Transcript: Trish Drasnin
Context: On "Launch Day" for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Stephen Fry interviewed J. K. Rowling aboard the Hogwart’s Express Train while it was stopped between King’s Cross & Didcot stations. The video clips of the interview were originally available on Bloomsbury’s website: http://www.bloomsbury.com/harrypotter/muggles/ram/q1.ram (etc.)
Video: courtesy Bloomsbury
Part1: Fame and going to dinner parties
Part2: Fame and fan enthusiasm
Part3: Creating "The Rules" of magic
Part4: Changing 'Joanne Rowling' to 'J.K. Rowling'
Part5: Magic and its role in the stories
Part6: Naming puzzles in the books, and research on snakes
Part7: The pressure to merchandise
Part8: The filming status of the first movie
Part9: Writing book 5
Transcription of Part1 (1:50)
SF: When it started, the first of the Harry Potter books, they became rapidly very popular amongst parents and children, but they weren’t the dinner party subject that they now are. They beat even, I think, Marks and Spencer dips and the price of property in the north of Hampstead as a subject.
JKR: I know, more discussed than taramasalata….
SF: Exactly, more discussed than taramasalata. And do you find that this actually makes it difficult for you to go out? And do you dread dinner parties because you think you’re going to get cornered by people asking you endlessly about what’s going to happen with Harry Potter – and how it started and so on?
JKR: Going out is incredibly easy – I’m not a very recognisable person. So it obviously it makes sense that I would be interviewed by you on the net to maintain that state of affairs. How intelligent I am to be sure. When people come up to me, which is normally they need to see me in context, if they see me writing somewhere, they’ve never been less than charming. They’ve never ever been less than wonderful. So, um, I would really be unpleasant to object to that in any way. When I go to dinner parties – actually maybe it is the friends I’ve got – but when I go to dinner parties people are generally very rude to me. So, no, people don’t tend to corner me and badger me for things. My daughter occasionally gets cornered by roving groups of Potter fans at school.
SF: And how old is she?
JKR: Seven, nearly seven.
SF: And she’s a fan of Harry Potter?
JKR: Yes, and I live with my most obsessive fan I sometimes think. Yes.
SF: And did you in some sense did you write the first for her with a view to….
JKR: In fact, I wrote most of the first before she was born, so no. But it makes my life, you can imagine, much, much easier that she enjoys what I do. Because to be able to say to her “no, I’ve got to, I’ve got to work – I’m writing” when she’s eager for the end result, is much easier than if I was disappearing off to do something.
JKR: Am I warping a generation?
SF: Oh yes, are you afraid of the almost obsessive nature of the subject?
JKR: The funny thing is that I did always think that, if it ever did get published, it was a book for obsessives. I’m quite an obsessive person. I think you can probably tell.
JKR: And I did think if people liked it they would probably like it obsessively. I just never…. but I thought that it would be an obsessive few – I never guessed it would be an obsessive many, as has happened.
SF: I cannot think, and I don’t suppose that anybody can think, of a publishing phenomenon (a word you must be very tired of) that comes close to this. Are there times when you actually think that you would rather the original view that it would be a small devoted following you had?
JKR: Yes, some people find that quite hard to believe. There’s no denying I made a lot of money out of it. And some of it is absolutely wonderful. But, yes, I often think that I was temperamentally best suited to being a moderately successful author. And I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was walking into. But then nor did anyone else….
SF: But then no, quite….
JKR: I was never in a position where I signed a piece of paper agreeing that this would happen, and obviously no one around me ever thought this would happen, so we’re all not clever.
Transcription of Part3 (1:48)
SF: The detail of it and I suppose when most people try and explain what it is that they so love about the Harry Potter books, it is the detail. Not just the detail of the wizardry and so on, the Floo Powder, and even the confectionery, the butterbeer and the pumpkin juice and things like that. But also the detail of living – you know, the way you go up the stairs and through the mirror and, you know, the lady in the portrait in order to get into the dormitory and the nature of the houses and so on – which is very British public school of course.
SF: And do you think that the thing you have the most fun with is setting yourself the rules of the magic and how far it can go?
JKR: The most important thing when you are creating a fantasy world is to set the rules – irrespective of whether you’re including a public school or not because…. a public school, a boarding school – a very important distinction. Because without it – you have no conflict; you have no tension; you have no drama – if you have given your characters limitless powers and no barriers. You have to decide first of all most importantly what they can’t do, way before you decide what they can do. Otherwise you actually have no story at all.
JKR: As far as the boarding school goes, I very often get asked “did I go to a boarding school?" No, I went to a comprehensive. We did have four houses – that’s as far as the similarities with Hogwarts go. What amused me in a way, though probably only me, was the idea that you would have this very traditional school in which you had almost controlled anarchy. I mean, if those students wanted to band together, they could have the staff, no problem. I’ve had that experience myself as a teacher looking out at the class and thinking “you could have me – what is holding you back”.
JKR: A dangerous frame of mind for a teacher.
SF: Only a step away from “The Lord of the Flies” really.
JKR: Well, I wasn’t told. They couldn’t have made me do it – but at the same time I was so grateful that they were publishing me, I would have called myself Enid Snodgrass had they so required. And I asked them why – I said “why” – and they first of all said that “it will look more striking”. And I said “it is to hide that I’m a woman, isn’t it”. And they said “[ermm, squirming sound] we thought boys will like this book – maybe, maybe it is that”. So I said that I would. And of course the whole thing was blown apart three months later because I went on Blue Peter (because the book had started to sell really well) and everyone knew I was a woman then. And I have since asked boys “would it have made any difference had known I was a woman?” and they’ve all said no, but maybe they are being polite, I don’t know.
SF: Who can say.…
JKR: Maybe they were being polite to me. SF: But I do know people who took a very long…. a lot of persuading that you were a woman, because they had been to English boarding schools.
JKR: You’ve been talking to ex-boyfriends of mine, haven’t you.
of Part5 (1:19)
SF: It sounds an extraordinary thing to say, but in many ways of course the stories would hold together even if there was no magic in them, because what people really come away with seems to be the relationships, particularly (obviously) Hermione, Harry and Ron. Do you know what I mean?
JKR: I do know what you mean. Because I…. this is something…. it is very…. I’m sure you’ve had the same experience but it is very hard to discuss your work until it’s finished. And then you look back and think probably that’s why that worked, but I didn’t go into it thinking this is what works, therefore I will do that. But from letters I get and the reactions I get, particularly from children, it is the characters they care about most. But yes, they are very deeply amused by the magic going on and so on. But they really deeply care about the characters, particularly the three central characters – Harry, Ron and Hermione.
SF: Yeah, yeah. And it’s extraordinary, isn’t it, how they seem to understand the characters without you having described a lot of them, that it’s something comes across like Ron’s. Most people can say exactly who Ron Weasley was, what precisely is his nature and you never at any point actually say what he’s like. No one says…. you know…. there’s not a paragraph that says he’s stout and….
JKR: That actually was conscious. I mistrust authors who introduce their characters “he was a slight young man with a whimsical sense of humour”. Well just show me his whimsical sense of humour, don’t tell me he’s got it.
SF: Show, not tell.
JKR: It kind of irritates me.
Transcription of Part6 (1:51)
SF: Now, one of the rather charming things that adults in particular I suppose get out of the books is that there are little – you know, not cryptic puzzles exactly, but the names – you are very careful in choosing names. I mean, Malfoy, for example, is “bad faith”.
JKR: Exactly, yes.
SF: And names like that. Even the school crest is something which is rather fun for those of us who have done a bit of Latin. For instance: “Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus” – it’s sort of like “Let sleeping dogs lie”, but it is “Don’t tickle a sleeping dragon”.
JKR: “Don’t tickle a sleeping dragon”, exactly.
SF: Which is fine advice.
JKR: I wanted good practical advice. All the schools I’ve ever been to or taught in have mottos: “Persevere”, “Onwards and Upwards”. I wanted good solid practical advice for Hogwarts
SF: Yes. And the houses, of course, have their own nature.
JKR: They do.
SF: Slytherin. Almost everyone one to do with it has a name that is snakelike and slithery. This extraordinary thing of talking to snakes – is that something that you came up with, people who can talk to snakes?
JKR: Yes, “parselmouth” is actually an old word for someone with – it was actually a deformity of the mouth, so I’ve actually appropriated that word and turned it into something else.
SF: Right, and it seems to have a great power. You somehow feel that it’s an ancient myth.
JKR: There is something about that…. there are so many legends attached to the snake.
SF: All the way back to Adam.
JKR: Absolutely. And you find them all cultures, bizarrely. It fascinates me. But I can’t go on about that too long. Because, as people who watch me interviewed will know, I very boringly end up saying “you’ve got to wait for Book 7”. I can’t say too much about that.
SF: No! That makes it all the more intriguing.
JKR: Yes, I know. Good isn’t it. What a marketing ploy – thought that one up myself!
Transcription of Part7
SF: Now you have been compared, which is of course complimentary and very justified, to the greatest children’s writers there have been, like Roald Dahl and Lewis Carroll and so on. But of course they didn’t have to put up with what you had to put up with, did they? For those who find it hard to believe…. who think “gosh, I would love that to happen”, they just ought to use their imagination for a second and picture what it would be like to have so many people wanting things out of you. Presumably there must be people wanting to licence the Harry Potter name and obviously people must want….
JKR: Yes, totally relentless.
SF: I mean, GameBoys and Playstations must be dying to have a Harry Potter game and so on, and so you have got to keep immense control over everything.
JKR: I can only promise people that I’m in there fighting for the integrity of the world. Constantly. It would be foolish for us to imagine that there won’t be merchandising connected to the film. There always is with children’s films. But will I go to floor fighting against Harry and fast food boxes? Yes, I will.
JKR: We’re in what’s called pre-production. You’ll know what that means better than I do. They tell me we’re in pre-production and I nod wisely and say “ah, good, good”. I don’t know what that means.
SF: Pre-production – it’s a phase in which all kinds of things happen. The crew starts to get together (at different times of pre-production) and obviously the casting is completed during pre-production, naturally. And they go on things called “recces”, or “scouting” they call it in America, where they look for all the different locations.
JKR: Yes, they’ve shown me photographs of things they’re using.
SF: Yes, that’s right. They take enormous numbers of photographs – the art directors, the production designers and so on. And they build the sets.
JKR: They start building fun little models that I want to take away and play with, but they need them. They won’t let me.
SF: And, of course you’ve famously said that you would also protect it from Americanisation in the film – because of course it is an American studio and an American director, Chris Columbus.
JKR: Well, it looks as though we will get my dream, which was an all-British cast. So thus far I’m very happy. At one point it didn’t look as though that would be the case, so I’m very happy.
SF: Oh that’s terrific.
SF: And I know that where I come from in Norfolk (it’s just a sort of tiny example) but about three months ago I was in King’s Lynn, which is a small market town….
JKR: I know, I’ve had holidays there.
SF: And in the Post office I heard this boy saying to his mother “No mum, that’s Pinewood International Studios”.
JKR: Oh were they. Harry!
SF: He was writing and I was just….
JKR: Oh bless him.
SF: You know, you thought, but look King’s Lynn and he was telling his mother what the address….
JKR: Would we like him? We still haven’t found a….
SF: No, he was thin and spotty with red hair, unfortunately.
JKR: Oh, Ron.
SF: But he might have been a Ron, of course – it’s true, it’s true, with a good Norfolk accent.
JKR: Why not?
SF: So, the search is still on for Harry, is it?
JKR: Yes, I think we might be getting there.
JKR: Umm, knowing me, I will say… oh I’ll start…. I’ll take a break. I said this after Azkaban. I’ll take a break – the next day I started. So, when I get the urge I’ll be back at it. Which I would imagine is sooner than I am planning at the moment. That always happens.
SF: Well, thank you very much.