My husband John works in the world of airplanes. One year ago, he was surprised with a job offer from Edinburgh International Airport. They were hoping to lure him away from United Airlines and our life in Chicago.
John loved the idea and asked if I wanted to spend a year overseas.
Maybe, I thought. Edinburgh was a beautiful city, but what would I do there? My work is in theater and design. Edinburgh has both of these, but to a smaller degree — John would have a job waiting for him; there was no guarantee I’d find ongoing employment.
That’s when I realized this entire line of thinking was unnecessary.
I wouldn’t need work in Edinburgh because I would be spending a year writing the next multi-volume, multi-generational, fantastical reading phenomenon. And running errands. After all, Edinburgh was the city that spawned Harry Potter! Twenty years later, wasn’t it someone else’s turn? Wasn’t it my turn? How hard could it be?
The following month we moved to Scotland.
The story of how the books began is as well-known as the books themselves:
J.K. Rowling was a single mother when she wrote the first few lines of her novel on scraps of paper sitting in a café, blah blah blah, avalanche of money.
We had finished unpacking over the weekend and John was gone for his first day at the airport. The agenda for my first day was obvious: find that café.
It wasn’t difficult. Plenty of articles mention it, and Edinburgh’s not that big. A short walk through the oldest part of the city — dark gray cobblestone instead of light gray cobblestone — led to a café with a humble sign in its window, Birthplace of Harry Potter! I pictured its someday-companion: Also The Birthplace Of Whatever Awesome Thing Tim Dreams Up! I picked a small table by the window, added an optimistic stack of yellow legal pads and a handful of pencils, and readied my mind for the task.
One nice thing: the café is still an ordinary one. Europe doesn’t go bonkers over celebrity like America; it would have been so easy — and lucrative — to turn the place into the Rainforest Café Of Unwed Mothers Writing About Magical Orphans, but they hadn’t, and I appreciated that.
I began with the most logical item. The author bio.
Tim Sniffen was an American spending a year in the UK when he scribbled out Whatever I Call It in the very same café where J.K. Rowling worked her magic twenty years before. He’s impossibly wealthy now and lives with his husband John in London, San Francisco, Geneva and whatever the coolest city in South America is. This is his first novel. He hasn’t even written short stories.
I should mention, the café is busy. All the time. There was a line of people out the door since I arrived, many of them obvious tourists with expectant, reverent faces, like they were about to order a blueberry muffin from Albus Dumbledore himself. I figured this owed to the café’s place in the creation lore of a literary phenomenon, but what did I know? Maybe they brewed a kick-ass latte.
I kept writing. Occasionally I‘d catch the young redhead behind the counter watching. Did she realize what she was witnessing? That’s right, it’s happening again, I wanted to whisper. You can say you were here. I hunched over my work, adopting the timeless pose of a writer lost in their creation.
Simon Chimneysoot was a miserable boy with no friends who was forced to sleep in an oversized soup tureen in the basement of his adoptive parents, The Blotts. One day Simon received a letter confirming his most secret hope — that he was, against all odds, a math genius.
I was startled at how easily the words came — like I’d been born to write them! As I thought about it, though, Rowling had done the heavy lifting years ago: all I had to do was follow the formula.
Enough for today. My journey had begun.
One month later and my initial burst of stamina had petered out. The story wasn’t flowing the way I’d expected; lately it felt like squeezing moisture from a near-dry sponge. Was it like this for Rowling?
“Simon, you’re way too young to hear about this but I’m going to tell you anyway,” said Schoolmaster Glambertam. “Your parents weren’t crushed by a falling water tower. They were killed by a demon. A demon who draws its power from the more irrational aspects of math.”
“Wow,” Simon said.
I stared at my limp efforts, scribbled on the drab yellow pad.
The pad. Of course.
With the staff’s permission, I scoured the café for scraps of paper — the missing ingredient! J.K. hadn’t enjoyed the benefit of mass-produced office supplies, and neither would I. Napkins, menus, receipts in the trash, the employee sign-in sheet: all repurposed for my work. From the children’s corner, the coloring books alone held enough for three chapters! I assured an older woman that her to-do list held a place in literary history, prying it easily from her frail grip.
I swiped the poisonous legal pads onto the floor, piling my newfound treasure on the tiny two-top: a compost heap blazing with potential. So raw — so real. With the correct medium in place, I could feel the desperation, the same urgency that once drove a woman to fill a damp Sudoku page from the back of The Scotsman with her truth. I dove back in.
We had been in Scotland six months. Winter had arrived, offering the same unending, misty rain, slightly more hopeless.
“How’s the book going?” John called from the living room, sprawled on the couch. He had learned the hard way that when Scottish co-workers take you out for a drink, they don’t mean just one.
“Fine,” I shouted from the kitchen through a mouthful of Hobnob biscuit.
It was not fine. I was in the final chapters —the end in sight! — and had stalled again. The whole thing was an unmanageable jumble of plot, characters, and occult algebra. Plus, with the new writing medium, I needed a wheelbarrow to haul my work between apartment and café.
“There’s one place we haven’t looked,” said Athena, one of Simon’s closest friends, as intelligent as she was female.
“The Murder Swamp?” exclaimed Gus, comically Irish.
Simon knew they were right. If the Pythagoras Geode was anywhere, it would be in the crescent of deadly wetlands surrounding half the school. He braced himself for this climactic, satisfying challenge.
I needed a final boost — some lucky totem to carry me across the finish line, sprinting in the footsteps of Edinburgh’s beloved, writing-minded, single… mother.
I knew what to do.
Two classified ads, several phone calls and one desperate all-company email to John’s employer later — I had my child.
“Lorna from human resources just lost her nanny,” John told me, calling from his lunch break. “She went to live with her boyfriend in Barcelona.” Oh, Lorna’s Nanny. Never go to him — make him come to you! “Her little boy needs someone between eight and — “
“Yes, yes, great! Can he start tomorrow?” I had preliminary letters out to publishers and the clock was ticking.
For the last time, I sat in the café window, scrawling prose onto a used Twix wrapper, my temporary child sleeping soundly in the stroller I had borrowed from our downstairs neighbor — a veritable Rowling living nativity.
I could feel the rush of perseverance that would bring this novel to its close. More than that, I understood why I had written it. It hadn’t been for me after all. No, it was for the children of the world: all those young minds, desperate to believe in the future and their own abilities. I had written this book for little Calvin. [Or Connor. Lorna’s caretaking instructions were covered with part of the last chapter.]
“So, he’s defeated?” Simon asked hopefully.
“Through your innate math abilities, I’d-Rather-Not-Say is more dead than ever!” declared the schoolmaster. “Yet he still lingers at the edge of our world… it will take seven years and seven distinct adventures to finally vanquish him!”
Simon walked through the front portcullis of Quadrimbles, thinking of new friends and all that lay before him as he made his way to the enchanted helicopter that would carry him home.
I pushed back from the table, spent and exhilarated. I felt like I had run a marathon of the imagination.
Lost in the story, I hadn’t noticed the staff gathered by the door, bless them, to observe and support. The café had been closed for two hours but they had sensed this last flood of creation was too critical to interrupt.
My stopgap child lay passed out under a four-top in the back, to my guilty relief. Over the course of the day he had become increasingly uncooperative, even shrill — to be honest, I don’t know how Rowling pulled it off.
“Don’t you want to be part of a famous backstory?” I whispered earlier, pulling him close. He shouted something about the coloring books being “broken”. Children and their attention-seeking delusions. “Remember how we talked about providing quiet inspiration?”
He was being irrational. I tried coaxing him back to the stroller; he only moaned that seven-year-olds didn’t need strollers. Maybe so — there’s such a thing as being polite. Finally the woman behind the counter agreed to keep an eye on him. I gave her a handful of sugar packets in case he got hungry and returned to my table.
Now I gathered him up, smoothed his fine chestnut hair, and placed him gently in a cab. I handed the driver a twenty, described several details from the boy’s neighborhood and waved them off.
Three recycling bags of novel slung over my shoulder, I thanked the café staff, hand on heart, and departed for home. I heard a click as the door was locked behind me. It was done.
John’s contract was up. Our stack of moving boxes had been fished from storage, filled again with clothes and housewares.
But no box was big enough to hold my disappointment.
I had sent out dozens of copies of my carefully transcribed manuscript — only to receive dozens of variations of the same cruel message: “derivative”, “hopelessly derivative”, “shockingly derivative”, “this is actual text from Harry Potter with the words magic and wizard replaced with math and math-wizard.”
I was destroyed.
Were the publishing houses of the world allergic to money? Of course there were similarities; should we burn every copy of Pinocchio, since Moby Dick had fulfilled the lifetime quota for Whale-Fiction?
Plus, if everyone was so beholden to Rowling’s precious series — wouldn’t they be thrilled to see any version of it back on the shelves? The letter from Edinburgh City Council thanking me for the recent cleanliness of city streets was small consolation.
The moving trucks would arrive that afternoon. I couldn’t leave fast enough.
John and I went for one last walk through our foster home, hiking up to Edinburgh’s centerpiece landmark, the grand castle perched high above the city. We looked out over rooftops and distant hills, leaning on a flimsy rail. I’ve always enjoyed the European approach to personal safety: You want to put your life in danger? Go for it.
I had brought the bags filled with my original draft, looking like Failed Novelist Santa. I opened the first of them.
“Are you sure?” John asked. “You can always keep working on it.”
I was sure.
Together we watched the blizzard of all colors and sizes float down to the carefully manicured gardens below.
Our route home took us by the café. Birthplace of Harry Potter! And nothing else.
I sat for a moment at my usual table, memorizing the view.
For the very first time, the woman behind the counter left her station and approached. She had been here so often, I realized, seen so much. I owed her an explanation.
“I know,” I said, saving her the bother of speaking. “Sometimes you would watch me work. Maybe you even wondered if you were witnessing a bit of history.” I took both sides of the table in my hands. “Sure, yeah — I dreamt of capturing the magic that occurred here once.”
John was outside, signaling gently: we should go.
“I thought the world was ready,” I said, standing, addressing the entire café. They should hear this. “But it wasn’t. You know what? Maybe something like that only occurs once in a very long while — and the most we can hope for is to be around to see it.”
I looked back to the woman and smiled.
“Let that idea be my legacy; let it be my novel. And perhaps… the answer to your question.”
“Actually,” she said, “I wondered if you were ever going to order something.”
I got a latte.
Tim Sniffen is an American writer living in Chicago after spending a year in Scotland. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.