Renton, Jennie. "Wild about Harry." Candis Magazine November, 2001
Context: The interview was given in the wake of the release of the
Note: Transcript courtesy of AQ staffer Jules.
The Harry Potter books have sold over 100 million copies worldwide, making their author a multi-millionairess. And this month the boy wizard makes his screen debut. Jennie Renton talks to JK Rowling about the inspiration behind Harry’s extraordinary success.
Jennie Renton (JR): How did the idea of the Harry Potter books come to you?
JKR: In a flash. ‘Boy, doesn’t know he’s a wizard, sent to wizard school.’ That was the nutshell. I started thinking what wizard school would be like and I got excited about it.
JR: Did you have any inkling that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone would be so successful?
JKR: I remember, one day, I’d been writing for hours and when I stopped I was buzzing with caffeine. I was walking down the Bridges [the road outside Nicholson’s Café in Edinburgh, where Joanne Kathleen wrote the first drafts of the Harry Potter series] thinking, ‘the difficulty will be in getting this published, but if it’s published there will be a handful of people who will really love it’. And then I thought: ‘Oh’, come on’. As it turns out, far more than a handful of people liked it. It sold so well that I can now write full time and that’s always been my life’s ambition.
The Harry books have already been translated into 25 languages. I have been fascinated to see the different covers they’ve used in the various countries. The Italian cover shows Harry playing chess, but he hasn’t got his glasses on – maybe they don’t like speccy boys. The German cover is angular and scary, with a giant chess board. The British ones highlight the transport – the train that first takes Harry to Hogwarts, then the flying Ford Anglia car for Chamber of Secrets.
JR: Although the Harry Potter books are for children, many adults love them too.
JKR: It’s nice to hear that. I spent so long constructing his world – five years of writing about Harry before anyone read a word. It’s embarrassing how many trees have died for me. I write everything down – and promptly lose it. It’s all stuffed into boxes.
I loathe books that have inconsistencies and leave questions unanswered. Loopholes bug the hell out of me. And so I try to be meticulous and make sure that everything operates according to laws, however odd, so that everyone understands exactly how and why. I have a visual imagination. I have to imagine something clearly first and then I write. The Harry books are supposed to be full of surprises, but I try to make sure that they unfold in a realistic way.
JR: Is it easy writing a series?
JKR: A problem you run into with a series is how the characters grow up – and whether they’re allowed to grow up. The characters in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books act in a prepubescent way right through the series. I want Harry Potter and his friends to grow up as well as get older, though I’ll keep it all humorous and well within the tone of the books. I want them, eventually, to be truly 17 and discover girlfriends and boyfriends and have sexual feelings. Why not allow them to?
JR: Do you envy the everlasting youth of Peter Pan?
JKR: Peter Pan, although it’s a marvellous and magical story, strikes me as being about being trapped in youth, and I don’t think of childhood as a particularly happy time. For me, there were moments of joy, but I can also remember fear such as I’ve not felt as an adult. Feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Every child feels powerless at times.
JR: Are your stories inspired by reality?
JKR: Sometimes I don’t realise where I got my ideas from. A friend asked me if I remembered when we first saw Hogwarts. I had no idea what she was talking about until she said, ‘the day we went to Kew Gardens and saw those lilies called Hogwarts’. I’d seen them seven years before and they’d bubbled around in my memory. When Hogwarts occurred to me as a name for the school, I had no idea where it had come from.
The Flying Ford Anglia was based on a real car driven by Séan Harris, the first of my friends to learn to drive. We were at school together. At the time I lived in the middle of nowhere and had to rely on my parents for transport. Sometimes Séan would come for me in his car. The sight of that car meant freedom to me…my heart still leaps whenever I see a Ford Anglia! That’s why , when I thought of Ron’s flying car, I immediately pictured a Ford Anglia.
JR: What do you think is the appeal of tales about life at boarding school?
JKR: In fiction, boarding school comes over as a surrogate family. The pupils are with their contemporaries and free of their parents and the guilt attached to upsetting them. I was educated through the comprehensive system. I’ve never even been inside a boarding school.
JR: New pupils at Hogwarts try on a talking magic hat. But Harry is disturbed by what the hat tells him.
JKR: What I’m working towards there is the fact that our choices, rather than our abilities, show us what we truly are. That’s brought out in the difference between Harry and his arch-enemy, Tom Riddle. In Chamber of Secrets, Harry is told by the hat that if he goes into Slytherin house, home of warped wizards, he will become a powerful wizard. He chooses not to do that. But Tom Riddle, who has been twisted by ambition and lack of love, succumbs to the desire for power. Though he’s supposed to have died years before, his malign spirit manipulates events through an enchanted diary.
JR: What made you think of the idea about the diary?
JKR: My sister used to commit her innermost thoughts to her diary. Her great fear was that someone would read it. That’s how the idea came to me of a diary that is itself against you. You would be confiding everything to pages that aren’t inanimate.
JR: Who are your favorite writers?
JKR: Of contemporary writers, I think Roddy Doyle is a genius. But my big three are Nabokov, Colette and Jane Austen. I read my favorite books over and over until they fall apart, literally. I’ve gone through three copies of Emma - They get dropped in the bath and I have to replace them. My ambition is to write books that the reader won’t necessarily get compleately at first. Nothing makes me happier than when a child brings me a copy of Harry that looks appalling – it proves they’ve read and read it.
JR: Having been ‘conceived’ in Edinburgh, is Harry going to visit Scotland?
JKR: Hogwarts is actually in Scotland. I deliberately don’t spell it out because I want people to be able to place it in any landscape that suits them.
JR: What do you feel about having had such quick success as a writer?
JKR: I’m still slightly stunned to be living the life I’ve always dreamed about. At least once a week I get a funny shiver down my spine.
JR: The Warner movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s
Stone, will be released later this month.
Added to archive 25 April 2007; last updated 25 April 2007.