Beatrice Groves: Rowling’s Process- Insights from a 2015 Interview

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: Rowling’s Process – Insights from a 2015 Interview. Join me after the jump for the insights Prof. Groves’ found, in an interview J. K. Rowling gave seven years ago today, to publicise Career of Evil.

Rowling’s Process: Insights from a 2015 Interview

Exactly seven years ago today – a day when in Ink Black Heart Robin and Strike are failing to talk about their feelings following the non-kiss at the Ritz – Robert Galbraith was interviewed by Simon Mayo for the Radio 2 Book Club. On 2 Nov 2015 an interview with Galbraith was also released in the states – and, listening to that interview at the time, the Radio 2 interview completely passed me by. So I was delighted when @CormStrikeFan posted it a few days ago (thank you Strike Fans!).

I really enjoyed a number of things about this interview – such as the fact that Simon Mayo pushed Rowling a little bit on the seeming contradiction of Career of Evil giving her nightmares and yet being her favourite book (thus far) to write. This lead her to speak of just how much pleasure she takes in the plotting of her books: ‘I set myself quite a difficult technical challenge with this book… the field of suspects is very limited… and I also wanted to go into the killer’s head (and obviously without giving away who the killer was) so that was quite a challenge and I enjoyed that challenge, I just loved the crafting of it.’ Rowling also speaks of the Strike and Robin arc as the ‘larger story’ (something that will no doubt please all the shippers out there): ‘there is also a larger story going on in this series about Strike’s relationship with his accidental assistant who’s becoming more and more important.’

For those of us for whom the epigraphs play almost as important part in our enjoyment of these novels as the putative romantic plot, Career of Evil is particularly interesting as it is the first of the Strike novels to take all of its epigraphs from one source. Rowling tells us in this interview that this was not intentional:

I never meant to put the lyrics all the way through the book… I had this vague idea that I was going to use [Blue Öyster Cult] lyrics at some point because I knew their lyrics were so out there – they’re just great – and they’ve had some amazing lyricists – Patti Smith obviously has written for them – and then, when I sat down to plot this book and started looking through their back catalogue, it was an absolute gift that so many of the lyrics applied to my plot. People are going to find it hard to believe I didn’t weave the plot around the songs but I swear to you I didn’t – it was the other way round – they just fitted so beautifully that I ended up using those.

This is, as far as I am aware, the only time that Rowling has spoken about when precisely she chooses her epigraphs (except re: Harry Potter when we know that the final epigraphs were chosen years in advance of her writing Deathly Hallows). We discussed on The Strike and Ellacott Files podcast at what point in the writing process Rowling chooses her epigraphs and I suggested that for Lethal White and Troubled Blood at least, it would need to be pretty early on in the process. And this interview confirms that, I think, for Rowling clearly feels she has chosen the epigraphs astonishingly late in her process – so late that we will hardly believe it – and yet she tells us that she chose them while she was plotting the novel. She chose the epigraphs prior to writing the novel and yet this felt startlingly late for finding such apropos lyrics. This seems to me strong evidence that she never writes the book and then chooses the epigraphs – the book always grows in tandem with her epigraph research, with texts chosen as she is writing.

I think that Rowling’s bravura use of a single text for all her epigraphs (an – as far as I know – unique feat that she pulled off with such aplomb in both Lethal White  and Troubled Blood) grew out of discovering how well the lyrics of one band would work for Career of Evil. The lyrics of one band are a significantly smaller verbal treasure-trove to mine than a whole play (as in Lethal White) or one of English’s longest poems (as in Troubled Blood). The less ambitious, but still unusual, idea of taking all the ‘part’ epigraphs from a single text Rowling had already explored in Casual Vacancy (as she would again in Ink Black Heart) – and I expect her delight at finding this ‘absolute gift’ in Blue Öyster Cult’s lyrics may well have set her on the path to trying the more difficult feat of a single source text. So, it seems clear that we have Career of Evil to thank for the brilliance of Strike’s later epigraphs.

As well as giving us our clearest picture yet of Rowling’s process when it comes to epigraphs, this interview likewise provided a wider insight into the timing of her writing – in particular what books were written together. In one of her most recent interviews – the lovely conversation with Simon Armitage recorded in his shed last summer – Rowling said ‘I actually wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling, which was the first Galbraith, before I wrote the Casual Vacancy.’ That is similar, but not precisely the same as what she said six years earlier, for in this 2015 interview she noted: ‘I actually wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling at the same time as The Casual Vacancy.’ Putting these two statements together (and assuming that the interview six years closer to the time she is recalling is more likely to be accurate) I think we can adopt as a working hypothesis that Rowling began Cuckoo’s Calling before Casual Vacancy, but then continued working on both novels contiguously. And this idea opens up some interesting connections between them.

Both novels begin uncompromisingly with the central character’s death. Cuckoo’s Calling is the only one of Rowling’s detective novels to begin with the murder victim in this way and if, as seems the case, she began Cuckoo’s Calling first, it makes sense to think about how the unusual opening death in Casual Vacancy echoes a familiar detective-novel form, but simultaneously empties it out of the meaning this form usually carries. Rowling recently quoted P.D. James (during her live Twitter Q&A) when asked by @CormStrikeFan why she thought people love crime fiction:

Order out of chaos. PD James said something so brilliant: ‘every single time, a little catharsis.’ There’s the satisfaction of trying to solve (or construct) the puzzle, but I love the genre because you can do so much with it. And I love world building!

Rowling has spoken regularly about detective fiction’s link in her most famous series, noting back in 2018 on Robert Galbraith’s homepage, for example:

I’ve always loved detective fiction, Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell, Margery Allingham and PD James, I love them all.

Most of the Harry Potter stories are whodunits at heart (‘Order of the Phoenix’ is more of a why-did-he), but I had wanted to try the real thing for a long time.  I wanted to have a go at writing a contemporary whodunit, with a credible back story.

Part of the appeal and part of the fascination of the genre is that it has clear rules. I’m intrigued by those rules and I like playing with them. Your detective should always lay out the information fairly for the reader, but he will always be ahead of the game. There are certain immutable laws of detective fiction that I follow.

Robert Galbraith Homepage (captured 10 Sept 2018)

We’ve known for a long time to look at Harry Potter through the lens of detective fiction: Azkaban, for example, (as I’ve argued in Literary Allusion in Harry Potter) is, like Jane Austen’s Emma, a novel that has all the twists and satisfactions of the detective genre, without the inconveniences of a dead body. Casual Vacancy is, arguably, the opposite. It begins with a dead body but there is no ‘little catharsis’ because the puzzles and clues of the novel do not put anything right about that death. There is no murderer to bring to justice. Casual Vacancy is a detective story that doesn’t play by the rules.

Most significant, perhaps, is that Rowling tells us in this interview that the idea for Strike also preceded the conclusion of Harry Potter (‘I had the idea for this series before I finished Potter’). What is interesting about this information is that it comes in response to the idea that she does not see Strike and Robin as hero and sidekick, but as a pair of equally important protagonists:

I really see it as a double act… I had the idea for this series before I finished Potter.

It is not immediately clear why Simon Mayo’s question about whether she ever considered making Robin the protagonist rather than Strike had Rowling reaching for the genesis of the series: why does this question elicit the answer ‘I had the idea for this series before I finished Potter’? I think it is because of all the times when Rowling has been asked – why isn’t Harry Harriet? Why did you choose a male protagonist?

It is perfectly arguable that every single one of Rowling’s stories (Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts as well as all her novels) has a male lead, and so I think what she is doing here is saying that – in her mind at least – this is not the case with Strike. Harry Potter has a male protagonist and a pair of ‘deuteragonists:’ Hermione and Ron are far more that sidekicks, but they are not the hero. But Robin is not a deuteragonist – as readers we have access to her inner life just as much as to Strike’s, and is it not present simply as an adjunct to his. The series may be named after him, but her transformation – the deep delight of discovering meaningful work in the job she has always wanted – is far more central to the series than is his.

Finally, Rowling tells us that her brain is teeming with ideas as much as ever, but that we do not need to be on the look-out for further pseudonyms. When asked if she has more ideas she answers ‘loads’: ‘I have plans to write as “J.K. Rowling” again… “novels” in the plural, I have so many ideas in my head… I have written part of a children’s book that I really love, so I’m definitely going to finish that… and I have ideas for other adult books.’ This children’s book is surely The Christmas Pig – but this was seven years ago, and we’ve not had a sniff of those other ‘adult books’ yet. An early Christmas present for 2022 perhaps….?



  1. Louise Freeman says

    Bea: Wonderful post: I agree with you about Robin being a co-lead and growing more as a character than Strike, particularly during the first three books when she undergoes a reverse alchemical procedure.

    My next idea, in accordance with my pentagram structure ( is that Robin’s alchemical transformation begins in Career of Evil, continues in Lethal White (good albedo title) and finishes in Troubled Blood (as in blood-red rubedo). I’ll get that post written, eventually. But, in a nutshell, I think we would have had a perfectly good “Robin’s story” had the series ended with her walking off in the sunset with Strike after Troubled Blood, perhaps with a genuine kiss and declaration of love.

    But what of Strike? Yes, he undergoes breakdown and growth in Troubled Blood, as he comes to terms with his Cornish identity and his legacy as Ted and Joan’s adopted son. But so much about him does not change. He uses Nina, Elin, Lorelei and Madeline in pretty much the same “restaurant and brothel” way. And how many “final breaks” with Charlotte has he had? He walked out on her, never to return after the “unforgivable lie” in CC. He ignores her plea to stop her wedding in SW. He walks out of the restaurant saying “I don’t want you.” in LW. He cuts the “last thread” in TB, when he changes his phone number. But no, turns out there’s yet another thread to be broken in IBH, when he realizes she is incapable of genuine love, even for her own children. At this point, I think we have to expect yet another “final break” with her in Strike 7.

    And, of course, he won’t be fully whole until he gets a final answer, and justice for Leda’s death.
    Was Strike’s alchemical cycle reset in IBH, or was that a continuation of his nigredo from Troubled Blood?

    Finally, I am wondering if Rowling’s next project will be some sort of spin-off from Cormoran Strike, much as she took a textbook writer from Harry Potter and wrote his story (and DD’s) 70 years earlier. Maybe we’ll see Flavia Upcott, PI-in-training, establish herself as a detective. She’s got a tragic enough backstory to be a series lead now, with the brother who attempted to slaughter her family (and the emotionally abusive father before that). A character not only coming to terms with her father’s murder, but the fact that the murderer actually did her a favor would certainly be a unique twist.

    I would love to see what a Rowling series with a solo female lead would look like.

  2. Thank you Louise!

    Really glad you enjoyed it – and agree with much of this. The Madeline relationship shows Strike has made no progress there and yes, yet another final break with Charlotte!(EndingCharlottesHoldOverMe.Final.Final.AbsolutelyFinal.ThistimeImeanit.doc) – but this time I really do think that is the end of Strike’s feelings for her (a future post is in the works on why!). I like your alchemical points v. much. I too feel that – and this can fit with the new longer series (I still think it was originally a 7 book plan that has extended, and will extend further if new ideas arrive) – TB & IBH are twin nigredos for Strike.

    I don’t think there will be a Strike spin-off (though, as grist to your mill, do you remember when she said she was going to write the Hogwarts saga again from the viewpoint of Colin Creevy?!) – but I look forward to future works with solo female leads. I do not currently expect them though!

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