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Harry Pottermania in Vancouver, with J.K. Rowling

At the author's press conference, adults take a back seat to kids.

By Frank Garcia     November 16, 2000

At a J.K. Rowling press conference, it's the adults who take a backseat to the children sitting in the front row. Almost half a dozen boys and girls who are playing reporter clutch their pens and pads, asking questions to their favorite children's author about her phenomenal 'Harry Potter' book series. At times, adults listening intently to the children's questions seemed bemused by their ability to play in the same sandbox. In the room are veteran reporters from local newspapers and television stations. One television news reporter, a mother herself, grins throughout the 'young adults' portion of the press conference as she points her camera's boom mike to a young girl in the front row asking questions. Indeed, at the end of the conference, a few interviews were given by the kids to the News Hour reporter, discussing their love for Harry Potter.

On Oct. 25, 2000, just prior to two scheduled appearances as part of the Vancouver Writers and Readers Festival event, J.K. Rowling met with reporters to discuss her book tour. Just 24 hours earlier, she read a chapter of her fourth book to an estimated 12,000 fans at Toronto's Skydome stadium, which is believed to be the largest author reading event ever.

'I think that a reading still can be a very intimate experience, even if a lot of people are there,' said Rowling. 'However, undeniably, I can't have as much one-to-one contact. It's a battle for me. My post bag, as you can imagine, is full with thousands of requests to do readings at bookstores, signings at small bookstores and to visit at schools individually. And I used to do that. It was the most fun I had apart from the writing.

'But if I did do that now, I would never see my daughter. I would never write another book. I would never eat or sleep. So I have to cut my cloth. I can say, 'Well, I won't read any more,' which I would really miss. Or I could do bigger readings where I reach more people at once and that's the way I've chosen to go.

'Next year, I probably won't do any readings,' continued Rowling, who adds that charity readings will be her single exception. 'I just want to do writing, so the Skydome is one big bang; do one big reading and then we'll take a break for a while because I need to do writing. I want to be writing. So basically I'm coming to the end of two weeks of exposure to the outer reaches of the madness. Then, I'll go home and life will be normal again!'

Statistically speaking, the Harry Potter phenomenon has been the magical publishing story of the year. Newsweek magazine estimates that with just four of seven books in the series published so far, there are 35 million copies in print, with translations in 40 languages. Conservatively, it's estimated that the books have sold $480 million in three years. Forbes magazine ranks Rowling at number 25 in a list of the most powerful celebrities. That's a heady achievement for a woman who conjured up a magical universe while she was on welfare.

'I thought I'd written something that maybe a handful of people would like, so this has been something of a shock, to say the least!' said Rowling as she sat at the front table of the room, facing her captive audience at the conference. 'For myself, the height of my ambition was someday I could sign a check in a shop and someone would say, 'Oh, you wrote my favorite book!' That they would recognize my name, not that I ever expected to be physically recognized, of course. As a matter of fact, that did happen to me! [The clerk] said to me, 'Are you the Joanne Rowling?' and I went the color of my shirt. That was great.'

Although the Harry Potter book series is marketed as children's books, many adults like them, too. But ultimately, Rowling is writing for herself. 'I get asked, 'Who do you have in mind when you write?'' said Rowling. ''Is it your daughter or is it children you've met?' No, it's just me. I'm very selfish. I just write for me. So the humor in the books is what I find funny. On that level, I'm not surprised that adults share my humor. I didn't expect what has happened, so I'm constantly surprised.'

And because she is writing for herself, Rowling explains that she is ruthlessly stringent about keeping the stories' plotting on track as initially mapped out. 'The one thing that keeps me on course, above all others, is that I want to finish these seven books and look back and think that whatever happened, however much this hurricane whirled around me, I stayed true to what I wanted to write. This is my Holy Grail; that when I finish writing book seven, I can say, hand on my heart, 'I didn't change a thing. I wrote this story I meant to write. If I lost readers along the way, well, so be it. But I still told my story. The one I wanted to write.'

'That, without wishing to sound too corny, is what I owe to my characters, that we don't get deflected by either adoration or criticism. I think it would be dangerous to start playing to the gallery. I don't think it wise to listen too much either to compliments or criticism. Having said that, after the writing, which is easily my favorite thing, the reason I keep coming out and doing this stuff is to reach readers. I think I have the most likeable readership in the world. They are very nice people.'

However, her writing process isn't so set that there's no room for flexibilityor fun. 'The books aren't so planned in meticulous details that I can't have fun while writing,' said Rowling. 'I invent stuff as I go. A lot of magical creatures and objects get invented while I'm writing a book. But what's planned is the skeleton of the plot. I deviate slightly, but I have to get from point A to point B because obviously, I can't do C, D, E, F [with doing that first].'

Meeting and greeting people in her travels has provided Rowling with many adventures. Rowling said books signings are 'a bottomless pit. You start signing, you won't finish!' If there's one thing about the entire Harry Potter phenomenon that surprises her the most, it's quite probably this: 'I've never had a rude child, which to me, is incredible. Never once has one throw a tantrum. I've never had a child ask for more than I can give. Never once have I had a child [for] which I didn't feel anything but affection. Thousands of them.'

Alas, adults are a different story. 'In the last tour, in the U.K., I finally lost my temper,' grinned Rowling. 'And I have a fairly long fuse for my readers, but halfway down a queue of about 1,000 people, I had to make a train. This was a train to see my daughter, so this was not a thing I wanted to miss. Halfway down the line, I've got this guy with every bit of Harry Potter paraphernalia he could get his paws on and he wanted them all personalized. And I said to him, 'If I do this for you, that means 12 children at the end of this queue won't get their books signed.' And he argued, and I lost my temper. But eBay, ya know? eBay [and being able to auction this signed paraphernalia off] explains a lot of it.'

The most frequently asked question she gets from adults, said Rowling, is ''What's the secret? What's the formula?' I never analyze it. I think it would be dangerous for me to start analyzing it in that way. Number one, it would stop being fun. Number two, I'm not sure I know. The correct people to ask are the readers.'

Deep and obscure questions occasionally appear from unlikely quarters. 'I got asked in New York, 'How does the Wizard economy work?' Now, in fact, I know how it works, but no one had bothered to ask me that ever before, so that was very satisfying to have the chance to explain. Predictably, a Wall Street journalist actually asked me that!'

A more common topic that everyone wants to know about, but few people have any real answers for, is, 'How do you deal with sudden fame?' 'I'm still learning,' replied Rowling. 'I would definitely not say I'm on top of it. I would say for the first two years of being in the paper, I was in denial. I kept thinking 'It will go away.' And about [the time of ] the publishing of the third book, I had to accept it wasn't going to go away any time soon. Which is a probably healthier place to be. It will go away. That's the nature of the game and I truly believe I will be happy. And I will have fond memories of the time I was famous. When I'm 90, I'll say 'Harry Potter was once very big, you know!'

'In the short term, to get some peace back won't be a bad thing. People say to me, 'Can you walk down the street unmolested?' In Edinburgh, it's the exception, really. Anyone can come up to me. So either Edinburgh people are really cool and pretend not to notice, to leave you alone, or they genuinely don't notice me. I think probably the latter. Compared to an actress or a politician, I really get nothing. It's just to me that it was a huge shock. Because I didn't expect anything at all.'

A barometer of just how much impact Harry Potter books have had on their readers has arrived in the form of 10 contest-winning essays commissioned by Scholastic Books, the American publisher of the Harry Potter books. Entrants were asked to write an essay answering the question, 'How Harry Potter has changed my life.' Each winning essay revealed diverse, poignant stories from its children writers. All 10 winners were given a breakfast with Rowling. The essays were published and featured in USA Today on Oct.19, 2000. (The stories are also available at USA Today's Website.)

While a success, Rowling initially had her doubts about the event, though. 'When I heard that they'd done this, I must admit I was slightly dubious,' said Rowling. 'Cynical. I thought this was a tall order, to say to people how Harry changed their life. But the essays were quite incredible. Some were very, very moving and painful stories. They were children who had very hard times. I'm not sure I want to share too much about that because it's their painful lives.

'The funniest one, by far, was Scott MacDonald [a 13-year old from Crownsville, Md.], who'd been quite a poor reader and then his grades dramatically improved because he'd been reading books so much and his writing improved. And he wrote me this letter, 'And if you don't believe me' because of this paragraph quoting his grades, 'You can call my teacher' and he gave the full number and address. 'Don't call me a liar!' [he said]. He was very sweet. I loved meeting him.'

Readers and critics have praised Rowling's fantastic imagination in all the books. Discussing the power of imagination, Rowling noted, 'It is an overwhelming feeling. An incredible feeling. I feel that bit is truly magical. To come here and sit opposite an adult or child who knows my characters back to front, who will argue with me about what's inside my head, it's the most wonderful thing. It really, really is!'

Journalists at the conference were obviously very keen about learning more details about upcoming books. Rowling happily supplied some answers. 'I know exactly what happens to most of the characters in their past and their future. I know far more, really, than the reader needs to know, but that just makes me comfortable to know that there are no surprises for me. I know exactly what is going on.'

However, invented characters can sometimes take a life of their own and surprise their masters. 'Hermione gave me a lot of trouble!' laughed Rowling. 'She was really misbehaving. She developed this big political conscience about the House elves. Well, she wanted to go her own way, and for two chapters, she just went wandering off. I just let her do it and then I scrapped two chapters and kept a few bits. That I liked. That's the most trouble anyone's ever given me, but it was fun so I gave her her head.'

In an attempt to glean more tidbits on Harry's future, Rowling was asked if young Potter would become a headboy. 'That's weird,' responded Rowling. 'My daughter is obsessed with that. I don't know why. She's seven and she keeps saying 'He's going to be headboy, isn't he?' And I'm saying, 'Maybe he wouldn't want to be headboy...' 'No, he would!' It's funny you should say that. I'm not going to tell you which.'

A question also surfaced surrounding Harry Potter's non-magical relatives, the Muggles who have always tortured or mistreated Harry, because of their fear of magic. For revenge, Harry has magically tortured his cousin Dudley. 'I like torturing them,' said Rowling. 'You should keep an eye on Dudley. It's probably too late for Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. I feel sorry for Dudley. I might joke about him, but I feel truly sorry for him because I see him as just as abused as Harry. Though, in possibly a less obvious way. What they are doing to him is inept, really. I think children recognize that. Poor Dudley. He's not being prepared for the world at all, in any reasonable or compassionate way, so I feel sorry for him. But there's something funny about him, also. The pig's tail was irresistible.'

As the conference came to a close, there was time for two final comments: 'What kind of a kid was I? Short, squat. Very thick National Health glasses. That doesn't mean anything to you, does it? National Health free glasses were like bottle bottoms. That's why Harry wears glasses. Shy? Yes, I was a mixture of insecurities and bossy. I was very bossy to my sister, but quite quiet with strangers. Very bookish. Terrible at sports. That part about Harry being able to fly so well is probably total wish fulfillment. I was very uncoordinated. [I was] never happier than when [I was] reading or writing. [I] wanted to be a ballerina at one brief point, which is very embarrassing in retrospect because I was virtually spherical.'

Finally, in her parting words, Rowling said, 'I wrote the book for me. I never expected it to do this. That it has done [so well] is wonderful. I mean, if I can honestly believe that I created some readers, then I feel I wasn't just taking up space on this Earth. I feel very, very proud. But I didn't set out to do that and my first loyalty, as I say, is to the story as I wanted to write it. I'm hopeful that my readers will stay with it.'

Stepping up to leave, Rowling almost gets out the door until a young girl at the front row stretches her arm forward with a sketch drawing. It catches Rowling's eyes. She hesitates and steps forward to take the drawing and look at it. She pulls out a pen and offers autographs. Photographers and television news cameramen quickly crowd around her, documenting the event, as the young children excitedly open their books and prepare them for an impromptu signing. A still photographer crouches from the floor, looking up with his camera, attempting to get the right angle. After signing a few books, Rowling and her people usher out of the room and forward into a day in which she performed two readings to a total of 10,000 eager fans at the Pacific Coliseum.

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