“J. K. Rowling: A Year in the Life” (James Runcie)

If you haven’t seen it, please do go immediately to tvCatchUp’s link and watch the James Runcie television program, ‘J. K. Rowling: A Year in the Life.’ I don’t know how long this link will be active (the phrase “catch-up” doesn’t sound like a long term deal) and I doubt very much that a transcript will capture the value of this show. [The program is still available and will be until late February; viewers need to sign in and choose the part of the UK in which they live in their transatlantic time to have access.] For those of you who have seen it, I want to begin discussion of this remarkable work, what is perhaps the best program, article, or publication I have read or seen on Ms. Rowling’s personal life and life as a writer, with four points for your discussion to start off the New Year.

(1) What a bit of genius to have a fellow Bloomsbury novelist, James Runcie, do this production. Not only are the questions thoughtful and revealing, without a hint of sensationalism, but Ms. Rowling obviously likes and trusts this man as a close friend who understands better than any journalist might, the agonies, joys, and challenges of novel writing. This trust is evident in her allowing him into her life for a year, in her openness about everything from family relations and history to money, and in her comments about her journey as a writer, both in her teary moment in the ‘old flat’ and conversation at the moment of completing Deathly Hallows. For discretion in leaving things out (no shots of the children, etc.) and for brilliant brief exposition, this show is a treasure; in that it chronicles a historical and cultural moment up-close, I think the much abused word “unbelievable” is appropriate.

(2) The comments about her faith, both in the church and in her home, are not news; we knew she went to church almost as an act of rebellion and that her faith is not at all about specific dogmas but her struggle to believe. It was different and, I thought, better, to hear her say these things in a reflective context to someone she likes rather than to read the comments made to a journalist in answer to who knows what question. [I think, too, we can conclude finally that she is Anglican Communion rather than Kirk; the church she cleaned as a child and the Time magazine feature last week both say “Anglican.”] Ms. Rowling is a postmodern Christian not only in her artistry and the unconventional beliefs and age-defining doubts from which the artistry springs but also in how she came to what faith she has. She went to church though her family didn’t and perhaps even because her family didn’t. Think of what a perfectly ‘today’ perspective that gives her and what a bizarre relationship to the church it gives her, too. The “rest of us” grew up in church and left off going to show mum and pop what brilliant free thinkers we were; Ms. Rowling went to church to break with authority as well as because of her spiritual needs.

(3) Mr. Runcie states baldly that novel writing is therapy for the writer and advances I thought in cogent fashion the not-very-novel idea that Ms. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are her coming to terms in story form with the death of her mother. More subtly but as surely, he raised the idea that Ms. Rowling’s inability to win approval from and eventual break with her father are also as important a part of her therapeutic writing. It is almost a commonplace in interpreting Harry to understand that he is largely a cipher for Ms. Rowling and his love-over-death struggles are fictional shadows of her psychological and spiritual struggles with her mum’s dying and death. What Mr. Runcie’s film points to is that the novels — the Voldemort in Ms. Rowling’s mind that must be expelled — are just as much about her battle with her “old man,” both in St. Paul’s sense (Colossians 3:9-10) and the Freudian “daddy.” No doubt an award winning critical biography that we won’t read for at least another twenty years will have this as its heart; even more certainly, “the personal heresy” of interpreting books less for their meaning to the reader and more as projected autobiography will be much of what poses as critical understanding of the books in the short term.

(4) About the new names and Ms. Rowling’s comments about wanting to lay out what happens post Epilogue to her characters so she can control what happens to them (i.e., that they belong to her): the conversation in the ‘old flat’ kitchen caught Ms. Rowling in the conflict of letting go of the Potter world that has become her public persona (“world famous author of the best selling Harry Potter books”) and, inevitably, as the fame and wealth have redefined all her relations with the world, her private identity. If she is able to move on to other projects and never return to Harry’s world for the story of Albus Severus and Lorcan Scamander, I will be both surprised and delighted. Mr. Runcie’s interview with Ms. Rowling caught her surety about what she should do and confusion about her ability to do that; given the internal identity issues and equally enabling external pressures, it will be a superhuman achievement to walk away from the attention and approval she didn’t get from daddy.

As much as I love Harry Potter, I hope very much her husband, friends, and whatever else she gets for help in this sort of thing are able to support her in starting new and with something (“a political fairy tale”?) that will almost certainly be a bust in comparison with her debut novels.

As always, I covet your comment and correction.


  1. Mr. Runcie comments when Ms. Rowling writes out the names of Luna’s twin boys (Lorcan and Lysander) something about “Shakespearean names.” She smiles knowingly at him and nods while continuing with her chart and comments.

    In case you missed what Mr. Runcie was excited about (is he a Michael Moore look alike or is it just me?), Lysander is the name of the male lead in ‘Midsummer’s Night Dream.’ There aren’t a set of Lorcan/Lysander twins in Shakespeare.

    The question is, why does Ms. Rowling name one of the twins “Lysander Scamander”? Mr. Runcie thinks it is a hat tip to Shakespeare. The more obvious reasons are that it is a Scamander family name and damn funny (go ahead and say it out loud a few times; this guy is either joining Albuss Ssseveruss in Sslytherin or skipping Hogwarts entirely for life as a Gilbert and Sullivan show star).

    But Mr. Runcie may have a point. Lysander’s girl in ‘Midsummer’s Night Dream’ is Hermia, which almost certainly is an alchemical, or “hermia-tic” point. Harry has given daughter Lily Luna two hermetic names from the albedo and Hermione has named one of her sons HuGo as a pointer to mercury, too. Maybe the Lysander thing is more than a family bit; if so, it rests on the Shakespeare link.

  2. And this according to the site’s dashboard is comment #3,000. Hurrah!

  3. Travis Prinzi says

    I haven’t had a chance to watch the show yet, but I’m quite pleased to hear that Rowling is “Anglican,” primarily because it lends even more credence to the thesis of chapter three of my forthcoming book!

  4. I thought it was excellent, just excellent. It’s a must-own if it gets to video. The scenes when she returns to the church which she and her sister cleaned as children (and finds her name still written in the parish book), or when she returns to her flat during some of the worst days of her life – but also where she began in earnest to write the series – and sees on the shelves of the current residents the Harry Potter books, or when the filmmaker ties Jo’s recollections of her depression with visuals and Stephen Fry’s voice reading about Dementors, or when she wishes for a cigarette (but can’t have one, would have to have 40), or when she finishes Deathly Hallows in the Edinburgh hotel, or when her husband talks very honest about Jo while riding a private jet, or her wonderful interactions with her now-grown up sister, I could go on – but there were so many great scenes and far more of what I have been looking for – what influenced her writing and how did she do it.

    Her story is nothing but inspiring. What a wonderful way to begin the New Year.


  5. colorless.blue.ideas says

    Does anybody have a link which actually works? I’ve tried three browsers, Firefox, Konqueror, and Mozilla, without success. Each shows an area where it looks like a flash (swf) movie should go, but nothing else. Grrr. Or, if anyone can download and pass it on? Or can point towards a fix?

  6. An excellent use of one’s time! Thanks for the heads up and link. I have now watched it twice. Once, as it was slowly downloading (which led to some interesting observations) and again through without commercials and at normal speed. The quirks of fandom!

    1) The scenes in the church of her childhood are extraordinarily sensitively filmed. I was struck by the aura of anchorage and hope in JKR’s demeanor and her obviously -in spite of the film crew- abandonment to wonder and memory here. I don’t think it was acted, but a genuinely spontaneous reaction to the mysteries of life (bios) and life (zoe).

    2) The quirk of downloading gave me several seconds to study her signature in one of the book signing moments. Beneath her name she drew a flourish which was a rather impressive standard fish (ICHTHYS) facing to the left. As the downloading progressed, I observed the same in at least one other signature. I doubt I am imagining it, though I admit I may be, but this is -if deliberate, and possibly more so if unconscious- as sure an identity as Christian in these postmodern times as it was among early believers in Rome!

    3) Her baptism at age eleven was obviously a conscious choice. Despite the ups and downs of her subsequent life, she chose to be a believer. In the absence of an express repudiation of that choice, it must be a major component in her life (bios/zoe). “Marked as Christ’s own, forever” certainly shines through.

    4) I was struck by the resemblance between her problems in “giving”. The words she used were remarkably similar to those expressed by CS Lewis in regards to the same matters. The articulation of her efforts to MS research and the assistance of children remind me of Him Whom she declared her Lord at age eleven.

    A truly remarkable film commentary by the interviewer and interview-ee. I think the best articulation of the driving force behind JKR and HP will not be the “personal heresy” (though here I think you are prophetic about the next couple of decades, Professor) but the “personal belief system”. Jo clearly states that she desires to be remembered as “someone who did the best she could with the talents she had”. I think she here alludes to both the worldly context from which Our Lord draws the parable of the talents and the spiritual application which He made. Jo seems to be seeking the Divine Accolade and not merely the famous. I would not be surprised if she turns in later life to pursuits such as those Dorothy L. Sayers made. In fact, I shall be expecting it. (Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams could hardly do better than ask her to submit a play for production at Canterbury, now could he?)

  7. James Runcie also told us that she was baptised in that very church when she was 11 years old. That is important. It shows: (a) that her parents didn’t bring her to baptism when she was a child, and (b) that the dicision to ask for baptism must have been her own very concious decision. It corresponds with what she told in that dutch interview some weeks ago about her turn to faith in her early teens, in spite of the non-religious atmophere in her family home at that time. I agree with your description of her return to (reluctant) belief as a grown up, John. Remember: She was sitting in the very church of her own youth when she – hesitated for a moment – and then said «Yes!», she believes in God, whith a growing firmness in her voice as she elaborated. It was a wonderfull interview, absolutely.

    Odd Sverre Hove
    Bergen, Norway

  8. John happy new year! and many thanks for recommending the documentary and providing the link. I agree with you that it is well worth catching before it is taken off air.

  9. A bit of a correction. In describing the book signing, I said the ICHTHYS-type flourish was inscribed to the left. That would have been from the book-owner’s perspective standing opposite Jo. From the author’s side of the table, the head would have been facing to her right. And there was no dot-placement for an eye as sometimes (but not usually) seen.

  10. Mrs. Weasley says

    John and others who have seen this – in going to the tvCatchUp link, I find that I have to register and in doing so verify that I am a citizen of the UK with a valid television license. Since I am not a UK citizen, is there another way I can see this program? Or did I already miss out? I sure hope not . . . thanks for any help you can provide.

  11. The program has been taken off tvCatchup for those without UK licenses (those with them can find the show by clicking on the “most viewed” or “most comments” buttons; it was leading in “most viewed” by 9783 to 764 when I checked). Even the trailers have been removed from YouTube because of copyright complaints by the rights holders. Unless you have friends in the UK who are savvy about downloading this sort of thing. I think our best bet at seeing this documentary again will be as a DVD extra on the Prince package.

  12. Couldn’t find the best place for this post…

    Article in “The Banner”, a Christian denominational magazine, regarding the issues of good and evil in the books. The discussion on this website is obviously beyond this, but this article is a sign that some groups of previously anti-Potter Christians are waking up to the reality of Christian themes permeate the books. I’ll be interested to see what all comes to the “letters to the editor” in the next issue!


  13. Mrs. Weasley says

    Thanks for checking this out for us, John. I had pretty much figured out that something must have changed from the time you posted the link until the time I tried to get ito it. Alas, a day late and a dollar (or perhaps a pound?) short. I sincerely hope it will be on the HBP package, especially since all of you who were lucky enough to see it gave it such glowing reviews.

  14. I’m so glad that I watched it when I did. It wasn’t properly loading, so there were many pauses while it caught up with itself, but I was able to see all of it.

    I thought, like many of you, that it was wonderfully done and very insightful. It gave me (us) a glimpse of who Jo Rowling is, not just through her words in Harry Potter. It was very inspiring, actually. I do hope that they include it on one of the DVDs as I’d like to watch it again.

    I thought Runcie’s questions and commentary showed that he had spent a great deal of time actually observing Jo and listening to what she says, rather than just what fandom thinks they’ve heard.

    Seeing her visit her childhood church and her flat, and hearing her talk of her father gives one a lot better understanding of the books, I think. I’m so very glad that she agreed to it–she must have a lot of respect for Runcie to be so open about very personal areas of her life. Her father is still living, right? I can’t imagine what he must feel if he heard what she had to say about him–or perhaps none of that is a surprise. Still, I find it very sad when children and parents aren’t able to reconcile.


  15. Coppinger Bailey says

    Ah! I missed it! I got very excited & started to watch it immediately yesterday when I first read John’s post. But then I got interrupted by a little person needing design assistance with a Lego starship.

    I decided to wait until all would be quiet around the house & I could really watch. I came back here to click the link & load it up again, and POOF! it had e-vanished.

    Thanks muchly to those of you who watched & are posting about it. Hopefully it will be released for broader consumption in the future!

  16. A HogPro All-Pro has written me to say the film is still available at the link if you sign in and click on a region of the UK you think you are from. I have restored the link, consequently, in the main post above for those with UK ancestry (don’t we all?) or a touch of philo-brittania. The show will be available until later in February. G’day, mate.

  17. Coppinger Bailey says

    Yea!!!! Thanks so much to John & the All Pro!

    Lucky for me I just traced 2 ancestors back to mid-1700’s County Down & one back to Devon circa 1600. No joke!

    The documentary was fantastic. My favorite parts were the return to the flat in Leeds and the ongoing thread throughout the documentary regarding “fame” as compared to the personal rewards of perseverance & a job well done. I do think it would be quite surreal to be sitting in a room of Hollywood execs & others trying to please YOU. The American Idol commercials running in between the documentary segments were a perfect counterpoint to that theme. “I WANT TO BE THE NEXT AMERICAN IDOL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” 🙂

    I will have to find some quiet time & watch it again before it comes down. If it is ever released on DVD, I will buy it. Those of you who may resist signing-in to have access to the video should re-consider. I usually refuse to do it in most online circumstances, but this one was worth it!

  18. Coppinger Bailey says

    I have a question for Dr. Amy, John, & the other HogPros that engage in literary analysis/critcism professionally. This question is related to John’s point (1) above.

    How does this type of documentary contribute to literary analyses of Ms. Rowling’s work & life? Does primary source material such as this change the approach or present new opportunities/challenges for a scholar?

    It struck me this morning how incredibly unusual this documentary is with regards to providing source material on an author’s background & intentions. It seems to me that participating in such a documentary gives Ms. Rowling some control over how others now & in the future interpret her life & writing. Much like her comment, for example, that it was important to her to map out the next generation of the families in the Epilogue because the characters are hers. It would appear equally, if not more important to her given the mass media world of today, that she have her own say about her life experiences & the history of Harry’s story.

    This type of access to an author’s personal history via such a audio/visual media would be a relatively new phenomnenon, I think. The primary source material for examing authors even 50-100 years ago would seem to be, at best, first-hand written journals or maybe audio recordings. That leaves room for quite a bit of interpretation & conjecture by a scholar looking into such an author’s life. Through this documentary, Ms. Rowling has made very clear statements about her personal hopes & fears, family relations, friendships, religious faith, & managing her wealth and fame.

    Anyway, I just wanted to learn some thoughts from you experts on this subject. Thanks!

  19. Dr. Amy Sturgis and I usually part company on this issue because as a historian as well as a literary critic she is interested in knowing everything about the author as well as the cultural event this has become to comprehend the Potter Phenomenon. As a rule, I don’t care about interviews, movies, biographies, Personal Heresy interpretations, and media events; if it ain’t confirmation of what is in the books or throw a strong light on the author’s meaning, what it must be is a distraction from the text and dissipation of the effect of text on reader.

    I’m softening on this, largely because of the possibility that the author is crafting a Potter-Silmarillion that will illumine the artistry of how she chose to put the books together (to include what she left out and why) and because of productions like this teevee program. If this had been another ‘Open Book Tour’ collection of Skeeter sound-bites, I would only have been confirmed in my opinion that it would be better for the future of her books if Ms. Rowling’s celebrity role disappeared. That isn’t going to happen for reasons good and not so good (her charity work and the Potter Industry, respectively). I am resigned to following the show as it plays out, to continue focusing on the texts — look at all those quizzes! — and to hoping we see more documentaries or media moments that are comparable to the excellent ‘Year in the Life’ production by the son of a former Archbishop of Canterbury.

    I hope that answers your question, at least as much as you asked for what I think. I look forward to reading Dr. Sturgis’ response.

  20. After seeing the interview a while back and just now reading John’s comments, I am beginning to think about how Jo’s relationship with her father influenced her portrayal of James Potter. We finally get to see Lily and James in OotP after hearing from so many about how wonderful this couple was. Harry carries around an idealized view of his parents for the first four books. And Lily seems to live up to the dream: kind, sensitive and caring, if a bit strong-willed and stubborn.

    With James, however, Harry’s rose-colored glasses are knocked from his face and crushed. His father could easily be called mean, hateful, taunting and arrogant. Even though Harry does continue to love his father, the reader never receives a justifiable motivation for James’s actions toward Severus. James’s character seems to be seriously flawed but forgiven and loved.

    So even though Jo has surrounded Harry with wonderful father figures to make up for the father she never had, as she alluded to in the interview, she still gave Harry a real father who fails to live up to the dream.

  21. Apologies to Coppinger Bailey, John, and all. Please forgive my delayed reaction to this fascinating thread. As the first week of the new semester began, I managed to fall rather ill, but I’m armed with antibiotics and other medications now and I’m doing my best to catch up on all of these great conversations (and drink lots of fluids, and eat lots of soup, etc.).

    As our dear Hogwarts Professor mentioned, I do like to have as much contextual information as possible to take into consideration when evaluating things like a text’s meaning and importance; blame it on the fact I’m a historian by training. I do think contributions such as this remarkable documentary present great opportunities and challenges for scholars. On the one hand, despite its obvious merits, there is no disguising the fact this is a staged and highly manipulated (not necessarily in a bad sense) work; the creators and participants had planned goals and were self-conscious of the kind of messages they were sending with each frame and each word. I certainly wouldn’t consider this the end point of any investigation into Rowling’s world. That said, I think it’s a remarkable gift that must be considered when evaluating what Rowling understood herself to be doing by creating these works, and what they mean.

    I think of how the scholarly dialogue about one of my other favorite authors, H.P. Lovecraft, currently functions. According to recent estimates, Lovecraft wrote more than 100,000 letters – detailed, thorough letters – to readers and fellow writers and members of amateur press associations about his craft, his works, and his intentions behind his art. Students of Lovecraft are still scratching the surface of these texts, more than half a century after his death. Imagine, instead of having to sift throught these letters as one of the the only means of having a glimpse into his personal and creative mind, getting the “Power Point Presentation” version of who he was, why he did what he did, and what it meant to him. Of course, there are many more factors to take into consideration when evaluating literature – certainly there can be much more in a work than what the writer realizes or intends – but what an incredible and generous starting place to offer anyone who wants to delve further into a story!

    So I am optimistic, on the whole, when I think that we have the chance to capture the final moments of the writing of a pathbreaking series on film, for example. Certainly, Rowling might have acted differently if the cameras weren’t trained on her. But to have this kind of instant, immediate, intimate access documented for our consumption and consideration, and to have the luxury of her answers committed to film, gives us a great head start. We can’t accept it wholesale, but then again we can’t accept letters, notes, even diaries uncritically, either. And what fantastic foresight it shows to have caught J.K. Rowling at these moments, and not five years or fifteen years after the fact.

    Yes, I am very heartened by these new kinds of resources. It’s a good time to be reading, and asking questions, and wanting to know more. 🙂

  22. campusjockey.com says

    Individuals who have diabetes must make use of the glycemic index to pick ingredients,
    particularly among carbohydrates. Add 3 table spoon of cinnamon in 1
    liter of boiling water. Their age, over 40, also puts him more at an increased risk.

  23. online dating profile headlines says

    Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a
    really well written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and come
    back to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post.
    I will definitely comeback.

  24. Chris Calderon says

    In terms of her religious belief, it’s interesting to compare how Ms. Rowling relates to the Faith, with the way Mythopoeic author’s like T.S. Eliot and James Joyce related to theirs. I say this only in the sense of pointing out how interesting it is that those who can in some ways become influential in Christian thought or philosophy are often those who have, I wouldn’t call it a unique way of looking at The Thing, it’s just that they are able to see elements in Orthodoxy that even most Christians are often not able to grasp. I guess this must come from a combination of perceptive insight and perhaps a bit of Imagination.

    For instance, take Flannery O’Connor. It took me a while to realize, whether she knew it or not, that her most of her stories are a perfect illustration of what Lewis meant when he writes “Of course He isn’t safe; but He’s good”. Most of O’Connor’s writings, in particular Wise Blood and A Good Man is Hard to Find, demonstrate the more edgier aspects of Faith.

    I think the reason most people get so little out of it may have to do with what might be called the “Stained-Glass” Syndrome (to borrow a leaf from Lewis). Basically it’s what happens to people’s perception of Faith based upon appearances or First Introductions that are either unfulfilling, or perhaps just don’t go well for one reason or another. I don’t know exactly what’s the cure for this phenomenon, as often it’s one of those cases where those in charge of spreading the Word are responsible for keeping others from hearing.

    Anyway, writer’s like Eliot and Joyce were apparently the same way, in seeing the Romance in Orthodoxy. I’d like to think Ms. Rowling and Joyce would have hit it off if they’d ever met. Who knows.

  25. telephone reading says

    Hello, Neat post. There’s an issue together with your web site in webb explorer, may
    checkk this? IE nonetheless is the marketplace leader aand a big part of other folks will leave out
    your excelleent writing due to this problem.

  26. Just desire to say your article is as astonishing. The clarity to your post is just
    great and i could assume you’re knowledgeable in this subject.

    Well with your permission let me to take hold of your feed to keep updated with forthcoming post.
    Thank you one million and please carry on the enjoyable work.

Speak Your Mind