J.K. Rowling with Simon Armitage the Poet Laureate – The Interview

More than two weeks ago, The Hogwarts Professor, John Granger posted the extended version of J. K. Rowling’s interview with the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, Simon Armitage. (Saved for posterity by Patricio Tarantino of The Rowling Library.) Mr Armitage is an excellent interviewer, and Ms Rowling seems to be more at ease than I remember her being for a very long time. Because she is so relaxed, perhaps, she has revealed more new information than many were expecting.

I fully expect serious readers to be discussing this interview for some time to come. In an absolutely herculean effort Mary Granger has created a typescript of the hour long interview to aid our studies. I have only filled a few gaps caused I suspect by Simon’s lovely (but strange perhaps to the American ear) Yorkshire accent. If you do spot any errors. please let me know in the comments below.

SA: So here is a sentence I never thought I’d hear myself say. – My guest in the shed today is J. K. Rowling, and in terms of an introduction, I don’t think anything else in necessary. Other than to say welcome and thanks so much for dropping by.

JK: It’s an absolute pleasure to be in your shed instead of my shed.
SA: With other guests, on previous conversations when I’ve started to talking about sheds, it’s triggered memories of childhood for them. Did sheds figure in your upbringing?
JK: Yeah, very much so, but it was my father’s space so it made it quiet a scary space. But I built a structure in the garden that I called the writing room. There’s a lot of wood – it’s got a very shed-like roof…

SA: Is this where you live now?

JK: …at our house in Edinburgh, and that’s where I do ninety percent of my writing. But do you always write in here? Because I can write anywhere, and sometimes the mood grabs you in the bathroom so I’ve been known sometimes to lie flat on the bathroom floor and just type or write. But mostly I write in the writing room.
SA: Yeah I prefer It when it’s warm. Probably not as warm as it is today – it’s stifling. But the good thing about being out here is there’s no internet.
JK: Exactly – I haven’t got internet out there either. So if I want to look something up I have to walk back over to the kitchen and connect. Maps normally. Because when I’m writing my detective books I often need to work out routes and distances and alibis.
SA: They have to be forensically correct.
JK: Yeah, well that’s the copy editor’s job isn’t it? I make the mistakes and she comes along and says no that can’t happen. And you have to go back and rewrite it. But I try, I really try and get it right on the first attempt.
SA: My approach to research tends to be write it first and then go look it up afterwards.
JK: Yeah, well … the worst one I ever did in the Galbraith books was I put the queen’s golden jubilee in the wrong year. Which you’d think … you would think… but I’m appalling with knowing years when things happen. Which is why I won’t ever be able to write any memoirs because I can’t remember when things happened. That’s got me into trouble more than once. So yeah, my editor was very kind. He didn’t laugh at me.
SA: We work with our imagination, don’t we.
JK: Well part of what I like about writing the Galbraith books is that I am engaging with the real world which I find very satisfying after 17 years of just being in a completely imaginary world. So I really do enjoy the research part of the Galbraith books but you’re right, my forte is not meticulous accuracy. So it’s very lucky that there are a couple of nets to catch me when I fall which I frequently do.

SA: We all need editors don’t we? But the shed was… sort of an out of bounds space, was it, before?
JK: Yeah, but that makes it of course mysterious and interesting, and I love the look and the smell of wood – I love this place you’ve got here. Which isn’t helpful to anyone listening. But I can see owls. You’ve got pottery owls, a butterflies, this is very familiar to me because I’ve got little bits and pieces lying around in my writing room that have to do with my sort of internal life, like little object that I like…you know what I mean? It’s not a curated collection. I just have objects around that I find stimulating and pleasing.
SA: I once went to Robert Graves’s house in Deia in Majorca and his desk – this was after he died, and I think it’s become sort of a museum now, but his desk was covered in animal trinkets, you know carvings, ornaments, objects, sort of totem-istic things. None of them, I imagine, particularly valuable.
JK: Exactly. I’m not talking here…some of things, these little bits and pieces I’ve got in my writing room are little plastic objects, these aren’t valuable curios. I went to Hemingway’s house in Florida – do I mean Florida?

SA: We can get one of your editors?

JK: Someone call the copy editor and check which writing room I went to see because I’m so unlike my husband who literally isn’t happy unless he knows exactly where he is on a map. Now I don’t know north from west- I’m a bit clueless. Anyway, Hemingway’s writing room which you can actually enter was very like that. These very strange quite Hemingway-esque objects hanging around … wooden masks… it had been tidied, and of course you wish you could just have seen it in the messy state, well I don’t know about you but this shed is actually very tidy, my writing room is not a very tidy place. Unless you’ve tidied,  you could just pretend you tidied for me and it will make me feel better about the habitual state of my writing room.
SA: It’s a bit of a storeroom in the winter because I just sort of cram everything in here. It interests me with writers that no matter what sort of spaces and rooms we end up in and whatever houses we occupy and inhabit, a lot of people seem to want something smaller of human proportion to almost cocoon themselves in when they write, you know, bring things down to a slightly different scale.
JK: I think that’s spot on. I wanted a small space and it is small. But it’s got a view, and you’ve got the most magnificent view here. I don’t love writing in windowless spaces, although I have done it. But my ideal is definitely a room with a view.
SA: I’ve taken part in the Edinburgh book festival pretty much every year for the past 20 years, and I’ve had numerous cups of tea and cakes in Nicholson’s and the Elephant House, famously they were your haunts, weren’t they? Somewhere you’d go and write.
JK: They were, Nicholson’s at the time was co-owned by my brother in law so they were really sweet about me… I mean it’s a tough old business running restaurants, as I know from my chef brother in law. Their margins were tight and they were letting me take up one table and linger over one coffee. God bless them. And I tried to repay them by giving interviews in there. When Philosopher’s Stone was published I was thinking let’s give the restaurant some publicity as well because they’ve let me sit here over cooling coffee for so long. And I was in there years later and Dougal, one of the owners who was still there, he said to me “I’m glad you came – we’ve got about 6 Harry Potter books here for you to sign.” And I thought they were for the staff, so I said OK. And he said “Yeah and then I’ve got to send them back to people.” And I said, “What?” And he was just taking books from people who were coming in. And I said “You’re not even making them buy food! Dougal come on now!” I felt really bad. Yeah, Nicholson’s and the Elephant House Café I used to work in there a lovely space with a really great view of the castle. And I met the owner years later and he said “You never come in any more.” You know what, in a dream world, yes I’d still go in there, but it’s just not humanly possible any more to go in there and write. So I have to stop writing in cafes. I really loved it, but I just couldn’t any more.
SA: There’s a café in Huddersfield, It’s a chain of cafes called The Merry England which sort of fake Tudor cafes, and even though everything in Huddersfield has pretty much been removed at some point and replaced, these fake Tudor cafes have stayed there. We used to go in there. And they have a place in my heart because they’d let us just sit there writing our poems and try to be a Bohemian in Huddersfield in the 80’s, just somewhere, especially back in the day where you could go, because there wasn’t really that café culture, was there, where you could go in somewhere that was shabby chic and you could sit on a settee with your laptop, just somewhere to go, keep warm, write your poems and buy a cupper every now and again.
JK: Exactly, and I went to Edinburgh in late 1993 (I think I have that year right) I think straight from Portugal which does have a great café culture and I’d been sitting in nice warm cafes over there drinking endless cups of espresso outside … exactly it’s a totally different culture, and to get to Edinburgh was a hell of a culture shock.
SA: do you think we need sometimes that background chatter as well as writers. Occasionally I’ll be sitting here or in my study in the house and it’s too quiet. I want something that’s … I don’t know of this world without its being interference or distraction.
JK: That is perfectly expressed, that is exactly how I feel and I used to …. When I was completely anonymous, and completely free, it was exactly that – I really enjoyed being in the world, but in my world simultaneously. And I think it’s that… it’s being sometimes the silence can be a little spooky can’t it? When you’re living in your head and you do just want that thread still connecting you to the physical world. I used to love writing in cafes. Originally, the sort of urban legend which is actually true of Potter but it became part of the story of Potter… but this part is true…. My flat was bitterly cold – it was a glorified bedsit, so cafes were warm, and it was also true that I could only really work when my daughter was asleep because she was tiny and I did walk her around until she fell asleep and I would just think well I’ve got an hour and a half because she was quite a good napper, and then I’d run in and do maybe a quarter of a chapter or first draft of a quarter of a chapter or something.
SA: Having brought a daughter up in a traditional family it’s hats off to anybody who’s found time to write and do all the parenting at the same time.
JK: I actually owe Jessica a lot. A lot. Because, well among the many millions of things I owe her, one of the things I owe her is it really made me focus. My life was so .. I’d really messed up my life, that’s the way I saw it. But actually that stripped away all the inessential and I absolutely was at a point where I thought the worst that could happen here is that every publisher turns down this book. Big deal. Compared to what we’ve just survived. That’s nothing. And I am going to finish this book. And bless her, she was a real sweet-heart and she’s a real live wire when she was little. So when she was awake there wasn’t a lot I could do.. very occasionally you could persuade her to sit down and watch a video but I had to be in the room, participating in it with her. But I could sneakily write because it was all happening in the first book. Yeah, it was tough but at the same time it being tough really did make me focus and I feel like it’s a really great training. Because – I’m sure you get this question all the time – maybe it’s different for a poet – because I’m such an appalling poet. I have no idea how you do what you do but
SA: I just cut the lines off.
JK: That’s so funny. I want to write that. I have quotations painted on my writing room wall and I’m going to quote you “I just cut the lines off – Simon Armitage.” That’s brilliant. What the hell was I just saying? People ask me “Do you only write when you’re inspired?” In my head I say, “Well if I only write when I’m inspired I’ve written half a book.” A professional writer has to push through. We all love those brilliant moments of inspiration but it’s the work that you do after that that counts, or that’s the way I see it. So sometimes I read about writers having elaborate rituals – they have the candles and had to be in the perfect space and they had to have their house…

SA: CD of whale song!

JK: Exactly! I’m thinking I once wrote a paragraph of Harry Potter sitting on a public loo. That happened. It was the moment – I had no time, it’s got to happen, it’s going to happen now. So it made me very un-precious about the conditions I need to write and that was good because it meant I could raise my kids and keep going. Maybe they would have been better written if I hadn’t had that life, but that’s what it was. That’s just what it was.
SA: That loo is obviously going to turn up in Sotheby’s some day…
JK: I’m not going to tell anybody where that loo was… I can’t believe I’ve told you but that’s the truth.
SA: you kind of touched it Jo. on the issues about privacy. It’s a sort of contradiction among writers – we want to be acclaimed and known, but we need to be able to go about in the world incognito to observe it and not become detached from it. As one of the most successful writers of all time, is it possible to retain any kind of anonymity or invisibility.
JK: It is. But you’ve got to be smart about it. Obviously I don’t go and hang around the Harry Potter merchandising department stores. Stuff like that. In fact my son, we were in a department store…I didn’t know this department store at all and we turned left. And there was a whole lot of Harry Potter merchandise right in front of us. And there were some young people browsing it and I sort of turned to go and my son said, “How much will you pay me to stop me shouting ‘She’s here! JK Rowling’s here!’” I was half laughing and half ‘kind of’ terrified because he had that glint in his eye. Honestly I’m not that distinctive looking and I’m quite small and I do live a pretty normal life to be honest. I used to be maybe a bit naïve because I used to think, oh, people in Edinburgh don’t know who the hell I am and it never dawned on me that I’d become that recognizable, and then funnily enough and really touchingly actually I gave a donation to MS Research and the next time I went in town to one of my favourite cafes to write about 5 people walked up to me and said, look, I’ve seen you around, never wanted to disturb you, I just wanted to say my uncle’s got MS. But it was very very touching. I then realised oh actually, well I guess people have noticed me. But in context, I’m in Edinburgh, there are plenty of places I go and I don’t think anyone ever noticed me, which is great to be honest.

SA: It’s on a completely different scale, but I don’t really notice it but my wife does. We’ll be walking down the street and she’ll say “Oh you’ve just been outed.”
JK: My two younger kids call it ‘spottage’. It’s supposed to be code. And I’m like, it’s quite a transparent code but one of them will mutter to me “spottage is occurring”. This sounds very ungrateful, I have to say that. I’m sure you feel the same, readers coming up to you and saying, your book saved me in a dark moment, your book meant so much to me growing up. It’s the most incredible thing, and I love it. It’s a lovely wonderful thing. There were two things I would say though, one is exactly what you said, it is essential for us to … I never wanted to be a celebrity… that sounds ungrateful because obviously I’ve been enormously blessed. I wanted to be a writer and yes all of us think I hope people like the book, but things slightly overshot the mark in that respect… so some of it’s really beautiful but you do want that ability to just slip into the crowd and watch life. And then when I’m with my kids particularly, because everyone nowadays has got a camera, that’s kind of why we’ve got that word because often that means someone’s raised a camera and they’re filming, and I don’t want my family put on social media so that sort of stuff makes me a little bit edgy.
SA: If you put a quote of mine on your wall I’m now going to put yours on my wall which is “Things are overshot a little bit.”
JK: You can have it. Yup. That’s my gift to you.
SA: if it helps with the anonymity, I was in a supermarket in Huddersfield a few weeks ago and I saw on the shelf a Harry Potter cloak of invisibility for £19.99.
JK: Oh that’s kind of cheap but brilliant…
SA: Yeah, except that I could see it.
JK: Maybe it only works when you put it on.
SA: I hadn’t thought of that … I didn’t get to the sort of trying on stage. Let’s go on to a slightly different subject. I’ve always been fascinated by writers who go by their initials rather than their names T.S. Elliot, W.H. Auden, R.R. Thomas, J.R.R. Tolkien. Am I right in thinking your decision to be known as JK came about through a recommendation from your publisher?
JK: Partly right. I’ve actually never said part of this before. It is true that my publisher felt that this was a book that boys would also like and they were definitely were keen to unisex me a bit. This is the bit I’ve actually never said before. I actually wanted to publish under a completely different name because I’d come out of this very difficult marriage and I was a little bit paranoid. It was silly really because my ex husband knew what I had been writing. He never read it, but we’d talked about it. So if he ever heard about it I suppose he would have known it was me. But I didn’t imagine it was going to be a success, I didn’t imagine it was going to be in Portugal, but I was a little bit paranoid at the time…

SA: You thought it might make you vulnerable…
JK: I actually had a restraining order out against my ex husband. So as we got nearer to publication I thought maybe I’ll just publish this under a different name – I’ll have a pen name and that will be great. So JK Rowling actually suited me a bit to not have my name on there, but of course it is my surname. But I don’t really feel like JK…
SA: Did you have another name lined up if it wasn’t going to be anything with Rowling in it?
JK: Yeah, and funnily enough the surname I wanted to use was Oliver and I don’t really know why it was Oliver but it was. And I met the comedian John Oliver and it would have been like I was his sister. You come across these people with names that have such strange resonances. Anyway, there you are.
SA: Do you think that having a writing name that you’re kind of creating a writing persona. So when you’re loading the dishwasher or brushing your teeth you’re Joanne. But when you sit down to write you are JK Rowling or Robert Galbraith. Does something else come over you connected with the writing name?
JK: Honestly no. I feel disconnected who’s written about in the papers, but I think that’s quite a universal experience. I’m sure you’ve had that experience…
SA: …disembodied…
JK: Yeah, it’s this other entity that has a similar name that’s doing things you don’t always recognize even if they are things you did. No, the same person brushing her teeth and loading the dishwasher is definitely the one sitting down to write. Those people are all integrated – I don’t feel any different.

SA: I sometimes wonder about whether I could have gone around as SR Armitage – Robert is my middle name. My mum used to work in a school and they used to call her Mrs. Sarmitage – it all slid into one. JK’s good because it has a nice rhyming quality to it.
JK: This is such a coincidence because on the way to the airport this morning, my husband was driving me, because I can’t drive, he was talking about he doesn’t like the fact he doesn’t like his name Neil Murray – people never get it on the first go, they always go to Ian or Liam first. I don’t know even why we were talking about that, but yeah, Sarmitage, exactly.
SA: This is kind of a cliché fan-boy question about writing longhand or writing straight into the keypad, but I am genuinely intrigued when I talk to other writers about the process of making words. Do you still write things out into books?

JK: No, but I do still love writing longhand into books. So I have tons of notebooks and I write a lot of dialogue down, physically, I hand write a lot of dialogue, I write ideas down, I work out bits of plans by hand. It’s such a prosaic reason for writing longhand, but to me it’s important. You get to keep everything. With a computer, when it’s deleted, you can’t go back. You think, oh damn it, I know I planned a chapter there and I think that would have worked better, but it’s gone, it’s gone it’s gone. But I’ve learned to keep saving so I’ve got, you know, 52 versions of a plan. Just make sure you save and go again. But I love looking over my old notebooks. It’s a true record of where everything came from.
SA: I always say to my students that it’s good to build a sort of archaeology of your work that you can look back on, even if it’s just about seeing your mistakes…
JK: …exactly…
SA: …where it went wrong because you’re right, deleting everything leads to this idea that something was perfected…
JK: …exactly…
SA: from the beginning. Is there a JK Rowling archive somewhere?
JK: Nope. No, it’s all … I’ve got it all. I was talking to Ian Rankin about this the other day because he’s donated his papers to the National Library of Scotland. I think that’s right.
SA: You’ve got all yours…
JK: Yeah, I’ve got all mine. I’m not really sitting on them, it’s just, I don’t know what I’m going to do with any of it. Part of me thinks I’ll just have a big bon fire…
SA: Don’t do that…
JK: I don’t know… you know Nabokov said that awful thing about people exhibiting samples of their first draft. It’s like passing around samples of sputum. That’s one of the quotations I’ve got on my writing room wall. And I do feel like it’s passing around samples of sputum.
SA: I keep a notebook and I noticed at one point that I was getting very self conscious about it. So when I approached the notebook, it wasn’t a notebook any more it was some sort of artefact and it wasn’t doing its job, it wasn’t a place I could make mistakes any more, and also I started putting stickers in there as well, of I don’t know luggage tags and train tickets and labels from wine bottles and it got to the point where I couldn’t even write in it…
JK: …that’s hysterical…
SA: it was so bloated.

JK: No, my notebooks are not like that. You told me to bring a meaningful object. Well, there are two objects in my house that I should say for people who can’t actually see what I’m showing Simon. These are two miniscule, very old notebooks, and these were my first Potter notebooks. And to date only three people including me have ever seen them. I’ve never shown people this because there are things in these notebooks that I just didn’t want seen…
SA: that’s amazing
JK: So I remember buying these in an art gallery in London in the early 90’s. I bought them both at the same time and I must have started writing in them in either 91 or 92 because this is such early stuff. They’re tiny little thin paperbacks ….
SA: …with sort of flowers on them …
JK: …yes. One’s got a reproduction of a Dutch still life and one’s got a William Morris type of cover. I nearly chickened out bringing these, Simon, I’m not going to show you the bit I’m talking about. Last night I took them down from the attic and I realized there’s an appalling poem in one of them. Oh my God I’ve just seen something even worse… if you would even glance over that … so there’s an appalling dark, very tragic poem…
SA: I want to hear it…
JK: Abs…you…I’m not reading that to a poet laureate, dear God. Well honestly it nearly stopped me bringing it.
SA: But they’re scribbled notes aren’t they … lists rather than paragraphs…
JK: …exactly. Because I was, at the time when I was jotting things into these notebooks, I had started writing properly. So old phone numbers in Portugal, doodles, reminders of things I’ve got to do, and then suddenly you’ve got a bit of dialogue that actually did end up in Philosopher’s Stone, the difference between stalactite and a stalagmite. Stalagmite has an m in it. But, says Harry, I think that’s as clear as an answer you could wish for said… , and that’s an old name for Dumbledore that I changed…
SA: What was it.
JK: I’m not going to tell you because it’s so rubbish… And this, I actually remember doing this. So I had a couple of books that were just random words from different cultures, magical spells, and a lot of that ended up in Potter. Like alohomora – it means favourable to thieves. And this is funny .. password for Slytherites – they were called Slytherites before but they became Slytherins. I love looking back at this because there are names here that I didn’t use until I hit Fantastic Beasts. Like Pique which is the French word for spade, as in cards. I wanted to have a cartomancy teacher – I changed this when I started writing the book. But at one point, and I was going to have this French guy who was a ghost, but the ghost became Professor Bins and I called him Piques, and then when I created the American Ministry for Fantastic Beasts I used Picquery from this word. So it’s exactly what you just said, it’s archaeology. I was trying work out who all the teachers were and one in of these books I’ve got the names of everyone’s name in Harry’s year with little notes on them. …Now that’s the terrible poem, we’ll pass over that. I’d made a list in this book of the stuff I needed to sort out before leaving my ex husband. Leaving was kind of tricky. So yeah,
SA: It’s fiction mixed with …
JK: It’s fiction, autobiography, practical stuff, very strange poems. And then this, this is one of the main reasons I’ve never … My ex husband and I used to play gin rummy a lot and at this time he and I were the only two human beings on earth who knew the names Dumbledore and Voldemort. And I called myself Dumbledore and he’d have to be Voldemort and that’s his handwriting, calling me Hermione and himself Harry. He was not very like Harry Potter.
SA: Who won?
JK: Well you’ll be pleased to see I actually thrashed him both times. And as that’s his handwriting you can be quite sure …
SA: They’re incredible, Jo…
JK: So.. yes. It’s you, so I thought I had to show you this. And here are the names of all the people in Harry’s year… I’ve said… that means pure blood actually… Lavender Brown… that means pure blood… because that was it… Oh! a bird just hit the window!

[Bird hit the window]
SA: It’s a bird! It came in and it’s gone… It’s an omen… It’s an blue tit…
JK: It’s an omen saying never take that terrible poem out of the attic ever again.
SA: You’ve got the book of spells out!
JK: And then there are just random thoughts that I was having, some of which were very dark, it’s just … these mean so much to me, these two little books because cheek by jowl you’ve got the whole list of Harry’s year, all the names I was going to use for 17 years, all with these little annotations to remind me who they were, and then…
SA: …just read that little list there you have…

JK: Abbott, Hannah; Bones, Susan; Boot, Trevor; Brocklehurst, Mandy; Brown, Lavender; Bullstrode, Millicent; Corner, Michael; Cornfoot, Stephen… On an on and down they go but I’m pretty sure Malfoy wasn’t called Malfoy at this point, yeah, because I wrote him in , yeah, Draco Malfoy I wrote him in…
SA: And you’ve got little symbols…
JK: Yeah, symbols to remind me their ancestry because I wanted to balance the wizard-borns and muggle-borns and then Houses – Slytherin used to have a y in in – Slygerite – that’s where that came from, and then it became Slytherin. So yeah. And then cheek by jowl with all of this I’ve got really dark jottings about what I was going through at the time. So this is about the most personal thing … these mean so much to me. And do you know what, the fact that they’re tiny and cheap means they travelled around …

SA: And also used and creased aren’t they?

JK: they’re really easy to shove into your bag or back pocket…
SA: They’re not precious … they are precious…
JK: The most precious things are not the things you don’t consciously .. do you know what I mean?
SA: Yeah.
JK: Like, I’ve always been aware that if I showed someone this there are people who would be almost disappointed. “That’s where Potter started? I was expecting a tooled leather book with a quill!” And you think, no that’s never where this stuff starts. It always starts in a very ordinary place in very ordinary little notebooks. And there you go.
SA: We’re doing this in reverse now because you pre-empted the feature in the show and tell…
JK: I’m so sorry…
SA: No it’s great to do things differently. And thank you so much for showing me those books – That is absolutely incredible. And I’m worried now that my show and tell is not going to live up to that. Also we’ve missed out on the feature signature tune for the show and tell. So we can do that in reverse. I’ve been writing haikus in the shed this summer and the most famous haiku of all time is Basho’s haiku about a frog jumping in to a pond. So would you like as your little signature tune back dated to the show and tell feature the sound of the frog, or the sound of the frog jumping into the pond?
JK: Pond.
SA: Pond. OK. Here it comes.
JK: I love that!

SA: That’s the frog. It will come into play later. So my show and tell, actually it’s not completely unconnected to yours there. I had no pedigree in writing, so the fact that I started writing poetry was completely unexpected by everybody including myself, and I’ve said before, I don’t know if you felt the same, but it never gets any better than seeing your first thing.
JK: No.
SA: … in print because you’ve gone from nothing to something so that increases completely exponentially. The acceleration is .. you never repeat that. I think it might be for that reason that I kept this. This is my first royalty check.
JK: Gasps
SA: Was that even royalties? It was for a poem published in a magazine in Lester called “Other Poetry.” And this is the check. And it’s dated the thirteenth of the eighth 1987. And it is for the glorious sum of 2 pounds.
JK: And I bet you’ve never made a better 2 pounds.
SA: No. Exactly. And never cashed it in either.
JK: That should be in a frame on this wall. I love that you’ve still got that. That’s amazing.
SA: Yeah. I don’t know whether at the time I didn’t cash it out of complacency or whether …
JK: Plenty more to come where that came from … I see poet laureate in my future! …. Hahaha As if any of could think that.
SA: Yeah, I think it is like your notebooks there some kind of seed or cornerstone or something that everything else was going to be based on and grow from.
JK: Yeah, exactly that.
SA: talking about beginnings. I was thinking about the poet Cædman. So he was a farm hand in the abbey at Whitby and this is as The Venerable Bede tells the story in the 7th century. And there is a splendid occasion going on in the hall and Cædman because he is uneducated, can’t write, can’t sing, goes out into the barn and a song comes to him with lyrics about the creation of the world and he tells somebody about this. And it becomes the first poem ever. In English. So Cædman’s hymn is known as the first ever English poem. Written by a farm hand who couldn’t write and had no education. It’s probably a myth, but it’s a great story. And I think we’ve all got stories about where we started writing that have the truth in them or versions of the truth. Now this is my way of asking you about you conceiving the Harry Potter series on a train from Manchester to London when it was delayed.
JK: That is completely true and even I sometimes think, that is true, isn’t it, because I’ve told the story so many times but it’s a really vivid memory. That’s the truth, Yeah. That’s what happened.
SA: How long was the train delayed for?
JK: I honestly couldn’t tell you. But it was delayed and it was packed and I just sat and thought and thought and thought and I had been writing, this is all literally all – what I ever wanted to do. From my earliest childhood when I understood that someone wrote the books that my mother was reading to me I wanted to write books. So that never changed. There was nothing else I ever wanted to do. But I’d never been so excited about an idea. I’d never even considered writing a book for children. I’m not sure if I ever initially really thought children’s book because I was just thinking about the ideas. I mean obviously it was a children’s book but you know what it’s like – you don’t conceive of things from the outside in, you think about them from the inside out. I think. So all these ideas are firing in my head and I got home and started writing. That piece of paper I haven’t got. I don’t know what became of that piece of paper. Because of course you don’t know, do you. But I have a very early piece … my kind of first attempt to actually begin the story I do still have that – which is very different. It started initially in a very different way. And then over 7 years as I was building and building this world the first book really changed shape as well.
SA: Is there somewhere in Staffordshire at the side of the train line a plaque…
JK: Haha. But again you know people – it always makes me laugh particularly with Potter because I just don’t know how many different places have claimed to be the real Diagon Alley and the real … and it grew up in my head in a grotty flat in Clapham. I hadn’t seen any of these places.
SA: Well it’s a work of imagination, isn’t it. Right. We come now to the one or the other feature. And this time, Jo, you’re going to have to have the frog noise if that’s all right.
JK: That’s all right. I’m OK with that.
[Frog noise]
JK: If I’d known that was the frog noise, ….
SA: Yeah, well that’s what happens. People do that you see, jump in for the pond noise thinking it’s going to be exotic – lots of splashes that kind of thing, and then they see a little wooden frog with a drum stick …
JK: I love that.

SA: It’s gorgeous isn’t it.
JK: That is really gorgeous.
SA: So – one or the other.
JK: Go on then,
SA: Day or night?
JK: I am a night owl and I’ve done some of my best work at night so I’m probably going to have to say night.
SA: Spring or autumn?
JK: That’s really tough. I would have said Autumn, but I think because I’m getting older I’m going to say spring.
SA: Witches or wizards?
JK: Witches every time.
SA: Museum or gallery?
JK: Oh now that really depends on the gallery and less on the museum. So I’m probably going to have to say museum.
SA: Suzy and the Banshees or the Slits?
JK: Mmmmm… it’s the Slits.
SA: Passenger seat or driver’s seat?
JK: Well I can’t drive so I think everyone will be happy to know that I’m normally in the passenger seat.
SA: Everybody will be safer.
JK: Yeah much safer.
SA: Middle Earth or Narnia?
JK: Narnia
SA: North or South?

JK: Probably north.
SA: Lightning or rainbow?
JK: Lightning – I love storms.
SA: JRR Tolkien or CS Lewis.
JK: Well I know I’ve just said Narnia.
SA: You can compensate now if you want.
JK: Pretty much a dead heat.
SA: God or no God?
JK: Oh come on. I mean I can’t do this.
SA: I asked my mum and my dad once to choose between children
JK: That’s terrible – how shocking! Why would you ask them to choose between children!
SA: You can play a pass on that one then. Ruth Rendell or PD James
JK: That is a killer question.
SA: You’re making me I’ve chosen the questions very well.
JK: yeah you have. You really have. That’s a killer question. Do you know what? I’m going to say James but it’s by such a tiny margin.
SA: Ghosts or no ghosts
JK: Well that’s like the God or no God question because I’m sort of yes and no.
SA: wine or whiskey
JK: Oh whiskey, definitely.
SA: Dog or cat
JK: Dog

SA: Arthur’s Seat or Glastonbury Tor?
JK: Oh come on! Arthur’s Seat.
SA: I’m going back to this thinking about growing up with my sister because we used to argue about it all the time. Washing up or drying.
JK: That’s so funny! Right, which one did you hate?
SA: I hated washing up.
JK: Well we both hated drying –
SA: Really? You and your younger sister
JK: Yeah, younger sister. We were a year and 11 months apart. And we both always wanted to wash which in retrospect why? Because nowadays I would choose dry.
SA: The washing was always a bit messy and you had to touch wet sloppy food and the drying you could sort of put it off. You would think I’ll do it later on, but which time you were going out.
JK: We did not live in that sort of household where we could put those sorts of things off. And also it was quite a cold house so maybe it was just the hot water. Thinking back, that’s probably what it was.
SA: Delving into the warm embryonic fluid… Last one. Immortality or omnipotence.
JK: I think they’d both be terrible. I wouldn’t want either of them because immortality is useless to me. All my loved ones would die, unless they were all immortal together, but even then I have questions about immortality. And omnipotence what a burden. I can’t fix everything in the world but I would be expected to and I would know things that I didn’t want to know. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
SA: There’s not much to choose there is there?
JK: Not really.
SA: OK. Why crime fiction, Jo? Why detective fiction?
JK: I always wanted to do it. And I think probably I would have done it before Potter if I’d had the right idea. Although I think I needed to have lived a bit more than I had… I say that … By the time I finished Philosopher’s Stone I’d lived quite a lot. But when I had the first idea I was just 25 and I hadn’t … you know .. I’d been through some experiences… I’d been out in the world, and I was working but I didn’t maybe have the breadth of experience that I then managed to bring to the series. And I think for crime fiction it’s good to have knocked around a bit, met a lot of different kinds of people, and maybe shed some of your innocence.
SA: Was it something that you were reading a lot?
JK: Yeah, my idea of a fun beach read is a whodunnit -for sure- and in my teens I read tons of golden age detective writers – all the big women; Christie and Sayers and Allingham and Marsh I read, loved Sherlock Holmes , who doesn’t. It was something I always wanted to do. I really enjoy the construction of plots. I love my detective due, I really love writing them, it’s a nice combination.
SA: When you chose another pseudonym for the books…
JK: I wanted to not be JK Rowling. I just wanted not to be JK Rowling, I really did, and I’d always … I actually wrote the Cuckoo’s Calling which was the first Galbraith before I wrote the Casual Vacancy. And then it sat sort of around a bit and then I decided to start submitting in to publishers under a pseudonym.
SA: Was that nom de plume because you wanted to be judged by your writing and not by your reputation?
JK: It was a couple of things. I had this real craving to go back to this – and for the listeners, I am pointing at Simon’s cheque for 2 pounds. I wanted to go back to getting an honest rejection letter. I really mean that.
SA: You could have had some of mine.
JK: Oh, I had enough! don’t worry about that, I’ve got my own fair share, for both Galbraith and for Rowling. But I had reached the point where some of my reviews for Potter were reviewing my bank balance. And a good review is something you learn from, right? I’ve always felt that. Good or bad. Certainly not all reviews are … because I still did have some interesting and thoughtful reviews. But a lot of them really were reviewing me, and the phenomenon, and as I say – how much money I’d earned and it really had stopped being about the book for some reviewers. And I just had this craving for what I look back on very fondly, because we always forget how dark … it was to get those early rejection letters. I just wanted to go back to the simplicity of that. Then a couple of publishers did show an interest in Robert so then I went with Little Brown who said we will keep your secret. And I got away with it for a while. It would have been really nice to get away with it for a bit longer. I wanted to have the pure writing experience and not have to go out and be JK and it was wonderful while it lasted. And It was satisfying.
SA: I completely understand you are saying about the excitement of starting over, but was it daunting, having completed such a colossal project with the Harry Potter series, to think I’m starting from scratch now.

JK: I don’t think I ever felt daunted in the sense that now I have to begin again. Because I never … by 2000 I knew this will never happen again. You will never write anything a millionth as successful. So I knew that. I had made my peace by that. But when I finished Potter I felt bereft. Utterly bereft. It had been there through 17 years and the thing that the reader can never know is how it gave you to support you, you know, Potter had seen me through the death of my mother, the birth of my first child, the fairly ugly break-up with my first husband, it had seen me through poverty, and when I say seen me through poverty, I mean it was a joyful thing to be doing while I was poor, … it had been a constant – 17 years. And my poor husband Neil, he took me away for the weekend not long after I had completed DH, the seventh book, and we went to Venice and it was the most beautiful morning, and we were sitting at breakfast and he’s beaming across the table and I just burst into tears and I said to him, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s hit me, it’s him me, it’s over. It’s really … and I meant the writing, I knew I still had the … there was still the publication to come … I didn’t mean that I thought everyone would stop reading Harry Potter books the moment the last book was published, but the big part, the part that meant the most to me was oven and gone, and could not come again which was obviously the writing. And he was just a trooper and he just let me talk. I said it feels like a bereavement. And then when I started to think about writing again, honestly I didn’t feel daunted because I had made my peace with the fact that it couldn’t be Potter and I was just excited to have a new idea and start to working on something again.
SA: and you felt a huge enthusiasm.
JK: I genuinely did. I never felt scared or hamstrung, not because I felt wow I’m so good, anything I do, I’ve never felt that in my life. But it was more … this is what I love, and I’m back doing what I love and that is more important to me than anything … and that remains the case. That’s how I feel.
SA: You’ve touched this on this just now, but like everybody else in this world you’ve had a life of ups and downs and as writers we know that life brings sorrows as well as joys. Literary commentators are always keen, aren’t they, to read biography into fiction. So when it’s said for example that the Dementors are a metaphor for depression. Is that something you accept, were you deliberately trying to engineer plots that at some level would discuss you and your life, or did that come to you as a revelation afterwards.
JK: Well, it’s interesting you say the Dementors because the answer is 50/50. I consciously set out to embody depression. Not because I was trying to tell the world that I was depressed, not because I was trying to write biography, but because we do draw on our own experiences and my experience with depression was a very bad one, as it is for everyone who suffers from it. But at the same time it’s cathartic to take those things and turn them into fiction, particularly . . I wasn’t talking about somebody being literally depressed, I was turning depression into a creature. So that was very satisfying. At the same time I realized subsequently that their appearance owed everything to a dream I’d had when I was a child. That suddenly came back to me, I remembered the dream and I obviously knew exactly what the Dementors looked like, but I don’t even remember how long it was, but it might have been a couple of years before it suddenly clicked and I thought, that’s that dream. That’s why the Dementors look the way they look. And I had a dream when I was a child that I was hiding from a creature that looked just like a Dementor. The empty black cloak, and the withered hand, and it was drifting towards me, it didn’t seem to have feet, and I was terrified, and I woke up. I don’t know if this happens to you, but it’s often happened to me that I’ve written something, and then it’s come to pass in my life. And then by the time the book comes out, everyone assumes that you’re writing in response to… or you’re making a point about…, but the subconscious is an odd thing… sometimes it manifests things that haven’t yet manifested in the real world. Have you had that experience?
SA: Yeah, I have, and sometimes critics and commentators have pointed things out in the poems that I hadn’t realized that I recognize as true once they’re said. I don’t think we always know what we’re doing, do we?
JK: Definitely not. Definitely not. And the most clear cut example of that for me … people hearing me tell this story might think, well that’s so obvious, I can’t believe you could possibly have not realized that…but it is the truth. On the night that my mother died, but I wasn’t with her when she died… I was watching The Man who Would be King with Sean Connery and Michael Caine. So I later realized, when my father called to tell me that she died that while she was dying I had been watching that movie. In that movie, the masonic sign of the compass is important
SA: because it’s a Kipling…
JK: … from a Kipling story, exactly. My mum died in 1990 and I think Deathly Hallows had been out for 5 years when suddenly I realized why the Deathly Hallows looked like the Deathly Hallows did. The sign for the master of death looks remarkably like the masonic symbol. And even though it comprises three things that have been in the books from very early on, the symbol is made up of a representation of objects that have been there all along, I suddenly had this cold chill moment because I saw the film again for the first time since my mother had died, and my whole body went cold and I thought, your subconscious was working back towards that symbol. I had been writing Potter for 6 months before my mother died, and she never knew anything about it. And I realized in that moment why the hallows looked exactly as they look. And that was such a personal memory, and something no critic could have ever pointed out. I’ve also had that experience where critics have said something and I’ve said, yup that’s very true, and I’ve also had the experience of a critic saying, this clearly means… and I think you could not be more wrong. You’re a planet and a half away from what I know it was about, but I’m not telling you.
SA: You were talking about being in the shop with your son, you know we write in innocence, we write in isolation, it’s often just us and the page or the keyboard. And then it goes out there and it becomes something else. And in your case something absolutely extraordinary. Has there ever been a time when you thought this has got too big.
JK: God yes. I thought that about half an hour in. You have no idea. Honestly. People who haven’t been through this kind of experience I think don’t understand what it fells like… you’re a writer and I’m a writer, and we’re happiest in our sheds. So what happened was the Philosopher’s Stone earned an unprecedented advance in the States, Philosopher’s Stone  had done well, very quickly in the UK, and the publishers were thrilled, and America was interested, and I got this very big advance, which actually enabled me to stop teaching and buy a house, which was incredible. And then the papers came calling, suddenly the Sun was on the phone, could they write my story, and I had to start giving interviews. I felt this is completely out of control, this was not what was supposed to happen. It was incredibly scary, and as I’ve already told you about the pseudonym, you can now understand why I found this sudden burst of publicity actually very frightening. That wasn’t what I had meant to happen. My little dream had been, one day I’d hand over my credit card in a shop and someone would see the name and say oh my God you wrote my favourite book – that was my fantasy. I hadn’t ever expected to be papped on the beach, that wasn’t supposed to happen to writers. It’s really very funny because I’ve become pretty bomb proof over the years, and I’ve had time to ease into it. But then if you’d told me then this isn’t going to stop, because I thought well this will stop, this is a crazy thing that happened because of the advance, if you’d told me then, this is 30 years – I’m not sure I could have written the second book. I would have been too scared.
SA: You have absolutely no need to answer to any kind of literary criticism. The success of what you’ve done speaks for itself. But what about when that criticism becomes personal and it’s not so much about the work but about your opinions as a person. Does that make you question what kind of relationship you have with the public?
JK: I’m afraid one of the quotations on my writing wall says, if you’re not going to annoy someone what’s the point in writing (Kingsley Amis). And that would be my view. I don’t go out to provoke, I’m honest about what I believe and that comes with … look as writers we get criticized, as people who are in the public eye we get criticized, and that comes with the territory. I’m passionately for the free press, and freedom of speech and so I have to accept what comes with that, and I do.
SA: You get to a point as a writer in terms of status or affirmation or how well known you are that you can’t whisper any more.
JK: No you can’t whisper but you know what, sometimes the absolute truth is I have to be able to look myself in the mirror. That’s the person I have to answer to more than anyone else. So I don’t want success to make me cowardly.
SA: So when people are critical of things that you believe in, does it make you want to go away and dream up a new persona, a new writing name?
JK: No, no. Galbraith was a very specific – it was for a specific reason and purpose, but no, I have no intention of pretending to not being me any more.
SA: What are you working on at the moment?
JK: I’ve just finished editing the Christmas Pig which is my children’s book that will be coming out before Christmas.

SA: It doesn’t turn out to be the Christmas pork?
JK: Oh, God can you imagine? No it’s a toy pig. I’ve had this idea kicking around inside me since 2012. I do know that because it was the Olympics and I had the idea and I was working on the idea on the holiday just before the opening Olympic ceremony which was literally the most terrifying… because I was in it, and it was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. So I can remember the work on the book, and every time I put down the book, my heart did palpitations.
SA: Is it a short story?
JK: It’s a short book, it’s for younger children, I would say, and I really love it.
SA: Does the pig speak?
JK: He does speak, and other things speak that you might not expect to speak.
SA: Will there be an autobiography, something written by Joanne Rowling? Which speaks your story from your point of view completely.
JK: Agatha Christie was I think 80 odd before she did it and I think that’s pretty much the perfect age to do it if you’ve still got all your marbles. With perspective. I’m not sure I’ll ever do it, as we’ve already established I can’t ever remember what year I did things so I’m just going to come across as a total fantasist. 2021 I got married – and people will say, no you didn’t what are you talking about… I have a very vivid memory in some respects and a very unreliable memory in other respects. Obviously I have written a lot down, but not really about my life, so when I trawl back through notebooks, it’s like clues. I’ll suddenly find a paragraph written about how I’m feeling at that moment, and I’ll sometimes think. what made me feel that? And I can sometimes reconstruct it. But no I don’t think I’m the memoirs type really.
SA: As someone now thoroughly steeped in the conventions of sorcery on one hand and crime on the other, it strikes me that if anyone’s capable of further literary masquerades and deceptions it’s you, and it makes me wonder if there are many many more books out there that you’ve secretly written under other names, or that you’re the hand behind other authors, and in the shed, Jo, while no one is listening..
[57:00 the next bit is hard to understand because they’re both talking together]
JK: Have I written those… Am I Simon Armitage?
SA: That was my next question … Are you Simon Armitage?
JK: I could prove how un Simon Armitage I am, by opening this notebook…
SA: Show us the first line!…

J.K. I can’t! I can’t…

S.A. First word!….

JK: I’ll give you the first word.. I think it’s “the”, how promising!.. how evocative!…. No it’s not “the” it’s “there” I’m literally going red.
SA: There… T-H-E-R-E It’s a geographical beginning it’s about planning, I’m interested. Just give me the last word – then in imagination my I’ll string in my imagination together.
JK: No honestly you can ask me anything you like and I’ll answer it, but I’m not reading you that poem. That’s how bad it is
SA: OK well instead I’ll read you a poem. So my task in the shed this series has been to write everybody a haiku, you know these tiny Japanese intense poems , when we write them in Britain, it’s often 5 syllables, 7 syllables, 5 syllables, and they’re quite often about the weather and the seasons and so on. So this is the poem I’ve written for you, Jo. Do you want to take a look at it?
JK: I do. Gasps. Invisible ink!
SA: You spotted it!
JK: Well I have a witch, come one.
SA: Ostensibly this is a blank piece of paper, isn’t it. Let me give you the secret … I’m going to call it a wand, but I think it’s a UV pen.
JK: That’s amazing
Morning’s conjurer
whips back the dark sheet of night.

Hey presto, fox glove
That’s beautiful. You’ve got very interesting handwriting. I love handwriting, do you not love looking at people’s handwriting?
SA: Yeah I do. Most people think I’m lefthanded.
JK: That’s so interesting because my father’s handwriting slants back and he’s left handed. That’s exactly what I thought when you showed me.
SA: (Reads haiku again)
JK: That’s beautiful.
SA: That’s for you, and you better take this magic pen with you, Jo, so you can read it.

JK: Simon! Oh, that’s incredible.

SA: We usually finish with a glass of laureate sherry, so this is part of my stipend or honorarium, it’s a tradition that goes back to John Dryden.
JK: You’re kidding – you get your own sherry.
SA: My own sherry, yes, 75 bottles a year.
JK: I’m so envious!
SA: Would you like a glass?
JK: I’d love a glass.
SA: This is a Fino you know, the dry sherry from Jerez and it should be served cold and it won’t be today.
JK: I’ve got a tiny fridge in my writing room. Which is actually broken so for about a year, I’ve never gotten anyone in to fix it. But for a year I did have chilled things in my fridge.
SA: Well I’ve got a sink in here, but it’s not plumbed in, it’s just covering up a hole at the back.
JK: This amazing.
SA: Cheers good health, thanks so much for coming.
JK: It’s been such a pleasure. I wish I was a better poet. I mean no one is going to send me booze for what’s in that notebook.
SA: I’m sure people have used this pun before, but would you like a Potter round the garden?
JK: I’d love a potter round the garden.

Comments

  1. Elizabeth S says

    Thank you for transcribing this interview. I have enjoyed reading it very much!

  2. Thank you Mary! A Herculean effort. I so enjoyed this interview and, as you say, Nick, we got a lot more Potter titbits than I was expecting. I think after the final flurry of interviews, for the first decade or so after HP finished she was always promoting CV or FB or Strike instead – but now I get the feeling she is rather enjoying revisiting those old notebooks.

Speak Your Mind

*