J.K. ROWLING has to be careful when talking about her plans to bump someone off. Rowling, author of the wildly popular Harry Potter series-whose first three titles are currently Nos. 1, 2 and 5 on Newsday's bestseller list-is on a coast-to-coast American tour to promote her third book, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." In interviews, Rowling has learned to watch her every word: She's let it be known that a principal character will die in a future book but won't say which.
This has spurred a spree of anxious speculation among Potter fans, whose ranks of children and adults alike swell by the week.
But that's not unusual. Ever since Rowling's first tale of a boy's adventures in wizarding school became a runaway best-seller (the three books have sold about 7.5 million copies combined), whatever Rowling writes, says and does further fuels Pottermania. Or its opposite. When half a dozen parents showed up at a South Carolina Board of Education meeting last Tuesday to complain about the Potter books being read in the schools, claiming "a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil," the story immediately broke on CNN as well as on the many Harry Potter fan Web sites. (A principal in Marietta, Ga., and a small group of parents in Lakeville, Minn., also have questioned the use of the books in classrooms.) As Jim Foster, director of public information of the South Carolina Department of Education-who has spent the week fielding calls from the British, Scottish and U.S. media-points out, "This is one of those amazing things in journalism ... where six people with an opinion can create a tidal wave." Indeed, what's remarkable is that Harry Potter has enemies at all. "I hear from so many parents who've told me it's the first book their kid read the whole way through and it's turned their kid on to reading," says Rowling's editor at Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine. " The ratio [of fans to protesters] is maybe 10,000 to a half, so I can't be that concerned." AS FOR ROWLING, 33, she is chagrined about the protests but resigned. "My feeling about that is that if we're going to ban all the books that mention witches ... we're going to be getting rid of a lot of classics," she says.
"I've met thousands of children now, and I haven't met a single one who's told me that they've developed an interest in witchcraft because of my books. I think the children are being much smarter about this than a few other people.
It's an imaginary world, and I think a very moral world. And the bottom line is, if people don't want to read it, they don't have to read it, you know?" In any case, Rowling seems to be having the time of her life. Her current schedule of tours, bookstore signings and awards ceremonies is a long way from the Edinburgh, Scotland, cafe where the single, educated but jobless Rowling worked on the "Harry Potter" stories as her baby daughter, Jessica (now 5) slept nearby. Still, Rowling appears to have both feet firmly on the ground.
She certainly travels more, and meets many fellow children's book authors, but "I don't go to many cocktail parties," she says with a laugh. She seems wonderstruck at her place in the literary world and at the frequently proposed notion that she's single-handedly revived children's literature. "There's nothing I would like more than to think that children's literature got a little more respect, and that the divide that some people seem to perceive between children's and adult literature was being broken down a little." Rowling's fans are clamoring for the next four books (there will be seven in all, taking Harry through his last term at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry),but they'll have to be patient, since they're scheduled to come out about once a year. Though her fan mail has turned into an "avalanche," she's still "genuinely trying to answer all of them." On top of that and writing the new books-as well as consulting on the forthcoming Harry Potter film from Warner Bros.-ideas for new work keep piling up.
Cautious as always, though, Rowling won't say whether they're for another series or even involve magic at all. "It is ironic that fantasy isn't really my favorite genre, because people nowadays tend to assume that if it's got a unicorn in it, then I want to read it, but that's not actually always the case." While she hasn't ruled out a book for adults (though she reveres Jane Austen, her favorite living writer is Roddy Doyle, "an absolute genius"), she says, "If at the end of my life I had only ever published for children, I would in no way see that as second best. Not at all. I feel no need to write my Serious Adult Book." As for the recent controversies, children- the only critics Rowling seems concerned about-know where they stand. Tim Stulte's sixth-grade students at Gatelot Avenue School in Ronkonkoma are firm on the point: As Colleen Ryan, 11, says, "It's a book, it's not like anything real ... There's nothing in it that's really bad. They're just characters." Besides, as Kristen Capece, also 11,who most envies Harry's ability to fly,points out regretfully, even if Potter fans did pick up a magic spell in their reading, "It's not like it's guaranteed to work." Indeed, Ailish Bateman, 12, of Sag Harbor, speaks for many of Harry Potter's fans: "I think everybody knows that this couldn't happen, possibly. And if it did, that's cool." In any case, one spell-that of J.K. Rowling - appears to be unbreakable.