"I don't believe in magic as it occurs in my books - the wand-waving and spell-casting type of magic," said J. K. Rowling, who was in Boston as she began a three-week book tour.
"But I do believe in magic in a figurative sense," she said. "For example, learning to read is a kind of magic that happens in the lives of children. No one knows how it happens - one day a child is trying to decode letters and sounds and the next week he or she is reading and understanding sentences. It's a magic that is metaphorical."
For the past two years, author Joann Rowling appears to have some sort of metaphorical magic whirling around her and the books she has created. Her vividly imagined stories about Harry Potter's adventures at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry are a children's-book publishing phenomenon.
Written for 8- through 12-year-olds, Rowling's books delight children and adults alike.
Sales figures substantiate that her books have become part of a countless number of lives. Scholastic Books, publishers of the American editions, boasts more than 8.2 million hard-cover copies sold.
Even Rowling, who five years ago was trying to make enough money to support herself and her daughter, marvels at the dramatic transformation in her life.
"I am still stunned that I went literally from being an unknown author on the bread line to having my books at the top of the charts," she said.
Three books of the planned seven-book series are available in bookstores. The stories are chock-full of all the right ingredients to make captivating tales: quirky and courageous characters, magic, humor, whimsical and bizarre locations, a perfect blend of fantasy and reality. And, woven throughout the narratives are age-old themes of good and evil.
The Student NewsLine invited readers to participate in an interview with Rowling by sending in questions. Of course, not all of the more than 900 questions could be used. Because many were similar, we have not printed names of the student questioners. Those questions asked of Rowling should give fans some insights into the Harry Potter characters and plots.
What inspired the Harry Potter series?
"I really don't know where the idea came from. It came into my mind when I was on a train to London. Harry as a character came fully formed, as did the idea for his sidekicks, the characters of Ron and Hermione. It started with Harry, then all these characters and situations came flooding into my head. It was an excitement I'd never known before. The characters arrived in 1990, but it took me six years to write the book."
How does the writing process work for you?
"Because I had all these characters early on, and I felt I knew them inside-out, I concentrated on putting a massive amount of effort into each plot. I really love a well-constructed plot. In fact, plot is such an important framework to me when I write, that before I had finished the first book, I had plotted all seven books about Harry."
How are you able to pack so many details into a story and keep it exciting?
"If I have worked hard at the plot and it is well constructed and moves at a good pace, then I have the freedom to do the fun stuff and I can embroider the details within the plot at points where they create the most interest."
Did you like to write stories when you were a child?
"Yes. I wrote my first story when I was 6 years old. Since that time, all I really ever wanted to do was to be a writer. That first story was about a rabbit called Rabbit. He got the measles and all his animal friends came to visit him. Believe me, nobody is ever going to want to buy the film rights to that story, but I was very proud of it."
How did you come up with the game of quidditch?
"Actually, if you think about it, there is quite a bit of logic to the game. My first premise was that these wizards at Hogwarts had been living for hundreds and hundreds of years in a submerged society right along side of humans. Soccer or basketball or some other contemporary sport would make the wizards too noticeable when they congregated to watch it. Also, many games of today haven't been around for hundreds of years, so they were out of the time context. I wanted to give Hogwarts its own sport. I wanted it to be as dangerous and as funny as possible. And players had to be flying. So, I made up the rules and I know them very well. I made up the name of the game too, because I liked the sound of the word."
What advice would give children who want to be writers when they grow up?
"I know this sounds like a teacher, but remember, I was a teacher before I began the Harry books. This is what works for me: First you must read, then practice, and always plan. Read as much as you can, because that teaches you what good writing is.Then, when you write, you will find yourself imitating your favorite writers, but that's OK, because it is part of the learning process. You will go on to find your own personal voice and style. Writing is like learning an instrument. When you are learning guitar, you expect to hit bum notes. And when you practice writing, you are going to write rubbish before you hit your stride. I know this sounds terribly boring, but it is much more productive to plan out exactly where you want to go when you sit down to write about something."
"That was a bit of hard work. First, I considered the many different ways we sort things. Pulling names out of a hat was the one that kept coming back to me. So I twisted the idea around and came up with a talking hat that could make decisions. There is more to the Sorting Hat than what you have read about in the first three books. Readers will find out what the Sorting Hat becomes as they get into future books."
What is the thing you want most from your readers?
"What makes reading unique is that it is a very private experience. My readers have to work with me to create the experience. They have to bring their imaginations to the story. No one sees a book in the same way, no one sees the characters the same way. As a reader you imagine them in your own mind. So, together, as author and reader, we have both created the story. Reading is not like watching a film or television, because we both see the same images and that's a very passive experience. Reading is an active experience because you bring your imagination to it. When you do that, the reader and the author are having sort of a conversation. In a good story, the reader is very aware of what's in the author's mind. That's what makes reading magical."
How on earth did you come up with all those names for people, food, spells, games, and animals?
"Some of the names are invented, but I also collect unusual names and words and use them where they fit. For example, Malfoy and Voldmort are invented names. Dumbledore, on the other hand, is an Old English word meaning bumblebee. Hagrid, who by the way is one of my favorite characters, also comes from an Old English word - hagridden - meaning having a nightmarish night. I take names from places too. Dursley is a place in Britain as is Snape. Hedwig was a saint. The word for non-magic humans, muggles, is a twist on the English word mug, which means easily fooled. I made it into muggles because it sounds gentler. Proper, good wizards are quite fond of muggles and treat them in a kindly way."
When you write something, do you ever mess up and have to start over?
"I mess up all the time. In fact, there's a chapter in the book I'm now writing that is giving me a terrible time. As of now I've written eight different versions of the chapter. This is a chapter that's very important and something pivotal takes place. I'm having trouble with it sounding right and it is very frustrating."
"Yes. I've even drawn a picture of how they look. Harry has his father and mother's good looks. But he has his mother's eyes and that's very important in a future book."
Is the magic in the books real or did you make it up?
"I have done a healthy amount of research on the subject of folklore and the history of magic. As for the magic in the books, about one third of it is based on what people used to believe and about two-thirds I invented. The dementors are creatures I made up, but the hippogriff is something people used to believe existed. I have fun taking liberties with magic, but no one could ever want to use my books as a reference. I don't believe in magic as it is portrayed in the books."
Is there going to be a Harry Potter movie?
"There is going to be a Harry Potter movie. It's not going to be a cartoon. Warner Brothers is making the film and I chose them because they wanted it to be live action. I can't wait to see how they will pull off a quidditch game."
Why do you think your books are so popular?
"I think one reason Harry's stories are appealing is he has to accept adult burdens in his life, although he is a child. He is an old-fashioned hero. What I mean by that is - there are enough human frailties in Harry that people of all ages identify with him, but he's also an honorable, admirable person. Harry can only get to a certain point in an adventure by breaking some rules. His particular role in the group [ of three friends] is conscience. He will break the rule if he thinks he's doing it for the greater good. But he has a fundamental sense of honor, and he learns that the choices a person makes show more of who you are than your abilities. I would also like to think that readers enjoy my stories because they are simply good stories. I've had so much fun writing them and I hope kids have as much fun reading them."