Life after Harry

JENNIFER BYRNE,
Last updated 05:00 29/09/2012

J.K. Rowling speaks about making her first foray into adult fiction with the release of her new novel "The Casual Vacancy". Sarah Charlton reports.

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She arrives early and unannounced, a lick of elegant cream wool with pale skin, blonde hair. Skyscraper heels the colour of champagne. The one splash of colour, tucked under J K Rowling's arm, is the cover of her new novel, The Casual Vacancy - still, when we met in Edinburgh last month, the biggest secret and hottest property in publishing.

Briefly eclipsed by those shiny, killer shoes. I mean, can she ... Joanne Rowling laughs and gives an are-you-crazy look. "Of course not - they're impossible to walk in - but I only need to get from the car to the front door without falling over."

So we sit, for her first interview in the calm before the storm of release, in the front room of what's casually described as Jo Rowling's office, though it's actually an entire Georgian terrace: the house that Harry built.

Visible evidence of the dramatic changes in Rowling's life since those days as a single mum in a cafe when all she hoped, after 11 rejections, was that publisher number 12 might see some merit in a book about a boy wizard.

She rather overshot her goal. The Harry Potter series has dug so deep into the imagination of a generation that for decades, as Christopher Hitchens put it, "there will still be millions of adults who recall their initiation to literature as a little touch of Harry in the night".

It is one of the great joys of Rowling's life. She has a grateful but still uneasy relationship with the money and the fame: "I feel like I crawl out of my hole like some badger in the daylight and people say, 'That's [her].' I think, 'Blimey, what's happened?'

"But those young readers who dressed up and queued in the bookstores, that was unexpected and astounding.

"As a total bibliophile, someone for whom reading is the stuff of life, there could be nothing better than to hear that someone came to books through Harry."

She has moved on now, publishing her first book for adults - some of whom may be those same youngsters who painted lightning scars on their foreheads.

They're marketing The Casual Vacancy as a black comedy - though the author thinks comic tragedy might be closer. It explores the lives and loves, factions and feuds that bubble to the surface of a small cobbled town when a local councillor suddenly dies and a replacement needs to be elected. Seven families, a complex plot and a jolting, tragic fall.

Not a skerrick of magic. It is a bold move, both professionally and in the Yes Minister meaning of the phrase. The screaming, obvious question: why would J K Rowling take the risk? When she's hit the jackpot once, achieved success and vast wealth, why put herself through it? She clearly doesn't need to.

"Well, that's true. I don't need to if we're talking about financial need," she says. It's a theme Rowling often returns to, the unexpectedness and sheer outrageous size of her own gains. The problem being that people often confuse the outcome (becoming the world's first self-made billionaire author) with the intent (to be a writer). Which is 47-year-old Rowling's core need.

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"I have to write, I have to write. I just have to write." It was all she wanted to do, ever. From the age of six, reading out stories she'd written about a rabbit called Rabbit (her imagination not yet in full flower, she agrees) to her younger sister, Dianne. Even earlier, before the words added up, lying on the floor on her stomach with a comic, carefully tracing out the letters.

Taking satisfaction from the simple physical act of writing. Perhaps there's a gene, she doesn't know, and young Jo always kept her ambitions quiet, going through random career possibilities with her parents: " 'Yeah, I'd like to do that.' And all the time thinking, 'I'm just going to be a writer'. I'm sure, I know, I never wanted to do anything else."

The tougher and better question, she says, is why is she publishing - and under her own name. The answer is precisely to do with her windfall wealth, being in the glorious position of not having to pay the rent and therefore free to try and possibly fail. Working on the new book, "I felt so free because I remember thinking, 'You don't have to publish this, no one knows you're doing it, if you don't want to publish or you decide halfway through it's not working'. That's a wonderful place to be in."

She changed publishers with The Casual Vacancy and this was key to the deal: she would promise to keep writing and producing, if they would promise her the freedom she wanted - "which also means freedom to fall flat on your face".

She would prefer not to. Rowling values her audience, she wants to be read. But she knows The Casual Vacancy is a challenge: contemporary, explicit and resolutely unmagical. "I am choosing here to write about some quite contentious subjects ... I'm dealing with issues that people have very strong views about. So I will not be surprised if this book causes ... Is 'upset' too strong a word? But in some cases maybe it will."

The book has only been out two days; too few people will have had the chance to try it themselves for me to say too much about those "issues" and "contentious subjects". But having read it - in supervised isolation, and only after signing a number of tight confidentiality agreements - I think "upset" is unlikely to prove too strong a word. Astonishment might be in there, too. And respect for her courage. It is categorically unlike anything Rowling has written before.

It was on a delayed train from Manchester to London that, famously, 25-year-old Rowling got the idea for Harry Potter. It arrived fully formed, including the ending of book seven.

Clearly she has a thing for public transport, because this time she was on an aeroplane. Rowling was on a publicity tour around the United States in 2008, coinciding with the closing months of Barack Obama's first campaign for the presidency, and though she can't remember exactly what she was thinking at that lightbulb moment, it had to do with politics and electioneering.

Then came the excitement, the shot of adrenaline that is her physical response to a good idea. "It's never let me down, never once." What triggered the rush was a local election, in the smallest level of government in Britain, the parish council.

Which sounds dull, but she insists isn't. It's the perfect way to examine a very small community, a tight-knit group. "I love the sort of 19th-century novel by the likes of [Elizabeth] Gaskell and [Anthony] Trollope; the small, literally parochial society in which you get to know the characters very well, you're able to go into their inner lives." She then discovered the phrase "the casual vacancy" in something called Local Council Administration by Charles Arnold-Baker. Oh dear. "I could bore for Scotland on this subject," she concedes. But she instantly knew she'd found her title. A casual vacancy is triggered by a death - and death,mortality, is a Rowling obsession.

"I remember when my mother died, you feel as though a golden staircase should come down from heaven. There should have been a fanfare. This huge thing happens in your life - and it's no, they're just gone. Gone like that. Casual vacancy, casually gone."

The other reason the phrase spoke to her was that it summed up the spaces, the lacks, the emptiness in everyone's lives. Everyone's. "People may be surprised to hear me say that. But I hate that trite phrase 'having it all'. No one's got it all, no one in this world." Her characters, like real people, try to fill their lacks and longings - with drugs and bad relationships, with food, drink or bad behaviour.

"Again, there seemed to be another casual vacancy. The spaces in our lives we take for granted." One thing Rowling knows for sure: her new book will never challenge Harry in the popularity stakes. Its first print run of two million hardbacks is phenomenal by normal standards, but a drop in the bucket compared to sales of 12 million for The Deathly Hallows. The fastest-selling book ever, until ... "Fifty Shades of Grey. Hmm," Rowling nods. She hasn't read it. But, feigning regret, "Think how many books I could have sold if Harry had been more creative with his wand." The triumph came with costs, though. Pressure. Exhaustion. Not counting the time she spent writing and struggling to find a publisher. Rowling produced nine books in 10 years (the seven in the series, and two to raise money for the charity Comic Relief), as well as having two babies. "I was knackered for years, years, years," she remembers.

She wrote the last part of Deathly Hallows in a hotel. "I finished it. Bawled my eyes out. Went to the minibar. Had one of those pathetic half bottles of champagne - it's not very rock'n'roll, that - and downed it. Went home covered in mascara and a little bit drunk." Why was she crying? "Just because it was so huge. I mean, any writer finishing a book will know what I mean when I say you've lived a parallel existence and suddenly the door closes, it's over. But for me it was 17 years. Seventeen years. I was writing Harry Potter the night my mother died. It was a connection to a very different time of my life.

"I sat in that hotel room drinking champagne, sobbing my eyes out, remembering how I finished [the first] book in a flat which had been furnished with old furniture people had given me. I was skint. All of this flashes through your mind, and there I was in a very nice hotel room finishing the book and I could afford to work that way. It was incredibly emotional."

Even if the books had never made a penny, she says writing Philosopher's Stone saved her sanity. "I was very depressed at one point and it lifted me, it raised me up, it gave me something to do in the evenings that was healthy and gave me focus." Rowling was never quite as aloof or unavailable as her reputation suggests and you can find images of her during these dark days.

Or rather, not long afterwards, in the late '90s - after her big US deal was signed, she'd been sold into five countries and was thrilled about the idea of saying, "I'm big in Finland." She'd received the first calls from directors and thought, yes, maybe the book could be turned into a good film.

There are pictures of her in a duffle coat queuing for coffee in the famous cafe - Nicholson's, it was called then. She looks intense, excited, with a tumble of auburn hair. Not unrecognisable but wildly different from the groomed figure of today. Her adored mother, Anne, had succumbed to multiple sclerosis some years earlier, at the shatteringly early age of 45.

She'd been diagnosed with the disease when Rowling was 15 and spent her final years in a wheelchair, using a walking frame at home. Rowling has said it's the greatest regret of her life that she started writing Harry Potter six months before her mother's death but never told her about it.

This is the grit in J K Rowling's rags-to-riches story, her creation myth. She's sometimes expressed irritation, frustration, at the way the story has been packaged and tied up with a bow - not because it's not all true, but because "it wasn't a fairy tale. Or if it was, it was one written by the Grimm Brothers.

It was hard". And it was so unexpected. She'd grown up in a middle-class family, got a good tertiary degree, worked as a teacher and for charity. But she went travelling after her mother's death, and, after a brief, disastrous marriage to a Portuguese journalist, found herself a single mother, far away from everything she knew.

She moved to Edinburgh, because that's where her sister lived. "Edinburgh knows how much I love it now, so won't mind, I'm sure, me saying for the first year I kept thinking of moving to London." Most of her old friends were there but she has Scottish blood and the reserve of Edinburgh people appealed to her. And it wouldn't have been much easier anywhere else she went.

"First question people ask: 'What do you do?' I had no answer that anyone wanted to hear for a few years there." In 2008, at the height of her Potter triumph, J K Rowling was invited to Harvard University to give the annual commencement speech.

She was terrified - "I used to be almost phobic about public speaking" - but accepted because she genuinely believed it would have helped her, at the same age, to have heard what she was going to say. Her subject was failure.

"A mere seven years after my own graduation, I had failed on an epic scale," Rowling told the assembled students, parents and faculty members of this institution dedicated to success. "I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless ... I had no idea how far the tunnel extended." But, she went on, it was failure that set her free. Her greatest fear had been realised. She was still alive and still had a daughter she loved. Plus "I had an old typewriter and a big idea".

That's the stirring bit and you can see the delight lighting up the faces of the audience. The tougher truth - and this was my biggest surprise the day I met Rowling - was that she's left none of it behind. It's not that she's gracious about being a rich, best-selling author. It's that she scarcely believes it herself.

"It was so unexpected to make this amount of money. It was through the looking glass. Never in a million years ... " She runs short of ways to express the sheer unlikeliness of what happened to her. "I kept thinking, 'Don't blow it, don't do something stupid.' Because I know what it's like when you lose it ... I never travel first class without thinking, 'Oh my God, how did this happen?' " Which scarcely squares with the reality of being one of the world's best-selling authors. "It just doesn't matter. All of that seems very unreal to me."

Rowling appreciates people may find it difficult to understand, may even disbelieve her. "So be it. I can only tell the truth and the truth is that to the day I die I will not see myself the way many people see me now. Inside, I know I'm so grateful for what happened financially. But I'll never be used to it, I'll never take it for granted. And some part of me finds it quite hard to accept." Plucking a phrase from P G Wodehouse from her memory, she says it's always when you think you're on top of the world, that 'Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove'. So her success still feels fragile? "Yes, I suppose it does, really. I suppose it does."

It's that difficult past she's drawn on to write The Casual Vacancy. The characters in the book range in age from 16 to 60, though the most vivid - providing the central tragedy of the book - belong to a family called the Weedons.

A single mother with a serious heroin addiction, her 16-year-old daughter, Krystal, and much younger son, Robbie, aged 3 1/2. Children at acute risk. "You could distil the meaning of the book into, 'What do we do about Krystal?' Really that is at the heart of the book. What do you do about a girl living as she has to live, in a house that's a frightening place. She's not being parented. She's virtually uneducated by most people's standards. What do we do? What do we do about someone like that?"

Essentially, they are people at rock bottom. A place Rowling knows. They are fictional characters, she says, not portraits of anyone living. But she has known people like everyone in the book. "I have lived in places where those people are to be met, I have taught in schools where there are children living those kind of lives. And I have to say I went to a school where there were people living those lives."

So while there is comedy - "in life there's comedy in even the blackest places, and so some of the book is funny" - there's also great emotion, including anger. At the reluctance of some in the middle-class to look at distress right under their noses. At the way the poor can be stigmatised as a faceless lump.

"Not all the media, not all politicians, but a huge swath of both discuss the poor just as this large, homogenous mass. "I know how it feels to be discussed in that way. I know exactly how it feels. Clearly, I was an intelligent middle-class person who had fallen through a crack ... Just as much as I never expected to find myself here, I never expected to find myself living from benefit cheque to benefit cheque. I hadn't factored that in at all."

She also drew on the experience of her husband, Neil Murray, a doctor who until recently worked in an addiction clinic. Some things he told her were difficult to hear. Yet she loved these characters, loved writing the book as much as she loved writing Harry.

She wants people to know that. "I'm sure some readers will be very shocked to hear that when they've read the book." Some will really get it and like it, she thinks; others will be completely thrown because it's so not what they expected. As for the critics, well, given her experiences, a bad review isn't going to wreck her life.

Edinburgh feels like a great place to live. Physically beautiful, authentically old, dominated by a huge dark castle where the benighted Mary, Queen of Scots, gave birth to her son and future king, James. Rowling used to live in writers' central, Merchiston, where neighbours included Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith.

The three met regularly for morning coffee at the local Starbucks. She's moved north to a bigger house now and recently won planning approval to build a pair of large two-storey tree houses (of distinctly magical, Hogwarts-like design) in the backyard for her children. She talks about the Scots' inbuilt sense of privacy but, last I looked, there were more than 300 news stories on the subject.

The benchmark, she says, is whether you can still go to the post office without causing a scene. And she does. She gets asked for autographs and photographs, but "it's not terrible, I'm not a film star". And what's so bad, I guess, about someone coming up to you in Tesco and saying, "I love your work?" "Depends what you're buying in Tesco," she says wryly.

"There seems to be a kind of rule that the moment you pick up the toilet roll someone is going to ask for an autograph." She connected with her doctor husband through her sister, Dianne, who'd been at her for two years to meet Neil. She kept saying no; she doesn't really know why. Except he'd been married before and she thought it was too soon, that neither of them was probably in a great situation. Then they sat next to each other at a charity ball.

"I just really liked him. It's such a cliche, a women's magazine cliche, 'when you're not looking' blah blah blah. But in fact it was completely true." He wasn't hip to Harry, hadn't read any of the books. But they got on like a house on fire, she says. They married in 2001.

Writing aside, she's very much a mum now, to 19-year-old Jessica and her two children with Murray, youngsters David, 9, and Mackenzie, 7. She's halfway through reading them Harry Potter, though she's the first to admit that Stephen Fry's narration is better.

She cooks (bread-and-butter pudding, her top dish), takes great family holidays, reads. There's her charity organisation, the Volant Trust, named after her mother, concerned generally with social deprivation and its consequences, specifically with women and children's charities. Rowling gives so much away she recently fell out of the billionaires' club and off the Forbes magazine rich list. Like she cares.

"How much do you need? Honestly, how much?" she says. "There comes a point where if you're not giving money away, dear God alive, what are you going to do with it? Be buried with it?" As for her children, the plan is to leave enough to ensure they will never have to be where she once was - unless they do something very stupid.

"But I would hope all three of my children would work because I think self-respect lies that way." While on money, I mention her apparently genius decision to withhold electronic rights to the Potter books. The e-books are now available on her own Pottermore website, which reportedly made US$5 million in the first month it was up. So she's a sharp businesswoman then?

Rowling laughs so hard she almost chokes. All credit belongs to her then-agent, Christopher Little. "I didn't even know there was such a thing as electronic rights. Really, we can dismantle that little myth in a heartbeat. I would say I am not a bad businesswoman but a very bad businesswoman. I have common sense, but the entrepreneurial streak is not in me." Curious, then, that she recently left Little, who'd been with her from the start, backing her when no one else would, which, for someone known for her loyalty, sounds like a shabby decision.

Not shabby, difficult, she says. The man she went with, Neil Blair, represented her for a long time within the Little agency. The two split. It was not a split she caused, or wanted, but she had to make a call, and believes it was the right one.

She also left her Potter publisher, Bloomsbury, and signed the new book to the charismatic David Shelley at rival Little, Brown - a defection that reverberated like a thunder-clap in the small world of London publishing. Rowling is matter-of-fact about it. Her key relationships were within Bloomsbury's children's book department; she was now moving into the adult zone.

"You can imagine, when you get a success like Harry, everyone wants you. I stayed with Bloomsbury to the end of the series and I feel good and clean about that." In a sense, of course, Rowling doesn't need a paper-and-bricks publisher at all. She could sell direct to the market on the strength of her name and 450 million books already out there, something she's well aware of. "But you know, I'm old school ... I really value what a traditional publisher does."

Plus, this is the start of a new phase of her career. There will be more adult books. She writes most days and has "quite a lot" of unfinished manuscripts in a drawer at home, including some written during the past five years between working on The Casual Vacancy. Her next project will "very likely" be for children. But very unlikely another Harry.

She'll never shut the door entirely; if she had a great idea for an eighth book ... but she doubts it. She created Harry, he rebirthed her; "I think I've wrapped his story up."

As we wrap up ourselves, Rowling's daughter Jessica bowls through the door in a black uni hoodie. This was the baby in the cafe, now grown and jazzed about the demonstration outside in support of the Russian punk trio Pussy Riot, sentenced to jail for disrespecting President Vladimir Putin. She joined in the chanting; "Could we hear?" Yes indeed, we were talking and the sound briefly drowned her mother out.

They both look pleased and bump fists. Then Jo Rowling kicks off her shoes and runs around barefoot, getting her daughter lunch.

- Stuff

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