Last week, sales of the four “Harry Potter” books hit 43 million. Already No. 1 on every major bestseller list, the newest title, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” also is history’s fastest-selling book. Warner Bros. is preparing a “Harry Potter” film, cast with unknowns. Potterisms, terms found only in these volumes, have entered the broad vernacular. (Don’t stand for it if someone likens you to Draco Malfoy.) High on the list of hot kiddie collectibles this season are Hogwarts journals and lightning bolt ink stamps. Look outside on Halloween and you will see numerous children with round eyeglasses, hoping to play Quidditch with their brooms.
No longer a mere literary hero, the wizard-in-training is a commercial typhoon. So if you happen to be having tea with J.K. Rowling, perpetrator of this astonishing phenomenon, it might be reasonable to inquire: Will success spoil Harry Potter?
Absolutely not, insists Rowling, who is just this side of obsessive about the boy who appeared to her fully formed on a train ride between London and Manchester. (Religious allegorists take note: Few other epiphanies have proved so profitable.) In a clingy purple dress and heels that look like upside-down skyscrapers, Rowling is fierce about her young wizard and the grand themes around him.
“I have known Harry, and I have been writing about Harry for 10 years,” Rowling said. “He is very, very real to me.”
On a quick visit from Scotland last week, Rowling, 35, sipped tea and ignored a plate of tidy little sandwiches. Her readers know her as J.K., but friends call her Jo, short for Joanne. Rowling was so grateful five years ago when Bloomsbury Press paid about $4,000 for her first book, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” as the first book is known in Great Britain (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in this country) that she didn’t protest the decision to use genderless initials instead of an identifiably female first name. More boy-friendly, they told her.
Rowling said she sees it as her mission to convey the life story of the boy named for a family she grew up with on the English border with Wales. Harry Potter’s saga is so complete that Rowling sees the tale as one gigantic story broken into seven books “I think I’m quite driven on this,” Rowling said on a busy afternoon of engagements scheduled by her U.S. publisher, Scholastic. “I want to get this story out of me. It’s that simple. There’s no other reason to keep writing.”
As if she were Harry’s guardian--not the awful Dursleys of her story--Rowling talks fast and furiously about the boy with the lightning bolt scar. She laughs readily, and at her own expense, agreeing, for example, that maybe it was a little presumptuous for an unpublished author to set forth on a seven-volume serial novel. “My response is, you can be as arrogant as you want when you haven’t done anything,” Rowling said. “What the hell do you have to lose?”
Thanks to Harry Potter, what Rowling has gained is an enormous fortune. She and her daughter, Jessica, now 7, own a secluded home in Edinburgh. For the first time in her life, she has enough disposable income to purchase anything she wants--such as the glittering ring she spotted in a jewelry store window not long ago, and marched right in and bought.
But Rowling dismisses reports that Harry has made her the third-highest-paid woman in Great Britain. “Not true,” she said. A recent British newspaper report that she makes 56,000 pounds a day is just plain hilarious, Rowling said, adding, “If that’s true, my banker should call me and say where is it?”
Slender and animated, Rowling is passionate and intense when she talks about Harry. When the pair met, so to speak, Rowling was 25. By the time she put his story to paper, she was divorced. She was so poor that she could barely afford to heat her apartment, so she wrote at an Edinburgh coffee house, pushing her daughter’s pram with one hand and composing prose with the other. A congenital introvert, Rowling still writes her first drafts in longhand, with final edits on a computer. In fact, she said, “the place I am most comfortable on Earth is sitting when I am writing.”
Filled with symbols and archetypes, the “Harry Potter” series is really one giant fairy tale. But only Rowling knows the ending. She writes with relentless self-criticism.
“One of my strengths, I think, is that I am able to know when I haven’t done my best,” Rowling said. “I think I’m generally able to see where I fall short.” Before the Potter apparition, she nearly finished two novels for adults but had the good sense to stop while she was behind. “If either one had been published, if some editor had had some sort of death wish,” Rowling said, “I think I’d be sitting here feeling very apologetic.”
With Harry, Rowling said she knew right away. She knew the orphan wizard would be her ticket out of literary obscurity, and she knew the story would take off, the way Harry travels by stepping through walls and then vaulting through space. “I just really believed in it,” she said. “And it was fun. It was fun to write. I had this strong feeling that this was the one.”
Harry was born as an 11-year-old, and Rowling said she knew immediately that her job was to get him through the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. So while she was developing the plot from beginning to end, she also was deciding how long it takes to become a wizard. “Seven is a magical number, a mystical number,” Rowling said. “And it turned out I could do it in seven books. I really see these books as just like one huge novel that I’ve divided up.” With four “Harry Potter” books out, she says, “I feel like I’ve done half of my novel.”
(For those awaiting the fifth installment, keep waiting. The heft of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and the time it took to write the book surprised even Rowling. All she will say is that the fifth book will not be out as soon as her fans would like.)
Rowling bristles at comparisons--especially between Harry Potter and Peter Pan. Of J.M. Barrie’s novel about a little boy who refuses to grow up, she said, “I find it a sinister idea. I find it stunted. I wouldn’t want to go back to childhood. I’ve gotten much happier as I’ve gotten older. That’s true of most of the women I know, not necessarily of the men I know. It’s my feeling that men in general hanker after childhood much more than women.”
Her own books, said Rowling, “are written to please me, and I am clearly an adult. I don’t write what I think 8-year-olds would find funny. I write what I would find funny.” Maybe this explains why so many adults--among them, suspense writer Stephen King--have devoured her books, which in England are published with two covers, one for grown-ups and one for children. And if sometimes she writes above the heads of her young readers, Rowling reasons, “If they love them enough, they’ll reread them. And then it will be like finding another sweet in the bag.”
Characters Sometimes Surprise the Author
Sometimes, Rowling said, Harry and his merry band of mystical rogues do naughty things that surprise even her. (She is too protective of her story line to disclose when this has happened.) But, she said, “they’re not allowed to surprise me too much. They’re allowed to give me the odd surprise chapter now and again, and that’s it.”
As her hero ascended to cult status, Rowling was flattered--both for her and for Harry. Sometimes it all has an aura of unreality about it, like an out-of-body experience, Rowling said. “There’s part of me just sitting over in the corner giggling,” she said. “I hope it doesn’t wear off.”
Rowling is charmed that her characters have assumed such force for so many people and amused by the convoluted questions often popped at her. Recently she was asked why Harry’s cousin, Dudley Dursley, was so fat. Rowling laughed. “I was told it would be politically incorrect to have a child so large,” she said. “My response was that this was about abuse. It was abusive that the people around him are feeding him not only with their putrid ideas, but with food, like a goose. He’s a victim of his parents.”
It seemed superfluous to Rowling to mention that she was describing a fictional family: Muggles (non-wizards) who grudgingly watch over Harry when he is not at Hogwarts. Thanks to the Dursleys, “Muggles” has become a workplace pejorative, the Wall Street Journal reported recently.
Then there are the readers who take it upon themselves to advise Rowling about her upcoming installments. Don’t kill off any more characters, some parents railed after book four. They told Rowling: To my children, your books are a safe place in a scary world.
Rowling’s reply: “I have to write what I have to write. I’m not taking dictation. It’s like Louisa May Alcott. Would you have written to Alcott and said, ‘Beth can’t die’? Beth had to die.”
Still, the themes of death and bereavement linger over all the “Harry Potter” books. The question, Rowling allows, is what does death mean to the people who have gone, and to the ones who are left? But whether this motif traces to Rowling’s own grief over the death of her mother at age 45 is something she does not discuss. Nor will she expand on the overarching moral of the books. “If I did say, I’d be giving myself away about book seven,” she said.
But she will say that the themes of good and evil, power and the abuse of power, hatred and forgiveness also thread their way through these books.
There is also the less cosmic matter of adolescent development. Harry and his best wizard friend, Ron, were easy to write about, Rowling said: “I learned about boys because of the men I knew. It’s true. Anyway, I like teenage boys. They’re funny.” And Rowling loves fellow Hogwarts student Hermione, her central female character. “She’s very much like me when I was younger,” Rowling said. “I just love her bossiness and her control-freakiness.”
For Rowling, when the time comes to let go, when book seven casts its final spell, she knows she will cry--"I will sob my eyes off"--and yet she will be, in a way, relieved.
“I will never write anything this popular again,” she said. “How could I? Even if I write 100 novels after ‘Harry Potter,’ I will always be ‘J.K. Rowling, creator of “Harry Potter.” ’ “