BBC4 Desert Island Discs Revisited: Joanne Rowling Interview, 2000

BBC Desert DiscsDolores Gordon-Smith, author of the Jack Haldean mysteries and profound Potter Pundit, wrote me this afternoon to say that BBC Radio 4 was re-broadcasting an interview they made in 2000 with J. K. Rowling. The show is called ‘Desert Island Discs’ and the point is chit-chat with celebrities about what songs they would take with them if they knew they were to be marooned, alone, somewhere out on the high seas. It’s up online for 27 more more days; you can listen to the whole thing here. And I highly recommend you do. Listen to the whole thing.

1999The details included in the interview are fascinating — we have at last the source of the ‘3 cardboard boxes of back story’ legend and we discover that The Presence plays the guitar — but it is the time capsule audio snapshot of Rowling weeks after Goblet of Fire was published that is the delight, at least for this listener. Rowling is only 35 years old, she is still excited about (and exhausted by) her success, and she laughs at herself and tells stories as easily and openly as if she is among friends in a coffee shop. Forgive me, it is hard to imagine her being this at home with a journalist today post Levesden; there is an innocence and charming frankness without the edge she has lost, at least in her public appearances, since the turn of the millenium. Since the movie franchise whelmed the intimacy of the reader and a comfy chair in a book ship.

And the music she chooses!

The SmithsIn order of selection:
 And if she were only allowed only one record? “It’s got to be the Tchaikovsky because of the very strong associations with my daughter — and yes, with my very fertile period [in Portugal].”Abbey RoadThe surprise here isn’t the rock music — her friends at her comprehensive (high school) and at Exeter relate that she was so into The Smiths that she wore the make-up and clothes of the group, a groupie a la Leda Strike but one that didn’t sleep with the band.

The revelation is her confession that, though her parents didn’t have any classical music in their home (she says she grew up listening to their Beatles albums as they came out), she has gone through periodic self-improvement periods during which she has immersed herself in the best of orchestral and chamber music.Other gems for those of us who will never meet Harry’s god-mother for tea and conversation?

She takes a few swipes at the press. “Most stories,” she relates, speaking about the Cinderella story reporters loved to tell about her, “are 50% true and 50% embroidery.” She relates that her main difficulty wasn’t in the writing but those she has had consequent to “being published.”

f38696422Rita Skeeter, she shares, was originally ‘Brigit’ and cut from Philosopher’s Stone (she was originally in the crowd at The Leaky Cauldron to ask boy Harry for an interview). The cut was because she thought it made more sense if Rita forced her way into his life because of his celebrity and TriWizard Champion status. When writing Goblet, however, and beginning to write Rita, she worried that “they’ll think it’s about my experience” with the intrusive press. She admits to really enjoying writing her, nonetheless, when she decided she couldn’t keep people from thinking what they will and, she adds, she enjoyed writing Rita because of her troubles with the Quick-Quote Quills she’d been attacked with.

And I thought of Robin and her struggles with Matthew in the Cormoran Strike mysteries about her vocation as a private detective. Ms Rowling relates what she felt — after Arthur Levine came through with a big check to win the auction for the rights to publish the books in America — was mainly relief. She could move her daughter into a house and continue writing, writing “isn’t just [her] little thing,” her selfishness, and she wasn’t neglecting her child by pursuing her vocation as a writer.

Her observations about orphans in literature was telling, too. Having admitted that life at home was rough for her, especially during her mother’s rapid decline with MS, she observed later that children love a story in which the hero or heroine don’t have parents. Why? Because it allows them to imagine life in which they aren’t pre-occupied by thoughts “of keeping someone happy.” A scary thought, no doubt, hence the reader’s sympathy, but a liberating and exciting imaginative experience as well. Home really must have been rougher than we were told.

SAS Survival GuideThe whole thing closes with her choices of books on the Desert Island (the show provides the Bible and complete Shakespeare, so guests don’t feel obliged to pick them). Rowling goes off the board here and says, “for my luxury, unlimited paper and pen, please, because I will be writing” and “because I intend to live, a copy of the SAS Survival Guide, please.”

Again, please listen to the whole thing soon — it’s only up for 27 more days — and let me know what you think. Is this a much different, more relaxed and open person? Or am I imagining that because I am a much more jaded and self-important git since Y2K?


  1. Bruce Charlton says

    Thanks for this. I (being English) have been aware of Desert Island Discs since I was a child in the 1960s – and I think the originator of the show Roy Plomley – would have tried to prevent her taking a useful book like the SAS guide.

    The book choice is supposed to reveal something deep about the interviewee – that which they would want to re-read multiple times; while the ‘luxury item’ is supposed to reveal something about their leisure/ hobbies. JKR’s choices don’t tell us anything extra about her – so they are not really ‘playing the game’.

    The classical music are clearly not designed to impress – which is good! – and the choice of Mozart Requiem implies she got to know him via Amadeus – because until the impact of that play/ movie (where its use was dictated by the plot) the Requiem was not highly rated or very well known (being only partly composed by Mozart).

    I always used to look-forward to learning about the ‘luxury item’ – and can recall Yehudi Menuhin trying to take his wife as a luxury item! but Plomley would not permit it. He would not allow one ‘castaway’ to take a grand piano because it could be used as a shelter, and was not a true ‘luxury’! – therefore only an upright instrument. From memory, John Betjeman (poet laureate) took a case of champagne to drink for breakfast! – which was characteristic.

    JKR’s chosen rock music is nearly all from her parents’ generation – which is interesting. The choice of music is supposed to signal the key points in the interviewees life – and it would be unusual for someone of her age to have the Beatles, Hendrix and Faithful being primary impact musicians. This would suggest that, as a child and teen, JKR was not trying to be ‘cool’.

  2. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    Thanks for posting this, John! Desert Island Disks is such an institution in the UK it’s an honour to be asked
    JKR really relaxed on air and, like you, I thought home must’ve been tough, with all the attention necessarily going to her mother, a state of affairs she puts right in HP. But that is tough for a child.
    It was great listening to the idea of “another three books to come” and knowing how it all ends – it took me back to that breathless excitement where we could all hardly wait to find out what did happen. I remember getting really worried Harry was going to die and my daughter Lucy saying : ‘Mum, he can’t. It’s a children’s book.” I was still worried though!
    Great interview and a great analysis too, John – you do this stuff really well!

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