now. Maybe that will help me get rid of the fixation.
How have kids responded to your books?
Talking to children about the books is actually just about the most enjoyable thing you could possibly do. They are great.
What are they most curious about?
They are very keen to know whom I'm going to kill. Very, very, very keen. That fascinates me. I think I understand why. They are all really worried about Ron. They've seen so many' films where the main character's best friend died [that] I think they have become incredibly wise and know the storyteller's tricks, basically. They know that if Ron died, Harry' would have such a grudge, that it would make it very personal.
Are you planning to kill off Ron?
I can't let on too much.
The first two Harry Potter books are very lighthearted. Will the series remain that way?
[The books] are getting darker, and that's inevitable. If you are writing about Good and Evil, there comes a point where you have to get serious. This is something I really have had to think about.
Early on, I had to consider how to depict an evil being, such as Lord Voldemort [in books one and two]. I could go one of two ways: I could either make him a pantomime villain... [meaning that there is] a lot of sound and thunder and nobody really gets hurt. Or [I could] attempt to do something a little bit more serious--which means you're going to have to show death. And worse than that, you'll have to show the death of characters whom the readers care about. I chose the second route.
What about the strange names you use?
Most of the words came in my head full-formed and I have to kind of trace them back. And I can only try to speculate to where they came from. I think that I derived "Muggle" [the word wizards use to describe humans without magical powers] from the word "mug," which in Britain means a stupid person or a fellow who's easy to dupe.
I read somewhere that you are a collector of weird names.
That's absolutely true. Names have always fascinated me. It is such sheer indulgence to be able to invent names and use strange names in the Harry books. It's going to make it very difficult for [me to work on] the next thing I write. If it's realistic, I'll have to give up all those names. Boy!
How do you pronounce "Quidditch," the name of your invented ball game?
It's KWI-ditch [stress on the first syllable].
Where did that name come from?
I met a British journalist from quite a serious newspaper not very long ago. She said to me: "You obviously got the name 'Quidditch' from 'quiddity,' which is the word that means the essence of a thing." And I looked at her and thought, "Oh, I really want to say, 'Yes.' Because that sounds so much cooler than the truth." But the truth is that I invented the word for a totally whimsical reason. I just wanted a word that began with Q. Don't ask me why. Just pure whim. I still have the notebook in which I invented all these words beginning with Q. On the page, you can see where I wrote Quidditch, and I circled it five times. I just really liked the sound of it.
Did you ever imagine you would be such an enormous success?
When I went into this, my agent said to me, "I don't want you going away from this meeting thinking that you're going to make a fortune." Then I said to him, totally truthfully: "I know I'm not gonna make any money out of it. I know I'm not gonna be famous. And that is fine." All I ever wanted to do is to see the book published. That was the truth. I was very, very, very realistic .... I knew that most children's writers don't make any money. They will never ever, ever be very well known. I was totally OK with that. I just wanted someone to publish Harry so I could go to bookshops and see it. [I wanted] to be able, somehow, to support myself writing so I didn't have to give it up.
Did you consider quitting?
What I was terrified of at one point was I just wouldn't be able to justify to myself continuing to write. I thought it would be selfish for my daughter if I could earn a better living doing something else .... However much I loved writing, she still needed new shoes. If writing wasn't helping to buy new shoes, then it just felt very self-indulgent. That's what I was praying for... to just make enough for me to be able to continue to justify financially to write.
I know a lot of readers are glad you never had to make that sacrifice.
I have been incredibly fortunate because I didn't have to give up my dearest dream. But I was ready to do it if I had to. But now my daughter and I have security. I can't tell you what that means to me.
Roxanne Feldman is a middle school librarian at the Dalton School in New York City.