On a normal day, the train is called the Queen of Scots. Today, it is called the Hogwarts Express, the train that transports Harry Potter to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and right now it is at a station in Perth, 90 minutes outside Edinburgh, Scotland. Cottony clouds of steam are billowing out of its engine, a quaint little spectacle for the hundreds of children waiting behind a makeshift gate numbered 9 1/2. It would all be very cute, except for the shrieking that accompanies all that hot air, a piercing and ever intensifying whistle that is causing the entire crowd to cover their ears, everyone eyeballing that infernal engine, wondering if it’s ever going to stop.
And then it does.
And a door opens.
Inside, on this, her last stop in a steam powered barnstorm of the U.K. in support of ”Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth in her series of books about a most extraordinary young wizard, J.K. Rowling, 35, sits on the edge of a table, greeting a lucky bunch of kids, their faces stony and bloodless from nervous excitement. ”Hello, contest winner,” says the mock monarch with the dirty-blond hair and blue jeans, her warm smirk packed with affection for these, her subjects. The attendants from Bloomsbury Publishing get one of them to pose for a picture with her. ”Now,” Rowling says conspiratorially, signing his book, ”pretend like you’re thrilled to see me.”
He doesn’t need to pretend. But it’s all she can do to pretend that none of this is as deliriously mind boggling as it really is. As she says during a 60 minute chat en route from Edinburgh to Perth, ”You could go crazy thinking about it too much.”
How did you feel about all the marketing hoopla around ”Goblet”?
The marketing was literally ”Don’t give out the book.” And it wasn’t even a marketing ploy. It came from me. This book was the culmination of 10 years’ work, and something very big in terms of my ongoing plot happens at the end, and it rounds off an era; the remaining three books are a different era in Harry’s life. Had that got out, there’s no way the book would have been as enjoyable to read.
You sat on the title for a long time, too.
The title thing was for a much more prosaic reason: I changed my mind twice on what it was. The working title had got out — ”Harry Potter and the Doomspell Tournament.” Then I changed ”Doomspell” to ”Triwizard Tournament.” Then I was teetering between ”Goblet of Fire” and ”Triwizard Tournament.” In the end, I preferred ”Goblet of Fire” because it’s got that kind of ”cup of destiny” feel about it, which is the theme of the book.
Was this the hardest book you’ve had to write so far?
The first three books, my plan never failed me. But I should have put that plot under a microscope. I wrote what I thought was half the book, and ”Ack!” Huge gaping hole in the middle of the plot. I missed my deadline by two months. And the whole profile of the books got so much higher since the third book; there was an edge of external pressure.
And what exactly was that gaping hole all about?
I had to pull a character. There you go: ”the phantom character of ‘Harry Potter.”’ She was a Weasley cousin [related to Ron Weasley, Harry’s best friend]. She served the same function that Rita Skeeter [a sleazy investigative journalist] now serves. Rita was always going to be in the book, but I built her up, because I needed a kind of conduit for information outside the school. Originally, this girl fulfilled this purpose.
Does sleazy Rita reflect how you feel about the media?
No, but when I got to the point in the writing where I had to introduce Rita, I did hesitate, because I thought, People will think this is my response to what’s happened to me. But I had a lot more fun writing Rita then I think I would have done if it hadn’t happened to me. Rita will be back.
The size of this book — 734 pages. Nearly twice as long as the longest book you’ve written.
”What is she doing?”
Exactly. Please explain.
I knew from the beginning it would be the biggest of the first four. You need a proper run-up to what happens at the end. It’s a complex plot, and you don’t rush a plot that complex, because everyone’s gonna get confused.
This book is quite the wide screen epic, with the Quidditch World Cup, the arrival of rival schools, the Triwizard Tournament, the ending battle…
Everything is on a bigger scale.
Yes. It’s symbolic. Harry’s horizons are literally and metaphorically widening as he grows older. But also there are places in the world that I’ve been planning for so long and thinking about for so long that we haven’t yet explored, and it’s great fun. That will happen in book 5, too; we go into a whole new area, physically, an area you’ve never seen before, a magical world.
Will we ever see Harry in America?
Unlikely. The battleground is Britain at the moment. I got asked the other day, ”Given the huge success of your books in America, are you going to be introducing American characters?” And I thought, You’re an idiot. I am not about to throw away 10 years’ meticulous planning in the hope that I will buck up to a few more readers. American kids have no need to see a token American character. This is another instance of people grossly underestimating children.
One of ”Goblet”’s biggest themes is bigotry. It’s always been in your books, with the Hitlerlike Lord Voldemort and his followers prejudiced against Muggles (nonmagical people). In book 4, Hermione tries to liberate the school’s worker elves, who’ve been indentured servants so long they lack desire for anything else. Why did you want to explore these themes?
Because bigotry is probably the thing I detest most. All forms of intolerance, the whole idea of ”that which is different from me is necessary evil.” I really like to explore the idea that difference is equal and good. But there’s another idea that I like to explore, too. Oppressed groups are not, generally speaking, people who stand firmly together — no, sadly, they kind of subdivide among themselves and fight like hell. That’s human nature, so that’s what you see here. This world of wizards and witches, they’re already ostracized, and then within themselves, they’ve formed a loathsome pecking order.
You don’t think this a little heavy for kids?
These are things that a huge number of children at that age start to think about. It’s really fun to write about it, but in a very allegorical way.
Do the books reflect your own political sensibilities? In America, some might say you’re a bit left-wing.
It’s absolutely the reverse to the British press; I was told yesterday that I’m a Euroskeptic, which is a big buzzword in Britain. I actually woke up at 2 a.m. this morning, went into the kitchen to get some water, and thought, ”I know why they said that — they haven’t finished the book.” Right at the end, Dumbledore says, ”Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.” That is my view. It is very inclusive, and yes, you are right: I am left-wing.
But are you baking your political beliefs into these books, or are we just reading stuff into them?
There is a certain amount of political stuff in there. But I also feel that every reader will bring his own agenda to the book. People who send their children to boarding schools seem to feel that I’m on their side. I’m not. Practicing wiccans think I’m also a witch. I’m not.
In part 2 of EW’s interview, Rowling talks about plans for future Potter volumes, the moviemaking experience, and how the evil depicted in her books affects kids, including her own.