Translation: J.K. Rowling Interview with “El País”
The original Spanish article can be found here.
Translated by Felicia Grady
“To Be Invisible… That Would Be the Best”
In the only interview she has given to Spanish media, the creator of the multi-million-dollar series about the boy wizard speaks about her fondness for solitude, her aversion to media noise, and the relationship between teenagers and death.
J.K. Rowling (Bristol, England, 1965), or “Jo” to her friends, has the same look, frightened and happy, as Harry Potter, her fictional character. She wrote the first book because she needed to, and she continued writing until she completed the seventh, which is now available (on February 21 in Spain; like all the others, through [publisher] Salamandra), without looking to the side, without noticing the gigantic number of children, teens, and adults who have become fans of this enormous book of magic and the reality that it is perhaps the biggest best seller in history.
Harry Potter is her hero; he saved her and left an emotional impact on her. “She’s let him go, but she can’t live without him,” she told us this past Tuesday morning in Edinburgh, where she has lived for years, in the only interview she has given to Spanish media.
We brought her cheese from Asturias, to remind her of her Príncipe de Asturias de la Concordia Award, and regards from the foundation that organizes those awards.
In her interviews, she has occasionally spoken about another great solitary person like herself, Francis Scott Fitzgerald. It seemed appropriate to start by talking to her about solitude, death, and melancholy, the dominant themes in the final installment of Harry Potter, perhaps her alter ego.
You often speak of Scott Fitzgerald, a melancholy man.
Yes, I’ve spoken of him to make a distinction between a writer who, due to nature and talent, had the impulse to write and a writer who could not combine this need to write with his social life. I mentioned him because these days, with so much emphasis on the media, it seems as though there is some sort of obligation for a writer to be a public figure. In my case, people think that because I am a well-known author, I should be good at giving interviews and appearing on camera. People expect to see you enjoying yourself on television programs and that you like being a public figure, a performer. But I’m not. I like the life of the writer. I enjoy the solitude.
It’s interesting, sometimes in Harry Potter, especially in the last few installments, there has been a certain amount of melancholy and solitude, which is reminiscent of Fitzgerald.
Without a doubt. Melancholy is born of sorrow. And Scott Fitzgerald had two: that of his talent and his need to create and that of his private life, which was catastrophic. Those two sorrows are enough to lead anyone to alcoholism.
Those sorrows can come from that time between childhood and adolescence, when your ghosts arrive and stay with you forever.
Yes, I think adolescents are very close to death. They feel so pressured that, for them, death is only one step away. They’re very fragile. In Great Britain, there is a culture of fearing teenagers, of young people in general. And it shouldn’t be that way. We should be protecting them instead of protecting ourselves from them.
Talk a bit about death. In the sixth and seventh Harry Potter books, death appears not just as a word or thought but as a possibility, a truth, and a reality.
That was always the plan, that death would appear in that way. Since he was a boy until Chapter 34 of the seventh book, Harry is required to be a bigger man in that he is forced to come to terms with the inevitability of his own death. The plan [of the book series] was that he had to be exposed to death and to the experience of death. And it was always Harry alone who had to have that experience. I thought of everything conscientiously, because the hero has to experience things, do things, and see things on his own. It’s part of that isolation and melancholy that comes with being a hero.
That 34th chapter [“Lying with his face pressed into the dusty carpet of the office where he had once thought he was learning the secrets of victory, Harry understood at last that he was not supposed to survive.”] sounds like the beginning of 100 Years of Solitude by [Gabriel] García Márquez.
That’s very flattering.
It’s a book about death and obviously, solitude, like yours… the character in 100 Years of Solitude accompanies his grandfather to see the ice and you take Harry to visit death.
For me, the entire series comes down to that chapter. Everything, everything I have written, was thought out for that precise moment when Harry goes into the forest. That’s the chapter that I’d been planning for 17 years. That moment is the core of the series. And for me, it’s the true ending of the story. Even though Harry survives, of which there was never any doubt, he reaches that unique and very rare condition of accepting his own death. How many people have the opportunity to accept their death before they die?
It’s an experience close to everyone. When you’ve seen death in someone close to you, you ask yourself how that look that we will never see again will be, what will happen next.
Definitely. It strikes me as extraordinary that regardless of the fact that we all know we are going to die, death remains a mystery. We feel as though death is something secret that happens to very few people. And all of a sudden, someone close to you dies and the bomb drops. Harry has an early understanding of death, long before Chapter 34. And that has an evident parallel to my life. If someone close to you in your life dies, as my mother did, it becomes explicit that death catches up to us all. And it’s something you always have to live with.
We live in dark and sad times, as you say in your books, especially in this one. How do you live in these times?
I have to believe in people’s goodness. I think people are, naturally, good. But I’m currently following American politics quite closely. I am obsessed with the US elections. Because they will have profound effects on the rest of the world. In the past few years, US foreign policy has affected, for the worse, your country as well as mine.
And if you had a magic wand, what would you do?
I want a Democrat in the White House. And it seems a shame to me that Clinton and Obama have to be rivals because they are both extraordinary.
This morning, upon entering the hotel, I saw that you had the Times in your hand, and on the cover, there was a photo of Hillary crying.
Well, it was one small tear. And she is allowed a tear on occasion. A life in politics is very hard on a woman. If you don’t cry, you’re a bitch. And if you do cry, you’re weak. It’s difficult. On the other hand, it’s acceptable for a man to cry.
Solitude, death. We’re talking about dark things. Maybe literature comes from that.
Well, I think it was Tolkien who said that all the important books are about death. And there’s some truth in that because death is our destiny and we should face it. Everything we do in life is an attempt to avoid death.
You’ve said that you see your soul as immortal.
Yes, that’s true. But I also have said that I have many doubts regarding religion. I feel very drawn to religion, but at the same time, I feel very uncertain. I live in a state of spiritual flux. I believe in the permanency of the soul. And that is reflected in the last book.
What makes you happy?
Family and work, obviously. I consider myself very fortunate to have a family… My children are, above all other things, the most important. Although it’s very difficult to make writing compatible with being a mother.
Before coming to see you, I asked Spanish screenwriter Rafael Azcona for a question to ask you, and he responded that he would ask his six-year-old granddaughter, Sara, who is a Harry Potter fan.
But you say that your books should be read starting at age seven or older.
Well, my oldest daughter was six when she started reading them. I have always known where I was going to go with the books. So yes, I think that a six-year-old can understand the first book [Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone] even though the last one is quite dark. The fifth book is the darkest of all because there is an absence of hope and an oppressive atmosphere. I think people didn’t like it as much because of that. Even though there are readers who prefer this book to the others, they are a strange minority. I don’t think the fifth, the sixth, and this last one are suitable for a six-year-old.
And when you wrote the first one, did you have a specific reader in mind?
That’s the problem. I called it a children’s story because the main character was a child. But it was always a child whom I wanted to get older. And at the end, he’s a man – a young man but a man. That’s something unusual in children’s books, when the protagonist grows. And it makes me immensely happy that people continue to read and enjoy the books. They got older with Harry Potter. But I never thought adults were potential readers.
Peter Mayer, the editor, who was the first I heard talk of Harry Potter in Spain, says that the key to this success is that the series has become reading material for adults.
Yes, it’s incredible. Only now am I capable of looking back and realizing everything. For 10 years, I didn’t allow myself to think about it. I think I did it to protect myself. It’s very difficult to live with that pressure, but I lived in constant denial of the facts. After each publication, I made a point to not read any reviews.
Literature saves people, or helps save them. How did writing affect you?
Let me tell you something: Simply the fact of writing the first book saved my life. I’m always told that the world I created is unreal; it was that which allowed me to escape. Yes, it’s true; it’s unreal up to a point – but not because my world was magical but because all writers avoid themselves. Additionally, I did not write only to escape but because I searched to understand subjects that worried me, subjects such as love, loss, separation, death… And all of that is reflected in the first book.
What else did that first book give you?
On a mundane level, writing that book gave me discipline, focus, and ambition, which at that time was reduced to simply seeing the book published.
What was the day of publication like for you?
I saw my dream become reality. It was an extraordinary moment. I couldn’t believe it. I was ecstatic. And almost immediately, I felt as though a train were pushing me from behind at full speed, as in a cartoon. I thought, “What’s happened to me?” Three months later, I received a huge advance, according to my standards back then. At that time, I was renting a flat, and I didn’t have insurance or savings. I wore second-hand clothing. As you know, money was scarce, and to have that money all of a sudden was extraordinary. That night, I couldn’t sleep. The next day, journalists started to appear, they gave me an important award, the Sun called me to buy the rights to my life story, and the journalists started hanging around in front of my house. And let me tell you something: That scared me a lot.
Is that why you’re afraid of journalists even now?
No, I’m not afraid of them. I remember a pair of journalists in particular who sensed my incredulity and vulnerability and helped me. One of them told me that I had every right to keep my daughter away from the press, because I refused to take her with me to interviews and have them take photos of her. I’m talking about the press in this country, in the UK. That’s how it works.
Your books appear to be full of personal references.
I tend to use significant dates. When I need a date or a number, I use something related to my personal life. I don’t know why I do it; it’s a tic. Harry’s birthday is the same date as mine, for example. The numbers or dates that appear in the books are related to my life.
Writing your first book made you ecstatic. And did the success give you pressure, knowing that millions of people were waiting for your work?
I made a serious decision not to think about it. Obviously, there were times when some news leaked through, especially during Books 4 and 5. Then the pressure did affect me, and I think that’s evident in the writing.
How were you feeling?
When I got to the fourth book, I was very burned out. I had produced a book a year for four years at the same time as raising my daughter alone, without a nanny or help of any kind. I was exhausted. And I really thought, “I can’t do it anymore; I have to stop.” And I told this to my editor, that if I kept going like this, I wouldn’t be able to continue writing. And then I met the man who is now my second husband.
You are Harry Potter. And you say it yourself: “Harry is mine.” Have you always known how it was going to end? Have you always known there were going to be seven books?
I’ve always known what was going to happen. From the beginning, I had the whole plot outlined, without the details, but I’ve always known that his story was going to end. And it has ended, even though many fans are displeased. There isn’t a way to resurrect Harry’s story. His story has ended. But it was very difficult to finish it. It was devastating.
The ending is touching: “The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years.”
It’s symbolic. We all repeat the lie again and again: that time cures everything. And it’s not true. There are things that can’t be cured, such as when someone you love dies.
You also write, “Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived.” The teacher says it, and you say that he survived because he had faith in his convictions, and thanks to that, he conquered Voldemort. Are you like that?
I would like to say yes because I created a hero with heroic attributes. I read on a site, “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer…” Harry is like that.
In all books, there is a realization that you can save yourself if you have friends, but Harry’s story is also one of solitude.
I agree entirely. I have given Harry my shortcoming, which is a tendency to close myself off, to isolate myself when I’m under pressure, sad, or happy. I tend to isolate myself. But I know that’s not good, that’s not healthy. And I gave that to Harry. Even though that’s also what makes him heroic, what prepares him to act on his own.
Is Harry your hero?
Yes, well, in real life, my hero is Robert F. Kennedy. I created a boy who tries to act with morality, who continues to gravitate toward the good side of things even though has been attacked and hurt physically and emotionally. And he is genuine and loyal, and I see all these things as heroic.
People are focused on how wealthy you are, much less than that you are human; it is as though they see you with a magic wand, like Harry Potter.
Sadly, that’s the way it is. When I see my name on lists of powerful people, something I don’t do often, I think about it. Power isn’t something I desire, and anyway, I don’t have it. Yes, I am rich.
Imagine for a moment that you could make yourself invisible.
To make yourself invisible? That would be the best…