J.K. Rowling's Harry Hangover
The woman, the author, the legend: J.K. Rowling shares some home truths at Cheltenham Festival
To say a lot has changed since J.K. Rowling last appeared at Cheltenham Festival would be an understatement. A whopping 14 years has passed since the author who brought Harry Potter to the world was there to promote the publication of The Chamber of Secrets. Then she sold out the venue - a modest 160 seats - which gave a hint of what was to come for the Gloucestershire-born author. Last night, in 2012, she sold out 2,000 seats, leaving thousands more fans who tried to get tickets disappointed that they’d missed out on Rowling’s second and last promotional appearance for her first adult novel The Casual Vacancy.
Interviewed again by James Runcie, the artistic director of the Bath Literature Festival, (Rowling was interviewed by him in her only television interview on the BBC the night before The Casual Vacancy was published), the audience felt in the presence of friends as the two shared a memory of Rowling telling Runcie about her ideas for this novel, her first since Harry Potter, in an Edinburgh cafe four years ago.
Any skeptical fans who thought she wouldn’t discuss Potter whatsoever were proved wrong as she warmly answered questions that had clearly been burning curiosities for years. The Big Question (will there be another Harry Potter book?), however, remained unasked, and unaddressed. Perhaps because this was her, this was Rowling, and her answer would be taken as gospel. Perhaps her fans don’t want to know she won’t rather than hope she will. She did tell Runcie that her next published novel will “probably be a children’s book”, and she has a couple of children’s books on her laptop that are “nearly done”, and another adult novel that “isn’t too far off”. She called it her “hangover from Harry”.
Rowling told Runcie she felt huge relief on the day of The Casual Vacancy’s publication, which sold 124,000 copies in its first week: “I had a real desire not to see or read anything about it in the papers. But I don’t despise the critics,” she added. Somewhat surprisingly, when Runcie asked for a show of hands of who had read the book he was met with a mere smattering - probably less than 50 people.
The likelihood is that the majority of the audience, and her fans in general, haven’t started to read it - me included. 'J.K. Rowling the presence' is enough to sell out an audience; a stadium; probably a small town. What was clear was how much this book means to her - Harry and his friends have grown up and gone away, and Rowling is suffering from empty-nest syndrome, turning to a completely different world devoid of magic, hope, friendship and the heart-warming assurance that good always prevails. She couldn't be further, in fact, setting her novel in a small town with a host of characters from local politicians to heroin addicts. The co-incidence of Rowling’s decision to name the protagonist Barry was met with the sarcastic response: “I wish I’d called him Kevin.”
The Casual Vacancy, Rowling said, is about “everybody having a bit of them missing. I was consciously examining a group of people who have a vacancy in their lives, they’re all lacking in something. We have a middle-aged woman who is bored in her marriage and drinking too much. We have a heroin addict. A doctor who is a workaholic. They’re all missing something.”
The idea for the novel came very suddenly to her, she said. “Local election; teenage subversion” was how she described the spark of inspiration she experienced on an airplane (Potter magically appeared to her on a train in 1992). “It’s exactly what I love,” she said: “a closed community; multi-generational; a chance to get to know people inside out.” Local elections are the “tiniest building block of democracy; small decisions have a huge impact”. The characters came thick and fast to her - “I’ve always been a character-driven writer”, she said. “The primary difference was the structure”.
Renowned for her trunks of notes for Harry Potter containing reams of backstories and sidelines for each character, Rowling admitted to creating a map of Pagford, the fictional West Country town (and she stressed again how fictional it actually was; Rowling grew up in Chepstow and similarities have been drawn) where The Casual Vacancy is set. “The character started with Barry himself,” she said. “The catalyst is Barry dying, and he leaves a vacuum, as when people leave this world they do.
A more serious issue that runs through the book is that of adolescents as victims - particularly teenager Krystal Weedon, who has a drug-addict mother with a questionable boyfriend and a vulnerable little brother. Rowling said another appropriate title for the book would have been: What Do We Do About Krystal? She is "promiscuous, violent, aggressive", Rowling said - "but also loving, affectionate and ambitious". Addressing the audience, she declared: “If you don’t feel Krystal is worth saving, then I really don’t have anything to say to you as a human being.
“I do have a tendency to walk on the dark side sometimes,” she said. “I have suffered from depression, and I do have a tendency towards it.” Writing, she said, “is a constant cycle of self-loathing and rejection and despair, and then actually, it’s quite good. You should all try it some time.”
One audience member took the microphone not to ask a question, but to tearfully say that she wanted Rowling to know how many lives she had touched. Another announced through her sobs that she had written a letter for her, and Rowling graciously let the girl hand it to her in front of the entire audience before giving her a hug - undoubtedly every Potter fan’s dream. One of the best moments of Rowling’s career, she said, was this year at the Olympics when she was involved in the opening ceremony. “I will remember that on my deathbed,” she said of walking out onto the hillock in front of the world’s cameras. “I was absolutely terrified. It was breathtaking. I was phenomenally proud.”
She explained that 15 years into her career and with the books well and truly behind her, “Harry Potter sort of becomes background noise. But then something happens that leaves me cold. When this 18-metre Voldemort appeared I went cold from head to toe. This was my idea that I wrote down in a notebook, of Hagrid carrying Harry out of the forest, all those years ago. How does this happen?”
Well, it certainly doesn’t happen a lot. And I, for one, am hoping we haven't seen the end of Harry, or J.K. Rowling for that matter. Something tells me we haven't.