Our generation saw a fictional, bespectacled boy grow up through seven years of magical melodrama, but the most important evolution in the Potterverse is that of its benevolent creator, J. K. Rowling. The fearfully anticipated reception of “The Casual Vacancy” has largely served to prove that Rowling will not be a one-hit wonder—even though it is unclear if fans will latch onto phrases depicting the depths of romantic despair such as “with an ache in his heart and his balls” like they did Snape’s tragic “always.” But at Lincoln Center in New York City last Tuesday, during her only public appearance for “The Casual Vacancy” in the United States, it became clear that, while Rowling has chosen the path of “grown-up” literature rather than the young adult variety for this latest project, children’s literature remains an area she wishes to explore.
The excitement of the audience, dressed in Potter paraphernalia and screaming and cheering when the introducer merely said “J.K. Rowling,” was nothing compared to that of moderator Ann Patchett flipping maniacally through dozens of note cards with the knowledge that she had 50 minutes to commune with the publishing industry’s savior. “You have done more for reading than anyone in my life,” Patchett said. “Way too much responsibility,” countered Rowling. What followed was seven minutes of rapid-fire praise and gracious acknowledgment in kind, despite Patchett’s futile legitimization attempt: “I’m not a nice person. I’m not going to sit up here and compliment you. But…” When the actual question session began, most of Patchett’s centered around Rowling’s writing process while the audience focused on differences between the Potter series and “The Casual Vacancy.”
For Rowling, the largest difficulty with “The Casual Vacancy” was reconciling the structure with a rapidly shifting point of view. “The challenge [with “The Casual Vacancy”] was the structure of the book, and I put a huge amount of work into that,” Rowling said. “The tricky thing is not showing your workings, for the reader never to realize how difficult it was. And that’s what took me the better part of five year.... I had complicated diagrams, strange little notes…cryptic things…I had to remind myself what the hell I was talking about.” Patchett then asked her if notes for “The Casual Vacancy” as well as Potter would “go to Oxford or up a chimney.” Rowling admitted that she had organized all of her notes,. “I sorted them all out, not for posterity, but for me in case I wanted to weep,” to Patchett’s pithy retort, “We call that the crying box.”
Rowling loves to write and doodle on paper, but she admitted that the advent of digital technology has been a boon to her creativity. “The MacBook Air changed my life. I’ve written everywhere, including some strange places,” she said. For Rowling, writing spots during the Potter era varied from The Elephant House cafe, with its backroom view of Edinburgh Castle (re: Hogwarts) to the five-star Balmoral Hotel, only a ten-minute walk away from her house. She also utilized the power of social media and web design with the creation of Pottermore, an interactive Harry Potter website.
Rowling also made heavy mention of her newest book’s focus on class and economic issues. “I think that I’ve had a very odd life and that I’ve moved through, economically speaking, virtually every variation you can have. The three years that I lived on what you [Americans] would call welfare was a hugely formative experience in my life. And it left me with several abiding feelings about how we talk about the poor…and being poor, which can be a humiliating experience,” she said. “All of that experience, though this is not a biography or memoir, could be used in this book.”
Patchett and Rowling, who both married doctors, found common ground in discussing their husbands’ input and reactions to their writing. For “The Casual Vacancy,” Rowling’s husband, Neil Murray, was the only one whom she trusted with the script. “[During the writing of Harry Potter], he’s the one person who didn’t ask me why Harry had the Marauder’s Map in the ‘Order of the Phoenix’ because it had been confiscated in ‘Goblet of Fire.’” She also joked with Patchett about being worried about the reception of novels in progress. “If a writer says, ‘I have an idea. It’s two frogs in a bucket,’ you say, ‘That’s a great idea!’ Writers are thin-skinned.”
At Patchett’s prodding near the end of the night, Rowling told the audience that she plans for her next project to be another children’s book, this one targeted at children slightly younger than the Harry Potter set. Despite this less mature audience, she wants to explore concepts of fear more than fantasy. “I do remember seeing a man on TV.... He said, ‘The important thing is we must protect children from their own imaginations’.... And I thought that was the most dangerous statement. If you are saying to someone, ‘The thing that’s in your imagination is wrong and dangerous and bad,’ I think you’re saying to that child, ‘You are wrong and dangerous and bad.’ You must allow them to get that out and talk about it, feel it, and then dissipate it.”
At the end of the night, audience members received copies of “The Casual Vacancy” and stood in line for six-second moments with Rowling as she scrawled her name on the title page oftheir copies. Her treatment of writers in “Harry Potter” centered on the pompous fraud Gilderoy Lockhart and the saccharine muckraking of Rita Skeeter; fittingly, Rowling’s brief addresses—mere snatches of phrases, hundreds of hushed “Thank Yous” in dozens of inflections—showed the contrast between the writer who merely has fame and one who actually makes an impact on the lives of the readers.
—Staff writer Christine A. Hurd can be reached at email@example.com.