Beatrice Groves: ‘Harry Potter Dreaming’ Unseen Footage of Rowling from 1998

As our Headmaster posted on Saturday, Patricio Tarantino, author of Secret History of the Wizarding Phenomenon and head of the Rowling Library has found, and posted on line the most remarkable raw footage of an early J. K. Rowling television interview. To help us understand the reflections and import of this find, Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post: Harry Potter Dreaming – unseen footage of Rowling from 1998. Join me after the jump for Prof. Groves’ fascinating look at Rowling’s candid thoughts at the very beginning of her professional career.

Harry Potter Dreaming: unseen footage of Rowling from 1998

Patricio from the brilliant Rowling Library has just put up a video he has found (of which I was previously unaware) of ITN’s complete interview with JK Rowling in Nicholson’s café in 1998. Only a tiny fragment of this interview made it into the final cut of the ITN segment about Harry Potter – so it is lovely to see what is, in effect, an entirely new interview from the very beginning. It is startling to be reminded of how big Harry Potter had already become at this point, even though Rowling had only published one book at this stage (although she had written three: this interview is part of the media junket for the forthcoming Chamber of Secrets and she had already completed Azkaban). It is also a delight to see her at this early point. I really enjoyed the unpolished nature of the video; its raw edges – as they do retakes and Rowling wonders what to do with her coffee or catches the eye of the cameraman – highlight the disjunction between her nerves in the face of the camera and her confidence in the hero she is selling.

Rowling is also unusually candid about some aspects of her process in this interview. For example, she provides background to the way in which the Order of the Phoenix (which is the odd one out of the series – the Nigredo, as John puts it) is partly that way because it has a different genesis from the others. Unlike every other book in the series, it is not formed in her first, pre-fame, writing period: ‘bits of all the books bar five – five is still the sketchiest of the lot, so if people are waiting longer for five than any of the others that’s why, you heard it here first! – bits of all the other books (except five) are written already.’ It is a revealing comment and one which makes sense, I think, of the way in which Half-Blood Prince feels like a ‘return’ after the new ground broken in Phoenix.

Another aspect of Harry Potter’s genesis into which we are given an insight here is its birth in Edinburgh. I’ve written a four-blog series about Harry Potter and Scotland – and I think the way she described the relationship between the genesis of Philosopher’s Stone and Edinburgh here is new: ‘it was in Edinburgh that I actually kinda carved a book out of that mass of material.’ I love this description. It cements Edinburgh as the birthplace of Philosopher’s Stone (even though she’d had the initial idea between Manchester and London and had been writing notes about the Wizarding World for years in England and Portugal – laying down ‘the first bricks of Hogwarts… in a flat in Clapham Junction’). But it was in Edinburgh that this mass of notes solidified – or, as she puts it, she carved a book out of them (a phrase that carries the faintest of echoes of perhaps the most famous description of sculpture, Michelangelo’sEvery block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it….I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.’.) The sculptural quality of the metaphor of carving perfectly fits with the rocky landscape of Edinburgh itself, a volcanic landscape which Walter Scott (another author inspired by Edinburgh) described as an ‘oasis’ of scenery and story. 

Rowling namechecks a few literary influences during the interview, noting for example: ‘one of my favourite books as a child – if not my favourite book as a child – which was the Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge… won the Carnegie in 1946. So, to be shortlisted for it was very meaningful for me.’ I’ve gathered up Rowling’s references to Little White Horse here – and she has called it her favourite before; but the mention of the connection forged through the Carnegie is new. (Likewise, therefore, we haven’t heard before the nice detail that Rowling can correctly name the year for which Little White Horse won this accolade.)

Rowling revealed on her original website that she garnered Hedwig’s name from a book of saints, and in this interview she adds another name: ‘a couple [of names] came from books of saints – names like Bathilda and Hedwig, just excellent witchy names.’ I was pleased to hear this, of course (as I blog under the name of Bathilda’s Notebook), but particularly because the source of Hedwig’s name is one of my favourite literary allusions in the series. The Dursleys, as you may remember, do not even allow Harry to join a library but when he gets home from his first excursion into the wizarding world – his shopping trip in Diagon Alley – our hero settles down immediately to read a book. We do not see him reading, but we know that is what he’s been doing, for when he names Hedwig, it is noted that it was after a name he has found in a book (Stone, Chap 6). Hedwig is Harry’s first real birthday present, and it’s a birthday that – as we know – he shares with his creator. By naming his owl after someone he has found in a book, Harry also echoes his creator. For Rowling, like Harry, has named Hedwig after someone she found in a book. It is a little ‘meta’ moment – the hero echoing the action of his author – and it underlines from the very start that not only are books going to be important within the world of Harry Potter, but how crucial they are to the creation of that world. 

One literary reference in the interview, however, was apparently less pleasing to someone who has just spent some of her time laying out the Dennis Potter parallels in Harry Potter – for she notes, re: Harry’s name: ‘people have asked me if it was Dennis Potter ‘cos I come from the Forest of Dean, but it wasn’t.’ But actually, I was quite pleased, for Rowling has never described herself as a native of the Forest of Dean – ‘I come from the Forest of Dean’ – quite this unequivocally before; and it is a location which carries some fantastic mythic and Arthurian resonances in Deathly Hallows.  It is not quite accurate for Rowling to describe herself this way, and thus I think her doing so marks the importance of this location in her imagination. And as we know, it is a place to which she stills feels an affinity.

One sign that in 1998 Harry Potter has yet to scale the heights of its future fame is that the interviewer does not quite feel he needs to bring his A-game to this interview. He cannot remember Voldemort’s name, for example, and suggests that this name (and Malfoy’s) have a classical source (Rowling skilfully corrects him without making it clear that she is so doing). At another moment I wonder if Rowling – here, as always in her early interviews, trying to correct the implication that writing for children is an inferior vocation – might be (consciously or un) reminding the interviewer that to write for children is to follow one of the famous rules for writing ever written. Rowling says that she revises her work for children simply by substituting the odd word – she would ‘take out the polysyllable and put in a nice serviceable monosyllable and that was it’ – or, as George Orwell so famously put it: ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’ (Politics and the English Language, 1946).

Likewise, she responds with unoffended enthusiasm to an interview question that now reads as slightly patronising – the suggestion that there is a ‘chance’ that she’s created a character who ‘may well last.’ She responds: ‘that would be my highest ambition… I always wanted Harry to be wildly famous, because that for me was a mark that loads of people had enjoyed the book’ – implying that such fame is not an ambition she has for herself. Rowling has always had an ambivalence towards her own fame and yet her books are drawn to the topic – it has the appeal of the uncomfortable for her: ‘Colette wrote: “Look for a long time at what pleases you, and a longer time at what pains you.” Good advice.’  I’ve written a blog about the poetic way in which Cuckoo’s Calling dissects fame – as she has noted ‘Strike gives me a way to talk in an objective, de-personalised way about the oddities that come with fame’  – but what is startling is that Rowling was already preoccupied by, and wary of, these oddities long before fame came calling:

‘He’ll be famous – a legend – I wouldn’t be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter Day in future – there will be books written about Harry – every child in our world will know his name!’

‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, looking very seriously over the top of his half-moon glasses. ‘It would be enough to turn any boy’s head. Famous before he can walk and talk! Famous for something he won’t even remember! Can’t you see how much better off he’ll be, growing up away from all that?’

By 1998 it is clear that Harry will indeed be ‘wildly famous’ although the extent to which McGonagall’s prediction was to come true (even in the Muggle world) was still a far-off dream.

And, talking of dreams, my favourite moment of the interview was Rowling’s expression of joy in what has happened to her. Her acknowledgement of the success of Harry Potter as the realisation of ‘the dream of my life:’ the dream of being able to make a living from writing. I don’t think she’s ever put it in precisely these terms before (or, rather, since!) and it is nice to hear her expressing her pleasure so fulsomely. But I was also pleased because – as I wrote here in November – I think that Rowling’s dream of authorship is something that lies at the heart of a startling overlap in location between the worlds of Harry Potter and Strike.

Rowling, as we know, sent Robin off to temp in an office on Denmark St, a street where she herself once temped – and an office where (as is mentioned repeatedly) you can hear the traffic on the bookshop-lined thoroughfare of Charing Cross Road. Charing Cross is a road we know as the entrance to the Wizarding World – and Strike’s office is to Robin what the Leaky Cauldron was to Harry: it is her portal of transformation. I guess that Rowling has placed the gateways into her heroes’ dreams at precisely the same place because she connects that particular location and ‘spot of time’ in her life – that time when she was temping in London the late 1980s – with the fulfilment of her own dreams. I suspect that Rowling connects that time, and place, in her life with the crystallising of her own transformative dream to become a writer.

 And this 1998 interview is the most open she’s been about how long she had held that dream: ‘it’s the thing I love most of all; and it’s a dream to wake up in the morning and think “what am I doing today?” “I’m writing! – and I’m getting paid for it!” You know, this is the dream of my life… I still sometimes can’t quite believe it’s happened.’


  1. Pratibha says

    Thank you for a brilliant post, Beatrice – you brought together fascinating strands of the interview. I agree that Rowling’s “dream” was a highlight. For me, it evoked Harry’s recurring dream of “a flying motorcycle” which he had in the cupboard under the stairs. Despite Mr. Dursley insisting it isn’t real (tut tut), the flying motorcycle dream comes true and spirits him away to Hogwarts. In both cases, Harry and Rowling’s dreams meaningfully tells us about who they are. It’s also interesting that she has vivid nightmares as this is rather reminiscent of Harry (e.g. Prof Quirrell’s turban, being trapped in a zoo, and Voldemort’s laughter nightmares to name just a few). Lastly, I wanted to add that I love the penultimate photo where Rowling is smiling with pen and paper – she shows a sincere belief in the measure of her powers and gladness in the fact!

  2. It’s one of my favourite photos of her too 🙂 (although it is Nick who chose the photos for this – so credit to him!)
    And thank you for your comments – agree entirely re: the motorcycle: I do have a plan to write up dreams more fully sometime; oneiromancy will be covered in the sequel to ‘Literary Allusion in Harry Potter’!

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