The Return of Harry Potter
its official debut on July 8, J. K. Rowling's fourth Harry Potter novel had
become the biggest publishing phenomenon since-ever. There has never been a
bigger first printing (3.8 million in this country alone). Nor a book that's
sold faster in preorders (as of midnight, July 1, there had been 282,650 orders
at Amazon.com, where it's been the No. 1 best seller for 16 of the last 21
amazing, Rowling's publishers have so far managed to keep the contents of the
year's most desired book almost completely under wraps. The title, "Harry
Potter and the Goblet of Fire," slipped out a week ago. One lucky
8-year-old girl managed to acquire a stray copy from her local bookstore. And
Rowling, who has staunchly supported the veil of secrecy around the book because
she wanted it to come as a surprise to her readers, did let slip to the London
Times what a lot of young fans have been whispering about for months: at least
one important character will die in the new book. Little else is known about the
new novel, which NEWSWEEK plans to excerpt next week. Everything about these
well-written, well-plotted books is astonishing, starting with the fact that
they've sold 30 million copies worldwide without the aid of a single action
figure. Because this is life and not a fairy tale, those action figures are
coming, just not for a while. The licensing rights-for things like sleeping
bags, lunchboxes and candy-belong to Warner Brothers. Filming of the first book,
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," starts in late fall.
the most amazing aspect of this story is the woman behind it all. Seven years
ago Joanne Kathleen Rowling was an unemployed single mother who spent her
afternoons staying warm in Edinburgh coffee shops, writing while her baby slept.
Today, with three of the world's all-time best-selling books to her credit, the
34-year-old author is 25th on the Forbes list of the 100 most powerful
celebrities. Last month she received the Order of the British Empire during the
queen's birthday celebration. Earlier in June she flew to Dartmouth College in
New Hampshire to receive her first honorary degree. There NEWSWEEK'S Malcolm
Jones caught up with the limelight-shy author for an exclusive interview.
the mania reached a peak?
ROWLING: I don't know. I thought it had reached a peak with "Prisoner of
Azkaban" [book three], and it hadn't. We can't carry on like this forever.
At some point things have got to calm down. The film isn't going to help in
terms of diminishing it. The movie goes into production this fall, and the
script is written? Yep. Almost there. We're still fiddling with it.
control do you have over the film?
Control, I wouldn't say-I'm really aware that I'm being invited to give my
opinion. But I don't have any right to jackboot in there and say this or that.
But I sold it to people I trusted, and so far my trust has not been misplaced.
We're looking at an all-British cast. At first that looked like an
impossibility. There was many a director who couldn't see that working at all. I
would say things are going really well at the moment. People have to understand
that no one could feel as protective as I do about these characters. If it goes
wrong, I'm going to be hurting more than anyone else.
they cast it? There are people being made offers now, but is it entirely cast?
No. Harry himself is proving very elusive. It's like Scarlett O'Hara-this is the
child equivalent of looking for Vivien Leigh. I just said, "We'll know him
when we find him." I am now walking around in London and Edinburgh, and I'm
looking at kids as I pass them, just thinking, Could be, you never know. I may
just lunge at this kid and say, "Can you act? You're coming with me.
and even a lot of children are delighted that so far there are no commercial
spin-offs-no dolls, no toys, no lunchboxes. But that's about to change.
I know, I know [ wearily ]. Warner Brothers has really given me-I have been
knocked backwards by the amount of input I have been given and the number of
meetings I have been invited to. And we know why this is, because there are so
many children out there who want to see it my way rather than their way. So I
can only say to anyone who's concerned about [the merchandising], "Please
trust me, I am fighting in your corner."
have any sort of target audience when you write these books?
Me. I truly never sat down and thought, What do I think kids will like? I
really, really was so inflamed by the idea when it came to me because I thought
it would be so much fun to write. In fact, I don't really like fantasy. It's not
so much that I don't like it, I really haven't read a lot of it. I have read
"Lord of the Rings," though. I read that when I was about 14. I didn't
read "The Hobbit" until I was in my 20s-much later. I'd started
"Harry Potter" by then, and someone gave it to me, and I thought,
Yeah, I really should read this, because people kept saying, "You've read
‘The Hobbit,' obviously?" And I was saying, "Um, no." So I
thought, Well, I will, and I did, and it was wonderful. [Sheepish smile ] It
didn't occur to me for quite a while that I was writing fantasy when I'd started
"Harry Potter," because I'm a bit slow on the uptake about those
things. I was so caught up in it. And I was about two thirds of the way through,
and I suddenly thought, This has got unicorns in it. I'm writing fantasy!
the English so good at writing fantasy?
[ Chuckles ] Britain has the most incredible mix of folklore traditions because
we were invaded by so many people. A lot of American superstitions were just
imported whole from England. Salem gets mentioned in book four.
ever gotten ideas from readers?
No, young readers are so generous, they write and tell me funny words they've
made up and say, "Can you use it?" and I have to write back and say,
"No, I can't use it because it's yours, you use it."
actually answer your fan mail?
[ Reluctantly ] Yeah. I have help now. But letters get-I don't know if I should
actually say this in NEWSWEEK. I have a set of criteria for letters I want to
see personally, so they will get filtered and they will get handwritten replies.
I get letters from children addressed to Professor Dumbledore [headmaster at
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the books' setting], and it's not a
joke, begging to be let into Hogwarts, and some of them are really sad. Because
they want it to be true so badly they've convinced themselves it's true. So
those are some that get pulled.
daughter is now 6. Have you started reading the books to her yet?
I had told her, "Not until you're 7," because I think a bright
6-year-old can definitely manage it in terms of language, but in terms of
themes, things get increasingly scary and dark, and some 6-year-olds are going
to be disturbed by that. So for my own daughter, I said, "We're going to
wait till you're 7." But then she went to school, and she got completely
mobbed. These older children were just talking to her endlessly about Quidditch
and stuff, and she didn't have a clue, and I thought it was unfair to keep her
excluded from that, so we started reading them.
to have kept your life deliberately low-key. You haven't bought the five cars or
Well, I can't drive, so the five cars would be a problem. [ Chuckles ] Ditto the
helicopter. I don't want anyone thinking I'm a puritan. I enjoy spending money.
But the main difference between where I was five years ago and now is the
absence of worry. I honestly believe that the only people who will really
appreciate that are people who have been very, very broke. If you've never been
there, you'll assume the great thing about having money is that now I can get
the racehorses or worm my way into these nightclubs. But no, what I'm grateful
for every day is that I'm not worried about money.
success placed restrictions on your life? Can you walk down the street, go
Oh, yeah, absolutely. It's really the exception rather than the norm that anyone
would approach me. I don't think I'm very recognizable, which I am completely
happy to say. Further, no one has ever been less than completely charming when
they've come up to me. And they tend to come up, obviously, if they've read the
book, or their child has read the book, to tell me something very nice. There
was a phase when I had journalists at my front door quite a lot, and that was
quite horrible. That was not something I had ever anticipated happening to me,
and it's not pleasant, whoever you are. But I don't want to whine, because this
was my life's ambition, and I've overshot the mark so hugely.
overtly concerned are you with the idea of Harry's growing up in the books?
I do want him to grow up. I want them all to grow up, but not in a way that's
unfaithful to the tone of the books, i.e., I feel it would be inappropriate-in
these books -were Hermione to have an underage pregnancy or if one of them were
to start taking drugs, because it's unfaithful to the tone of the books. It's
not at all that I don't think those themes can be explored superbly in
children's literature. It's just that in the Harry Potter books there isn't a
place for those particular issues. In book four, there is the most evidence so
far that they're getting older, in that they start getting interested in boys
and girls. Although there's been a hint of that in book three, this time it's
out in the open.
felt any pressure, from librarians or critics or parents, to expurgate these
No. Not at all. I've quite strong views on that sort of stuff. I feel no
pressure at all. It's an interesting field, children's literature, and only from
the inside do you get the full force of it. Children's books aren't textbooks.
Their primary purpose isn't supposed to be "Pick up this book and it will
teach you this." It's not how literature should be. You probably do learn
something from every book you pick up, but it might be simply how to laugh. It
doesn't have to be a slap-you-in-the-face moral every time. I do think the Harry
Potter books are moral books, but I shudder to think that any child picking one
up would get three chapters in and think, Oh, yeah, this is the lesson we're
going to learn this time.
writers get immensely successful, they draw the ire of some reactionary group.
In your case it seems to be people accusing you of encouraging Devil worship.
We've always watched it happen to every damn thing that got popular. With the
people who wanted to accuse me of Satan worship, I was full on for arguing it
out with them face to face. But you know you're not going to change their views.
The only thing I have argued forcibly is that the idea of censorship deeply
offends me. They have the absolute right, of course, to decide what their
children read. I think they're misguided, but they have that right. But to
prevent other people's children from reading something, at that point, I would
be very happy to face them and argue that one out. I think it's completely
around your daughter day in and day out altered the way you feel about kids? You
were writing about them before she was born, but-?
All the children in the books and all of the feelings in the books are based on
my memories. They aren't based on anything my daughter has given me. It comes
from inside me, my memories of being a child. And also, as I've said, so much of
it was fixed before she was born. I think this is probably a good thing. I mean,
we remember Christopher Robin, who was tormented till he died at the age of 75
by people taking the mickey out of him. That wasn't a smart thing to do,
put-ting your child by name into the book, and his toys. I don't want Jessica to
always be Harry Potter's sister. My worst fear, actually.
the keystone book, in terms of the plot?
Yes, it's totally pivotal in terms of the plot.
Will it be
No, I think book seven will be. Seven's going to be like the Encyclopaedia
Britannica, because I'm going to want to say goodbye. I always knew four would
be a long one, but I didn't know it would be this long. But it had to be. I've
got no regrets. That's how many words it took to tell the story I needed to
tell. I like it. I'm very pleased with it. It's definitely the book that gave me
the most trouble. But then "Chamber of Secrets" gave me a fair amount
of trouble. Bizarrely, it seems that the two that were the most hell to write
were the two I like the best.
writing changed you personally?
Yes, it has made me happier. Finishing them has made me happier. Before I wrote
the Potter books, I'd never finished a novel. I came close to finishing two. It
also makes me happy that the one thing I thought I could do, I wasn't deluded.
Because I'm not much use at anything else, if the truth be told. I'm a moderate
teacher, and I enjoy teaching, but I had some office jobs, and anyone who worked
with me will tell you that I was the most disorganized person that ever walked
this earth. I wasn't good. I'm not proud of that. I don't think it's charming
and eccentric. I really should have been better at it, but I really am just all
over the place when it comes to organizing myself.
books before "Harry Potter"?
They were both for adults. I've written almost everything, except poetry. Well,
I've written poetry, but I always knew it was rubbish. [ Laughs ] I've tried
drama, a few short stories. I never thought of writing for children, ironically.
I always thought I would write for adults.
there you were, in 1990, on that train stuck between Manchester and London,
staring at a field of cows, and an image of Harry popped into your mind. That
really is a magical story.
It was. It really was. And I had this physical reaction to it, this huge rush of
adrenaline, which is always a sign that you've had a good idea, when you've a
physical response, this massive rush, and I'd never felt that before. I'd had
ideas I liked, but never quite so powerful. And Harry came first, in this huge
rush. Doesn't know he's a wizard, how can he not know? And, very bizarrely, he
had the mark on his forehead, but I didn't know why at that point. It was like
research. It didn't feel as if I were entirely inventing it.
that's so powerful in these books is the idea of the powerlessness of
kids-ordinary kids, that is.
Yeah, definitely. And I think it's probably a chief attraction for young
readers? I think that's why there will always, always, always be books about
magic, discovering secret powers, stuff that you're not allowed to do. It exists
in adults, too. There's a small part of you that wishes you could alter external
things to be the way they ought to be. One of the realities of growing up is
realizing how limited your power is as an adult, also. As a kid you have the
idea that you just have to grow up and-and then you grow up and you realize it's
not that easy to change things from here, either -which doesn't mean it's not
thought about life after Harry Potter?
I definitely have thought about it, but I've made no decisions at all. I will
definitely be writing. I literally don't quite feel right if I haven't written
for a while. A week is about as long as I can go without getting extremely edgy.
It's like a fix. It really is a compulsion. Yeah, so I have ideas, but they
could be all rubbish.