Interview: J. K. Rowling talks about her success, her daughter, her readers, the upcoming film and, of course, Harry Potter, teen wizard.
MONTHS BEFORE ITS OFFICIAL DEBUT ON JULY 8, J. K. Rowling's fourth Harry Potter novel had become the biggest publishing phenomenon since--ever. There has never been a bigger first printing (3.8 million in the United States alone). Nor a book that's sold faster in preorders (as of July 7, there had been 345,435 orders at Amazon.com, and an additional 65,000 at the British version of the Web site, Amazon.co.uk). Equally amazing, Rowling's publishers managed to keep the contents of the year's most desired book almost completely under wraps. The title, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," slipped out a little early. One lucky 8-year-old girl managed to acquire a stray copy from her local bookstore. And Rowling, who staunchly supported the veil of secrecy around the book because she wanted it to come as a surprise to her readers, did let slip to the London Times what a lot of young fans had been whispering about for months: at least one important character dies in the new book.
Everything about these well-written, well-plotted books is astonishing, starting with the fact that they've sold 30 million copies worldwide without the aid of a single action figure. Because this is life and not a fairy tale, those action figures are coming, just not for awhile. The licensing rights--for things like sleeping bags, lunchboxes and candy--belong to Warner Brothers. Filming of the first book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" starts in late fall.
But perhaps the most amazing aspect of this story is the woman behind it all. Seven years ago Joanne Kathleen Rowling was an unemployed single mother who spent her afternoons staying warm in Edinburgh coffee shops, writing while her baby slept. Today, with three of the world's all-time best-selling books to her credit, the 34-year-old author is 25th on the Forbes list of the 100 most powerful celebrities. Last month she received the Order of the British Empire during the queen's birthday celebration. Earlier in June she flew to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to receive her first honorary degree. There NEWSWEEK'S Malcolm Jones caught up with the limelight-shy author for a rare interview.
JONES: Has the mania reached a peak?
ROWLING: I don't know. I thought it had reached a peak with "Prisoner of Azkaban" [book three], and it hadn't. We can't carry on like this forever. At some point things have got to calm down. The film isn't going to help in terms of diminishing it.
The movie goes into production this fall, and the script is written?
Yep. Almost there. We're still fiddling with it.
How much control do you have over the film?
Control, I wouldn't say--I'm really aware that I'm being invited to give my opinion. But I don't have any right to jackboot in there and say this or that. But I sold it to people I trusted, and so far my trust has not been misplaced. We're looking at an all-British cast. At first that looked like an impossibility. There was many a director who couldn't see that working at all. I would say things are going really well at the moment. People have to understand that no one could feel as protective as I do about these characters. If it goes wrong, I'm going to be hurting more than anyone else.
So have they cast it?
There are people being made offers now, but is it entirely cast? No. Harry himself is proving very elusive. It's like Scarlett O'Hara--this is the child equivalent of looking for Vivien Leigh. I just said, "We'll know him when we find him." I am now walking around in London and Edinburgh, and I'm looking at kids as I pass them, just thinking, Could be, you never know. I may just lunge at this kid and say, "Can you act? You're coming with me. Taxi!"
Parents and even a lot of children are delighted that so far there are no commercial spinoffs--no dolls, no toys, no lunchboxes. But that's about to change.
I know, I know [weakly]. Warner Brothers has really given me--I have been knocked backwards by the amount of input I have been given and the number of meetings I have been invited to. And we know why this is, because there are so many children out there who want to see it my way rather than their way. So I can only say to anyone who's concerned about [the merchandising], "Please trust me, I am fighting in your corner."
Do you have any sort of target audience when you write these books?
Me. I truly never sat down and thought, What do I think kids will like? I really, really was so inflamed by the idea when it came to me because I thought it would be so much fun to write.
In fact, I don't really like fantasy. It's not so much that I don't like it, I really haven't read a lot of it. I have read "Lord of the Rings," though. I read that when I was about 14. I didn't read "The Hobbit" until I was in my 20s--much later. I'd started "Harry Potter" by then, and someone gave it to me, and I thought, Yeah, I really should read this, because people kept saying, "You've read 'The Hobbit,' obviously? And I was saying, "Um, no: So I thought, Well, I will, and I did, and it was wonderful. [Sheepish smile] It didn't occur to me for quite a while that I was writing fantasy when I'd started "Harry Potter," because I'm a bit slow on the uptake about those things. I was so caught up in it. And I was about two thirds of the way through, and I suddenly thought, This has got unicorns in it. I'm writing fantasy!
Why are the English so good at writing fantasy.
[Chuckles] Britain has the most incredible mix of folklore traditions because we were invaded by so many people.
A lot of American superstitions were just imported whole from England.
Salem gets mentioned in book four.
Have you ever gotten ideas from readers?
No, young readers are so generous, they write and tell me funny words they've made up and say, "Can you use it?' and I have to write back and say, "No, I can't use it because it's yours, you use it."
Do you actually answer your fan mail?
[Reluctantly] Yeah. I have help now. But letters get--I don't know if I should actually say this in NEWSWEEK. I have a set of criteria for letters I want to see personally, so they will get filtered and they will get handwritten replies.
I get letters from children addressed to Professor Dumbledore [headmaster at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the books' setting], and it's not a joke, begging to be let into Hogwarts, and some of them are really sad. Because they want it to be true so badly they've convinced themselves it's true. So those are some that get pulled.
Your daughter is now 6. Have you started reading the books to her yet?
I had told her, "Not until you're 7," because I think a bright 6-year-old can definitely manage it in terms of language, but in terms of themes, things get increasingly scary and dark, and some 6-year-olds are going to be disturbed by that. So for my own daughter, I said, "We're going to wait till you're 7." But then she went to school, and she got completely mobbed. These older children were just talking to her endlessly about Quidditch and stuff, and she didn't have a clue, and I thought it was unfair to keep her excluded from that, so we started reading them.
You seem to have kept your life deliberately low--key. You haven't bought the five cars or the helicopter.
Well, I can't drive, so the five cars would be a problem. [Chuckles] Ditto the helicopter. I don't want anyone thinking I'm a puritan. I enjoy spending money. But the main difference between where I was five years ago and now is the absence of worry. I honestly believe that the only people who will really appreciate that are people who have been very, very broke. If you've never been there, you'll assume the great thing about having money is that now I can get the racehorses or worm my way into these nightclubs. But no, what I'm grateful for every day is that I'm not worried about money.
Has your success placed restrictions on your life? Can you walk down the street, go shopping?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. It's really the exception rather than the norm that anyone would approach me. I don't think I'm very recognizable, which I am completely happy to say. Further, no one has ever been less than completely charming when they've come up to me. And they tend to come up, obviously, if they've read the book, or their child has read the book, to tell me something very nice. There was a phase when I had journalists at my front door quite a lot, and that was quite horrible. That was not something I had ever anticipated happening to me, and it's not pleasant, whoever you are. But I don't want to whine, because this was my life's ambition, and I've overshot the mark so hugely.
How overtly concerned are you with the idea of Harry's growing up in the books?
I do want him to grow up. I want them all to grow up, but not in a way that's unfaithful to the tone of the books, i.e., I feel it would be inappropriate--in these books--were Hermione to have an underage pregnancy or if one of them were to start taking drugs, because it's unfaithful to the tone of the books. It's not at all that I don't think those themes can be explored superbly in children's literature. It's just that in the Harry Potter books there isn't a place for those particular issues. In book four, there is the most evidence so far that they're getting older, in that they start getting interested in boys and girls. Although there's been a hint of that in book three, this time it's out in the open.
Have you felt any pressure, from librarians or critics or parents, to expurgate these books?
No. Not at all. I've quite strong views on that sort of stuff. I feel no pressure at all. It's an interesting field, children's literature, and only from the inside do you get the full force of it. Children's books aren't textbooks. Their primary purpose isn't supposed to be "Pick up this book and it will teach you this." It's not how literature should be. You probably do learn something from every book you pick up, but it might be simply how to laugh. It doesn't have to be a slap-you-in-the-face moral every time. I do think the Harry Potter books are moral books, but I shudder to think that any child picking one up would get three chapters in and think, Oh, yeah, this is the lesson we're going to learn this time.
Every time writers get immensely successful, they draw the ire of some reactionary group. In your case it seems to be people accusing you of encouraging Devil worship.
We've always watched it happen to every damn thing that got popular. With the people who wanted to accuse me of Satan worship, I was full on for arguing it out with them face to face. But you know you're not going to change their views. The only thing I have argued forcibly is that the idea of censorship deeply offends me. They have the absolute right, of course, to decide what their children read. I think they're misguided, but they have that right. But to prevent other people's children from reading something, at that point, I would be very happy to face them and argue that one out. I think it's completely unjustifiable.
Has being around your daughter day in and day out altered the way you feel about kids? You were writing about them before she was born, but--?
All the children in the books and all of the feelings in the books are based on my memories. They aren't based on anything my daughter has given me. It comes from inside me, my memories of being a child. And also, as I've said, so much of it was fixed before she was born. I think this is probably a good thing. I mean, we remember Christopher Robin, who was tormented till he died at the age of 75 by people taking the mickey out of him. That wasn't a smart thing to do, putting your child by name into the book, and his toys. I don't want Jessica to always be Harry Potter's sister. My worst fear, actually.
This is the keystone book, in terms of the plot?
Yes, it's totally pivotal in terms of the plot.
Will it be the biggest?
No, I think book seven will be. Seven's going to be like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, because I'm going to want to say goodbye. I always knew four would be a long one, but I didn't know it would be this long. But it had to be. I've got no regrets. That's how many words it took to tell the story I needed to tell. I like it. I'm very pleased with it. It's definitely the book that gave me the most trouble. But then "Chamber of Secrets" gave me a fair amount of trouble. Bizarrely, it seems that the two that were the most hell to write were the two I like the best.
Has writing changed you personally?
Yes, it has made me happier. Finishing them has made me happier. Before I wrote the Potter books, I'd never finished a novel. I came close to finishing two. It also makes me happy that the one thing I thought I could do, I wasn't deluded. Because I'm not much use at anything else, if the truth be told. I'm a moderate teacher, and I enjoy teaching, but I had some office jobs, and anyone who worked with me will tell you that I was the most disorganized person that ever walked this earth. I wasn't good. I'm not proud of that. I don't think it's charming and eccentric. I really should have been better at it, but I really am just all over the place when it comes to organizing myself.
The two books before "Harry Potter"?
They were both for adults. I've written almost everything, except poetry. Well, I've written poetry, but I always knew it was rubbish. [Laughs] I've tried drama, a few short stories. I never thought of writing for children, ironically. I always thought I would write for adults.
But then, there you were, in 1990, on that train stuck between Manchester and London, staring at a field of cows, and an image of Harry popped into your mind. That really is a magical story.
It was. It really was. And I had this physical reaction to it, this huge rush of adrenaline, which is always a sign that you've had a good idea, when you've a physical response, this massive rush, and I'd never felt that before. I'd had ideas I liked, but never quite so powerful. And Harry came first, in this huge rash. Doesn't know he's a wizard, how can he not know? And, very bizarrely, he had the mark on his forehead, but I didn't know why at that point. It was like research. It didn't feel as if I were entirely inventing it.
Have you thought about life after Harry Potter?
I definitely have thought about it, but I've made no decisions at all. I will definitely be writing. I literally don't quite feel right if I haven't written for awhile. A week is about as long as I can go without getting extremely edgy. It's like a fix. It really is a compulsion. Yeah, so I have ideas, but they could be all rubbish.Making the Magic
In the special vocabulary J. K. Rowling devised for her "Harry Potter" books, "Muggles" are ordinary, nonmagical humans. Bean counters--that's us. We've collected some facts and figures about the Potter phenomenon. They look pretty magical.
- 3.8 million: Number of copies the U.S. publisher, Scholastic, is printing--the largest first printing of any book ever. (A John Grisham novel usually has an initial printing of about 2.5 million.)
- 1.5 million: Number of copies Bloomsbury is printing in the United Kingdom--also a record first run for any book it has published
- 345,435: Number of advance orders for "Harry Potter IV" placed at Amazon.com, as of July 7. Amazon and Federal Express promised to deliver the book on Saturday at no extra cost to the people who placed the first 250,000 orders. An additional 65,000 orders were placed at the British version of the Web site.
How the Wizardry Got Started
- 1990. Rowling conceives of Harry Potter while on a train between London and Manchester.
- 1991-94. Makes notes for the series while teaching in Portugal. Marries Portuguese TV journalist; gives birth to daughter, Jessica.
- 1995. Finishes first book. Too poor to photocopy manuscript, she retypes it instead.
- 1997. 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' published in U.K. Quickly sells 150,000 copies. And the rest is history ...
Source: MasterFILE Premier