Posted Sunday, Jul. 17, 2005
Here is a J.K. Rowling who lives in the hearts and minds of children everywhere. She has a fairy wand and hair of spun gold, and when she laughs her tinkly laugh, tiny silver bubbles come out of her mouth.
That J.K. Rowling, however, doesn't exist. Here's a look at the real Jo Rowling (rhymes with bowling, by the way, not howling) at work five years ago on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: "Goblet--oh, my God. That was the period where I was chewing Nicorette. And then I started smoking again, but I didn't stop the Nicorette. And I swear on my children's lives, I was going to bed at night and having palpitations and having to get up and drink some wine to put myself into a sufficient stupor."
Little children everywhere should be grateful for the real Jo Rowling. Because if the imaginary one had written the Harry Potter books, just think how incredibly boring they'd be.
The real Rowling's hair is sort of gold, although at the moment it has about an inch of dark roots. Which is understandable, since in the past six months she has given birth to her third child--daughter Mackenzie--and completed the sixth book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which was released promptly at midnight on Friday. At 39, Rowling is a tall handsome woman with a long face, a slightly crooked nose and interestingly hooded eyes. Sitting at a conference table in a bungalow adjoining her stately Edinburgh home (neither her only nor her stateliest home), she talks rapidly, even a little nervously. She uses the word obviously way more often than the average person does, and she likes to say outrageous things, then break out into fits of throaty alto laughter to show you she's just joking. Rowling wears all black--a floppy black sweater, black pants. A glance under the table reveals shiny black leather boots with steel spike heels that are, at the very least, three inches long.
Fans send Rowling wands and quills by the bushel, but she admits, a bit shamefacedly, that she never actually uses them and that the wands go straight to her oldest daughter, Jessica. The most popular living fantasy writer in the world doesn't even especially like fantasy novels. It wasn't until after Sorcerer's Stone was published that it even occurred to her that she had written one. "That's the honest truth," she says. "You know, the unicorns were in there. There was the castle, God knows. But I really had not thought that that's what I was doing. And I think maybe the reason that it didn't occur to me is that I'm not a huge fan of fantasy." Rowling has never finished The Lord of the Rings. She hasn't even read all of C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels, which her books get compared to a lot. There's something about Lewis' sentimentality about children that gets on her nerves. "There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex," Rowling says. "I have a big problem with that."
Rowling certainly isn't afraid of sex, as Order of the Phoenix--which had Harry making out with the beautiful, grieving Cho Chang--ably demonstrated. Harry and his friends are now 16, and it would just be weird if Harry didn't have more on his mind than wands and snitches. "Because of the demands of the adventure that Harry is following, he has had less sexual experience than boys of his age might have had," Rowling allows. "But I really wanted my heroes to grow up. Ron's hormones get fuller play in book six." Cue the throaty alto laughter. "Basically it dawns on Ron that Hermione's had some action, Harry's had some action and he's never got close!"
It's precisely Rowling's lack of sentimentality, her earthy, salty realness, her refusal to buy into the basic clichés of fantasy, that make her such a great fantasy writer. The genre tends to be deeply conservative--politically, culturally, psychologically. It looks backward to an idealized, romanticized, pseudofeudal world, where knights and ladies morris-dance to Greensleeves. Rowling's books aren't like that. They take place in the 1990s--not in some never-never Narnia but in modern-day Mugglish England, with cars, telephones and PlayStations. Rowling adapts an inherently conservative genre for her own progressive purposes. Her Hogwarts is secular and sexual and multicultural and multiracial and even sort of multimedia, with all those talking ghosts. If Lewis showed up there, let's face it, he'd probably wind up a Death Eater.
Granted, Rowling's books begin like invitations to garden-variety escapism: Ooh, Harry isn't really a poor orphan; he's actually a wealthy wizard who rides a secret train to a castle, and so on. But as they go on, you realize that while the fun stuff is pure cotton candy, the problems are very real--embarrassment, prejudice, depression, anger, poverty, death. "I was trying to subvert the genre," Rowling explains bluntly. "Harry goes off into this magical world, and is it any better than the world he's left? Only because he meets nicer people. Magic does not make his world better significantly. The relationships make his world better. Magic in many ways complicates his life."
And unlike Lewis, whose books are drenched in theology, Rowling refuses to view herself as a moral educator to the millions of children who read her books. "I don't think that it's at all healthy for the work for me to think in those terms. So I don't," she says. "I never think in terms of What am I going to teach them? Or, What would it be good for them to find out here?"
"Although," she adds, "undeniably, morals are drawn." But she doesn't make it easy. In Goblet, the good-hearted Cedric Diggory dies for no reason. In Phoenix, we learn that Harry's dad, whom he idealized, had been an arrogant bully. People aren't good and bad by nature; they change and transform and struggle. As Dumbledore tells Harry, "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Granted, we know Harry will not succumb to anger and evil. But we never stop feeling that he could. (Interestingly, although Rowling is a member of the Church of Scotland, the books are free of references to God. On this point, Rowling is cagey. "Um. I don't think they're that secular," she says, choosing her words slowly. "But, obviously, Dumbledore is not Jesus.")
There are limits to Harry Potter's sophistication. Since Sorcerer's Stone was published in 1998, world events have moved to the point where they threaten to ask more from the books than they have to give. By Phoenix, the fifth book in the series, Harry is embroiled in a borderless, semi-civil war with a shadowy, hidden leader whose existence the government ignored until disaster forced the issue and who is supported by a secret network of sleeper agents willing to resort to tactics of shocking cruelty. The kids who grew up on Harry Potter--you could call them Generation Hex--are the kids who grew up with the pervasive threat of terrorism, and it's inevitable that on some level they'll make a connection between the two.
Which isn't a terrible thing necessarily. But the series' major shortcoming to date is the flatness of Harry's antagonist Voldemort (whose name Rowling pronounces with a silent t). In the past few books, Voldemort has managed to assemble a body, but he still lacks any kind of realistic motivation. You get no sense of where his boundless enthusiasm for being evil comes from. "You will," Rowling says. "There is obviously a big gap there, and in six Harry finds out a lot of Voldemort's history. Though he was never that nice a guy." She laughs.
No, he wasn't. Half-Blood Prince goes a long way, finally, to working through Rowling's take on the psychology of evil, largely through a kind of Pensieve-aided documentary of Voldemort's early life. Much of Rowling's understanding of the origins of evil has to do with the role of the father in family life. "As I look back over the five published books," she says, "I realize that it's kind of a litany of bad fathers. That's where evil seems to flourish, in places where people didn't get good fathering." Some of that must surely flow from her own experiences: her relationship with her father has been uneven, and the father of her oldest daughter is no longer part of Rowling's life.
Despite her colossal success, which has run her personal fortune into the hundreds of millions, you can still feel Rowling's enormous, churning ambition for her work, which seems to be fueled at least in part by lingering feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. Maybe it's her well-known history as a onetime careerless divorced mom who spent nearly a year on public assistance, but she still constantly questions her writing, reviewing it like a boxer watching tapes of his fights. "I think Phoenix could have been shorter. I knew that, and I ran out of time and energy toward the end," she says. She is worried that Goblet was overpraised. "In every single book, there's stuff I would go back and rewrite," she says. "But I think I really planned the hell out of this one. I took three months and just sat there and went over and over and over the plan, really fine-tuned it, looked at it from every angle. I had learnt, maybe, from past mistakes."
This obsessive focus on perfection can leave Rowling a little unavailable to those around her. She tells the story of a conversation she had with her younger sister--Di, 38--about Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, who Di feels sometimes lacks compassion for his charges. "She said, 'That's like you.' And I said, 'What's that supposed to mean?' As sisters do. And she said, 'Well, you are kind of detached.' That was, you know, uncomfortable, and probably quite illuminating. I maybe wouldn't find it as easy as she does to say, 'That person is my very best friend in the world.'"
Rowling is about to say goodbye to a very good friend: Half-Blood Prince is book six of a planned seven, and then that's all she wrote. "I'll be so sad to think I'll never write a Harry-Ron-Hermione sentence again," she says. But her feelings aren't entirely unmixed. "Part of me will be glad when it's over. Family life will become more normal. It will be a chance to write other things."
Hang on--other things? It's disconcerting to think of Rowling stepping out on Harry and the gang with another set of characters. But at least we can say Harry is Rowling's last wizard. From here on out, it's Muggles only. "I think I can say categorically that I will not write another fantasy after Harry," she says, making herself and her publicists, who hover nearby, visibly nervous. "Wait, now I'm panicking. Oh, my God! Yes, I'm sure I can say that. I think I will have exhausted the possibilities of that. For me." Beyond that, she isn't giving away many clues, but she's approaching the project with her usual ruthless skepticism. "We'll have to see if it's good enough to be published. I mean, that is a real concern, obviously, because the first thing I write post Harry could be absolutely dreadful, and, you know, people will buy it. So, you know, you're left with this real insecurity."
But future insecurities can wait. Rowling still has book seven to worry about. She has already started writing. "It will be a very different kind of book," she says, "because I kind of cue up the shot at the end of six, and you're left with a very clear idea of what Harry's going to do next."
"And," she adds in an uncharacteristic moment of hubris, "it will be exciting!" Then she immediately retreats into self-deprecation. "You don't know! You might read six and think, Ah, I won't bother."
But that, for once, is pure fantasy. Obviously. •
How will it all end for Harry and friends? Our efforts at divination follow. (If you haven't read Half-Blood Prince, proceed no further. You've been warned.)By LEV GROSSMAN
Whose side is Professor Snape on?
What we know: Snape has been playing for both sides, the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix. In Half-Blood Prince, he shows his hand. Or does he?
Our guess: Snape's latest betrayal puts him beyond the pale of forgiveness. But Rowling's characters are rarely all bad or all good. Look for Snape to get a shot at, if not redemption, at least sincere remorse.