Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by J.K. Rowling
896 pages, 2003
Read a review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
When J.K. Rowling began writing the novel that would become Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in the early 1990s, she didn't see fame in her own crystal ball. "I thought I'd written something that a handful of people might quite like," she said at a press conference near the end of her recent North American tour. "So this has been something of a shock."
The "this" she speaks of is the sudden and almost overwhelming fame that has accompanied the unprecedented success of her Harry Potter series of books. The sort of fame western society generally reserves for rock stars and well known actors, not ever -- until now -- for authors of books for children.
Joanne Kathleen Rowling was born on July 31, 1966 in a town in England called Chipping Sodbury. At present, she lives in Edinburgh, Scotland with her daughter Jessica, now age seven.
The level of fame she has achieved is not of her creation and, on hearing her speak, not to her desire. She says that she's still learning to deal with it. "I'd say for the first two years of me being in the paper -- I didn't call myself famous. I didn't think of myself that way -- but for the first two years, I think I was in denial. I kept thinking it would go away. It will go away."
Denial, however, wasn't getting her anywhere, nor, she says now, was it very productive for her. "By the time of the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban," which came out around the time that Harry Potter made the cover of Time magazine, "I had to accept that it probably wasn't going to go away any time soon. And that's probably a healthier place to be. I mean, it will. At some point it's going to go away. That's the nature of the game. And I truly believe that I will be happy. And I will have fond memories of the time that I was famous."
Meanwhile, one of the positives of not being an onscreen celebrity is that she's not often recognized in public when going about her everyday business, something that has likely been helped by coloring the bright red hair that her readers first came to associate with Harry Potter's creator, a more subdued dark blonde.
"People ask if I can walk down the street unmolested. Really easily. In Edinburgh it's really exceptional for people to come up to me. So either people in Edinburgh are really cool and pretend not to notice or want to leave you alone, or they genuinely don't notice me. And I think probably that. So compared to an actress or a politician, I really get nothing. It's just that to me it's a huge shock because I didn't expect to get anything at all."
The fame that Harry has brought Rowling has made the normal level of interaction between the author and her readers almost impossible. First there's the press conference: very few authors have such pressing demands from the media that they're even required. Then there are the readings. A very popular author might draw several hundred fans to a well-promoted reading or signing. Rowling's level of popularity makes bookstore readings practically unthinkable. So unthinkable, in fact, that on the Canadian portion of her tour, Rowling did only three readings: one in Toronto and two in Vancouver and all in venues generally reserved for sporting events and rock concerts. Rowling acknowledges that she was nervous before the first one and that her reading at Toronto's Skydome, "terrified me. I was terrified. I had to walk up three steps before I got on the stage. I felt like I was walking to the guillotine. Then when I was out there it was wonderful. Still scary, but wonderful."
Though reading to 16,000 adoring youngsters while a larger-than-lifesize image of yourself is projected behind you on a jumbo monitor is quite different than reading to a school group of 30 or even a few hundred, Rowling believes that "a reading still can be a very intimate experience even if a lot of people are there. However, undeniably I can't have as much one-to-one contact."
Demands on her schedule prohibit the former these days. "It's a battle for me. My post bag, as you can imagine, is full with thousands and thousands and thousands of requests to do readings in bookstores, to do signings in small bookstores and to visit schools individually and I used to do that and it was the most fun I had apart from the writing. But if I did do it that way now I'd never see my daughter, I'd never write another book and probably wouldn't eat or sleep, so I have to cut my cloth. I can either say, I won't do readings anymore, which I would really miss. Or I can do big readings and reach a lot of people at once. And that's the way I've chosen to go. Next year I probably won't be doing any readings. I just want to be writing. So, in a way, the Skydome was just one big bang."
Though the Harry Potter series of books continue to top lists wherever they're made and to outsell almost anything previously written, Rowling has disallowed any of this to give itself texture in her writing. "I think I've been lucky in that I planned the series so long ago that it's almost set in stone: not much can affect it. I'm still writing from the plan I had in 1995."
Her original plan to write a set number of books in the Harry Potter series is the thing that has kept her on course. "I want to finish these seven books and look back and think that whatever happened -- however much this hurricane whirled around me -- I stayed true to what I wanted to write. This is my Holy Grail: that when I finish writing book seven, I can say -- hand on heart -- I didn't change a thing. I wrote the story I meant to write. If I lost readers along the way, so be it, but I still told my story. The one I wanted. Without permitting it to sound too corny, that's what I owe to my characters. That we won't be deflected, either by adoration or by criticism."
Though the seeds of Harry had been sown as early as 1990, Rowling didn't put all of the pieces together and start writing in earnest until the mid-1990s when she was living in Edinburgh, Scotland, raising her daughter, Jessica, alone. Not able to afford even a used typewriter -- let alone a computer -- Rowling wrote the earliest drafts of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in longhand. "I knew I wanted to get published. And, in truth, writing novels is something you have to believe in to keep going. It's a fairly thankless job when no one is paying you to do it. And you don't really know if it's ever going to get into the bookshops so I really did believe in it. But I was also very realistic. I knew the odds were not on my side because, an unknown author, you know? It's tough. It's tough the first time to get published, so I persevered. I loved writing it and I felt that I just had to try."
The author has encouragement for others who would follow her path. "My feeling is, if you really want to do it, you will do it. You will find the time. And it might not be much time, but you'll make it. Obviously if you have homework or other activities, you're not going to have huge amounts of time but if you really want to, you'll do it."
At the same time, she advises, don't expect it to be perfect the first time. "You have to resign yourself to wasting lots of trees before you write anything really good. That's just how it is. It's like learning an instrument. You've got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot. That's just part of the learning process. And read a lot. Reading a lot really helps. Read anything you can get your hands on."
About her own writing, Rowling says that, in some ways, she just writes what she sees in her mind. "I have a very visual imagination. I see a situation and then I try to describe it as vividly as I can. And I do love writing dialog. Dialog comes to me as though I'm just overhearing a conversation."
The author maintains that she's not really surprised by the fact that adults enjoy her books as much as children do. "When I write the books, I really do write them for me. Very often I get asked, 'Who do you have in mind when you write? Is it your daughter or is it the children you've met?' No. It's for me. Just for me. I'm very selfish: I just write for me. So the humor in the books is really what I find funny."
It's perhaps not surprising that adults often ask Rowling for the secret formula of her success. "I've never analyzed it that way and I think it would be dangerous for me to start analyzing it or thinking that way. I don't want it to stop being fun and -- number two -- I'm not sure I know," after all, she adds, "the correct people to ask are the readers."
Harry was born "almost fully formed," says Rowling. "I didn't have to stop and think very hard about my hero." It's for this reason, the author says, that the star quidditch player of Hogwarts "isn't a Harriet instead of Harry." She laughs when she adds that, "by the time I stopped to wonder, 'Why is it a boy?' it really was too late. He was very dear to me as a boy and, of course, I had Hermione and I love Hermione. And they couldn't do it without Hermione. Well, I feel she's a very strong character, but then she's based on me."
As a child, Rowling was, "short, squat, very thick National Health glasses -- free glasses that were like bottle bottoms -- that's why Harry wears glasses. I was shy. I was a mixture of insecurities and very bossy. Very bossy to my sister but quite quiet with strangers. Very bookish. Terrible at school. That whole thing about Harry being able to fly so well is probably total wish fulfillment." Rowling adds that she would have loved to discover that she could do something physical really well. And she was, "never happier than when reading or writing." Rowling, "wanted to be a ballerina at one brief point, which is embarrassing in retrospect because I was virtually spherical."
The film version of the first Harry Potter book recently went into production. Slated for release in 2001, it's being directed by Chris Columbus who also worked on Bicentennial Man, Stepmom and other films of the warmly funny persuasion. Rowling had initially balked at the possibility of a movie based on her books. It wasn't until about two years after she'd first been approached about a film version that she finally said yes. "Because I really did want the books to be well established before anyone made a film version. But selfishly, I did want to live to see the film finished because I just want to be able to watch quidditch," the soccer-like game played on magical flying brooms at which Harry is quite adept.
Though they've only just started shooting, Rowling is excited about the film project and, "my opinion has been asked about all sorts of things where I really didn't think I'd ever be consulted. I'm grateful for that, obviously. But I'm also very aware that that's not anything to do with me, it's really to do with the readers. I think they see me as standing in front of about a million children wanting to see it done my way. So that's what gives me any power I have. I have script approval and as of the present moment the script looks great."
Rowling is optimistic that the movie version will be true to her book. "I mean, if everything that was in the book were in the film -- we worked it out -- it would be over three hours long. Goodness only knows what will happen if they try to film [book] four." Because that book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is over 600 pages long.
The author says that, "when I met the scriptwriter for the first time, he was the person I was most antagonistic towards without having met him because, you know, he was going to butcher my baby. And the first thing he said to me was, 'Do you know who my favorite character is?' and I really, really thought he was going to say Ron. I mean, I love Ron, but Ron's very, very easy to love: everyone loves Ron. And I got tense about it. And he said, 'Hermione' and -- predictably, I melted. I thought, 'If you get Hermione we can work together.'"
Throughout the nearly incredible rise to popularity of the Harry Potter books, Rowling has been asked if she was aware of being part of a crusade for reading and literacy. She denies it, but not without some pride. "I wrote the book for me. I never expected it to do this. That it's done it I think is wonderful. If I can honestly think that I've created some readers then I feel I really wasn't taking up space on this earth and I feel very, very, very proud. But I didn't set out to do that and my first loyalty, as I say, is to the story as I wanted to write it." | October 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.
See a bibliography of J.K. Rowling's books --->