An edited version of the article below was originally published in the Edinburgh Student in 2008.
With the perpetual smell of hops lingering about the air and a gust strong enough to blow you down to Skegness, it’s often hard to find a half-decent reason to still be kicking around Edinburgh after a few years. But then it’s equally 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 Potter books (a Muggle, I believe the term is).
But this isn’t about Harry, not in entirety. This is about the woman that has risen to the pinnacle of modern literature in the last decade, certainly in terms of sales and stardom. Now that her multi-million pound franchise seems to be done with for the time being, what exactly has she been up to?
“Well I have been writing for a bit, although the end of last year was a bit mad. There was the America tour that I did in October and I did take some time off. Everyone keeps saying to me, ‘Oh it must be really quiet now’ but in fact it’s been quite a high pressure time – it seems like everyone who’s been not asking me to do things for ten years has done now, and it’s now come in a rush. There’s a thousand letters a week, there’s a lot of stuff to deal with at the moment.”
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 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 long pause before she answers. “That’s a very excellent question. No one’s ever asked me that.” She pauses to think once more while I revel in the briefest moment of self-satisfaction.
I prod her some more, saying it must be quite hard having strange student journalists come 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 blatant 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, what I call 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 period in the middle where it was very stressful.”
Rowling is referring to the numerous instances of media hounding and, more alarmingly, people rifling through her dustbins. “People have been through the bins, people have offered money to friends and ex-boyfriends and family members, people phone your family, they try getting into a conversation before saying ‘I’m from the Daily Mail’. Now I’m quite robust about it, I get it now. I understand what the deal is, and I’ve become hardened to it to an extent, but then I really wasn’t. I was struggling to stay afloat with what had happened to me, and all of these things felt intensely personal and invasive. I have enormous sympathy for people who are dealing with that.”
At the risk of sounding pushy and insensitive, I insist on an answer for 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…”
Is Harry her favourite? “Um, he’s up there, because he’s my hero so clearly I would. But he’s not always likeable but I think that’s right. He’s an angry person – but he would be!” she laughs, in an indefinable half-woman, half-schoolgirl-giggle way that pops up throughout our conversation. “It would be nonsensical to think that this poor 15 year-old boy who’s repeatedly saving the world, with no gratitude whatsoever,” – the laugher turns more raucous at this point – “wouldn’t at some point think, ‘Why do I have to do this? Why does it have to be me?’ So yeah, he does have a lot of angst and he certainly does take it out on his friends but something about Harry is that he has no one else to take it out on.” Aw.
Rowling has stated many times that she hasn’t always been happy with her work, a natural thought no doubt for any creative personality. Is there anything that she would go back and change? “There are two books I would go back and do a good Director’s Cut on: Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix. Order of the Phoenix is definitely overlong but, like Chamber of Secrets, they’re both transitional chapters in the overall story, so information has to be given in both of them, and Harry has to visit places in both of them. Now that seven’s out you can see that he had to have gone to the Ministry of Magic, he had to know that there was a Basilisk under the school, there were certain things he had to know and information he had to get and so in a series like that you do end up with transitional chapters. Phoenix should have been tightened up. I was in a state of advanced exhaustion when I was writing that, I was very heavily pregnant as I came to the end of it and I just ran out of energy. It definitely needs a clean-up job.”
She continues: “Stylistically there are things I would change. Obviously when you’re writing over a ten-year period you change, but I think those two books show maybe that fact that I was probably at my most stressed when I was writing those two books… and I think it shows. Overall, in terms of major plotlines, characters and so on it was well- plotted and I wouldn’t change those.”
Has she read any of the books again? “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 good 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 unless I decide my hero this time can’t play Quidditch. Then he can go have adventures while someone else is playing Quidditch!”
I remark how interesting I find it that Rowling, in all of her recent interviews, still refers to all these potential plot strands with a near-certainty in her voice. There definitely still seems to be something there, something that she has an apparent reluctance to let go. “I’ve always said I wouldn’t say ‘never’. But I do mean to end that side before anyone gets excited and this gets picked up by the Daily Record: ‘Rowling Promises Eighth Book!’” she guffaws. “I’m not planning on doing that. Funnily enough, during the filming of the documentary, I said that Harry and Ginny had three children, and the middle child is the one I’m interested in the most…”
Good old Albus Severus, right? “Yeah. God, what a burden to give a child, those two names. Absolutely cruel, isn’t it?” she laughs. “Not just because they’re dreadful names but because of the history behind them! But no, I’m not planning that. I have said repeatedly that maybe in ten years’ time, that is the kind of timescale I would be thinking, minimum, because there are other things I want to do, and because for my own mental health I need to break from it.”
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 friend admits 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. I said that to my husband a couple of days ago because I’d received a letter that said something like that and I said to him, what an amazing thing to hear. The other wonderful thing to hear, I’ve had a few letters saying it, that the whole family would get together, read a chapter together, and then they’d all go off and they’d agree to read the next two on their own and then they’d meet again to read the next chapter together.”
Rowling struggles for words, genuinely overcome by emotion. My earlier doubts 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. That’s what people write to me about. Nothing is better than that highest possible compliment, and you saying that you would read it to your kids… 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.
We discuss the last book some more, deliberating over the shocking body count. “That’s war,” Rowling explains frankly. “But I’ve only ever cried once during the editing process and it was the editing of seven. We were talking about the Epilogue, and the first draft of the Epilogue had way too much information in it. I had this compulsion to tell everything so you knew who everyone’s kids were. So I made it much more impressionistic and you just hear voices in the mist; I much preferred the final version. But in the first draft you saw Teddy Lupin, and when we discussed cutting it I said ‘I do need to mention Teddy’ and I started to cry. ‘I need to know he’s alright’. I needed to know he was alright!” she exclaims. “Forget the reader, I just needed to have it down in black and white that he was ok, that he was happy, he had a girlfriend, and that Harry was involved in his life. I needed to show that Harry went on and was not only physically a father to his children but he was that to Teddy. He didn’t run out on his obligations, so he’s become the godfather he would have liked to have had but he couldn’t.”
Enough Potter-plot, I think. Moving on to a slightly 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, which I thought was very interesting, that Harry Potter had been the Christian church’s biggest missed opportunity. And I thought, there’s someone who actually has their eyes open.
“I think he said it before the publication of the seventh book, and with the publication of the seventh book I think that clarified a lot of people’s view on where I was standing. But I should emphasise that I am not pushing a specifically Christian agenda, and indeed till the very last moment in book seven, one can interpret what happens to Harry after he presents himself with death as him going into an unconscious state in which his subconscious reveals to him what he already knew.” I hum in faux-comprehension of what she’s referring to; luckily my clued-in companion is nodding wildly. Proceed.
“Any re-reading of Chapter 35 will show you that there’s nothing that the Dumbledore he sees tells him that he couldn’t have guessed for himself or already realised, and of course there’s a key piece of information that Dumbledore doesn’t articulate that Harry has realised. So you can deliberately interpret it that way, or you can say that he did go into a state of limbo beyond which there was another life, and that idea was expressed repeatedly, and most explicitly at the end of book five, Order of the Phoenix, where Harry understands that there is an ‘on’, that you do go on. I wanted there to be a debate there, so of my three main characters – when they come into the room which examines death at the Ministry of Magic – Hermione, the ultimate sceptic and a hyper- rational person, hears nothing behind the veil and is scared of it. Ron is just uneasy; Ron is someone who does not grapple with anything deeper than beer, if he can avoid it. Harry’s drawn to it, and therein lies Harry’s slightly reckless, almost morbid streak, because Harry does have a hint of that dangerous adolescent trait which is the attraction to death.” Heavy.
Obviously with this ambiguity, you do get a fair degree of misinterpretation as well; there is a certain section that does dislike Harry Potter intensely. “Oh, vehemently,” says Rowling, before muttering under her breath “…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.” There’s that indefinable chuckle again. “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…” Did she still go? “Oh yeah. I mean, obviously things were checked out and I’d never have let children come there for a second if I had thought there was any substance to it. I think someone just wanted to disrupt the activity.”
Death threats notwithstanding, what has been the worst comment she’s ever received? Or the best, for that matter? She pauses for what seems like an eon. “Well, best… so many. I don’t want to say because I’m going to sound like I’m making them up.” If this modesty was slightly unbelievable at first, it is very much the opposite now. Nevertheless, I push her for one or two examples at least.
“Well… I suppose any comment from a fan who’s telling me what the books meant to them in a personal way, that’s always amazing to hear 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, to meet people like that who at 11 read the first book and so on. Of course they outstripped him because he started ageing at a slightly slower rate about halfway through!”
And worst comments? A long pause once again; Rowling is almost endearingly uncomfortable in her reluctance to talk about how her work has been assessed. “I can cope with a bad review. No one loves a bad review but a useful review is one that teaches you something. So I’ve got no problem with that in the slightest, but no one throws a party if they get a bad review and I’ve had a mixture of very good right the way through to dire. So you become quite practiced at that. To be honest the Christian fundamentalist thing was bad. I would have been quite happy to sit there and debate that with one of the critics who were taking Harry Potter from a moral point of view. My American publishers said, and I think quite rightly, you’d never in a million years persuade them. It’s an exercise in futility… and I’m sure he was right.”
Rowling reveals a willingness to partake in such a debate. “In a sense we have traded arguments through the media, I suppose. 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. She’s been trying to get them banned for two or three years now I think. And inevitably, journalists kept saying to her, why haven’t you read them, and she said ‘well, they’re long and I’m busy’, and then – I’m not lying, and I’m not even making fun, this is the truth of what she said,” cue our innocent hybrid giggle again, “and quite recently apparently she was asked 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’. And that, to me, is fundamentalism, and 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.”
I agree, relating how religious fundamentalism can make life difficult for the moderate majority, that the only thing fundamentalists have in common is their inherent bigotry. “Well, yes. It’s historical. I think there was some sort of gay rights parade in Israel, I think it might have been last year, and of course extreme orthodox Jews were up in arms about it.” Rowling unsuccessfully tries to suppress laughter as she continues. “Meanwhile over in Palestine you have the most fundamentally religious people who were saying ‘While of course we detest Israel and it shouldn’t exist, we do wholeheartedly agree that homosexuals are completely beyond the line.’” The laughter hits a crescendo. “Yeah, at last, you’re talking! Unfortunately you do have to exterminate another section of society to have anything to talk about but…”
Admittedly, it is somewhat heart-warming to see Rowling firstly engage so actively in topics like this, and secondly being able to laugh so 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 was 25 when I had the idea, and obviously I’m 42 now so you would expect some changes!” she laughs. “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 prevents her from discussing it though. “I’m happier because I’m doing what I was meant to do, which I wasn’t at 25. At 25, I was writing constantly but I was hiding it, it wasn’t my source of income.
“I was living a very strange existence at 25, really, and I think success, the right kind of success, does bring a certain confidence with it and I’m a much more self-confident person… which is not saying a lot, because I was an eternally insecure person at 25 so now I think I’ve probably got up to about quite a healthy normal 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’; I’m very self-critical.”
On the subject of public speaking, how does she manage to remain calm when addressing 17,000 people, as she did for the launch of the final book? “Well the breakthrough was Toronto, the Skydome. I said yes to that, which was just ludicrous. I was in the middle of writing and they said ‘Book Festival, Toronto, a lot of people’ and I remember the conversation. I said, ‘Yeah, ok, fine, I’ll do it,’ literally: ‘Can you please get off the phone, please, I’ve got an hour left before Jessica [Rowling’s daughter from her first marriage to a Portuguese journalist] finishes school, I need to finish this chapter’. And then 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,” she laughs half-heartedly, almost nervously, “which I know 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. But it was a massive breakthrough moment for me. Prior to that, before speaking in public, I always used to think: ‘It can’t be worse than childbirth.’” She laughs uproariously. “That wasn’t very comforting to be totally honest with you, but now I think ‘If you did the Skydome, you can do this.’ That reduced my anxiety levels a lot.”
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 her briefly covering up, defending, and then skirting 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,” Rowling confesses, “but it’s an extremely hard condition to recognise in yourself because obviously there is a grey area before it becomes a clinical illness and, looking back, I can see that I did have features of depression on and off for a while. Then, mid-20s, life circumstances were poor and I really plummeted. 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. I do know that I looked at her and thought… 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’.
“And I went to – well, funny story actually, “it does illustrate so many problems.” Rowling says, the amalgam titter making a comeback. “I went to my GP. I rehearsed, on my own in this awful little flat, I rehearsed what I was going to say to my GP because it is not an easy thing to say to someone; I went in to see this GP and it wasn’t my usual one, and I gave my little speech. I had chosen to say certain things about my state of mind to illustrate what I was finding worrying and she said, ‘if you ever feel a bit low, come and speak to the practice nurse’ and dismissed me.
“I went back, and we’re talking suicidal thoughts here, we’re not talking ‘I’m a little bit miserable,’” Rowling laughs nervously, as if to mask the gravity of her psychological state at the time. “But two weeks later I had a phone call in my flat from my regular GP who had looked back over the notes of what had happened while she’d been away, and had been alarmed to see that I’d been sent away. She called me back in, and I got counselling through her. So I tell the story but I’m not slighting the medical profession – especially as I’m now married to a GP,” she says with more than a tinge of mischief. “But she absolutely saved me because I don’t think I would have had the guts to go and do it twice. Having been dismissed once, I’d given it my best shot and I went back and I felt worse than ever, but she called me back and I went for counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Counselling.”
Is it something she’s recommend to others, then? “I would recommend it highly. I would. Yeah, I think it was absolutely invaluable. Well it worked for me so obviously I’m very ‘pro’ it. You have to do a lot of work yourself, you know. Realistically, you have to do a lot of work, you have to be prepared to do what you’re asked to do and persevere. I think I was in counselling for nine months, I probably could have done longer. I think I was very hung-up on the idea of becoming reliant on anything, which was partly a feature of my condition. I was in such an isolated position and bizarrely you become afraid of dependent on anything because then [you think] ‘I’ll lose that’. So I probably came out of it a little bit early but…” She pauses. But 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 still 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 reiterates. “I went through a really rough time, and I’m quite proud of the fact that I got out of that. It’s a lot of work, it’s not a passive thing, counselling, you’ve got to work with that person and…” She pauses, abruptly changing 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.”
Threatening? I confess I don’t follow her argument. “Well,” she stumbles. “I think young people, adolescents, are demonised a lot in Britain. Do you not think that?” Demonised might be too strong a word, I feel. “But I think so. The way young people are talked about as though there’s an otherness about them, they’re alien. I think there seems to be a real… fear of young people. 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 press admonition she received for commenting on thinness in young girls. At once Rowling becomes more serious than she has ever been up until this point. “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.” Yet again, a long pause that voices more discomfort in this otherwise articulate woman than any words ever could. However, the fact remains that people were up in arms about her statements.
“Well let them be,” she says defiantly. “There always are when you say something like that but I think that, to my mind – I have to be very careful what I say here,” Rowling pauses, for the first time 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, because it is not. I absolutely refuse to believe that certain women are eating and exercising normally and maintaining that body shape. I refuse to believe that. Of course there are naturally thin women but,” she says markedly, “but this is beyond thinness. You cannot maintain that body shape and beauty on a normal diet. So what is that? I think that’s pro-anorexic.”
Not a fan of America’s Next Top Model, I presume. “It’s all about money, the fashion industry,” she sighs, before correcting herself. “Not the fashion industry sorry, the beauty industry. If you keep women insecure they will keep spending money and fundamentally that’s what it’s about.”
From one controversy to the next, it seemed inevitable that the topic of Dumbledore’s sexuality would crop up in this interview. How did Rowling deal with the fallout from that? “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 hidden, his big secret is 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 it utterly, this great champion of love which he is throughout his life, was made an utter fool of by love, and 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. “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. It was amusing at Carnegie Hall because afterwards I went to my hotel room and my husband turned on Fox News and the ticker-tape was saying ‘DUMBLEDORE IS GAY’.” Once again Rowling lets out a belly laugh, moving on from the serious topics we had just discussed with remarkable swiftness. “Later that day I went into New York and I went to Barney’s I think to buy a top and I picked up this thing and a salesman came up to me who I’m 99% sure was gay and he said, ‘Great colour, fabulous colour isn’t it? Are you taking that?’ I said I will and he went ‘You’re JK Rowling?’ and I said ‘Yes’ and he said [putting on a really high, camp American voice] ‘Dumbledore’s GAY?!’” Out comes the raucous laughter again.
How does she react to those who disagree with a homosexual character in a children’s novel? “So what?” she retorts immediately. “I think it went one of two ways. 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? ‘Harry sit down, let me make you a cup of tea, let’s discuss something… Enough about these Hallows…’ Absolutely ridiculous. And then the other one was – and I had letters saying this – that he would never be safe to teach in a school. A gay man.”
An air of incredulity descends in the room, as if Rowling herself still cannot believe this statement. Seconds of silence ensue, before 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.
Anything else she’d always assumed and would perhaps like to declare now? “It’s hard to think of any specific thing now. There are things that I always thought were obvious about characters, very obvious. I always thought it was quite obvious that Ron and Hermione… a lot of the tension was due to them liking each other rather than disliking each other, but you’d be surprised. Some people were absolutely irate with it.”
The conversation moves on to the city that made this interview possible. Rowling has said that Edinburgh, and particularly the flat in Leith, has a lot of ghosts for her – a fact exhibited by her televised breakdown when she returned there for the documentary. So why come back to Edinburgh, why create a base here after all these years? “It’s home,” comes the immediate reply. “I absolutely love Edinburgh, this is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, including when I was a child.”
She pauses, perhaps wondering what prompted the question. “You know, maybe the documentary gave a false picture because although it was intensely moving and I will never forget going back to that flat in Leith, my heart lifts when I go down to Leith. It was a tough time, but that’s where so much happened in my life, that was the springboard for everything that came afterwards and it is so much part of me, that place. And I like Leith,” she adds.
Does she believe that there is an Edinburgh influence in the book? “To be honest, I don’t. There’s a guy at one of the public schools I will not name who wrote to me and said that clearly I’d based Hogwarts on his school. And I wrote back and said, very politely, that I’d actually conceived of Hogwarts before I even saw your school and it was years and years ago, I’d started writing about Hogwarts when I was living in England. And he wrote back again saying, ‘no you’re mistaken, you definitely based it on my school’… at which point correspondence ceased,” she sniggers.
At this point an hour has passed – far more time than we were to be granted in the first place. I begin some quick-fire questions, though Rowling’s penchant for long, but nonetheless engaging, diatribes prevents 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 cannot resist asking about her next projects, one already labelled a ‘political fairytale’ and the other aimed more at adults. “Well the kids’ one isn’t finished still. I like it a lot, I think it’s probably for slightly younger kids, and shorter – mercifully – than a Potter novel, but I do like it a lot. And the other thing, I don’t know whether that will ever see the light of day, but it’s just fun to write.” 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 of this planet.
What about the notorious Potter encyclopaedia, the new bane of her existence and 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 hits excitement of teenage proportions, gasping and even shrieking. “I always wanted…” she begins, before pausing and addressing the recording device 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 an anachronistic celebrity bewildered by the fuss around her – happier, it seems, to have overcome the darkness in her own life and to have her own 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.