J.K. Rowling knows how her best-selling Harry Potter series will end. Yes, it will be dark. No, she's not saying whether Harry lives or dies. Let her finish book five first.
"The final chapter of book seven is written," the British author told reporters Thursday in a teleconference. "You will find out what happens to the survivors."
One character has already fallen in Rowling's weighty fourth tome, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Will there be more deaths in the wizard world? Moreover, will her readers be able to handle it?
"I feel that the ending of book four is frightening, but there are reasons for that. I was dealing with an evil character," Rowling explained. "I do not see, in five, six and seven, that I have to, kind of, up the stakes with every book at all. I wouldn't necessarily say that five is going to be darker. But I couldn't promise that there isn't more sad stuff coming."
While book five is "under way," Rowling doesn't expect to finish it in time for a summer 2001 release. What Potter fans can look forward to is the March release of two, very short Harry Potter "reference" books. As part of a charity project with London writer Richard Curtis (of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral fame), Rowling has written and illustrated books that have appeared in the Harry Potter series over the years -- Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages.
Meanwhile, Goblet of Fire and the other Harry Potter books -- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban -- continue to spark controversy among some religious groups, who oppose the references to magic and witchcraft. Harry Potter even made the banned-books list.
"It's a short-sighted thing. It is very hard to portray goodness without showing what the reverse is. That's always been my feeling about literature," Rowling said. "You find magic, witchcraft and all those things throughout children's literature. Are you going to stop The Wizard of Oz? Are you going to stop C.S. Lewis? At what point are you going to say these are dangerous and damaging?"
Ask the folks in Santa Fe, where a proposal by a school board member aims to remove several books -- including the Potter books -- from the local elementary school library. That school board was to consider the book ban at a meeting Thursday night.
"I personally think they're very mistaken," Rowling said of the proposal. "What scares me is these people are trying to protect children from their own imagination."
Perhaps it's the overprotective nature of parents. But perhaps, Rowling suggested, it's the perpetual problem in today's society of not trusting children to think for themselves.
"It's my profound belief that there's a tendency to underestimate children on all sorts of levels."
Rowling said that's why she was so annoyed when the New York Times decided to end Harry Potter's domination of its best-seller list earlier this summer by relegating it to a newly created "children's fiction" list.
"I was a bit sad, to see that children's literature isn't important. I find that slightly depressing," she said. "You will see children's book reviews getting very little space in newspapers, but you'll see, in the same newspapers, stories about literacy for children."
Rowling does admit that the Harry Potter series was never meant for very young readers.
"From the very first book, I would meet parents who would say my 5- or 6-year-old loves it, and that worried me, because I knew what was coming," she said. "Eight or 9 is the youngest I would recommend as a reading age for the book."
But even Rowling may have underestimated a child's tolerance of fear. Her own daughter, 7-year-old Jessica, insisted on reading the 732-page Goblet of Fire with no help from Mum.
"She read book four entirely to herself, but I told her when she hit Chapter 30, I wanted to read it to her and talk her through the ending," she said.
Rowling was expecting a tearful response to a popular character's death.
"I looked up at her, expecting her to be really upset. But she said, `Ah, it's not Harry. Who cares?' " Rowling said.
These days, Rowling's attentions are divided between the publicity of the series and her effort to finish book five and make it the best it can be.
Never mind that Amazon.com in the United Kingdom is already taking advance orders. Never mind that American director Chris Columbus is nearly ready to start production on the film version of the first Harry Potter book.
Rowling, a natural stoic, said she has total "blockage power." She said when it comes to Harry and the gang, she has a one-track mind not easily swayed by hype or public opinion.
"I'm really still loving the writing," she said. "My Holy Grail is to end the seven-book series and know I was really true to what I wanted to write."
Earlier this month, Rowling signed on as an ambassador for Britain's National Council for One-Parent Families. She has also donated 500,000 pounds (nearly $1 million in U.S. dollars) to the cause. Not because she's now considered "the richest woman in Britain," but because she feels responsible to speak out on behalf of single parents.
During her brief reliance on the "dole" (British public assistance), Rowling said her eyes were opened to the difficulties other single mothers faced.
"I used to wonder when I was in that situation why nobody was putting the facts out about how difficult that situation really was," she said. "So when the council of single families approached me, I thought `OK, then it's me. If no one else is going to say it, I will.' "
Noble a cause as it is, though, such commitments can be hefty to a woman with three books to finish. Much like the early days, when she was finishing her first two books with baby Jessica at her cafe table, Rowling's elevation to world role model has placed more demands on her time.
"On an ideal day, I'll probably write six to 10 hours," Rowling said. "But I'm having time trouble. I still write longhand, and I still write away from the house. I use cafes like offices really, with the added bonus that someone is there to bring me coffee."