Lethal White: Beatrice Groves on ‘Galbraith Meets Graham Norton’

Prof Beatrice Groves, a Research Fellow Lecturer at Trinity College, Oxford University. Her groundbreaking Literary Allusion in Harry Potter was published in 2017. She is a frequent guest on the MuggleNet podcast, ‘Reading, Writing, Rowling‘ and writes for that fandom platform on her dedicated page, ‘Bathilda’s Notebook.’ A frequent contributor to conversations at HogwartsProfessor.com (HogPro), Prof Groves last posted here to discuss the ‘Nagini Maledictus in Fantastic Beasts.’ Today she writes about the Robert Galbraith interview last week with Graham Norton on a BBC2 radio show. Enjoy!

‘I really enjoyed writing this book, it’s probably my favourite of the series both in terms of how it turned out and but also sheer enjoyment. I loved it, I really did.’

On Saturday J. K. Rowling gave a radio interview about Lethal White to Graham Norton on BBC Radio 2. [You can listen to the interview via this link; it begins at 2:30:00.] This is ‘Robert’s’ most in-depth interview since Val McDermid’s in 2014 (cf., Val McDermid interviews JK Rowling (Robert Galbraith) at Harrogate International Festival 2014) and you can hear how much more relaxed Rowling is in it than in her recent televised appearances in America promoting Crimes of Grindelwald and Lumos.

This is possibly due to the warmth of Graham Norton (he’s a very successful chat show host with a great track record of getting the best out of his interview subjects) and her not being jet-lagged (!) but – most likely – it shows the natural preference of a public-speaking phobic celebrity for the medium of radio. But some of her warmth in this interview can, I think, be attributed to the fact that she’s talking about a work that she loves.

Norton asked her whether it made her happier to see her films or her novels at No. 1 and – no surprise to HogPro readers here – she admitted that the success of Strike gives her more of a kick than the Fantastic Beasts movies (however different the paychecks). Much of what she said in this interview we’ve heard before (the story about her cover nearly being blown while her husband was eating a ‘research’ fry-up, for example) but much of it was slightly more fully expressed.

As when she thanked the many listeners who wrote in to praise her for getting their children to read:

‘I can’t be at all flippant about that. That’s about the most amazing thing you can be told; that’s incredible… genuinely, books have been my escape, my solace, my everything at certain times in my life and I love the idea that the Potter books were that for other people, I really do.’

Rowling also spoke of her personas in interesting ways in the interview – referring to them as ‘J. K.’ and ‘Robert’ – making it clear that the (female) writer we think we know, and the (male) writer we think of as entirely a pseudonym, are perhaps similar status ‘nom de plumes’ in Rowling’s own mind. To the old chestnut question of why she chose a new alias for this series of novels, she replied:

‘I wanted not to be me… I’d always wanted to write crime and I wanted to not do it without any fanfare, so I submitted the manuscript anonymously and it was all great. … and I even enjoyed rejection letters again, it was fantastic, it was just like it used to be.’

The first novel in the series – Cuckoo’s Calling – has a preoccupation with fame which, as I’ve analyzed in a MuggleNet post, clearly mirrors the experience of its author. Lethal White returns to the same topic in spades. Chapter one begins: ‘Such is the universal desire for fame that those who achieve it accidentally or unwillingly will wait in vain for pity.’ Rowling noted in this interview (after a long pause which didn’t, to my mind, betray any doubt as to what the answer might be!) that she identified more with Strike than Robin, and agreed that Strike helped her mediate some of her thoughts about her own fame: ‘You’re right, it’s a very satisfying way of talking about that actually, through that character.’ Strike’s fame, like his author’s, makes doing the part of his job that he loves more difficult:

He’s running a business and he wants to stay on the street, but he’s now getting quite famous. So then you have – so that brings its own challenges. And that interests me too. That someone so (I don’t think we need [laughing] Freud for this one!) – but it does interest me: someone who really does want to be undercover, who really does want to be anonymous [you can hear she’s smiling here] and the inevitable corollary of their success is that they can’t be entirely that any more. But, like his author, he sometimes does use his celebrity, as you know, because in this book he does find that some people are keener to speak to him because he is famous.

Another question Rowling has answered before, but perhaps responded in a slightly fuller way here (with an interesting emphasis on both ‘romance’ and ‘gawkiness’ was as to why Strike wasn’t a policeman:

I set myself the challenge of writing what I think of is a sort of classic whodunit with all the Golden Age atmosphere of having one or two people working undercover in a very contemporary setting. So, Strike and Robin are a bit of an anomaly in crime fiction at the moment because we’re seeing a lot of police procedurals and so on, and I deliberately wanted to pick someone – it’s just quite a romantic idea the private detective – but it’s contemporary, in that he is the veteran of a recent war, and there are issues around his disability and the fact that he’s ex-army – and all of that really appealed to me. And there are lots of challenges in writing that kind of novel now because he doesn’t have access to sort of DNA evidence and so on, in the way that the police do: but that itself is interesting, you know. So he’s this slightly gawky figure who is still doing old-fashioned detection.

Hogpro has had a long interest in the possible overlap between Strike and Harry Potter and some interesting little pointers came out about that too. Firstly, of course, her emphasis on how different they are (in response to Norton’s question about the difference between a fictional world in which you make up the rules and a fictional world where you need to follow the real-world rules): It’s so different, and it’s wonderful. I love going to real places to research them, I love writing about the actual, physical world. It’s such a contrast to this entirely invented society. I mean, I enjoy both of them, but this has its own particular pleasure.’ As with Potter, she now has the slightly awkwardness of writing in tandem with a visual adaptation – did Tom Burke influence her mental picture of Strike?

It’s a sort of hybrid. So I had a really clear mental image of my Cormoran Strike, as it were, and Tom is far more attractive than that [laughing] Cormoran Strike that I was seeing, and now I see a sort of weird hybrid in my head because he is so brilliant in the role that I would say he definitely is visually in my head. Though he’s playing the character exactly as the character is written, I think, so he doesn’t really influence the personality of the character.

On the vexed question of how many Strike books there will be [and if it is a seven book ring in parallel with the Hogwarts seven…] Norton asked whether she has ‘ten’ (the last number she mentioned for the series) planned out and her response, I think, made it clear that ‘ten’ was a round number plucked out of the air to contradict ‘seven’ rather than a planned amount: ‘No, I don’t [have ten planned out] but I do have a few more, I know the plot of the next one, and I think I know the plot of the one after that.’

Rowling’s highly controlled plotting and planning style has clearly not shifted since Potter. When a fan wrote in to ask how easily she was surprised, or change your mind, while she was writing she replied: ‘I don’t… I don’t change my mind… I do very, very detailed plans.’ Norton, himself a novelist, was clearly surprised by this answer (another novelist who interviewed her – Lev Grossman – had a similar response; listen to his conversation on this MuggleNet ‘Reading, Writing, Rowling’ episode) and presses her on it, but Rowling repeats that nothing changes for her between the planning and the writing. It is further evidence, I think, for the Hogpro idea that there is a planned structure operating beneath the Strike series.        

Finally, there was a little moment I’d like to read as both a classic piece of Rowling misdirection and as a bit of a triumph for those of us who pieced together Rowling’s white horse clues (cf., the pre-publication survey of clues here, ‘Lethal White: The White Horse Evidence‘).  After the pre-publication book blurb was released with Billy’s oddly phrased ‘I seen a kid killed… he strangled it, up by the horse,’ a few of us. most notably Evan Willis, wondered if a chalk White Horse (geoglyphs carved into the English hillside) might be meant. I wrote a blog, ‘Lethal White Horses‘ for MuggleNet, piecing this blurb together with all the white horses that had been cantering through her Twitter headers, suggesting that the place Billy was referring to would turn out to be the Uffington White Horse.

I think we can surmise that Rowling knows about this guess work, because of the striking shift she makes from the blurb when responding to Norton’s request for a (spoiler free) plot summary. She replied: ‘Strike meets a clearly mentally disturbed young man who comes to his office and says “I saw a child strangled, years ago, and it’s buried by a house.”’

There is always a pleasure in thinking that Rowling might be reading our surmises. This suggests, at least to me (and I’d love to hear what you think!), that she knows she’s been rumbled, and has decided to back-track on her clues in consequence.

This interview, I suggest, is probably the best clue we’re going to get that she’s been reading us just as we’ve been reading her.



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