MuggleCast 258 Transcript (continued)
The Casual Vacancy Discussion: Harry Potter References
Andrew: So, we had noticed a couple of Harry Potter - what we think are Harry Potter references in the book. The first one: the one on page 44, you guys were saying?
Eric: Oh wait, I have one before that. It's page one. [laughs]
Eric: Barry... [laughs]
Andrew: You know...
Eric: Although it's funny what she said in the interview about that - no, no, no, his head hurts so I thought it was Harry's scar hurting.
Andrew: Oh. [laughs] Yeah, there's that. And like you said, in the one interview somebody asked her, "Oh, you named Barry and Harry very similarly," and she was like, "You know what? I didn't even notice that until it was too late." Like, are you kidding me?
Micah: They changed the last name. Why couldn't she change the first name?
Andrew: Yeah, really! Change it to Larry.
Eric: It's a simple replace command, Jo. Control-H.
Andrew: Yeah. Find, replace.
Eric: Find, replace.
Andrew: But I just couldn't believe that it only dawned on her before it was too late that Barry and Harry - [laughs] so you guys had page 44. What was the reference there?
Eric: Yeah, who else found it? Was it...
Selina: Me. Yup.
Andrew: What is it?
Selina: Oh, you can say it, Eric.
Eric: Oh okay, I'm going to - well, I'm going to look up the exact quote. Give me just one second here.
Andrew: The other one that we had found was later on when there's a reference to various crimes, I think - or no, bad parenting.
Eric: Yeah, Tessa is going - Tessa is the - wait, no.
Andrew: Kay. You're thinking of Kay.
Eric: Kay is the social worker.
Eric: She's undergoing - she's kind of reminiscing on tales of bad parenting because she's at - [censored], I always call her Keira but it's...
Eric: Krystal, Krystal's house, and talking about her younger brother. But I found one on page 44 and it's also - actually, this one is from Tessa and it's also about Krystal and it says, okay:
"Tessa knew that Krystal's familiarity with sudden death was greater than her own. People in Krystal's mother's circle died prematurely with such frequency that they might have been involved in some secret war of which the rest of the world know nothing."
Selina: They're wizards!
Eric: They're wizards! But actually, she means obviously - Krystal's mother in the story, not to spoil anything, is a big heroin addict and so a lot of the people that are also addicts are dying prematurely.
Eric: So, it's much less exciting than if they were in a secret war. But the fact that that imagery exists, that Jo drew that comparison, seems like a veld or overt reference to the secret world of Harry Potter.
Micah: And the one that, Andrew, you brought up is on page 81, and it says:
"But she had seen far worse: welts and sores, gashes and burns, tar-black bruises; scabies and nits; babies lying on carpets covered in dog [censored]; kids crawling on broken bones; and once (she dreamed of it, still), a child who had been locked in a cupboard for five days by his psychotic stepfather."
Andrew: That one made the national news, it says right after that.
Andrew: I missed that part, originally. She dreamed of it, still?
Andrew: That totally seems to me like a Harry Potter reference. But I bet if you ask her about that, she'd say, "Oh. Oh no. No, no, no, no. No, no, no, no."
Selina: No, people [unintelligible] in cupboards all the time. [laughs]
Andrew: Yeah. [laughs]
Eric: So, Selina, do you think there could be any more? Have you noticed any others that are kind of similar?
Selina: The only one I did notice - and this is not a reference, it's just funny - is that Jo in this story - I mean, she's dating herself so much by all her references to Facebook and blah, blah, blah.
Andrew: How is that dating herself?
Selina: Because it's little things about the world right now that in ten years people might be like, "Uhh, whatever." But one thing that I did notice was the return of the PlayStation, which I liked.
Eric: Oh, I saw Nintendo DS.
Andrew: Yeah, I saw that.
Eric: Barry's children have DS's, but I didn't see a PlayStation.
Selina: And I thought that was funny, because nobody actually says PlayStation anymore. [laughs] Sorry.
Andrew: See, I don't know if that's dating yourself, though. A book is written in a certain time period and that's just...
Eric: And set in a certain time period as well.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah.
Selina: I always notice stuff like that whatever book I'm reading. I'm always thinking - they mention MySpace and I'm like, "Ahhh, that's so 2002."
Micah: There is a goat reference on page 58.
Eric: Oh God, how could I have missed that?
Andrew: Good for you.
Eric: 58? What is it?
Andrew: So, does this change your guys' perspective of Jo as a writer? Do you find yourself not looking forward to what she's doing next? She has said in multiple interviews over the past week that she - it seems that she has two children's books lined up, and one of those two will be her next book-release. But it's only for, like, seven to eight-year-olds, that's the target age, so I'm thinking like Dr. Seuss style: very short, very illustrated, that kind of thing. And then, she did reference one other adult novel. Not a Casual Vacancy sequel.
Eric: Well, let's talk about the sex.
Andrew: In the book?
Eric: In this book. Yeah, in this book. Because you're asking if it changes our perspective on Jo, or if it changes our opinion of her writing. And there is just a lot of sex, I think, even so far where I am in this book. And it's shocking at first, because I think as a Harry Potter fan, having grown up with Harry Potter, it feels like your mom is cursing or something. It's just very - there's an early chapter where we meet Andrew, he's riding the school bus, and this girl he has a crush on doesn't show up. And I guess - I think the line is like, "There was an ache in his heart and in his balls."
Eric: And I'm thinking, oh my God, she's talking about Andrew's - this kid's balls. She never talked about Harry's balls. Like, there was never a moment where it's like, "Harry's balls itched as he contemplated what he must do next."
Eric: Never. Ever, ever, ever.
Andrew: Wasn't there a reference to his erection, too?
Eric: Yeah, there's tons of erections.
Andrew: Like, bumping up and down on the school bus?
Eric: There's tons of erections - oh, covering it up, yeah. He said the vibration of the bus...
Eric: I was just like, "Okay, this is - Jo is..."
Micah: But that's normal things that happen to you...
Eric: Extremely normal.
Micah: Yeah, it is, though. And those are things that happen, you know, in high school.
Andrew: I think Micah is admitting something right now.
Eric: No, no, look, I'll admit the same thing if Micah admits it. This is...
Eric: ...real life.
[Andrew and Micah laugh]
Eric: But it felt like she was in my head - oh, Selina is laughing her [censored] off now.
Eric: I'm saying that she seems to have created a portal inside a young boy's mind, and she does this with Andrew, she does this with the character of Fats. And it's a little interesting to see the Queen or mother inside my young child head, or any young boy's head, talking about these school experiences. How did she know this stuff? Almost. The book is dedicated to her husband, Neil. I wonder if he shared something.
Eric: Or maybe it's a technique of a good writer to be able to talk about this kind of thing that is a lot more, I guess, personal to me as like - hell, I was a young boy once, right? Some of these things that Andrew and Fats are feeling I felt, and so I'm really...
Micah: Yeah, exactly.
Eric: ...engrossed by how sexual but also by how raw a lot of this emotion is and it's been beneath these characters. And it's not uplifting, it's actually a little unsettling, but I don't know what to make of it.
Micah: Well, what makes it unsettling? Because I think, as we've just mentioned, a lot of those elements are natural and they are things that happen. Maybe it's that we internalize all of them and we don't necessarily speak about them all the time. But I do think there's certainly things that happen and to your point, how does she know how to get inside the mind of a young teenage boy who is looking at a girl for the first time and is really interested in her? It's an interesting dynamic.
Andrew: Actually, my problem with a lot of the sex happening in this book was some of it felt very forced.
Andrew: And I don't mean literal sex but I mean just some references - like page 8, for example. It's right after Barry dies, and Miles and Samantha who got Barry to that hospital, it's the next morning, and Miles kind of gets lost in his wife's breasts. It says:
"Samantha's dressing gown gaped open as she sat at the kitchen table, revealing the contours of her big breasts as they rested on her forearms. Upwards pressure made them appear fuller and smoother than they were when they hung unsupported. The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed. She had been a great user of sun beds when younger."
I'm just thinking, like...
Micah: Professor McGonagall?
Andrew: No! I'm just thinking your friend just died, it's the next morning, and you get lost in your wife's breasts?
Eric: I didn't think that...
Andrew: First of all, do married men even - are they even interested in their wife's breasts any longer?
Eric: They should be.
Andrew: I mean, let alone to describe them in this detail?
Eric: The thing is, I was confused at the beginning because I wasn't sure entirely that it was being told from his perspective. So, when she's writing about Samantha's breasts, I didn't think it was necessary that Miles was noticing that, but I thought instead it was building the character of Samantha who is very much like - what was the reference to Harry Potter I compared? I've lost it. But anyway, she's a character who used sun beds, she's very vain, and so that's all I took it to mean, was that she was very concerned with her appearance because she had grown older and she slumps fake goo on her to give her a fake tan.
Eric: So, I don't know.
Selina: I agree with you, I think that for me - I think having read most of the book, the sexual references probably are one of the ways to express these characters' complete depravity. [laughs]
Selina: And the way that they're so messed up and wrapped up in their own heads, and I think - as someone else said earlier, it's sort of a way of really being raw. I mean, she's laying these people out for the world to see. There's nothing hidden about them or anyone. And it's all - the novel, I guess, is all about secrets and sharing your thoughts and sharing your personal self with nobody or everybody. But at the same time, especially in the beginning, I was like, I don't need Jo to prove that this is not Harry Potter by throwing in all of this stuff a bit arbitrarily. Like that scene on the bus where he was sort of - the erection bump - [laughs] for obvious reasons. I feel like sometimes you don't really need it, but then as you get further into the book I do think that it just becomes the way that her characters work.
Eric: It could be - yeah, go ahead.
Listener Tweets: The Casual Vacancy
Andrew: Let's start to move along here. We got some Twitter responses about the book, for people who follow us on Twitter, Twitter.com/MuggleCast. Janet says:
"Only 100 pages in, but feeling there are a lot of characters being introduced, yet no main person to follow except dead Barry."
Which yeah, I agree, but in a way he is the lead character because it is his death that causes everything that happens in the remainder of the book, as far as I know, getting his seat replaced. Kayla says:
"LOVE IT!! J.K. Rowling has done it again!! This book is AH-MAZING!!!"
"Surprisingly realistic and honest while discussing issues we've also seen in HP. A very courageous reflection of real life."
"It has become like her to kill people in the first chapter. Loved the grotesque way she did it. It's not HP, but it's still JKR."
Samuel Cox said:
"Only 130 pages in so far but I love it. Kind of odd when you think that Krystal was created by the same writer as say Luna or Dobby."
Andrew: What does he or she mean by that?
Eric: Well, the first time we meet Krystal it's through Andrew's eyes, and he's telling the story of how when she was very, very, very young she pulled her pants down in the middle of a classroom. I just feel like that alone treats Krystal with much more depth and sympathy than - it's deeper because you feel bad for her from the start, you're at a disadvantage, whereas none of the characters seem that holy. They're missing that element of secret things that they did when they were young or expressions of their youthful personality that should never be held against them. I almost feel like Harry Potter as a series was - because it lacked any element of the sexual and when Jo tried to write about it, it was really awkward. Like with Harry and Ginny, the monster in his chest, as opposed to actual sex scenes and stuff. I feel like in a way the Harry Potter series is inauthentic, except for the fact that it tried to address teenage relationships. The fact that her next book is showing sex from ages two to sixty-something is very different, and I think it is odd for what Samuel said. Because it's a different way of viewing life. Both characters are equally real - Luna and Krystal - but Krystal has this added depth where you feel like you're actually talking about a real person, because you know certain secrets about her that she would prefer not to have known.
Micah: But I agree. I think that those characters that were brought up - let's go with Luna, not so much Dobby. I don't think we need to be discussing the sex habits of house-elves on this show.
Micah: But there is that missing component to - and so I wonder if all this time she was writing Harry Potter, she really wanted to say things that she couldn't say, and so she kind of put them on the side and she tabled them for when she was going to be writing a more adult book. And I think...
Eric: Do you think it was out of respect for the fact that she was writing what was seen as being a children's book? Because she could have included sex in Harry Potter, she just chose not to. She chose that she was writing more of a children's story.
Micah: Yeah, but I think that it did change though, as the books progressed and you moved really into Order of the Phoenix and beyond. I think that you did get more of those adult themes, but again, the whole sexual side of it was completely ignored with the exception of a little bit of teenage romance here and there. And this book, though, is adult in every sense of the word. Like when she said she's writing an adult novel, she might have well said she's writing an X-rated novel because that's what this is. I mean, there's...
Micah: No, it's close because there are no boundaries as - you pick up a book by John Grisham or some other political thriller or legal thriller, there's not this level of graphic...
Eric: Yeah, you're not talking about how many...
Eric: Yeah. It's not a teenager boasting about how many fingers he's put in a girl. It's not that at all.
Micah: Right, and that's the other thing, at least as far as I've got in the book, with Krystal talking about her in the back of the room during one of their examinations and people going up and getting a chance to feel her breasts, and how - was it Andrew? - missed out on it.
Andrew: I always do, yeah. Oh, in the book? Yeah.
[Eric and Micah laugh]
Micah: Yeah, in the book.
Andrew: Yeah, that's right.
Micah: You never hear something like that about going on in the back of Snape's Potions classrooms with Luna.
Micah: Everybody went to go into the back and get a feel. Or cop a feel.
Andrew: Oh God.
Micah: That just - yeah...
Micah: ...they're drastically different, there's no question.
Andrew: So, was there - so, this was like a creative release for Jo? I mean, I feel like she almost needed to insert these kind of things in here, like the grabbing of the breasts and the watching of porn...
Micah: Selina, you've been very quiet.
Selina: No, I've tried to speak but the sound is cutting me off.
Andrew: Oh. But the watching of the porn and all that - I feel like if she didn't have these things in there, it'd be even more boring.
[Andrew and Eric laugh]
Andrew: What did you want to say, Selina?
Selina: No, I only wanted to say I could imagine how great it would be if at one point we got something that was kind of the best of both of these, because with Harry Potter you have the fantastic story. You have the fantastic - I'm not talking about the magic, I'm talking about the intricate layers of what happens between these characters, and the way they grow up and the way they fight this battle. And you have the humor, you have the heart, you have the way that we have all attached ourselves to these characters, despite them not being as fleshed out as we might have hoped they would be. And if we could match all of that with this intense social awareness, and awareness that Jo has for the way that people's minds work, and the really - this amazing level of building up these detailed characters that are so different from each other, and have such distinct personalities, and that really are so real. If we could mix all that up and create some kind of super novel [laughs] it would be the best thing ever.
Micah: Yeah. I'm really interested to see, at Lincoln Center, how she's going to talk about this book...
Micah: ...and the kinds of questions she's going to get from fans, who are primarily going to be Harry Potter fans. I mean, to this point a lot of the interviews that she's done have been with reporters. She hasn't had to really interact one-on-one with the fans. And so it's going to be an interesting conversation with the much more grown-up Potter crowd.
Andrew: She did interact with them at Queen Elizabeth Hall, but that was the day the book came out, and I think they did a survey of the audience and one person had actually finished the book.
Andrew: But yeah, you're right. So, by the time she gets to New York City, obviously I would think anybody who's attending will have finished the book and maybe can grill her a little bit. But let's continue here. On the point we just brought up, actually, Diana said:
"I can't believe Jo actually wrote a book with dirty words and without wizards! This book is truly awesome, I'm glad she did it!"
"Just what I expected and so much more! No skirting around real issues and the same writing we've all come to love."
"Trying really hard to stay interested. Maybe I haven't gotten to the good part yet, only 80ish pages through. Supporting JKR!"
"The plotting was skillfully done. Liked the issues being raised (poverty, OCD) but most of the characters were not compelling."
Eric: I haven't got to the OCD yet.
Andrew: Me neither. Caitlin says:
"I'm only 50 pages in, but it's so slow! Do we really need so much character description? C'mon Jo, where's the good stuff?!"
And finally Sean says:
"Hate it. Unlikable characters and mediocre writing, plus the entire experience feels like spending a weekend with the Dursleys."
Andrew: This book does feel Dursley-ish, in terms of the characters - some of them.
Eric: Particularly Howard and his wife are...
Selina: Right. I've been trying not to say it, because I feel like there's no point comparing this to Harry Potter in any way, [laughs] because it's not. But really, a lot of the - not just the - what are they, the Mollisons? - I feel like they're the most Dursley-ish. But I feel like almost every single character I imagine as Vernon, Petunia, or Marge Dursley walking around, you know?
News: J.K. Rowling Interviews
Andrew: There was an interesting interview - moving on to some of the news related to Casual Vacancy, there was an interesting interview with Jo, when she's speaking to ABC's Cynthia McFadden, and Rowling asked McFadden, "Did you cry?" and McFadden said, "Yes," and J.K. Rowling said, "Well, you see, I don't want to say 'good.' But I would have nothing to say to the person who didn't cry at the end of this book. Nothing. The end is bad. Sorry."
Andrew: Which I thought was pretty - I was like, whoa. So, for this quote alone, I'm very interested to see why Jo feels so compelled to say everybody who reads this should be crying by the end because it's so sad.
Selina: Because she sets up these characters to fail. She's like, "Come here, come care about these fifteen-odd characters and I will destroy them." [laughs] I don't know.
Micah: Well, Selina, can we throw out a spoiler-like question to you? Has anybody else died throughout the book, other than Barry - up to your reading?
Selina: Not up to my reading, although several of them have diabetes.
[Eric and Micah laugh]
Selina: Yes. [laughs]
Andrew: Oh, that's a spoiler.
Eric: I know that's not a laughing matter, but wow.
Andrew: You know, she did address Harry Potter and going back to it, and that made headlines more than anything else this week, in terms of all the interviews that she did. She said that Harry, Ron, and Hermione's story is definitely over, but, quote, "Maybe I'll go back and do a director's cut." And this was said to the BBC. She - because she admitted that two of the books - she was talking in regards to two of the books in the Harry Potter series that she would go back and change. Now, in the article on Hypable, Richard speculated it's Chamber of Secrets and Half-Blood Prince, but I seem to remember her saying that Goblet of Fire was the one she...
Andrew: ...was most disappointed in. So I think that would definitely be one of them.
Eric: That's one of the two. But I'm not sure...
Andrew: What do you think the other one is, then? If you could - or if you don't know the answer to that, if you could ask her to re-write one of them - and not do like a major re-write, but go through it and be like, "Oh, let's change this. Let's speed this up. Let's slow this down. Let's add this." Which book do you think...
Micah: Well, wasn't it that there were parts of Chamber of Secrets and Half-Blood Prince she had toyed with switching at one point?
Andrew: Yeah, yeah.
Micah: But I...
Andrew: Related to the Horcrux, right?
Andrew: It had to be.
Micah: But I would almost say Order of the Phoenix.
Micah: There's probably parts of that that she could have done more with.
Andrew: Well, I mean, I could see that being one of the books, because that was in the prime "deadline, deadline, deadline." She was working under a tight deadline to get Goblet of Fire out, back in 2000, I remember, and that really...
Eric: Right, she said never again, and she took three years to write Order.
Andrew: Oh right.
Eric: But I think though - honestly, I think "5" is the one that a lot of us would say needs the most editing, perhaps to shorten it. Because there are quite a lot of things, like even the St. Mungo's chapter, that don't have a whole lot of relevance in the later books at all. Maybe she would change the other books to include some relevance to the other things that are in Order of the Phoenix. Or maybe not. Maybe she would just make "5" shorter.
Micah: I want to know what was easier to write. Was Potter just by nature easier for her to put a pen to paper or type in on a computer, versus The Casual Vacancy?
Andrew: You should ask her in New York City.
Micah: Did she struggle writing this book?
Andrew: Mhm. So, in regards to writing stuff outside of Harry, Ron, and Hermione's story, she said, "Now, if I had a fabulous idea that came out of that world - because I loved writing it - I would do it. But I've got to have a great idea. I don't want to go mechanically back into that world and pick up a load of odds and ends, and glue them together and say, 'Here we go, we can sell this.'" So, she just wants to be really motivated by an idea, and then she'll run with it.
Micah: Maybe by the reviews of The Casual Vacancy.
Andrew: [laughs forcibly] Yeah, I mean...
Micah: Just joking.
Andrew: Well no, you could be on to something there. If she writes another adult book and it kind of bombs - I'm not saying The Casual Vacancy bombs, but if it doesn't do that well - because she won't be able to say, "Oh hey, everybody. Look, it's my first book since Harry Potter. Buy, buy, buy!" I think this...
Eric: [singing] "Bye, bye, bye."
Andrew: She may get humbled and more appreciative of the Harry Potter world again, and be like, "Okay, it's time to go back into it."
Selina: I would hope so, or at least be appreciative of who her fan base is. And I'm not saying that she can't write stuff like this, but I'm saying if this gets bad reviews, it's not because it's a bad book, it's because the wrong people are reading it, and that's because we haven't been - I mean, you have to - she's J.K. Rowling. You have to expect, even though she could hope that we'd all be like, "La la la, it's not Harry Potter, let's all read it and enjoy it," that's not necessarily going to happen, you know?
Eric: Yeah. I think part of it has to do with her being such a private person. She has a Twitter that she never uses. She has this access to all of us. She really could have warned us a little bit clearer, I think, that this book...
Eric: ...was not - and not only that it wasn't Harry Potter but that it would be - again, I find this book very artful, but I think that a lot of the people, as you said, are reading it - aren't looking for its merits, so looking for it to be a Harry Potter book, and it's - it couldn't be further from a Harry Potter book, and I think a lot of people - I think they're being wronged because it wasn't - they weren't warned enough, and I think - I'm surprised that Jo was able to turn out a book of this length. None of us knew she was even writing it until several months ago. And look, it's not our business to know everything she does, but I feel like perhaps being - considering how looked up to she is by everyone who has read her books...
Micah: Yeah, but she's also had five years to put out another book. I mean, it's not like she put out one last year. Deathly Hallows is over five years ago at this point. So, we would expect that whatever was going to be released by her next was going to be substantial and going to hold our interest. Now, look, everybody who read Potter is not going to jump onto this book and say it's the greatest thing that's ever been written, or that they really like it. But I do think that there is a certain level of expectation coming in because of what we've read previously.
Selina: Yeah, exactly, and that's not something that anyone can help, no matter if some people might say, oh, well, it's your own fault for - we're not expecting Potter, you know? We weren't expecting another Potter but we were expecting something that wasn't this. And it just keeps coming back to the fact that someone should have anticipated that this is the response, because I feel like it's gotten such a poor response from critics and from fans so far. Some people like it. Most people don't, and I feel - and people feel so let down, and that was always going to happen, but I feel like someone could have done something to avoid that, because I feel bad for Jo...
Eric: Lev Grossman really liked it. The only review I've read is Lev Grossman's review and he really found it to be very riveting.
Andrew: On Goodreads, which is a...
Micah: But he's a Potter fan.
Andrew: [laughs] On Goodreads...
Eric: Yeah. Well, he is.
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