J.K. Rowling has no need to do interviews. With more than 32 million copies of the Harry Potter series in print in the United States alone, Rowling doesn't need publicity to sell her books.
Yet there she was in the New York City offices of her publisher, Scholastic, cheerfully answering questions from five newspaper reporters on a telephone conference call. Why?
"I see this as an opportunity to answer kids' questions," Rowling said. "My post bag is now getting pretty much overwhelming at the moment. Although we answer every letter, the logistics of the thing are that I can't go to every school that asks me to visit and I can't do every reading that people would like me to do. It's a way of responding to questions about things that are coming and a way of reaching people without going to each of these communities, which would be very difficult now."
In a 45-minute interview from 3,000 miles away, Rowling came across as bright, energetic and not at all intimidated by her success. She talked animatedly about that success, dropped a few hints about what's coming next in the series, took a strong stand against censorship and made it clear that writing remains her top priority.
Rowling's reason for doing an interview makes sense. Her comments have been organized by topic and edited only for continuity. Note that she refers to books in her series by number, not title. Thus, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" is Book Four, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is Book One, and the new, untitled book is Book Five.
On the new book: "Book Five is under way, but I haven't gotten that far through it yet. It's very unlikely to be out by next July, purely because I just finished this very long, complex book (Book Four), and I want to make it as good as I can make it.
"I don't want to be writing against an artificial deadline. It'll be done when it's done, and I have no intention of taking any kind of a break from the series because I'm still loving the writing."
On her writing schedule: "On an ideal day, I'll probably work between six and 10 hours. That would be a really good writing day for me. I'm kind of fighting to get time to write at the moment, which feels bizarrely familiar to me because that's how I wrote the first two books because then I had a paying job.
"I do still write longhand, and I do write away from the house whenever possible because it's very easy to get distracted when you're home. I use cafes as offices, really, with the added bonus that there's normally good music and someone to bring me coffee all the time, which is great."
On her characters: "Harry and Ron and Hermione I love, and I think there's something of me in all three of them.
"Hagrid I absolutely adore, although I wouldn't say there's a great deal of my personality in Hagrid. He's almost created in response to me. I think most kids would love to have a friend like Hagrid. (Actor) Stephen Fry, who reads the books for audiotape in Britain, said to me young boys need someone like Hagrid because they need someone to sit there whittling and saying yes, yes, while they're pouring out their anguished souls. Someone to sit there and listen and be very stolid and reassuring. I would hope there's none of me in the Dursleys."
On the bookstore parties for book four: "It was wonderful. On July the 8th, I was in a hotel in London waiting to start the tour. In the U.K. I did a very short tour, starting in London and going north to my hometown, and we stopped and did some signings and met a lot of readers. But when I was in my hotel I was watching the TV and they flashed up this huge bookstore in central London where all these kids were waiting for books. My daughter was sleeping in the room and I had this mad desire to pull on my jeans and go down there and see them."
Is the reaction overwhelming? "With the kids, never. And I really mean that. It's really quite extraordinary because I'm an ex-teacher and I know kids aren't angels. I've met thousands and thousands of kids now, of all different nationalities, at signings and readings, and I've never had a kid be obnoxious. Ever."
On expectations: "It's really not a burden. It's a profound treat. There's a tendency to underestimate children on all sorts of levels. I sincerely believe that children really want to hear the story as I've imagined it. They want to hear how it ends. They do not want to change one single paragraph. They want to find out what happens next. They want me to tell the story I want to tell."
On being dropped from the new york times best-seller list: (The Times created a separate list for children's books, in direct response to Rowling's domination of the fiction list.) "Well, I didn't throw a party (laughs). It's a difficult one. I know why it was done, I know the reasoning behind it, we've all seen the reasoning behind it. I was a bit sad."
On other writers: "Philip Pullman is a writer I very much admire. I think he can write most adult authors off the page. . . . I think he's amazing. His book 'Clockwork' is a book that I think is an absolutely stunning piece of work. I often get asked at events. 'What can I read? I'm done with the Harry Potter book.' That's the book I recommend. There's a writer called David Almond, another British writer, he wrote a novel called 'Skellig' that I think is funny. . . . At the moment I'm reading Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin.'"
Are her books too scary? "That's a matter of personal taste. I feel that the ending of Book Four is frightening. But there are reasons for that. It was not done for pure pleasure of thinking I was frightening people. I was dealing with an evil character and there's a moral obligation, I feel, to show what that means. I don't see (Books) Five, Six and Seven as, you know, that I have to up the stakes with every book at all. (Book Four) was a pivotal moment at the heart of the series. I wouldn't necessarily say that Five is darker, but I can't say that there's isn't more dark stuff coming because I know that there is.
"From the very first book, I would meet parents who would say, 'Well, my 5- or 6-year-old loved it.' I always felt reservations about saying that was a great thing because I knew what was coming in the series and even though they might be able to cope with the language perhaps some of the scenes are a little dark for a 5- or a 6-year-old. I would think probably 8 or 9 is the youngest I would recommend as a reading age for the books."
On wrapping up: "The final chapter for Book Seven is written. I wrote that just for my own satisfaction, really as an act of faith. (To say) I will get here in the end. In that chapter you do, I hope, feel a sense of resolution. You do find out what happens to the survivors. I know that sounds very ominous (laughs)."
On merchandising the movie: ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" has been cast. Rowling said she was especially delighted that Maggie Smith is playing Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane is playing Hagrid and Alan Rickman is playing Snape.)
"That's not my bag. They do ask my opinion, and I give them my opinion. My input is largely creative, it's really with the screenwriter and the director. I've seen sets, and they're amazing. It's a very spooky experience to walk into the Great Hall, really very spooky. And Hagrid's house . . . it's just . . . I know every writer of the original work when they see it made physical feels the same way.
"The thing I'm excited about is seeing Quidditch, without a doubt. I've been seeing that inside my head for 10 years. With that, I'll really become like a kid. I just want to sit in the back of the movie theater and watch it."
On censorship: (The Harry Potter books have frequently been challenged in public schools and libraries. Some parents feel the books promote witchcraft and are anti-Christian.) "I really hate censorship. I find it objectionable. I personally think that they're very mistaken. I think these are very moral books and I think it's a very short-sighted thing. Short-sighted in the sense that if you try hard to portray goodness without showing that the reverse is evil and without showing how great it is to resist that . . . well, that's always been my feeling about literature.
"You find magic, witchcraft and wizardry in all sorts of classic children's books. Where do you start? Are you going to start with 'The Wizard of Oz?' These people are trying to protect children from their own imagination."
Hints about the future: "There's stuff coming with the Dursleys that people might not expect, but I'm not going to give too much away there if that's OK. . . . Finally, I gave you something. Ginny (Weasley) does have a bigger role in Book Five."