It's not often that an author sells millions of copies of a first novel and becomes a household name. But J.K. Rowling has done just that. The author of the insanely-popular series of books about Harry Potter, is here this morning. Also here is 11-year-old Lauren McCormick of Little Current, Ontario.
Lauren was one of hundreds of kids who phoned in from across the country to enter our "I Want to Interview J.K. Rowling" contest, and she was the winner. Lauren arrived in our studio with her own list of questions for the writer who's credited with turning millions of children into bookworms.
Shelagh Rogers: I just want to explain that Lauren will be sharing in the questioning of Jo Rowling -- we have been instructed to call you Jo, you don't like Joanne?
J.K. Rowling: No one ever called me Joanne when I was young, unless they were angry.
Rogers: We're going to be asking some of the questions that were called in on our hotline from kids across the country. Lauren, I'm going to turn it over to you.
Lauren McCormick: Is this your first trip to Canada?
Rowling: It is my first trip to Canada. I've always wanted to come here. When I was about eight years old, my father was offered the opportunity to come and work here for a year. For a moment we thought we really were coming to live in Canada and we were very excited. But it fell through. We were very disappointed.
Lauren: Where does your daughter stay when you're travelling?
Rowling: It depends. Sometimes she comes with me, this time she's being looked after by my sister, who's like 'Second-in-Command Mummy.'
Rogers: What did you think Canada would be like?
Rowling: Beautiful, and I haven't been disappointed. We went to Niagara yesterday. We've all got this lifetime 'To Do' list and visiting Niagara was one of mine. It was just stunning. Beautiful.
Rogers: Charles Dickens once said that the Falls were the second great disappointment for a honeymooning couple [laughs].
Rowling: Poor Charles, he had problems.
Lauren: I received an invitation in the mail to attend Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It was secretly sent to me by my grandmother, before she died... I was ten years old at the time I received it. I know it wasn't real. I am able to tell the difference between real and imaginary. Is there any harm in allowing a kid to fantasize?
Rowling: I don't think there's any harm at all in allowing a kid to fantasize. In fact, I think to stop people from fantasizing is a very destructive thing indeed. You're very typical of children who absolutely do know the difference between fact and fantasy.
Rogers: Lauren, how do you feel about that?
Lauren: I feel the same way as Jo.
Rogers: Fact and fantasy are both important to you though, right?
Rowling: But to receive a letter like that, that's wonderful. You know you're suspending disbelief. Nice grandmother.
Rogers: Some of my friends and Lauren's friends aren't allowed to read the Harry Potter series, right Lauren?
Rogers: There have been some issues, in certain parts of the country, about witchcraft and devil worship and that sort of thing. What do you say to that?
Rowling: I get asked this a lot, as you can imagine. First of all, I would question whether these people have actually read the books. I really would question that. These books are absolutely not about devil worship.
I vacillate between feeling faintly annoyed that I'm being so misrepresented, and finding the whole thing really quite funny. Because it is laughable that someone would say that of these books. I think anyone who has actually read them would agree with that. But there's always the rogue person who can't see what's right under their nose, and there you go.
Rogers: Jo, there's lots of fun and fantasy in these books, but there are also life lessons in these stories. What did you intend to write when you started?
Rowling: Initially, I intended to write a story. No more or no less than that. I love stories. We need stories, I think.
Every 'message' - and I put that in heavily inverted commas because I don't set out to teach people specific things... I never sit down at the beginning of a novel and think 'What is today's lesson?'
Those lessons, they grow naturally out of the book and I suppose they come naturally from me.
Rogers: I do hear that in the fifth volume, that's about to come out, that Harry is going to have to deal with death.
Rowling: Harry has already dealt with death, of course. He lost his parents very young, in book four he witnessed a murder, which is a very disturbing thing. So this is not news to anybody who has been following the series, that death is a central theme of the books. But, yes, I think it would be fair to say that in book five he has to examine exactly what death means, in even closer ways. But I don't think people who have been following the series will be that surprised by that.
Lauren: In all your books, the continuing theme is that people are not what they appear to be. Sometimes they seem dangerous, and are good. Sometimes helpful people are bad. It looks like Harry is being taught to overlook first impressions and to be suspicious of people. Do you think that's something kids need to learn more than other generations?
Rowling: You're right, this is a recurring theme in the books. People are endlessly surprising. It's a very jaded person who thinks they've seen every possible nuance of human nature.
Sometimes I get asked 'What would be your recipe for a happier life?' And I've always said 'A bit more tolerance from all of us.'
One way to learn tolerance is to take the time to really understand other people's motives. Yes, you're right. Harry is often given an erroneous first impression of someone and he has to learn to look beneath the surface. When you look beneath the surface he has sometimes found that he is being fooled by people. And on other occasions he has found very nice surprises.
Rogers: Your books have brought sort of a renewed interest in Latin.
Rowling: [laughs] I went back to my old university very recently, I did French and Classics there. I had to give a speech, which was very nerve-wracking because I'm speaking to very studious and learned people, some of whom used to tell me off for cutting lectures. And I said in my speech 'I'm one of the very few who has ever found a practical application for their classics degree.
It just amused me, the idea that wizards would still be using Latin as a living language, although it is, as scholars of Latin will know ... I take great liberties with the language for spells. I see it as a kind of mutation that the wizards are using.
Lauren: I've been wondering, what were you like as a kid?
Rowling: I would say, basically, quite an introvert. Quite insecure. I was like Hermione. Hermione is the character who is most consciously based on a real person, and that person is me. She's an exaggeration of what I was like. But like all characters who may have been inspired by a living person --and they are in the minority in my books, most of my characters do come from my imagination -- they take on a life entirely of their own when they become fictional characters. The starting point often ends up a million miles away from how the character was first written. But Hermione didn't. She's a lot like I was when I was younger.
Rogers: What was school like for you?
Rowling: We moved from a school in Bristol, which is obviously a large city, and we moved to this tiny little village school and I hated it. We had roll top desks and I had a real dragon of a teacher, who is now deceased, so I can speak freely. She used to sit everyone in the class according to how clever she thought they were, which is a really vicious thing to do.
She asked me a couple of questions when I joined the class, found out I couldn't do fractions, and put me in the 'stupid' row. Then, after a few months of teaching me, she decided I'd been seated wrongly, so she made me swap with my best friend in the clever row. So that was a very early, bitter lesson in life. Don't be too clever, it loses you friends.
So I can't say I have particularly happy memories of that school.
Lauren: Why do you think you're books appeal to adults, as well as kids?
Rowling: I can only speculate about this really, I'm very bad at being a critic of my own work. I'm far too close to it, I find it very difficult to say why I think things are so popular, and so on. I'm guessing it's because I write about things I find funny, as opposed to what I think eight year olds find funny. And I suppose other adults find it funny too, I'm clearly an adult.
Rogers: But you do have a child in your life.
Rowling: I do have a child in my life, right at the centre of my life, my daughter Jessica. She's seven.
Rogers: And has she read through the series with you?
Rowling: Initially I said I wouldn't start reading them to her until she was seven, because I do think some of the themes are a little demanding for five year olds. But I cracked and started reading them to her at six, because she was at school and she was surrounded by kids asking her about Harry Potter. I thought it was mean, because she wasn't part of this enormous part of my life and I felt I was excluding her, so I read them to her.
Rogers: A lot of kids have told us that they've read your books again, and again, and again. What do you think is different in the way children read from the way adults read?
Rowling: I'm not sure there is that great a difference.
Rogers: Do you think an adult would re-read a book?
Rowling: I do, constantly. I can quote huge passages verbatim of my favourite books, I've read them so many times. I've lost count of how many times I've read some books.
Rogers: What are your favourite books?
Rowling: Anything written by Jane Austen, anything written by Roddy Doyle. They're my two favourite writers... If I'm really tired and I just want a quick fix, I will read a mystery novel. But I would never re-read a mystery novel, that would be too dull, once you've found out who the killer is.
Rogers: Lauren, what would be the number one thing you want to know from Jo?
Lauren: Well, how can one series of books have such an extreme effect on readers and non-readers? And at the same time, school boards are banning them from their curriculum.
Rowling: Hmmmm ... Penetrating question. It is a difficult one. I've found that the series seems to cause very conflicting emotions in people generally. For example, in Britain, the two groups of people who seem to think in Britain that I'm wholeheartedly on their side are people who support the boarding school system and practicing witches – Wiccans! – which are not two groups that one would expect to find allied in any way.
In fact, they are both wrong. I don't believe in boarding schools. I don't send my daughter to a boarding school. I didn't go to a boarding school. And I'm neither a practicing witch nor do I believe in magic.
It's just a strange thing. People have presented me with every possible argument. I've been told, on the evidence of the books, that I must be very right wing and I must be very left wing. It's very odd - extreme passions.
Rogers: We had Joan Bodger in, who's one of Canada's best-loved storytellers. She was talking about Harry Potter after we heard from the kids. And she said it took her a while to figure out where the stories had taken her, and eventually she put her finger on it as "TV Land."
Rowling: TV Land? I'm not sure I understand that one.
Rogers: Well, that children really identify with the stories because they're full of action, full of change, full of magic and things happen quickly.
Rowling: It's a theory. I wouldn't say it's a theory I'd particularly endorse, but it's a neat theory. [laughs]
Lauren: Actually, I don't watch a lot of TV at home, and I don't think it's kind of related with TV Land. I think it has reality, everyday life in it, and also medieval times - castles and knights and stuff.
Rogers: Thank you for that answer, too, Lauren... Alex Longland was on our panel of young readers - I'm moving ahead in our questions here. Alex is from Toronto. She's 12. I do believe today is her birthday, as well.
Rowling: Happy Birthday, Alex!
Rogers: She'd like to know why a woman writer with a daughter...
Rowling: ... chose to write about a boy?
Rowling: Well, I should firstly say when I started writing about Harry in 1990, my daughter wasn't born until 1993. But she's right. It's a very, very, very good point. And what is odd is that it took me six months to suddenly think this. I'd been writing about Harry for six months when I did suddenly stop and think, Hang on a moment. Why is he a boy?
The simple answer is that's the way he came to me. A boy appeared in my brain - just this little scrawny, black-haired boy with glasses on. And so I wrote him, because he was the character who came to me.
But I did stop and wonder. I did stop and think, Shouldn't it have been Harriett? And at that point it was too late. It was just too late, because Harry was too real to me as a boy. And Hermione was with me at this point, and I feel that Hermione is an absolutely indispensable part of the team. I love her as a character, and so I didn't change it. I wanted to go with my initial inspiration.
Harry is becoming more girl-fixated, shall we say, as he gets older. He's 14 now, and you will find that girls become a lot more real to him. And more important, because the books are obviously told from a boy's perspective, really. But that's changing now.
Rogers: Do you think that the popularity of the books would have changed if they'd been told from the point of view of Hermione versus Harry Potter?
Rowling: I honestly don't know. But then, that wouldn't have stopped me doing it. If Hermione had strolled into my head as the main character, then I would have done it that way. I truly never once have ever stopped and thought 'I won't do that because that won't be popular.' Because the day I do that I might as well pack up, because the fun for me all along has been writing for me. The only people I have ever listened to have been my editors, in terms of what makes the book better or worse. And occasionally I've argued against them and kept it the way I wanted to do it.
Rogers: Who won?
Rowling: It depends. I mean, I'm not a tyrant about this. I have changed things when I think they've had very valid points, and I have changed things on other occasions. I have felt particularly strongly about a passage and I have really wanted to keep it, and I have. It's never gotten acrimonious - I have great editors.
McCormick: This is a question from Bridget from Toronto, and she's 12. Bridget's wondering, "Why did you create a magical society where men and women play such traditional roles? It seems most of the women Wizards pitter and patter around the house while the men do all the dark work."
Rowling: [laughs] That's not entirely true, because if you look at Professor McGonagall, she's a very, very powerful witch, and she's in a position of power. And in fact, if you look at the Hogwarts' staff - I had this discussion with someone the other day - it is exactly 50/50. Although it is true that you do have a headmaster as opposed to a headmistress, but that has not always been the case. As you will find out, there have been equal numbers of headmistresses.
Do Witches patter around the house? No. Mrs. Weasely stays at home, but if you think it's easy raising seven children, including Fred and George Weasely, then I pity... [laughs] Women who've had seven children will not see that as a soft option.
But no, I don't think that's true. I've said this before. I sometimes feel frustrated in that I'm just over halfway through the series. It's like being interrupted halfway through a sentence and someone saying, "I know what you're going to say." No, you don't. When I've finished, then we can have this discussion, because at the end of book seven, then I can talk about everything in a full and frank way. But right at the moment we're only halfway through.
Rogers: Is seven going to be ... do you know that already?
Rowling: Mm hmm. I know exactly what's going to be in five, six and seven. And when I've finished that, then we can have the full and frank discussion, but until then, if I give full and frank answers I'm giving away things about the plot, so I don't want to do that.
Rogers: I have to go to another member of our panel: Graham, who's 11 and from Calgary. It's not unrelated to Alex's question, but how can you think like a boy? The exact question is "How can you think like a boy? Do you have a brother or something?"
Rowling: [laughs] Do you have a brother ... "or something?" No, I had a cousin. He isn't dead, but I haven't seen him for years and years. My family is very small - I have very few blood relatives, but I haven't seen them for years, actually.
How can I think like a boy? I think that I have always had boys and girls as friends, and I think probably that's where it comes from. Yes, I've had good male friends as well as female friends.
Rogers: I know that as you started off, you couldn't possibly have imagined how...
Rowling: Never, no. I'd have to have been insane to have imagined this.
Rogers: Well ... [laughs] I'm actually going to ask you about SkyDome!
Rowling: Thank you! [laughs] What happened with the SkyDome, really ... First of all, you can imagine, I get thousands and thousands of people asking me to go and do readings in book shops and schools, and if I did them all, I literally would not sleep, eat, see my daughter or write another word. And I can't do it.
I was asked earlier this year, and they said it would be a big reading at the SkyDome in Toronto. I was feeling very fraught at the time, because I was halfway through book four, and I said yes. And at that point, I did say yes to quite a lot of things just to stop people from asking me anything else, because I really wanted to be writing. Then I sort of emerged from the madness that was book four and realized exactly how big the reading was going to be. And then I got terrified. So thank you for reminding me this early in the morning. [laughs] I try and block it out.
Rogers: Sorry about that. Anyway, if you can get through this I think you can get through anything, really.
Rowling: I'm kind of looking at it like that. If I can do this, yeah...
Rogers: How are you feeling? A lot of people have pegged you as a sort of ambassador for single parents. Do you feel that way, and is there still a stigma attached to being a single parent?
Rowling: I can only talk about Britain here, obviously. Lone parents in Britain, perhaps, don't get a very fair deal in certain ways. At first I felt slightly uncomfortable about it ... being called an ambassador ... because I felt that what I did is not a typical thing to do, and it was perhaps unfair to tell other single mothers that they could do the same thing. But I have now become patron of the Council of One-Parent Families in Britain, so I am out there trying to better everyone's deal.
Rogers: It is so great to have you both here. I want to thank Lauren McCormick as well. Thank you very much, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, and Lauren McCormick, who helped me just wonderfully, on CBC Radio One.