J.K. Rowling: Author and Philanthropist
Appearing in the February/March 2014 edition of Wonderland magazine.
Interview conducted by Emma Watson.
Jo Rowling wrote Harry Potter, the best-selling book series in history, yet she still manages to be funny, kind, warm and real. She spends masses of her time supporting charities such as Comic Relief, Multiple Sclerosis Research through the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic, and her own children’s charity, Lumos. More recently, she wrote novels The Casual Vacancy and The Cuckoo’s Calling (a crime novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith).
I wanted to ask you about the script that you are writing for Warner Bros. for Fantastic Beasts.
Warner Bros. came to me ages ago and said they wanted to do something with Fantastic Beasts. I could see the potential in it. I knew something about Newt [Scamander, the fictional author of Fantastic Beasts] having written a little something for Comic Relief. I had imagined a little bit of backstory for him.
So when Warner Bros. came to me and said they wanted to make a film out of the book, I had this simultaneous feeling of “It has a lot of potential“ and another feeling of slight panic that “I know some things about Newt, and I don’t want you to ruin that for me!” because I knew who he was. So then I went away and sort of dwelt on what I knew about Newt, not intending to write a script but just trying to collect my thoughts so that I could at least give them the backstory I’d imagined, so that their vision was true to what I knew.
Then I really did have one of those moments that always make you phenomenally excited as a writer but also that you know is going to end up being a ton of work. I thought, “Oh my God, a whole plot’s just descended on me!” But I wanted to do it, as I was really excited about it. I wasn’t really thinking about writing the script myself. I thought, “I’ll give them this plot,” and then – fatally – I sat down and thought, “I just wonder what it would look like” and wrote a rough draft in 12 days!
It wasn’t a great draft, but it did show the shape of how it might look. So that is how it all started.
Wow, Warner Bros. must have been so excited.
I think they were kind of stunned. I didn’t tell them I had written it in 12 days. I’ve never written a script. It truly wasn’t that I thought I’d be good at it; I just wanted to get the outline of the story down, and that’s obviously given me a lot to work with going forward.
Do you ever worry when you have a great idea, when a piece of inspiration strikes you, that you won’t ever get it down quickly enough?
Yes, definitely, although I do work on the convenient premise that if it is worth keeping, you will remember it. I don’t think I have ever lost or forgotten anything that was really worth remembering!
Does inspiration ever strike you at really inconvenient moments? Like when you are driving the car or you are taking the children to school, and you just think, “Not now!”?
That is why I don’t drive, I swear to God. I cannot drive. People look at me and think, “How can you be a woman of 48 and not drive a car?” But I know myself, and I know how detached I am from my physical surroundings.
My husband has taken to warning me from three rooms away that he is getting closer so that I don’t scream. It’s ridiculous because obviously, I do know that I live with my husband, but that’s how jumpy I am. He’s gotten used to the fact that I’m a long way away in my head and that I get disconcerted when someone sneaks up on me.
But that tendency does have its advantages because I’m able to concentrate to a degree where I can totally shut everyone out, write it down or really commit it to memory, and then I’ve got it in the bank. I do think my apprenticeship writing the first three Harry Potters when I was a single mother and didn’t have a lot of support meant that I learned to be very efficient at using the time that I have.
You also announced that you’re going to collaborate on a theater production.
Yes, that was a really interesting idea that Sonia Friedman came up with. I’ve been so resistant for a long time about theater productions. Quite a few people wanted to do a Harry Potter musical. I didn’t really see Harry as a musical, so we said no to all of that, but Sonia came along with a very thoughtful, very interesting idea. I’m quite excited about that.
Will Hermione be in it?!
Well, Emma, if you are offering to play Hermione… I tell you what I really want. I want you and Dan and Rupert in really heavy makeup in the background of a scene in Fantastic Beasts, and I’ll join you, and we’ll sit in a bar room having a laugh for an afternoon. Do you not think that would be fantastic?
That sounds like the most fun I can imagine having!
And we can mess around as extras in the background. And then we can see if anyone can spot us. I personally would like to be in drag, just to make sure no one can spot me at all.
GENIUS! There are so many things that you could say you have achieved; what is the most meaningful to you? What is your greatest triumph?
Of what I’ve written, Deathly Hallows was a phenomenally emotional experience and my favorite of the Potter series by a mile. It wasn’t just about the writing; it was wrapping up a story that had taken me through 17 years of my life and had meant as much as any literary creation can mean to any writer. I mean, not just because it transformed my life materially, which of course it did, but that comes a poor fourth or fifth compared to the other things that Harry Potter did for me.
But I hope that the best is still to come. Nothing will ever top Potter in terms of popularity – I’ve accepted that – but on my death bed, I may look back on one of my least popular books, and it may well turn out to be the one I was proudest of, because different things matter to the writer.
I thought we should discuss Hermione. I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times, but now that you have written the books, do you have a new perspective on how you relate to Hermione and the relationship you have with her or had with her?
I know that Hermione is incredibly recognizable to a lot of readers, and yet you don’t see a lot of Hermiones in film or on TV except to be laughed at. I mean that the intense, clever, in some ways not-terribly-self-aware girl is rarely the heroine, and I really wanted her to be the heroine. She is part of me, although she is not wholly me. I think that is how I might have appeared to people when I was younger, but that is not really how I was inside.
What I will say is that I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione with Ron.
I know; I’m sorry. I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people’s hearts by saying this? I hope not.
I don’t know. I think there are fans out there who know that too and who wonder whether Ron would have really been able to make her happy.
And vice versa.
It was a young relationship. I think the attraction itself is plausible, but the combative side of it… I’m not sure you could have got over that in an adult relationship; there was too much fundamental incompatibility. I can’t believe we are saying all of this; this is Potter heresy!
I know; it is heresy.
In some ways, Hermione and Harry are a better fit, and I’ll tell you something very strange. When I wrote Hallows, I felt this quite strongly when I had Hermione and Harry together in the tent! I hadn’t told [Steve] Kloves that, and when he wrote the script, he felt exactly the same thing at exactly the same point.
That is just so interesting, because when I was doing the scene, I said to David [Heyman], “This isn’t in the book; she didn’t write this.” I’m not sure I am comfortable insinuating something, however subtle it is!
Yes, but David and Steve… They felt what I felt when writing it.
That is so strange.
And actually, I liked that scene in the film, because it was articulating something I hadn’t said but I had felt. I really liked it, and I thought that it was right. I think you do feel the ghost of what could have been in that scene.
It’s a really haunting scene. It’s funny because it really divided people. Some people loved that scene, and some people really didn’t.
Yes, some people utterly hated it. But that is true of so many really good scenes in books and films; they evoke that strong positive/negative feeling. I was fine with it; I liked it.
I remember really loving shooting those scenes that don’t have any dialogue, where you are just kind of trying to express a moment in time and a feeling without saying anything. It was just Dan and [me] spontaneously sort of trying to convey an idea and it was really fun.
And you got it perfectly; you got perfectly the sort of mixture of awkwardness and genuine emotion, because it teeters on the edge of “What are we doing? Oh, come on; let’s do it anyway,” which I thought was just right for that time.
I think it was just the sense that, in the moment, they needed to be together and be kids and raise each other’s morale.
That is just it; you are so right. All this says something very powerful about the character of Hermione as well. Hermione was the one [who] stuck with Harry all the way through that last installment, that very last part of the adventure. It wasn’t Ron, which also says something very powerful about Ron. He was injured in a way, in his self-esteem, from the start of the series. He always knew he came second to fourth best and then had to make friends with the hero of it all, and that’s a hell of a position to be in, eternally overshadowed. So Ron had to act out in that way at some point.
But Hermione is always there for Harry. I remember you sent me a note after you read Hallows and before you started shooting and said something about that, because it was Hermione’s journey as much as Harry’s at the end.
I completely agree, and the fact that they were true equals and the fact that she really said goodbye to her family makes it her sacrifice too.
Yes, her sacrifice was massive, completely. A very calculated act of bravery. That is not an “in the moment” act of bravery where emotion carries you through; that is a deliberate choice.
I love Hermione.
I love her too.
Oh, maybe she and Ron will be all right with a bit of counseling. I wonder what happens at wizard marriage counseling? They’ll probably be fine. He needs to work on his self-esteem issues, and she needs to work on being a little less critical.
I think it makes sense to me that Ron would make friends with the most famous wizard in the school because I think life presents to you over and over again your biggest and most painful fear – until you conquer it. It just keeps coming up.
That is so true; it has happened in my own life. The issue keeps coming up because you are drawn to it and you are putting yourself in front of it all the time. At a certain point, you have to choose what to do about it, and sometimes conquering it is choosing to say, “I don’t want that anymore; I’m going to stop walking up to you because there is nothing there for me.” But yes, you’re so right; that’s very insightful! Ron is used to playing second fiddle. I think that’s a comfortable role for him, but at a certain point, he has to be his own man, doesn’t he?
Yes, and until he does, it is unresolved. It is unfinished business. So maybe life presented this to him enough times until he had to make a choice and become the man that Hermione needs.
Just like her creator, she has a real weakness for a funny man. These uptight girls, they do like them funny.
They do like them funny; they need them funny.
It’s such a relief from being so intense yourself – you need someone who takes life, or appears to take life, a little more light-heartedly.
Definitely so important. Thank you so much for doing this.