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Deathly Hallows Info | MN/TLC Interview with J.K. Rowling
How does she react to those who disagree with a homosexual character in a children's novel? "So what?" she retorts immediately "It is a very interesting question because I think homophobia is a fear of people loving, more than it is of the sexual act. There seems to be an innate distaste for the love involved, which I find absolutely extraordinary. There were people who thought, well why haven't we seen Dumbledore's angst about being gay?" Rowling is clearly amused by this and rightly so. "Where was that going to come in? And then the other thing was-and I had letters saying this-that, as a gay man, he would never be safe to teach in a school."
An air of incredulity descends on the room as if Rowling herself still can not believe this statement. She continues: "He's a very old single man. You have to ask: why is it so interesting? People have to examine their own attitudes. It's a shade of character. Is it the most important thing about him? No, it's Dumbledore for God's sake. There are 20 things that are relavant to the story before his sexuality." Bottom line then: he isn't a gay character; he's a character that just happens to be gay. Rowling concurs wholeheartedly.
EDIT: We now have a full text version of the interview below:
Minister of Magic
Adeel Amini delves into JK Rowling’s chamber of secrets
Student, 2008 March 4
It’s difficult not to love a city where you can bump into JK Rowling in a centrally-located coffee shop, politely ask for an interview, and four agonising months later have a private audience with arguably the most famous author in the world.
“Please don’t call it that,” she insists, with a modesty that seems slightly suspect at first. I might argue with her considering the multiple awards, infamous fortune, and sales north of 400 million worldwide, but think better than to anger a personality already alleged to have an inherent dislike for interviews. Instead I introduce her to a friend who, primarily to avoid the ire just mentioned, serves as an adequate cloak with her swot-like knowledge for my complete ignorance of all things Potter (a Muggle, I believe the term is).
But this isn’t about Harry, not entirely. This is about the woman that his risen to the pinnacle of modern literature in the last decade, certainly in terms of sales and stardom. The final Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was released in July 2007 and was labelled the most valuable manuscript in history. All that time without the little wizard – does she miss him at all? “Yes,” she says, after slight hesitation. “But it’s getting better. Immediately after finishing obviously we were going through the editing process so I was still working on it. It wasn’t an abrupt end, and it really hit me on my birthday, which is the last day in July,” which Potter fans will know she shares with her hero, “and it hit me like a demolition ball at that point.
“I’d been preparing for it for so long. For the last three months of writing the seventh book, I did have a constant and ever-present sense that this was it. This was the end. It was an ending that I’d planned for so long, and that I’d looked forward to writing for so long. So it really was split down the middle: half elation, and half a sense of desolation. And then we went through the editing process and then obviously you get the publication and then ten days later what hit me was, I can’t go in that world any more. It’s gone.”
It is hard to ignore the beguiling articulacy with which Rowling utters every sentence, befitting an author of her stature. Undoubtedly it stems from this genuine, and plainly visible, passion for the books, the characters, the world that they all come from; from this transparency of emotion, you immediately realise that this certainly was not a money-spinning escapade written to fill her coffers. Surely, in that case, you couldn’t say that she’d never go back to such an important part of her life?
“Well, no, you couldn’t,” she laughs. “No one can possibly understand. It’s quite an isolating feeling because of course there are many writers who have written within a certain world but mine was 17 years. And it was 17 years that contained a lot of turbulence in my life; Harry was my constant. This was the thing that was always there, it was like a fantastic relationship that was my centre… It was gone. And it was huge,” she laments, as if still in mourning.
We change tack slightly and talk about the recent ITV documentary that aired around Christmas 2007. The film, supposedly the most definitive account of Rowling’s life thus far, followed a year of her life with surprising melancholy, complete with some very personal revelations. One such admission was the understandable discomfort Rowling felt when fans and paparazzi began to follow her every move. At this stage in her life, then, almost a year on from the publication of the final book, what does she miss more – Harry Potter or her anonymity? There is a pause before she answers. “That’s an excellent question. No one’s ever asked me that.” Take that, ITV.
I prod her some more, saying it must be quite hard having strange student journalists coming up to her in Starbucks and asking for an interview… “Truthfully, it’s gone up and down,” she admits at last. “There are definitely moments in the ten years that I was being published that I would have given almost anything to have the anonymity back, but those were bad times and they never actually had anything to do with people coming up to me in Starbucks. Because people coming up to me in Starbucks are always charming. Always.”
I cannot help but scoff, partly in disbelief but also to vainly steer the conversation away from any crass endorsement of a coffee conglomerate. “It’s true, it’s true!” Rowling protests. “You know, as far back as I can remember… I wouldn’t need all the fingers of one hand to think of anyone who’s ever approached me who has been in any way rude – I’m setting aside the eBayers, they’re very aggressive but that’s not about being a fan, that’s about making as much money as possible so they can be quite scary – but there were times when I would have given anything to have the anonymity back. I felt under siege at certain times. I never expected journalists to come and bang on my front door. There was a perion in the middle where it was very stressful.”
At the risk of sounding pushy and insensitive, I insist on an answer to my earlier question. “Right now I miss Harry more,” she declares. “I do. I miss him as a character, but the interesting thing is he was never the most popular character in the books. In fact there was a poll a while ago and something like 2% of readers said that Harry was their favourite character. There are much more obvious characters to love: Hagrid, Ron, everyone loves Ron. I mean, who doesn’t like Ron…” she laughs, in an indefinable half-woman, half-schoolgirl-giggle way that pops up throughout our conversation.
I wonder if she had read any of her own books again, given their international renown. “The only one I’ve gone back and re-read since publication is the seventh book, which is my favourite.” Rowling had apparently planned the ending very early on, shortly after the genesis of the entire series. “Yes, that’s the point to which I was working for 17 years so of course it was going to be a big cathartic experience and I’d given a lot of thought to it. But also it was immensely liberating not to be writing a school story any more, just to get them out of Hogwarts, even though I love Hogwarts. You probably could squeeze a good few more stories out of Hogwarts, there’s so much there but the constraints that a school timetable places upon your characters are huge. And never having to write another Quidditch match,” she laughs. “The thing that will keep me away from Hogwarts for the next generation is having to do blummin’ Quidditch again!”
Still, it must feel great to know that the Harry Potter books are adored by children and adults alike, that it has become a classic in a sense, and that it will be passed down for generations? “It’s an amazing feeling. Actually what you said last is the most incredible feeling.” My friendadmits that she will indeed read the books to her children, prompting a noticeable wave of unbridled joy to overcome the author. “That is the most meaningful thing to me.”
Rowling struggles for words, genuinely overcome by emotion. My earlier doubts have been fully assuaged; false modesty this certainly is not. “That is a wonderful, wonderful feeling, to think that you’ve physically – not to get too Pollyanna about it – but you’ve physically brought people of different ages, generations even, together and it’s something that everyone’s shared… there’s nothing, nothing better than that.” Saccharine as it might be, I cannot for a single second doubt that Rowling means every single word she says, such is her affecting heart-on-sleeve candour.
Moving on to a more contentious issue, Rowling has categorically said that she does believe in a higher power, a statement reinforced by her childhood church-going (“Till I was 17,” she clarifies). It must be difficult to reconcile her religious beliefs with those that denounce Harry Potter as anti-Christian, I wonder aloud. Rowling’s expression does not change a fraction. “There was a Christian commentator who said that Harry Potter had been the Christian church’s biggest missed opportunity. And I thought, there’s someone who actually has their eyes open.”
A degree of misinterpretation inevitably results from ambiguity. Doesn’t a certain section dislike Harry Potter intensely? “Oh, vehemently,” says Rowling, “and they send death threats.”
My ears prick up. Death threats? For this apparently harmless, softly-spoken doe-like individual in front of me? “Once, yeah. Well, more than once. It is comical in retrospect. I was in America, and there was a threat made against a bookstore that I was appearing at, so we had the police there.” Nevertheless she still attended, “obviously things were checked out and I’d never let children go there for a second if I thought there was any substance to it.”
Death threats notwithstanding, what has been the worst, or best, comment she’s ever received? She pauses for what seems like an eon. “Well, best… so many. I suppose any comment from a fan telling me what the books meant to them in a personal way is always amazing to her because people in their late teens-early 20s did literally grow up with Harry. He aged, they aged, and he was a big factor in their childhood which is an incredible, incredible thing for me to know.”
Rowling is almost endearingly uncomfortable in her reluctance to talk about how her work has been criticised. “I can cope with a bad review. No one loves a bad review but a useful review is one that teaches you something. But to be honest the Christian fundamentalist thing was bad. I would have been quite happy to sit there and debate with one of the critics who were taking on Harry Potter from a moral perspective.
“In a sense we have traded arguments through the media. I’ve tried to be rational about it. There’s a woman in North Carolina or Alabama who’s been trying to get the books banned – she’s a mother of four and never read them. And then – I’m not lying, and I’m not even making fun, this is the truth of what she said – quite recently she was asked [why] and she said ‘Well, I prayed about whether or not I should read them, and God told me no’.”
Rowling pauses to reflect on the weight of that statement, her expression one of utter disbelief. “You see, that is where I absolutely part company with people on that side of the fence, because that is fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is, ‘I will not open my mind to look on your side of the argument at all. I won’t read it, I won’t look at it, I’m too frightened’. That’s what’s dangerous about it, whether it be politically extreme, religiously extreme… In fact fundamentalists across all the major religions, if you put them in a room they’d have bags in common!” she laughs loudly, before sobering. “They hate all the same things, it’s such an ironic thing.”
It is heart-warming to see Rowling engage so actively in topics like this while being able to laugh openly at this point in her life. It is common knowledge that Rowling started off with nothing but a shoddy flat in Leith and a baby daughter to look after. That was 17 years ago – how does she feel she has grown as a person since then? “I’m much happier now, but not for the reasons people would expect at all.” Rowling is clearly alluding to her recent Forbes listing as the second richest woman in entertainment, second only to Oprah Winfrey. Her humility stops her from even wanting to elaborate. “I’m happier because I’m doing what I was meant to do, which I wasn’t at 25. I was an eternally insecure person at 25 so now I think I’ve probably got up to quite a healthy level. I still get extremely nervous when I have to speak in public, and it would be quite wrong to think that every time I write a page I think ‘instant bestseller’.”
Yet Rowling appears to remain calm when addressing 17,000 people for the launch of the final book. “I comforted myself with what I always comfort myself with when these kinds of things come up – I thought I might die before it happens,” her tone becomes almost apologetic, “I know this sounds morbid, it’s not intended to sound morbid, but I did think… We could all be dead, I’m not gonna stress about it until it comes. Prior to that, before speaking in public, I always used to think: ‘It can’t be worse than childbirth.’” She laughs uproariously.
If there’s one constant in both Rowling’s interviews and her work, it is this concept of morbidity, which, I cannot help but notice, she briefly covers up, defends, and then skirts over. It is no secret that Rowling suffered from depression when living in Leith before the books were published, a strong metaphor for which is found in the Harry Potter series through the Dementors. We discuss the wide documentation of the fact that depression is on the increase among young people and particularly university students these days.
“I definitely had leanings towards depression from quite an early age too,” Rowling acknowledges, “but it’s an extremely hard condition to recognise in yourself. What’s sad in a way is that the thing that made me go for help, the thing that made me face the fact that this was not a normal state that I was in, was probably my daughter, and a lot of people your age, very young adults, would not have that. She was like a touchstone in a sense, she was something that earthed me, grounded me, and I thought ‘this isn’t right, this can’t be right, she cannot grow up with me in this state’.”
Rowling talks at length about the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that proved to be her salvation. Is it something she’s recommended to others, then? “I would recommend it highly. I think it was absolutely invaluable. Well it worked for me so obviously I’m very ‘pro’ it. I think I was in counselling for nine months, I could have done longer. I probably came out of it a little bit early but…” She pauses. It all worked out for the best, I venture. “Absolutely. And it gives you strategies for thereafter. I’m worried now that you’ve said that to me about depression and I want to tell everyone that they must go and get help…!”
I argue that perhaps Rowling’s endorsement may help remove the stigma attached to the ideas of depression and counselling. “The funny thing is, I have never been remotely ashamed of having been depressed. Never. I think I’m abnormally shameless on that account, because what’s to be ashamed of? What is there to be ashamed of?” She abruptly changes topic. “I think it’s a very difficult time to be young at the moment. I worry about it, I’ve got a teenage daughter and I think that our culture at the moment is… terrified of young people. Do you not think? It really worries me. There seems to be this cultural acceptance of young people as threatening. Not everywhere, but in certain ways they’re talked about and reported.”
I cannot help but speculate what lies behind this word ‘reported’. Rowling has had numerous problems with the press in the past, and I ask her whether she believes that there is a link between what she is referring to and the Heat-magazine culture young people buy into. I bring up the topic of the recent admonition she received from the press for commenting on young girls’ body image. At once Rowling becomes more serious than she has ever been thus far. “That’s something that’s been particularly weighing on me. There are a few people I’ve written to and there are a couple of anorexics in that category.” Nevertheless, people were up in arms about her statements.
“Well, let them be,” she says defiantly. “They always are when you say something like that but, to my mind – I have to be very careful what I say here,” Rowling pauses, delicately measuring her words to avoid further trouble. “It is a fact that on websites that are pro-anorexic – and they do exist – they do use images, certain images of certain famous women as what they call ‘thinspiration’. It’s a sickness. I would argue that the body image promoted by certain sections of the fashion industry is pro-anorexic. I absolutely refuse to believe that certain women are eating and exercising normally and maintaining that body shape. I refuse to believe that.”
From one controversy to the next, it seemed inevitable that the topic of Dumbledore’s sexuality would croup up. How did Rowling deal with the fallout? “It was funny, mostly!” she exclaims. “I had always seen Dumbledore as gay, but in a sense that’s not a big deal. The book wasn’t about Dumbledore being gay. It was just that from the outset obviously I knew that he had this big, hidden secret and that he flirted with the idea of exactly what Voldemort goes on to do, he flirted with the idea of racial domination, that he was going to subjugate Muggles. So that was Dumbledore’s big secret.
“So why did he flirt with that?” she asks. “He’s an innately good man, what would make him do that? I didn’t even think it through that way, it just seemed to come to me, I thought, ‘I know why he did it. He fell in love.’ And whether they physically consummated this infatuation or not is not the issue. The issue is love. It’s not about sex. So that’s what I knew about Dumbledore. And it’s relevant only in so much as he fell in love and was made an utter fool of by love. He lost his moral compass completely when he fell in love and I think subsequently became very mistrusting of his own judgement in those matters so became quite asexual. He led a celibate and a bookish life.”
Clearly some people didn’t see it that way. How does she react to those who disagree with a homosexual character in a children’s novel? “So what?” she retorts immediately. “It is a very interesting question, because I think homophobia is a fear of people loving, more than it is of the sexual act. There seems to be an innate distaste for the love involved, which I find absolutely extraordinary. There were people who thought, well why haven’t we seen Dumbledore’s angst about being gay?” Rowling is clearly amused by this, and rightly so. “Where was that going to come in? And then the other thing was – and I had letters saying this – that, as a gay man, he would never be safe to teach in a school.”
An air of incredulity descends on the room, as if Rowling herself still cannot believe this statement. She continues: “He’s a very old single man. You have to ask: why is it so interesting? People have to examine their own attitudes. It’s a shade in a character. Is it the most important thing about him? No. It’s Dumbledore, for God’s sake. There are 20 things that are relevant to the story before his sexuality.” Bottom line, then: he isn’t a gay character; he’s a character that just happens to be gay. Rowling concurs wholeheartedly.
At this point an hour has passed – far more time than we were initially granted. I begin some quick-fire questions. though Rowling’s penchant for long, but nonetheless engaging, responses prevent them from being just that. The last thing she read, I ask? “He died tragically but it was Harry Thompson’s This Thing of Darkness. That was the last contemporary thing I read. Very, very good.”
I ask her about her next projects, one labelled a ‘political fairytale’ and the other aimed more at adults. She confesses that while the former still isn’t finished, the latter may never see the light of day at all. I try to tease out more information, even with emotional blackmail, but Rowling remains infuriatingly tight-lipped. “Sorry, I can’t, I can’t!” she laughs. “The minute I say anything, immediately my life becomes more complicated.” Understandable, given the fresh respite from the dustbin scavengers. What about the notorious Potter encyclopaedia, the new bane of her existence and the root of recent legal trouble? “Well, I am kind of working on it… I am working on it in fact. I just don’t want to have to work to a deadline, but I am slowly piecing it together.”
The final minutes of our conversation meander through various topics, somehow resting on stand-up comedy, at which point Rowling displays excitement of teenage proportions, gasping and shrieking. “I always wanted…” she begins, before addressing the dictaphone in front of her, “Can I just say on the record this is not what I’m writing… but I’ve always wanted to write a novel about a stand-up comedian. That is not what I’m writing though so if something comes out next week, that’s not me, I’m not doing it! But for ages, I had a real thing about it,” she reveals.
My time is up, despite a distinct reluctance to leave from both parties. It is at this point I announce my Muggle-dom, evoking yet more laughter from Rowling as she accuses me of “faking it” – a charge which, as tempting as it might be for pedestal-pushing British journalists, I simply cannot place on her. For all her success, for all her international renown, Rowling remains just as vulnerable and just as unassuming as anyone else, almost bewildered by the fuss around her – happier, it seems, to have family than to be earning millions. It is refreshing, to say the least, that she still roams the city in this same unpretentious manner… though given how this interview came about, I expect you might not see her in a Starbucks any time soon.
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