© CBC/Newsworld, July 18, 2000
In an exclusive interview, Evan Solomon, the host of CBC Newsworld's Hot Type, recently talked to Joanne Kathleen Rowling about everything from the origins of Harry Potter to her life as a welfare mother to her views about censorship and God. Solomon spoke to Rowling during a cross-Britain book tour aboard a vintage train, the Hogwarts Express, which was nicknamed after the train in her books.
The legend is that [your first book] came to you all at once.
No, Harry came to me. Hogwarts came to me, not in its entirety but many of the characters did come in a kind of--
Was it like an epiphany?
Yes, it really was. I had this four-hour train journey. It shouldn't have been four hours, but the train was delayed. And Harry was there [in my mind]. The inhabitants of the castle were there. Harry's scar was there... It's a very strange thing, but I know I'm not alone in this among writers. It was as though I was given a piece of information and I just had to find out the rest of the information. It wasn't really as though I was inventing it. I was working backwards and forwards to see what must have happened.
Almost pulling back the curtain to see what was--
But no, it didn't come to me all at once. They're fairly complex plots at times, and it took a couple of years to work out the whole thing properly.
Some of the best parts are the idea like Quidditch, which is a high-speed ballgame played on broomsticks. Tell me about the origins of Quidditch.
I can talk wildly about those. I had a blazing row with an ex-boyfriend. I had been writing Harry Potter books for about a year, and I had decided that one of the unifying characteristics of any given society is sport. Almost any society you can think of will have its own games and sports. I decided I wanted to-- and then we had this blazing row. I don't know whether it's cause and effect. I doubt it. But I walked out of the flat and I booked into a hotel for a night and rather than sit there and think about this row, I sat there and invented Quidditch.
Are you forever stashing ideas? Writers are forever scribbling and saying this is a perfect idea. Is that your method?
Yeah. I actually had an idea this morning on the train as I got out of bed. Suddenly I thought, oh, that's how we could do it in Book Five. So, yes, it's wonderful when that happens, when it just comes to you.
Some people say good characters are boring and evil characters are always the more interesting. There's the famous line about Milton and Paradise Lost: God is a bore and the devil is interesting.
Well, Harry is good. I personally do not find Harry boring at all. He has his faults. Ron and Hermione are very good characters... but no, I'm not bored by goodness.
Do you have more fun writing the evil characters? Because Lord Voledmort [the sinister wizard who killed Harry's parents] is the quintessential evil character.
Yeah, he's a bad one. Do I have more fun? I loved writing Dumbledore and he is the epitome of goodness. But I loved writing Rita.
Do you have a favourite?
Actually, no, I don't think I do. I actually enjoyed writing Dudley as well.
Characters take on their own lives, have their own stories. Writers often say, "I loved that character and the most tragic part of my year was having to kill him off."
Do you know already who is going to die in the next books?
I know all of them who are going to die.
Some of the characters we might love and you might love?
I'm definitely killing people I love, yeah. It's horrible, isn't it? I cried during the writing of that one [Book Four] for the first time ever. It really upset me.
It opens with a murder and then there's one at the end. I won't say who it is. You cried then?
But in the future there's--
There's worse coming.
People love Ron, for example. Kids think you're going to knock off Ron because he's the best friend.
Kids do, because they're sharp and they've seen so many films where the hero's best friend gets it. So they think I'm going to make it personal by killing Ron. But maybe that's a double bluff... It's not that I sat down with a list and decided to write, "you're going, you're going, you're going." There are reasons for the deaths in each case, in terms of the story. So that's why I'm doing it.
Is this book as suitable for the six- and seven-year-old who loved Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone?
It depends on the kid... I have proud mothers saying to me, "He's six and he loves them," and I'm thinking, I personally wouldn't have said, "go for it" with a six-year-old. I personally wouldn't, because I knew what was coming, I knew they would get darker. So it depends on the child. My daughter is coming up to seven. She absolutely adores them.
Even this one?
She's not all the way through it yet.
This is the crucial book, because after this book, everything changes. The whole world seems to go through a radical transformation.
Well, it's the end of an era. Book Four is the end of an era for Harry. He's been very protected until now.
You used to work for Amnesty International.
I did, yes. I was a research assistant. My field was human rights abuses in Francophone Africa. It made me very fascinating at dinner parties. I knew everything about the political situation in Togo...
Civil rights becomes a theme in Goblet of Fire. It shows up in Hermione [in relation to] the rights of elves.
This is a real issue.
Yeah, that was fairly autobiographical. My sister and I were that kind of teenager. We thought, I'm the only one who really feels these injustices. No one else understands the way I feel. I think a lot of teenagers go through that.
In Britain they call it Right On or something.
Exactly. Well, it's fun to write, because Hermione with the best of intentions becomes quite self-righteous. My heart is entirely with her as she goes through this. She develops her political conscience. My heart is completely with her. But my brain tells me, which is a growing-up thing, that in fact she blunders towards the very people she's trying to help. She offends them.
She's somewhat condescending to the elves who don't have rights.
She thinks it's so easy. It's part of what I was saying before about the growing process, of realizing you don't have quite as much power as you think you might have and having to accept that. Then you learn that it's hard work to change things and that it doesn't happen overnight. Hermione thinks she's going to lead them to glorious rebellion in one afternoon and then finds out the reality is quite different, but that was fun to write.
These issues concerning race relations and civil rights for you as a person are obviously crucial.
I think children are interested in those things.
Are we too often protecting our kids from those kind of things? In North America, there is a sense that we ought to protect our kids from these things.
On my last U.S. tour I was there over Halloween with my daughter. We were in this hotel room, and three programs in a row were concerned with the question of how we stop our children being frightened by Halloween-- three in a row... I'm sitting there thinking, you are trying to protect children from their own imaginations, and you can't do that. That's how you turn out frightened children, in my opinion. You turn out frightened children by saying, "It's not scary. There's nothing there to frighten you." Kids will get scared and they've got to live through that and then deal with that... A happy child is not one who has never experienced fear or has never been allowed to experience fear.
Fear is a healthy thing?
It is a healthy thing. It's a survival thing... Let's say a child grows to age 14 never having experienced fear, it would be a destroying experience for that boy or girl the first time they felt fear. You have to learn that.
What ought we to protect our kids from, then?
We're trying to protect them from our own fears, I think, and that's not healthy. That's not good.
What is it healthy to protect them from?
Obviously we want them physically safe. That's a very natural instinct... My reaction to a scary book or a scary film with my daughter would be to watch it with her and discuss it with her, to be with her as she experienced it. But don't get me wrong. There are things I do not want my seven-year-old daughter exposed to. There are definitely things, such as explicit sex. No, she's too young. That's like giving a seven-year-old child a loaded gun and saying play with that. I also don't want her watching films where people blow each other's heads off at random.
It's hard to draw the line here, isn't it, because someone could read your book and say there's murder--
People die, but do you care when they die? Do you absolutely have a sense of how evil it is to take another person's life? Yes, I think in my book you do. I think you see that is a horrific thing. I have enormous respect for human life. I do not think that you would read either of the deaths in that book and think, yeah, well, he's gone, off we go. Not at all. I think it's very clear where my sympathies lie. And here I'm dealing with a villain who does hold human life incredibly cheap... but you're right, I know where I draw the line. Other people will draw the line in a different place and they will disagree with me.
There is the myth that you are the welfare mom living in an unheated apartment in Edinburgh You're scratching out Harry Potter for two hours a day.
On napkins allegedly. I had an American journalist say to me, "Is it true you wrote the whole of the first novel on napkins?" I was tempted to say, "On teabags, I used to save them."
What is the real story?
Like most of what appears in the press, there is an element of truth and there is an element of huge exaggeration.
My God! [Laughter]...Were you on the dole?
Were you living in an unheated apartment?
No. We had heat. Yes, we had heat. We had mice as well... for six months I lived exclusively on welfare. That was horrible. I got myself a part-time clerical secretary job. I mean really part-time, like a couple of hours a week. But at that point the law was you could only earn up to 15 pounds a week in excess of your benefit, which doesn't make you a great deal richer... Then I went back to college to get a teaching qualification, which meant I could teach French in Scotland. We were still broke, but we were not fully living on the dole because I had a grant. And then thereafter, although I was partly on benefits for a while again, because I didn't have a full-time teaching job, we never were as broke as we had been for certainly the first 18 months in Edinburgh.
Jo, why did you decide to write during that period? Most single mothers who are broke and have got a kid, they just want to make money. They forget their ambition to write, forget their dream. They have to be a little more practical.
Well, I felt guilty about continuing to write, actually, very guilty... I thought, maybe I should just relocate. Maybe I should just come back down to London, where I had lived before, and get a full-time teaching job down there and give up this. I wondered, was I chasing rainbows and sacrificing my daughter's-- not well-being because she was a very happy little girl. But maybe she could have had more toys.
As a mom, did you feel like a failure? You're broke. Suddenly you have this kid.
I felt very angry. I don't know that I felt a failure. And yet at the same time I was proud of myself, and this is the truth. And there will be people watching this, women in exactly the situation as I was. I've got to say to them, "I do not look back at myself then and think what a loser." I look back on myself then, and I'm very proud, because I was doing the work of three people. I was doing a paid job. I was the only bread-winner, and I was being mother and father. If anyone thinks that's easy, try it sometime. And I was writing a novel.
There's a legend now that you're a recluse-- the press has gone to your head and now you're saying, "no more interviews."
It doesn't annoy me. It makes me laugh, it really makes me laugh. It makes friends of mine laugh. I'm not reclusive. There are two reasons why I haven't done a lot of interviews recently. One is, I wanted to be working. An interview knocks out half a work day for me and I was working 10-hour days on this book. I could not afford the time. I would rather be writing the book. And the other thing, which people tend to forget, is I'm still a single parent. The expectation seems to be that once you've made some money, you will hand over your child to a battalion of nannies and then you'll go off and do what you want to do. Well, the fact is that I want to bring up my daughter and that means I want to spend time with my daughter. There's no way I'm going to be able to do that if I give promotional tours to every country that publishes me. So it's for very prosaic reasons that I've been keeping a relatively low profile recently.
And yet here we are on the train and at every stop there are hundreds of kids and parents...
That's the nice thing, though. I really, really love meeting the kids, because that's like teaching without pain, you see. I used to be a teacher and I enjoyed teaching. Meeting loads of kids in the context in which I meet them now, it's fun. I don't have to discipline. They want to riot, I can join in if I want to. It's fun. I never expected to be in the papers. The height of my ambition for these books was to get reviewed. A lot of children's books don't even get reviewed-- forget good review, bad review. Personally, no, I never expected to be in the papers so it's an odd experience when it happens to you.
People always ask does fame change you? Do you guard yourself against change? As you say, you still want to be a single mom, but how can you do it now when everybody knows you?
Actually, I'm not a very recognizable person. I have no problem at all walking anywhere or doing normal stuff and people don't recognize me a lot, at all. On the rare occasion when I'm recognized, people are extremely nice. I've never once had someone march up to me in public and be unpleasant to me, quite the reverse. So it's entirely possible for me to lead a very normal life. And please, God, may it always remain so. Because you know, I really wouldn't like the reverse. I would hate it, in fact.
There's the famous line that you write in cafes. Can you still write in cafes?
Yeah. No one bugs me. No one says, "Can I have your autograph? Are you in the middle of a great sentence?"
Is there a difference in the American response and the British response? In America you're a celebrity and Americans treat their celebrities in perhaps a different way than you've been treated here.
I don't like the idea of myself being a celebrity.
Is it naive to pretend that you're not?
On a certain level, I think it's realistic, because kids don't turn up to see me for me. I think I could be man, woman, old, young; as long as I had written the books they would be interested in seeing who had written the Harry Potter books, but I don't think the appeal is me personally. I know for a fact the appeal isn't me personally, you know, what I look like or what I'm like to speak to. They just are curious to find out who wrote the books. So I hope and believe that the books are the attraction rather than me personally.
This transcript courtesy of the HP Galleries.