As HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE takes the express track to bestsellerdom, J.K. ROWLING explains why writing it was such a challenge--though she's far from running out of steam
On a normal day, the train is called the Queen of Scots. Today, it is called the Hogwarts Express, the train that transports Harry Potter to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and right now it is at a station in Perth, 90 minutes outside Edinburgh, Scotland. Cottony clouds of steam are billowing out of its engine, a quaint little spectacle for the hundreds of children waiting behind a makeshift gate numbered 9 1/2. It would all be very cute, except for the shrieking that accompanies all that hot air, a piercing and ever- intensifying whistle that is causing the entire crowd to cover their ears, everyone eyeballing that infernal engine, wondering if it's ever going to stop.
And then it does.
And a door opens.
Inside, on this, her last stop in a steam-powered barnstorm of the U.K. in support of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth in her series of books about a most extraordinary young wizard, J.K. Rowling, 35, sits on the edge of a table, greeting a lucky bunch of kids, their faces stony and bloodless from nervous excitement. "Hello, contest winner," says the mock monarch with the dirty-blond hair and blue jeans, her warm smirk packed with affection for these, her subjects. The attendants from Bloomsbury Publishing get one of them to pose for a picture with her. "Now," Rowling says conspiratorially, signing his book, "pretend like you're thrilled to see me."
He doesn't need to pretend. But it's all she can do to pretend that none of this is as deliriously mind-boggling as it really is. As she says during a 60-minute chat en route from Edinburgh to Perth, "You could go crazy thinking about it too much."
How did you feel about all the marketing hoopla around Goblet?
The marketing was literally "Don't give out the book." And it wasn't even a marketing ploy. It came from me. This book was the culmination of 10 years' work, and something very big in terms of my ongoing plot happens at the end, and it rounds off an era; the remaining three books are a different era in Harry's life. Had that got out, there's no way the book would have been as enjoyable to read.
You sat on the title for a long time, too.
The title thing was for a much more prosaic reason: I changed my mind twice on what it was. The working title had got out--Harry Potter and the Doomspell Tournament. Then I changed Doomspell to Triwizard Tournament. Then I was teetering between Goblet of Fire and Triwizard Tournament. In the end, I preferred Goblet of Fire because it's got that kind of "cup of destiny" feel about it, which is the theme of the book.
Was this the hardest book you've had to write so far?
The first three books, my plan never failed me. But I should have put that plot under a microscope. I wrote what I thought was half the book, and "Ack!" Huge gaping hole in the middle of the plot. I missed my deadline by two months. And the whole profile of the books got so much higher since the third book; there was an edge of external pressure.
And what exactly was that gaping hole all about?
I had to pull a character. There you go: "the phantom character of Harry Potter." She was a Weasley cousin [related to Ron Weasley, Harry's best friend]. She served the same function that Rita Skeeter [a sleazy investigative journalist] now serves. Rita was always going to be in the book, but I built her up, because I needed a kind of conduit for information outside the school. Originally, this girl fulfilled this purpose.
Does sleazy Rita reflect how you feel about the media?
No, but when I got to the point in the writing where I had to introduce Rita, I did hesitate, because I thought, People will think this is my response to what's happened to me. But I had a lot more fun writing Rita then I think I would have done if it hadn't happened to me. Rita will be back.
The size of this book--734 pages. Nearly twice as long as the longest book you've written.
What is she doing?
Exactly. Please explain.
I knew from the beginning it would be the biggest of the first four. You need a proper run-up to what happens at the end. It's a complex plot, and you don't rush a plot that complex, because everyone's gonna get confused.
This book is quite the wide-screen epic, with the Quidditch World Cup, the arrival of rival schools, the Triwizard Tournament, the ending battle...
Everything is on a bigger scale.
Yes. It's symbolic. Harry's horizons are literally and metaphorically widening as he grows older. But also there are places in the world that I've been planning for so long and thinking about for so long that we haven't yet explored, and it's great fun. That will happen in book 5, too; we go into a whole new area, physically, an area you've never seen before, a magical world.
Will we ever see Harry in America?
Unlikely. The battleground is Britain at the moment. I got asked the other day, "Given the huge success of your books in America, are you going to be introducing American characters?" And I thought, You're an idiot. I am not about to throw away 10 years' meticulous planning in the hope that I will buck up to a few more readers. American kids have no need to see a token American character. This is another instance of people grossly underestimating children.
One of Goblet's biggest themes is bigotry. It's always been in your books, with the Hitlerlike Lord Voldemort and his followers prejudiced against Muggles (nonmagical people). In book 4, Hermione tries to liberate the school's worker elves, who've been indentured servants so long they lack desire for anything else. Why did you want to explore these themes?
Because bigotry is probably the thing I detest most. All forms of intolerance, the whole idea of "that which is different from me is necessary evil." I really like to explore the idea that difference is equal and good. But there's another idea that I like to explore, too. Oppressed groups are not, generally speaking, people who stand firmly together--no, sadly, they kind of subdivide among themselves and fight like hell. That's human nature, so that's what you see here. This world of wizards and witches, they're already ostracized, and then within themselves, they've formed a loathsome pecking order.
You don't think this a little heavy for kids?
These are things that a huge number of children at that age start to think about. It's really fun to write about it, but in a very allegorical way.
Do the books reflect your own political sensibilities? In America, some might say you're a bit left-wing.
It's absolutely the reverse to the British press; I was told yesterday that I'm a Euroskeptic, which is a big buzzword in Britain. I actually woke up at 2 a.m. this morning, went into the kitchen to get some water, and thought, "I know why they said that--they haven't finished the book." Right at the end, Dumbledore says, "Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open." That is my view. It is very inclusive, and yes, you are right: I am left-wing.
But are you baking your political beliefs into these books, or are we just reading stuff into them?
There is a certain amount of political stuff in there. But I also feel that every reader will bring his own agenda to the book. People who send their children to boarding schools seem to feel that I'm on their side. I'm not. Practicing wiccans think I'm also a witch. I'm not.
Once she was a struggling single mom, sneaking off to cafes to write after putting her daughter to bed. Now, with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book in her seven-volume epic about the titular boy wizard, J.K. Rowling finds herself guardian of an international pop phenom and a mythic world that's bucking to be called Tolkienesque. And yet the more things change--and they have, from the full-time assistant she recently hired to keep her organized, to the hagglings with Hollywood over the forthcoming deluge of merchandise and movies--the more things stay the same. She's still sneaking off to corner cafes in Edinburgh, Scotland, seeking solitude to write. "It feels incredibly familiar, actually," says Rowling, "as though I'm right back where I was before Harry Potter [and the Sorcerer's Stone]."
You referred to the darkness in your books, and there's been a lot of talk and even concern over that.
You have a choice when you're going to introduce a very evil character. You can dress a guy up with loads of ammunition, put a black Stetson on him, and say, "Bad guy. Shoot him." I'm writing about shades of evil. You have Voldemort, a raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people's suffering, and there are people like that in the world. But then you have Wormtail, who out of cowardice will stand in the shadow of the strongest person. What's very important for me is when Dumbledore says that you have to choose between what is right and what is easy. This is the setup for the next three books. All of them are going to have to choose, because what is easy is often not right.
There's a scene in Goblet where Cedric, who competes against Harry in the Triwizard Tournament, is killed by Voldemort, and at the end, Dumbledore must choose between informing the students of this evil, or keeping the knowledge from them. He chooses to tell them.
Dumbledore's decision is 100 percent me. It would have been an insult to that boy's memory not to tell the truth. But telling the truth has repercussions. People aren't used to the truth, particularly from fixtures of authority. I hated killing Cedric, by the way, just hated it.
There's some other horrific violence, too, like when Wormtail cuts up Harry's arm to get the blood to bring Voldemort back to life. Very disturbing.
Yeah, that wasn't good, I agree with you.
Have you ever thought "Maybe I should tone it down"?
No. I know that sounds kind of brutal but no, I haven't. The bottom line is, I have to write the story I want to write. I never wrote them with a focus group of 8-year-olds in mind. I have to continue telling the story the way I want to tell it. I don't at all relish the idea of children in tears, and I absolutely don't deny it's frightening. But it's supposed to be frightening! And if you don't show how scary that is, you cannot show how incredibly brave Harry is. He's really brave, and he does, I think, one of his bravest things in this book: He can't save Cedric, but he wants to save Cedric's parents additional pain. He wants to bring back the body and treat it with respect.
Saving Cedric's body reminded me of the Hector-Patroclus-Achilles triangle in the Iliad.
That's where it came from. That really, really, really moved me when I read that when I was 19. The idea of the desecration of a body, a very ancient idea...I was thinking of that when Harry saved Cedric's body.
And then you go and emotionally decimate your readers with that scene where Harry's murdered parents are drawn out of Voldemort's wand. I was in tears.
Me too. It was the first time I cried writing a Harry Potter book. I got pretty upset.
As your fan base is growing larger, and maybe even younger, do you feel any sense of social responsibility, any sense of responsibilities to their sensibilities?
I cannot write to please other people. I can't. When I finish book 7, I want to be able to look in the mirror and think, I did it the way I meant to do it. If I lose readers in the process, I'm not going to throw a party about it. But I would feel far worse if I knew that I had allowed myself to write something different. Yet, I do have parents coming up to me and saying "He's 6 and he loved your book!" And I've always kind of been, "Well, that's great, but I know what's coming, and I think 6 is a tiny bit too young." I've always felt that. With my daughter and Goblet of Fire, I'm reading it to her. Her reading age is pretty advanced, but I said, "I'm gonna read that one to you. It's scary, and I want to be there with you, and then we can talk about it." That would be my feeling if parents feel that.
What does your daughter [Jessica, 7] think of Harry Potter?
I always said I'd never read her the books until she was 7, and I think even 7 is pushing it. But I broke the rules. I actually read to her when she was 6. She started school, see, and kids were asking her about Quidditch and things. She didn't have an idea what they were all about, and I just thought, "I'm excluding her from this huge part of my life, and it's making her an outsider." So I read them to her, and she became completely Harry Potter-obsessed!
Does Jessica have the inside scoop on what's going to happen?
No no no no no! And kids at her school will sidle up to me and say, "Does Jessica know what happens in book 4? Does Jessica know the title of book 4?" And I keep saying, "No! There is no point kidnapping her, taking her around back of the bike shed, and torturing her for information."
You are transitioning from overnight success story to caretaker to a mythic world, one that's about to get translated into movies and merchandise. How do you feel about that?
It is worrying. I am nervous. Because I'm fighting tooth and nail- -and people have to believe me on that, because it is the truth--I am fighting to maintain the purity of the world. That's what I'm involved with at the moment, trying to make sure that when things go out with the name Harry Potter on them, they really are Harry Potter things, not some pale imitation.
Do you have kind of control over what Warner Bros. does with Harry Potter?
Can I prevent it in terms of what's in my contract? No. But they have been very gracious in allowing me input, and I have been asked a lot of questions I never expect to be asked.
What's it been like, dealing with Hollywood?
The person I was most nervous about meeting by far was Steve Kloves, who's writing the screenplay. I was really ready to hate [him]. This was the man who was gonna butcher my baby. The first time I met him, he said, "You know who my favorite character is?" And I thought, "You're gonna say Ron." It's real easy to love Ron--but so obvious. But he said "Hermione." I just kind of melted.
Are there any plans to come to the U.S.?
I am likely to be over there later this year. I love going to the States.
What do you like about the States?
Well, what don't I like about it? I really, really, really fell in love with New York. The first signing I did over there, the first boy to reach me in the queue put out his hand and went "YOU ROCK!" I thought that was great, but I heard myself respond and I sounded so intensely British, something like "That's very nice of you to say so, thank you so much." Then there was this woman in L.A., a middle-aged sort of Palm Beach-type woman, she said, "I AM SO GLAD YOU'RE RICH!" I'm telling you, you'd never hear that in Britain. Here, it's "Well done."