Report: J.K. Rowling at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival

To those well versed in the works of J.K. Rowling, it probably wasn’t a stretch to imagine that, one day, she may turn her hand to crime writing. Rowling herself has acknowledged how much she owes to the Potter series for her love of the genre, reflecting this week that “the Harry Potter series is six whodunnits and one whytheydunnit in disguise.” But the nature in which she chose to write such a novel was certainly unexpected – a novel written and published under the male pseudonym Robert Galbraith and a secret to which very few were privy. The knowledge didn’t remain quiet for long, however, and less than a year after being exposed by the Sunday Times as the true author behind The Cuckoo’s Calling, Rowling made her first public appearance as her alter ego at this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, Yorkshire, England.

Speaking in conversation with best-selling crime novelist Val McDermid, Rowling was present this past Friday in Harrogate’s Royal Hall, dressed in what she referred to as her “Robert suit” – a grey jacket and trouser combination, white shirt, and salmon pink tie.

To kick-start the evening’s chat, McDermid begun by telling the story of when she first read (and thoroughly enjoyed) The Cuckoo’s Calling. She had believed, along with everyone else, that this was the work of a debut novelist. Full of enthusiasm for the novel, she provided a quote for the first edition cover. Rowling subsequently chimed in with her own comments that she had “jumped up and down” in response to the quote and promptly handwrote a letter from Galbraith to McDermid to thank her for her words. She then confessed to feeling a little foolish only a month later when Galbraith’s identity was revealed, going on to write a second letter to McDermid, this time from herself.

The conversation soon came round to the genre of the festival. Rowling spoke enthusiastically of her love for crime fiction and detective novels. It was during her teens that she discovered “the golden age” of crime fiction, devouring the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. (For any fans looking to expand their repertoire, Jo recommends Allingham’s “phenomenalThe Tiger in the Smoke.) While she’d always hoped to write within the genre, Rowling said the idea for Strike, an injured ex-veteran turned private detective, came to mind more than six years ago. In fact, the story for The Silkwormthe second novel released last month, was the plot that came to her first. However, she chose to explore and establish the character of Strike within a simpler plot and as result, developed and wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling first.

Her enthusiasm for this new series was clear. She spoke candidly at already being halfway through the third novel – which will take a closer look at the military and life after the fact – as well as having half planned the fourth. As for after that, she doesn’t, as previously reported, intend to write seven stories; she hopes to write even more! This revelation was greeted by rapturous applause from the eager crowd, and no less so from yours truly.

These may take some time to emerge, however, since Rowling is, of course, writing the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them screenplay. Predictably very coy on the subject matter, Jo did say she was enjoying the process, saying that “it’s been challenging, it’s been fascinating, it has been a lot of fun.” However, she later added that “as fun as it’s been, my first love is definitely novels.

The dynamic between Rowling and McDermid throughout the evening was one of total mutual respect for one another, and much of the Q&A passed with the two sharing anecdotes and comparing notes on their approach to the writing process. On this subject, Rowling confirmed what her fans have always know, about her: her love of planning and research. The Cormoran Strike novels are exceptionally well-thought-out, with Jo keeping track of the plot using various “color-coded spreadsheets.” Naturally, she has full backstories in place for both Strike and Robin and knows more about amputations, forensic pathology, and military mindsets than she ever imagined she would.

This research has led her to enjoy some unusual experiences, from spending hours with her informal “brain trust” of military veterans to speccing out locations – she told an amusing anecdote about almost being spotted on a 6 a.m.-trip to a cafe with her husband to confirm the components of their full English breakfast – all in the name of accuracy. While on this topic, she fessed up to a great tidbit for those who enjoy insider references: The typewriter used by Owen Quine in The Silkworm is the exact same make and model as the one Rowling first wrote Harry Potter on.

Throughout the session, Rowling was as charming, funny, and humble as ever, with her passion for these new characters perhaps enhancing this even more. She even professed that Robin, currently Strike’s personal assistant, is one of, if not her favorite, character she has ever written – including all of Potter! This fervor for the story, along with the freedom she now has to write these books, confirm that she will undoubtedly be writing them for quite some time. And for those who have read the Galbraith books, it wouldn’t perhaps be too great a stretch to suggest that Rowling’s best work may still be ahead of her.

After the panel came to a close, we were rather efficiently coordinated back through the foyer for the book signing. Although brief, the signing was an amazing experience to meet the person who has given us all so much. Rowling took the time with everyone to say hello and make eye contact – a personal touch that, along with the great Q&A, will undoubtedly be remembered by those present for some time to come.

Did you attend the event? Have you finished The Silkworm? Let us know your thoughts below.

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  • Toni Cooper

    Great report Claire! Wish I could have attended myself, but alas I couldn’t. Never mind. It looks like you had an awesome time & the Q&A sounded extremely interesting. Here’s to hoping that Queen Rowling will do another appearance as ‘Galbraith’ when the next book comes out.

  • stephforeigncountry

    Sounds like it was an amazing event! Very envious. I consider myself a forever Potterhead, but I agree with your opinion that there’s a chance her best work is still to come! What a wonderful idea…

  • HinkyPuff

    I feel very lucky to have attended this event :’) it was wonderful to meet Jo. Luckily I managed to get a few words out after just staring at her when she spoke to me. I don’t even remember taking my book back I was so awestruck meeting her. Also, Val McDermid was hilarious!