J.K. Rowling has this thing she does where her head dips down an inch
or two into her shoulders and her hands twist the air in front of her,
as if she's wringing agony out of the air itself. And that's what she
does when you ask her what she thinks of her new book, "Harry Potter
and the Order of the Phoenix." "At the moment I'm at the stage
when you can only see faults," she says, her hands going in time
with her voice. "I rang my sister and said, 'The book's dreadful,
it's just dreadful.' She just laughed. I said, 'This is not funny. It
is not funny that the book's dreadful.' And she said, 'You've said this
on every single book.' I said, 'But this time I really, really mean it.
It's just dreadful.' And she said, 'Yep, you said that on every single
book.' So she was no help at all." Not to pick a fight in the first
paragraph or anything, but we're with the sister all the way on this.
On the other hand, who wouldn't second-guess themselves if their four previous novels about the world's most famous boy wizard had sold more than 190 million copies worldwide in eight years and been translated into 55 languages? The last installment in the saga, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," sold 3 million copies the first weekend it was released in 2000, making it the fastest-selling book in history. The only book that stands a good chance of beating the record is "The Order of the Phoenix." Amazon.com had more than a million pre-orders, and between midnight last Friday, when the book went on sale, and Monday, Barnes & Noble expected to sell a mil- lion copies.
When books did go on sale at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, bookstores reopened to thousands of costumed Harrys or just kids in pajamas who couldn't wait an extra minute for their books. These scenes in bookstores were reminiscent of the midnight-madness sales for "Goblet of Fire" in 2000, but many of this year's celebrations were much more elaborate. The Magic Tree Bookstore in Oak Park, Ill., talked the town into transforming an entire commercial block into the wizard street of Diagon Alley. Thousands of people turned out, including Bonnie and Vann Smith and their daughter, Bridget, 14, who came all the way from Mountain Home, Ark. Bridget said she's read each of the four previous novels 11 times, and planned to read the new book to her parents on the drive home – "if I don't finish it tonight." In New York's Times Square, people lined up around the block at Toys "R" Us to get a book, including Courtney Sadowsky, 28, of Howell, N.J., who said, "I already read the first Harry Potter book to my infant daughter of 7 months." She plans to do the same with the rest of the series. Standing in a line around the block to buy a book at 2 a.m. is not everyone's idea of quality time. Let's hear it for Miami's Books & Books: if you reserved a book, it promised doorstep delivery by dawn Saturday.
The week before "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" went on sale was, if anything, even more frenzied. Bowing to Rowling's wishes, her British and American publishers did their best to keep the book locked up until the sale date, so that not one child, and certainly not one critic, got hold of a copy ahead of anyone else. The immediate beneficiaries of this policy were English bookies, who ran odds on which character would die in the new book, with Hagrid the gamekeeper the favorite at 7-2, followed by Sirius Black at 4-1 and Professors McGonagall and Dumbledore at 5-1. All week long, lucky shoppers kept finding books that had mysteriously landed on store shelves – in a Wal-Mart in Canada, in a health-food store in Brooklyn. (Ours came from a public library.) Scholastic, which spent more than $US3 million promoting the new book, was so adamant about not revealing the contents to anyone before the debut date that the National Braille Press said it couldn't get access to the manuscript to produce a Braille version before the weekend. Very few authors get that kind of support from their publishers. But with all of publishing in the doldrums for two years (even Scholastic laid off 4 percent of its staff recently), which publisher wouldn't jump to accommodate the creator of "Harry Potter"?
Not that Rowling is a prima donna. She doesn't even like to complain. Her life, she wants you to know, is well beyond OK: "Only someone whose been as broke as I was could appreciate how happy I am. I appreciate every day not having to worry about money." The 37-year-old author's got a new husband, Dr. Neil Murray, a general practitioner whom she met through mutual friends and married the day after Christmas in 2001. They have a new baby, David Gor – don Rowling Murray, born in March. And she's going to guest-star on "The Simpsons" next fall. Three years ago the Queen of England made Rowling an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. (And as long as we're talking about the queen, Rowling is reportedly the richer of the two, although she denies that's she's worth anywhere near the rumored $US468 million.) When she gave NEWSWEEK a rare interview at her home in Edinburgh (there's another house in the Scottish countryside and another in London), she acted like a celebrity only once: she kept us waiting. But that was so she could feed the baby and put him down for a nap.
The happy-ending address of the real-life Cinderella – the single mother who nine years ago was scribbling away in Edinburgh coffee shops while her baby daughter slept – is a rambling two-story Victorian stone house with some faded hydrangeas beside the front stoop. It sits in a tree-lined upper-middle-class neighborhood full of doctors and lawyers and politicians, and it's not, Rowling points out, in the poshest part of town. There's a freestanding office on the property where two assistants handle the thousand pieces of mail she gets a week. Rowling herself spends at least one day a week answering letters. There are no fancy cars in the drive, unless you count her husband's Mini Cooper (oddest piece of Rowling trivia: she doesn't know how to drive). Her daughter, Jessica, from her first marriage, still attends a public school. The only piece of evidence that you're anywhere near rich-and-famous territory is the lock on the gate. Butch, the resident Jack Russell terrier, is much too friendly to frighten intruders.
When Rowling does get David down for his nap and comes strolling across the gravel drive to the office, she seems tall and gangly in jeans and a red shirt and not shy so much as preoccupied. But when she sits down and begins to talk, she crafts every answer with a true storyteller's knack for detail and narrative.
Right off, you can't help asking if fame doesn't have its price – doesn't it get harder and harder just to go for a walk? "No, no," she replies, slowly and evenly. "I can honestly say there is nowhere I would avoid." But then her hands start doing that twisting thing on the table. "Well, that's not true. There is one thing I would avoid: I no longer write in cafes, I can't do that anymore. And I know people might think, 'Well, very small price to pay.' But to me it's a real privation, because it was the way I worked best. Very occasionally, as a treat, I take my notebook and go off to places that I'm not known to write in, and I write there. Last year I thought I'd been very clever: I went to the National Portrait Gallery's cafe. I thought, 'Well, no one will care, obviously, because they'll all be interested in what they've just seen.' Two days later the Edinburgh Evening News printed, 'J. K. Rowling spotted in the National Portrait Gallery Cafe writing away. Is this Book 5?" Yes, it was Book 5, but now I can't write there, you bastards." That concludes the complaining portion of the interview.
Rowling's first four books came out one right after another with hardly a year apart. By the time the fourth appeared, the strain of the pace was beginning to show. "Goblet of Fire" was compulsively readable, like a 734-page action sequence, but the writing was much sloppier than the prose in the earlier installments. "Order of the Phoenix," in contrast, never goes out of control. She tells her story with her characteristic gift for pacing and surprise. Everything we've taken for granted – starting with the absolute power of Dumbledore, Harry's headmaster at Hogwarts – is called into question. And that makes things much more frightening, both for Harry and for the reader, as evil Lord Voldemort consolidates his power, infecting even the Ministry of Magic with his malign designs.
"Phoenix" is the most atmospheric of all the Potter books. And since it seems that Edinburgh has a castle on every corner, you wonder how much Rowling has drawn on her surroundings. Not in the slightest, she claims. "I could live anywhere and produce it word for word the same. But I do think being British is very important. Because we do have a motley, mongrel folklore here, and I was interested in it and collected it. And then got the idea for Harry."
Rowling makes no apology for having kept her readers waiting. "I wanted to know what it was like to write without having the pressure of the deadline. And it was wonderful. I had been writing very intensely, since 'Philosopher's Stone' [the first book]. By 'Goblet,' I was writing 10 hours a day. And that's just getting stupid. Because I have a daughter. I really wanted to see her before she turned 18 and left home and never spoke to me." The extra time paid off in a very long, but never windy, chronicle where every page produces examples of Rowling's astonishing inventiveness. Best new touch? A quill pen that Harry is forced to use in detention. As he writes "I must not tell lies," the words are carved into the back of his hand. "Phoenix" is one of the best books in the series. How good is it? I peeked ahead to find out how it ended. So sue me. I peeked ahead in "Bleak House," too. Only a really good book can make you do that.
Yes, a major character dies, but no giving away the ending here. In place of a spoiler, let's pause for a message from the author: "I know that a certain number of my fans are going to be pretty upset with me by the end of the book. I really apologize to them. But it had to be so. And I am sorry because I know what it's like to lose someone, albeit a fictional person, that you were quite attached to." And yes, the plot gets darker in "Phoenix," a point Rowling thinks is so obvious by now it's hardly worth mentioning. "I'm surprised that people are surprised that the series is getting darker, because the first book started with a murder. And although you didn't see the murder happen, that for me was an announcement that these things would continue within the series." But she's not blind to the fact that very young children will want to read these books, and that they will be disturbed: "I was always ambivalent when people told me that they'd read the first book to their 6-year-old, because I knew what was coming. And I have to say even with the first book, that is a scary ending."
Perhaps the biggest surprise in "Phoenix" is that Harry, now 15, is finally acting like a moody, misunderstood teenager. "I've said all along that I want Harry to grow up in a realistic way, which means hormonal impulses, and it means a whole bunch of adolescent angst and anger, actually. Harry's a lot more angry in Book 5, which I think is entirely right, given what he's been through. It's about time he got angry about how life has dealt him." But isn't it inappropriate for a 9-year-old to read about those things? "I don't think so. They will be 14 themselves. There is no harm in them knowing what 14-year-olds may sometimes feel like. My daughter is 9, and I know that she can cope with Book 5 because I'm reading it to her at the moment. She's coping." She's also, to her mother's mild dismay, begun dictating plot points. "She's told me unequivocally who I'm not to kill. And I've said, 'Well, I already know who's going to die, so now is not the time to come to me and tell me I mustn't kill X, Y and Zed, because their fates are now preordained.' And she doesn't like hearing that at all. Not at all."
Few authors are so passionately protective of their creations as Rowling, so it's fun to listen to her put a subtle but very diplomatic distance between her work and the two movies derived from it so far. She likes the looks of the movies: "Chris Columbus [director of the first two films] was eager for me to tell him exactly what I saw in terms of sets particularly. And when I walked into the Great Hall of Hogwarts where they'd built it on a studio set outside London, that was absolutely like walking into the inside of my own head." She was crazy about the scenes of Quidditch: "Quidditch really lived up to my expectations. That was phenomenal." And she's wild about Alfonso Cuaron, who's directing the third movie, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Rowling points out that one of the reasons she sold film rights to Warner Bros. was that they'd done such a good job with "The Little Princess," a Cuaron film. But that, she implies, is quite enough gushing for one day, because the next thing she says is, "Obviously, I prefer books. I'm a writer. That's always going to be so. The thing about film is that everyone sees the – same thing, and that's what will always make it substandard to the novel. Readers have to work with me to create a new Hogwarts every single time every book is read."
When it comes to the merchandising of Harry Potter, however – the action figures, robes and vibrating broomsticks – Rowling makes it plain that she never set out to write "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Commerce." There have been moments, she admits, "where I regretted selling film rights. Just moments." While Warner Bros. has given her a lot of say in the way the stories are developed for film, "the one thing that I did not have the power to do was say no to merchandising. And I would have done if I could have. But you have to be realistic about this. These are very, very expensive films to make. And no film company in the world is going to make them faithfully to the books and not merchandise because they've got to get their money back somehow."
Of course, it's tough to imagine anyone in the Potter universe not making his money back. When you ask her to explain the popularity of her books, she wisely says she has no clue and advises you to go ask her readers. But she certainly knows who she is and what she wants from life. Toward the end of the interview, her face takes on that preoccupied look again, and her answers dwindle down to yeses and nos. But then her husband brings the baby over to the office for a visit, and she lights right up. Watching her cuddle her newborn, you remember what she'd said when asked if there were any parallels between having a baby and producing a book. "Yes, there are parallels," she replied. "The difference is that I just look at David and think that he's absolutely perfect, whereas you look at the finished book and you think, 'Oh, damn it, I should have changed that.' You're never happy. Whereas with a baby, you're happy. If you've got a perfect baby, you're just grateful." Those of us under Harry Potter's magic spell are more reluctant to criticize Rowling's literary creation. But we know all about being grateful.
With Jac Chebatoris, Nayelli Gonzalez and Andrew Phillips in New York and Karen Springen in Chicago
©2003 Newsweek, Inc.