"Mother of all Muggles," The Irish Times, July 13, 2000
Wizards, Muggles and invisible cloaks have enticed non-reading children into the world of books and earned Harry Potter's inventor more than the Spice Girls. Eileen Battersby boards the Hogwarts Express to meet the author, J. K. Rowling
An orderly queue waits in the drizzle outside a large bookshop in Newcastle, in the north-east of England. Boys and girls aged six to 16, some of them with red, lightning-bolt marks on their foreheads, are holding fat volumes of the same book. A couple of them have begun reading passages from it. Two photographers are on the alert. Orange balloons bob in the breeze. The atmosphere is that of a happy vigil.
All eyes are at the ready for the arrival of anything out of the ordinary - even a pair of bright purple socks, mine, are noted. A tall man in wizard's robes has taken up position in the front window. He seems quite calm and is reading a newspaper. Not an owl in sight. No ginger tabby either. No flying motor bikes. Muggle (non-wizard) citizens pass by, noting the banners: "Harry is Back". Meanwhile, a green steam engine puffs towards the city. All the way from London via York, The Hogwarts Express is approaching. Harry Potter may not be on it, but J. K. Rowling, his creator is - and her followers have waved and waited all the way from King's Cross Station.
Within two days of publication, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book chronicling the adventures of the superhero trainee wizard, sold one and a half million copies. Even the youngest readers are undaunted by the size of the new book. Many have declared their intention of devoting the summer holiday to reading it. A small blue car looms into view. A cheer goes up, but a lone pragmatist silences everyone: "that's not a Ford Anglia, it's only a Volvo ".
Having discreetly parked my Nimbus Two Thousand and One broomstick, and with my wizard's hat in place, it is time to take up position near the entrance to the small, dimly-lit magic grotto in which Rowling will perform her task, that of signing 500 books in less than an hour. The walls are covered in lavender drapes decorated with gold, stencilled stars. A purple goblet is on a table shrouded in a heavy cloth. The Hogwarts Express is late, slowed down by followers at railway platforms. The wait continues. Bookstore staff are tense. Journalists are viewed with the suspicion normally reserved for You-Know-Who, (Voldemort).
Rowling arrives, slight and businesslike, a bit tired, facing the world with the brisk smile of a survivor. There is no puff of smoke, no melodrama. Not a wand in sight. Dressed in a red jacket, black trousers and low heels she looks normal, as normal as any Muggle mum waiting in the queue. There is not even a trace of eccentricity. "She's earned more than the Spice Girls," mutters one journalist. "So there is a God after all," says his sidekick. Rowling removes the cloth from the table. Down on the floor goes the lamp with its field-of-stars shade. Down too goes the goblet. Rowling knows speed is of the essence at a book signing.
A pushy radio reporter thrusts her mike under the Potter author's nose: "So how about all this money then? J. K. - I mean, Joanne, did you think you would be writing for adults as well as children? What's it like to be so rich?" Rowling despatches a glance of humorous contempt that announces simultaneously, "Here we go again" and, "mind your own business". It is obvious she has correctly identified the radio woman as an individual having a lot in common with Harry's uncle and aunt.
No one would ever pick Rowling out as the creator of these books. She is not sufficiently weird or offbeat. She doesn't even have bright purple socks. The observation makes her roar with laughter. The massive sales and her success appear to have become bigger than the books. Many of the articles being written are more concerned with sales figures than plot lines. She is the story of the moment and so her life has been picked over by the British press. "I'm not a recluse," she says. "I am a single parent and I write. There's no time for anything else. I'm not complaining, I'm happy enough."
There is nothing cosy or condescending about Rowling, nor does she seem magical. Anyone expecting a benign witch would be not so much disappointed as surprised. Rowling is completely ordinary, as regular as the features of her face. No one could parody anything about her. There are no tics, no gestures, no catch phrases. As subversive as her books, she is also streetwise, likeable, devoid of pretence and uncommercial, although she is delighted with Stephen Fry 's hilarious recordings of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Her wealth has not changed her because she hasn't forgotten what it was like to be poor, living in a small flat with a baby.
If there is a single clue to the success of the Potter books, aside from the hype breeding hype, it is that Rowling pays immense attention to detail. The four books to date, which are each supported by the structure of a school year topped at either end by Harry's miserable periods with the Dursleys, are sustained by the continuity and narrative cohesion created by cross-referencing throughout.
She has never forgotten a remark once made by one of her literary heroes, E. Nesbit, the author of The Story of the Treasure Seekers. "She said that by some lucky chance, she remembered exactly how she felt and thought as a child."
Rowling also retains vivid memories of those sensations. "I was always writing, inventing, imagining. I wrote my first book when I was six. It was about a rabbit with measles. I remember telling my mother to publish it."
Her accent is neutral, south of England, although at times there is a slight hint of the West Country, classless, at once very English and yet not particularly so - a bit like her books. "I'm the most English of people," she says. She was born in Bristol in 1965, "but we moved to Chepstow and I grew up in the Forest of Dean. It was the countryside". Her father, now retired, was an engineer with Rolls-Royce. We were . . ." she pauses and shrugs vaguely, "middle-class. But I went to a very ordinary school, a comprehensive. And although it (the school) was not very academic, I tried very hard to do very well and did".
While enough of the tomboy remains about her to suggest Harry might well be an alter ego, within a couple of minutes of hearing Rowling describe her younger self, it becomes clear that she is in fact Hermione, the hardworking Muggle determined to become a wizard. "She wants to please, to achieve. She's a swot, just like I was."
As we sit on a vintage steam train with the English and later the Scottish countryside passing the windows at a sedate pace, all the hype seems a bit crazy. What does she think? "It's not about me, it's about Harry Potter. I'm not a pop star or an actress, the children want Harry Potter, not me."
As a child, she lived in her imagination, a habit she has not lost. "I love talking, and having friends. I was always bossy, inventing things, a tomboy," adding she was "hopeless at sport. Always the last to be picked on a team". I expected her to say that. Only a person who hated sport could devise a game as daft as Quidditch. Another loud burst of laughter: "Quidditch is my revenge on sport. But all that team thing, the winning of points, is very important in a school situation. It's more than a sport, it's a game."
Maybe so, but the vivid descriptions of the various matches which take place at Hogwarts make it sound more like combat. Also it is something which Harry is good at. "It helps him belong," and Rowling agrees that central among the several prevailing themes of the books is Harry's need to belong.
There is nothing soft or delusionary about the story. The prose is highly descriptive but the language is flat, neutral, as accentless as she is. But the tone is English. Harry's saga is funny but it is also black, violent and even threatening. "Children appreciate real life." Harry is the victim of multiple miscarriages of justice. "I think there is a strong sense of powerlessness. That 's one of the big things about being a child, you have no power." For all its fun, Hogwarts is very strict and competitive. "I think children respond to the idea of rules because they know they are there to be broken and also there is the fact that the world is a tough place."
All kinds of claims for the books have been made. She has even been unconvincingly compared with Jane Austen and Henry James, but Rowling's success is about the enduring appeal of story. "That's it exactly. I planned the entire story years ago. I already know how it ends. It just became several books instead of one. But it is one story, Harry's story."
Another comparison is with the sevenbook Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, which have a moral and a strong religious theme. Still, standing head and shoulders above so much of this writing is the achievement of J. R. R. Tolkien. "I do admire him," she says of a writer whose obsessive attention to detail exceeds even her own.
Her uses of motifs and devices is similar to Tolkien's. Her books evoke a society within a society and a fantasy world of magic superimposed upon everyday life. Tolkien creates a fantastical world possessing a complex culture, history and several languages. In The Hobbit, Bilbo finds a ring which makes him invisible; Harry has the Invisibility Cloak. For Tolkien, the ring becomes a symbol; in Rowling, the cloak is a good comic device. "Cloaks are more fun than rings, you can trip on them, tear them, they can fall of - they are fun."
She has a sister. "It was a small family, maybe that's why I fell into making up stories. I played with boys who were good pals, platonic friends. But I always needed time to be on my own. I still do. I like sitting down to write, to create my own world."
Where did Harry come from? "He just happened. I was thinking about him for ages. And he had to be a boy. It would have been a big mistake to have made him into some kind of feisty, football-playing tomboy." He is also no saint. "He wants to do well, to find himself. He is brave and he also tells lies." Rowling has never allowed her readers to dictate what she writes. "I like my readers, I love entertaining them. But I write these books for myself. I don't want to find myself thinking, 'oh dear, I'd better not write that in case it annoys my readers'."
For all the mass adoration, there has been criticism. Some parents objected to the episode in which Harry and Ron, having failed to get on the school train back to Hogwarts, decide to get there courtesy of Ron's dad's flying car, the famous blue Ford Anglia. "They are not supposed to take it. But the plan appeals to Ron's recklessness." For Harry, the school, with its interesting resident ghosts such as Nearly Headless Nick and Moaning Myrtle and the dreaded Privet Drive, represents sanctuary. "They steal the car and they are punished. They crash it." The books have a subtle morality. They are about good and evil and human nature in general.
It all began about 1990. Her mother died. "She was 45, she was only 20 when she had me." That loss has never left her. It never will. Just as Harry constantly hears his dying mother's words. "It's no coincidence that that's so much part of the book." Rowling was also trying to write a novel. She found herself moving between the novel and Harry "and Harry began to take over. He won".
At the University of Exeter, she studied French and Classics and on graduating, worked for Amnesty International, before setting off to travel. This led her to Portugal, where she met and married a journalist. "It ended very quickly. When Jessica (her daughter) was three-and-a-half months old, I left and came back to England." It was 1993. Although Rowling makes a point of saying she is extremely impractical, she does strike one as very practical. Or perhaps it is a practicality learnt from hardship. After some time in Manchester and London, she decided to move to Edinburgh where her sister lives. "I felt Jessica could have a better quality of life living in Scotland with no money that we would have in London with no money."
Her situation was to become very difficult before it began to improve. Most of all, she had to deal with her own anger and sense of injustice. She got a typing job and a teaching qualification. Within a year, she was teaching French but began to realise she wanted to work part-time in order to write. By the mid 1990s, she had "pages and pages" about Harry. Much has been made of the decision to use her initials instead of name in order to attract boy readers. Again she laughs. "It was the publisher's idea, they could have called me Enid Snodgrass. I just wanted it published." It was and she was happy enough with an advance of (pounds) 2,500, aware that many children's writers don't get royalties. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone appeared in 1997 to good reviews and a Smarties Gold Award.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets appeared the following year with more prizes and even louder praise. A cult was developing. As for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which won the 1999 Whitbread Book of the Year, it merely consolidated what has become a phenomenon and set the scene for recent weeks.
The fourth book was originally due for delivery to her publishers last Christmas, but Rowling missed her deadline by two months. "I had problems. This has been the hardest one to write. I was halfway through it, or at least I thought I was halfway, and I realised I had a great gaping hole in the plot. It had never happened before. Suddenly my plan failed me. And I had to unpick the whole thing."
She writes in longhand and then types the first of several drafts. Her characters are people she knows very well. Another of the advantages of bringing a story through several volumes is seeing characters develop. She enjoys writing the grotesques as much as the good guys and as for writing the comedy, she says: "I don't think you can really make yourself laugh, but you can amuse yourself. I do. The new one made me cry. It is a very important one, it marks the end of one phase." How would she describe her humour? "It's very black, even quite sick."
A couple of times, she makes the point she is not contracted to any one for the seven books. "I know I don't need to write another word, but I will." In three books' time, Harry Potter will be 17 and ready to leave school and start his own life. This reality has the same mixture of satisfaction and sadness of watching a child grow up.
Rowling seems to have achieved the impossible, encouraging non-readers to read and despite the hype, is remaining a realist. As the elderly Edinburgh cab driver said on the way to the airport: "She's a sensible lass. The fuss won't turn her head. I've read two of them".
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is published by Bloomsbury, (pounds) 14.99 in UK
Copyright 2000 The Irish Times
Original page date 2 March 2007; last updated 2 March 2007.