eToys interview transcript,, Fall 2000

This transcript courtesy of the HP Galleries.

How did you get the idea for Harry Potter?
I was taking a long train journey from Manchester to London in England and the idea for Harry just fell into my head. At that point it was essentially the idea of a boy who didn't know he was a wizard, and the wizard school he ended up going to.

How long did it take to write the first book?
Five years, although during that time I was also planning and writing parts of the six sequels.

What did you have to do to make sure readers could start with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and not be confused?
It's becoming more of a challenge to keep new readers up to speed with every new Harry book. In the case of "Chamber of Secrets" matters were relatively straightforward; I tried to introduce information about Harry and his first year at Hogwarts in as natural a way as possible. However, by the time I reach books 5 and 6, this is going to be much harder. It makes me think of "previously on ER..." when you have to watch 30 minutes of clips to understand that week's episode. Maybe I'll just write a preface "previously in Harry Potter..." and tell readers to go back and read books 1-4!

What kind of manuscript changes had to be made to make the U.S. version more understandable to American readers? Specific things, like the title change of the first Harry Potter book? (The original British title is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.)
Very few changes have been made in the manuscript. Arthur Levine, my American editor, and I decided that words should be altered only where we felt they would be incomprehensible, even in context, to an American reader. I have had some criticism from other British writers about allowing any changes at all, but I feel the natural extension of that argument is to go and tell French and Danish children that we will not be translating Harry Potter, so they'd better go and learn English. The title change was Arthur's idea initially, because he felt that the British title gave a misleading idea of the subject matter. In England, we discussed several alternative titles and "Sorcerer's Stone" was my idea.

Did you always plan to write Harry's story in more than one book? If so, how many?
I always conceived it as a 7-book series because I decided that it would take seven years from the ages of 11-17 inclusive, to train as a wizard, and each of the books would deal with a year of Harry's life at Hogwarts.

Any hints you could share about what to expect in future Harry Potter books?
The theme running through all seven books is the fight between good and evil, and I'm afraid there will be casualties! Children usually beg me not to kill Ron. Whenever I tell them this, they seem to think he is most vulnerable, probably because he is the hero's best friend!

How do you come up with all the unique names, places, and things that help make Harry Potter so intriguing?
Many of the names are invented, for example "Quidditch" and "Muggle." I also collect unusual names, and I take them from all sorts of different places. "Hedwig" was a saint, "Dumbledore" is an old English word for "bumblebee," and "Snape" is the name of a place in England.

What do you think it is about Harry Potter that connects with so many people?
It's very hard to think about my work in those terms, because I really wrote it entirely for myself; it is my sense of humour in the books, not what I think children will find funny, and I suppose that would explain some of the appeal to adults. On the other hand, I think that I have very vivid memories of how it felt to be Harry's age, and children seem to identify strongly with Harry and his friends.

Did you ever expect Harry Potter to be so successful?
I would have been crazy to have expected what has happened to Harry. The most exciting moment for me, against very stiff competition, was when I found out Harry was going to be published. It was my life's ambition to see a book I had written on a shelf in a bookshop. Everything that has happened since has been extraordinary and wonderful, but the mere fact of being able to say I was a published author was the fulfillment of a dream I had had since I was a very small child.

Are you surprised to see Harry Potter connecting with so many adults, as well as kids?
I didn't write with a target audience in mind. What excited me was how much I would enjoy writing about Harry. I never thought about writing for children-- children's books chose me. I think if it is a good book anyone will read it.

Harry Potter was first successful in England, and then in the United States. Where else has Harry Potter been released? What similarities and/or differences have you found in the response to Harry Potter in different countries? And, since each of the editions is packaged differently, do you have a favorite?
Harry is now published in Britain, America, Brazil, Holland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Japan. My favourite cover is the American one-- I am very much hoping to meet the illustrator, Mary GrandPré, but I also love the Dutch edition.

What do you think of online book retailing as a way of getting your stories read by readers around the globe?
Online retailing may be convenient, but I personally would much prefer to go into a real bookshop and browse! I know that Scholastic will soon be publishing each Harry book in America around the same time that they are published in Britain, so American Harry fans will be able to get the next installment much more quickly from their local bookstore.

Of the many things you must have heard people say about Harry Potter, what are some of your favorites?
My very favourite was from a 12-year-old Scottish girl who came to hear me read at the Edinburgh book festival. The event was sold out and the queue for signing at the end was very long. When the girl in question finally reached me she said, "I didn't WANT there to be so many people here, because this is MY book!" That is exactly how I feel about my favourite books-- nobody else has a right to know them, let alone like them!

How has your success as an author impacted your lifestyle? Is there something you always wanted to do that you are able to do now that you have the chance?
I never expected to be talking to journalists or doing lots of promotional work, and I have reached the point now where I have to say "no" to a lot of things just to make sure that I get enough time to write. On the other hand, I love traveling, and the chance to visit places I have never seen before-- my trip to the U.S. to promote the book... I fell in love with New York, and San Francisco is absolutely wonderful.

Are you recognized now? Do you get stopped for autographs? How does that feel?
I am rarely recognized and I am very happy about that, because I like being an anonymous person! It usually happens when I'm writing in cafes, because the connection between me and cafes is strongly imprinted in Edinburgh people's minds. Occasionally I have handed over my credit card and people have recognised the name, which is a very comfortable level of recognisability. One shop assistant told me she had taken the second Harry to read on her honeymoon! The most embarrassing occasion was when I took my daughter to see "A Bug's Life" with some friends, and a woman with a party of a dozen little girls asked me if she could take a picture of me with all her charges.

Are you excited about the movie deal for Harry Potter?
I am very excited (and a little bit nervous) about Harry Potter the Movie.

Is this the first book/story you ever wrote? If not, is it the first one ever published?
It is the first book I have ever published. At the time I got the idea for Harry, I had written and put aside two adult novels.

Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, ever since the age of 5 or 6, when I wrote my first "book"-- a story about a rabbit called "Rabbit."

Where, when, and how do you write?
Any time, any place, and longhand!

Do you have any plans, as a writer, beyond Harry Potter?
I have always written and I know that I always will; I would be writing even if I hadn't been published. However, Harry is a large and all-consuming project, and I really haven't got time, at the moment, to decide what will come next.

What books and authors did you read as a kid? Which are your biggest influences?
I most admire E. Nesbit, Paul Gallico and C.S. Lewis. My favourite book as a child was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.

What advice would you give to young writers today?
I doubt a writer who has got what it takes will need me to tell them this, but persevere!

What do you like best about your life as a children's book writer?
The writing!

If you were not writing, what might you be doing, instead?
Well, as you can see by the answer above, I would be at a dead loss. Profession-wise, I would still be teaching, which I enjoyed.

What are your hobbies, favorite holidays, and how do you celebrate them?
I was embarrassed the other day to discover that I didn't have much to say to the question, "What are your hobbies?" (asked by a 9-year-old boy). The truth is that if I'm not looking after my daughter, spending time with friends, or reading, I am writing. The boy who'd asked seemed quite frustrated by this answer, but the truth of the matter is that even if writing is now my full-time profession, it is also my greatest pleasure. I doubt if it will come as a surprise to anybody that I love Halloween. I usually hold a big Halloween party for my friends and their children.

Other things that help define who you are (foods, TV shows, etc.)?
I will eat almost anything except tripe, which unfortunately was the speciality in Oporto, where I lived for three years. TV shows: I love comedy, mostly British, though I love Frasier and The Simpsons.

You live in Scotland, but what other countries have you visited? Which are your favorites? If you were to move, where would you choose?
I have lived in England, France, and Portugal, and visited many others. I loved Portugal (my daughter is half-Portuguese) and I'm looking forward to taking her back there and trying to explain why we left the blazing sunshine for fog and snow.

What does your daughter think of your work? What books do you want and like to read with her? And her to read on her own?
She is still too young for me to read the Harry Potter books to her, but I am really looking forward to a time when I can share them with her. She loves the Beatrix Potter books and I recently read her 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe', which she thoroughly enjoyed.

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