Once she was a struggling single mom, sneaking off to cafés to write after putting her daughter to bed. Now, with ”Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth book in her seven volume epic about the titular boy wizard, J.K. Rowling finds herself guardian of an international pop phenom and a mythic world that’s bucking to be called Tolkienesque. And yet the more things change — and they have, from the full time assistant she recently hired to keep her organized, to the hagglings with Hollywood over the forthcoming deluge of merchandise and movies — the more things stay the same. She’s still sneaking off to corner cafés in Edinburgh, Scotland, seeking solitude to write. ”It feels incredibly familiar, actually,” says Rowling, ”as though I’m right back where I was before ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”’
You referred to the darkness in your books, and there’s been a lot of talk and even concern over that.
You have a choice when you’re going to introduce a very evil character. You can dress a guy up with loads of ammunition, put a black Stetson on him, and say, ”Bad guy. Shoot him.” I’m writing about shades of evil. You have Voldemort, a raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people’s suffering, and there ARE people like that in the world. But then you have Wormtail, who out of cowardice will stand in the shadow of the strongest person. What’s very important for me is when Dumbledore says that you have to choose between what is right and what is easy. This is the setup for the next three books. All of them are going to have to choose, because what is easy is often not right.
There’s a scene in ”Goblet” where Cedric, who competes against Harry in the Triwizard Tournament, is killed by Voldemort, and at the end, Dumbledore must choose between informing the students of this evil, or keeping the knowledge from them. He chooses to tell them.
Dumbledore’s decision is 100 percent me. It would have been an insult to that boy’s memory not to tell the truth. But telling the truth has repercussions. People aren’t used to the truth, particularly from fixtures of authority. I hated killing Cedric, by the way, just hated it.
There’s some other horrific violence, too, like when Wormtail cuts up Harry’s arm to get the blood to bring Voldemort back to life. Very disturbing.
Yeah, that wasn’t good, I agree with you.
Have you ever thought ”Maybe I should tone it down”?
No. I know that sounds kind of brutal but no, I haven’t. The bottom line is, I have to write the story I want to write. I never wrote them with a focus group of 8 year olds in mind. I have to continue telling the story the way I want to tell it. I don’t at all relish the idea of children in tears, and I absolutely don’t deny it’s frightening. But it’s supposed to be frightening! And if you don’t show how scary that is, you cannot show how incredibly brave Harry is. He’s really brave, and he does, I think, one of his bravest things in this book: He can’t save Cedric, but he wants to save Cedric’s parents additional pain. He wants to bring back the body and treat it with respect.
Saving Cedric’s body reminded me of the Hector Patroclus Achilles triangle in the ”Iliad.”
That’s where it came from. That really, really, REALLY moved me when I read that when I was 19. The idea of the desecration of a body, a very ancient idea… I was thinking of that when Harry saved Cedric’s body.
And then you go and emotionally decimate your readers with that scene where Harry’s murdered parents are drawn out of Voldemort’s wand. I was in tears.
Me too. It was the first time I cried writing a Harry Potter book. I got pretty upset.
As your fan base is growing larger, and maybe even younger, do you feel any sense of social responsibility, any sense of responsibilities to their sensibilities?
I cannot write to please other people. I can’t. When I finish book 7, I want to be able to look in the mirror and think, I did it the way I meant to do it. If I lose readers in the process, I’m not going to throw a party about it. But I would feel far worse if I knew that I had allowed myself to write something different. Yet, I do have parents coming up to me and saying ”He’s 6 and he loved your book!” And I’ve always kind of been, ”Well, that’s great, but I know what’s coming, and I think 6 is a tiny bit too young.” I’ve always felt that. With my daughter and ”Goblet of Fire,” I’m reading it to her. Her reading age is pretty advanced, but I said, ”I’m gonna read that one to you. It’s scary, and I want to be there with you, and then we can talk about it.” That would be my feeling if parents feel that.
What does your daughter [Jessica, 7] think of Harry Potter?
I always said I’d never read her the books until she was 7, and I think even 7 is pushing it. But I broke the rules. I actually read to her when she was 6. She started school, see, and kids were asking her about Quidditch and things. She didn’t have an idea what they were all about, and I just thought, ”I’m excluding her from this huge part of my life, and it’s making her an outsider.” So I read them to her, and she became completely Harry Potter obsessed!
Does Jessica have the inside scoop on what’s going to happen?
No no no no no! And kids at her school will sidle up to me and say, ”Does Jessica know what happens in book 4? Does Jessica know the title of book 4?” And I keep saying, ”No! There is no point kidnapping her, taking her around back of the bike shed, and torturing her for information.”
You are transitioning from overnight success story to caretaker to a mythic world, one that’s about to get translated into movies and merchandise. How do you feel about that?
It is worrying. I am nervous. Because I’m fighting tooth and nail — and people have to believe me on that, because it is the truth — I am fighting to maintain the purity of the world. That’s what I’m involved with at the moment, trying to make sure that when things go out with the name Harry Potter on them, they really are Harry Potter things, not some pale imitation.
Do you have kind of control over what Warner Bros. does with Harry Potter?
Can I prevent it in terms of what’s in my contract? No. But they have been very gracious in allowing me input, and I have been asked a lot of questions I never expect to be asked.
What’s it been like, dealing with Hollywood?
The person I was most nervous about meeting by far was Steve Kloves, who’s writing the screenplay. I was really ready to hate [him]. This was the man who was gonna butcher my baby. The first time I met him, he said, ”You know who my favorite character is?” And I thought, ”You’re gonna say Ron.” It’s real easy to love Ron — but so obvious. But he said ”Hermione.” I just kind of melted.
Are there any plans to come to the U.S.?
I am likely to be over there later this year. I love going to the States.
What do you like about the States?
Well, what DON’T I like about it? I really, really, really fell in love with New York. The first signing I did over there, the first boy to reach me in the queue put out his hand and went ”YOU ROCK!” I thought that was great, but I heard myself respond and I sounded so intensely British, something like ”That’s very nice of you to say so, thank you so much.” Then there was this woman in L.A., a middle-aged sort of Palm Beach type woman, she said, ”I AM SO GLAD YOU’RE RICH!” I’m telling you, you’d never hear that in Britain. Here, it’s ”Well done.”