MEDIA SAVVY: J.K. Rowling's fame came suddenly, but she has quickly learned how to charm a media crowd, like the one she faced yesterday at the Royal York Hotel. She will read at the SkyDome tomorrow.
The question was not, How big was it, but How strange was it? Befitting the fantastical nature of her "Harry Potter" books, J.K. Rowling's appearance yesterday in the concrete cave called SkyDome was from start to finish, one of the most bizarre literary events ever.
Accompanied by actors in wizard robes and pointed caps, sparkling bursts of fireworks and Gustav Holst's "The Planets," the slightly built 35-year-old magician of children's books shyly slipped onto the stage amid deafening shrieks and screams of thousands of Canadian schoolchildren.
She appeared even tinier in the huge sports stadium, even though a 100-foot high black drape sliced the space into the size of a major- league infield. Backing the stage, which stood around second base, were three large TV screens.
Thirty-five thousand seats were available, including 1,000 on the floor which went for $234 (Canadian) each. Ticket prices ranged from that figure to $5.85 for the highest reaches. Those seats were largely filled; the rest of the SkyDome sections were less than half full.
By yesterday afternoon, organizers had yet to announce the number of total tickets sold.
Brought here by Toronto's Literary Festival of Authors, Rowling capped two days of brief media appearances with this reading, a sharp departure from the serious literary nature of the 21-year-old festival. Why did she do it?
"This was purely a way of satisfying a lot of people at one go. I was working 10 hours a day, and I thought the book [`Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' ] was never going to end," she told an earlier press conference. "I said yes to a couple of things, and SkyDome was one of them."
Despite her claim that she was "terrified" of such a crowd, Rowling read wonderfully from Chapter 4 of "Goblet," proving herself to be an accomplished actress as well. In a dark blue jacket with an open-collared white blouse, she never stumbled and moved easily from one character to the next.
At this point, the mammoth dome was perfectly silent.
Rowling read for about 45 minutes, then quickly ran through answers to questions she said had been asked of her in Toronto. Several groans followed her announcement that Book 5, called "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," won't be written by next summer.
"I took a rest after Book 4, and I hope you understand," she told her disappointed fans. "But, I am writing it now and am really loving it."
Rowling declined to get into specifics about her next book. But she did give one hint: Ginny Weasley, the younger sister of Harry's best friend, Ron Weasley, will play a major role in Book 5.
She added that she has retained final script approval for the first Harry Potter movie, now being filmed in England, and that she has written the last chapter in Book 7, the final one in her plan.
"I feel as if I'm halfway through writing an enormous book, and I am very frustrated that people are making assumptions about what I am saying when I haven't said it all yet."
While Rowling refuses to speed up her writing schedule for the rest of the "Harry Potter" series, she did offer some consolation to her impatient fans. She's just completed two short Potter-related books that will be published in March, with proceeds going to Comic Relief, an anti-poverty organization in Great Britain.
One of the volumes is titled "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" and is a book on one of Harry's Hogwarts' school supply lists. The other book, "Quidditch Through the Ages," is a in-depth look at the fast-paced wizard sport played on broomsticks that is a key element of the Potter books.
"It was pure joy to write those books," Rowling said. "Lots of the material I had already written and had to cut from the books. It was way too much detail for the books."
Rowling has expressed her dismay at complaints about the witchcraft of "Harry Potter" but remained defiant about her subject.
"Do my books encourage Satanism?" she asked. She then answered, "No, and you are a lunatic. That's it. Thank you very much"
With a couple of modest waves, Rowling disappeared into the pitch- black drapery and was gone. She'll surface later this week in Vancouver.
She appeared at the festival and an event for the Toronto Public Library here for no fee. Proceeds for yesterday's event went directly to the festival.
Despite the constant media attention in Canada's largest city, Rowling revealed little new in her various pronouncements, but her answers showed that some strain was beginning to show.
Her success was not a fluke. "Writing is a lot of hard work," she said. "I was not sitting by the fireplace waiting to be discovered by the prince."
Her writing schedule is "six to 10 hours a day depending on how much caffeine I've had."
Rowling also insisted that she lives a "quiet life" in Edinburgh, raising her 7-year-old daughter, Jennifer, and sending her to public school. Reports from her native England claim she is now the second wealthiest woman in Great Britain, after Queen Elizabeth.
And, with 35 million "Harry Potters" in print, it's safe to say she's one of the world's most popular authors.
Despite Rowling's presence, festival organizers also presented two other children's writers at yesterday's reading -- Canadians Kenneth Oppel and Tim Wynne-Jones. They had to be the bravest men in Ontario.