Transcript: Rowling’s 1998 ITN Interview

Patricio Tarantino last month found an unedited version of a 1998 ITN interview with J. K. Rowling at the Nicholson’s Cafe in Edinburgh and it is now available for viewing at TheRowlingLibrary YouTube channel. Oxford’s Beatrice Groves posted her first thoughts, ‘Harry Potter Dreaming,’ here yesterday. I had promised a transcript of the thirty-two minutes chat last week and here it is at last.

Caveat Lector! The man interviewing Rowling was not miked, so it was difficult at times to make out what he was saying. I tried to catch the flavor of Rowling’s stuttering, a marker of how new she was to this kind of exchange, but edited out most of the “y’know”s and “I mean”s. I think it is accurate enough for quotation but you might want to listen to it while reading the transcript to be sure the passage you want to quote is exact.

Enjoy the reading after the jump. Many thanks to Mr. Tarantino, to Professor Groves, and to my wife who did the initial typing of this text, a yeoman’s labor!

I: Just the facts…


I: Why ‘J.K. Rahling’ …. It sort of disguises…

JKR: ‘Rolling

I: Sorry.

JKR: It’s all right. That’s because…first time writer eager to please her publishers who said “Can we use your initials instead?” about two weeks before publication and I said “You can, but why?” and it was – trying to hide my gender – definitely. They thought it was a book that would appeal to boys and they thought possibly if they saw ‘Joanne’ on the front cover they wouldn’t pick it up.

I: So …

JKR: Yeah … in the … right after they published the book I started getting letters “Dear Sir”, but the whole thing was blown completely out of the water because I appeared on Blue Peter and I plainly wasn’t a Sir, so what was the point?

I: Was there much of a response from the Blue Peter appearance?

JKR: I think so, I’d say sales went up a bit at that point. They went up a lot more after I won the Smarties – that was the one that really boosted sales.

I: In terms of readers writing to you…

JKR: No, they just tended to get my sex right and tell me they liked my orange hair. Nice of them.

I: We’re here in Nicholson’s Café … what role does Nicholson’s Café play…

JKR: Huge because they used to let me sit here for two hours at a time with my daughter next to me asleep in the push chair. The only way I could get her to have her nap was to keep her moving so I used to walk around normally this part of town because I wanted to come here – until she fell asleep and I’d run in here and sit here with one cold coffee for 2 hours at a time and write – just write like fury. So a lot of the book, in fact the whole of chapter 10 was written in here… of the first book. But I don’t tend to write too much in here any more because I feel a bit too self conscious about it. If feel as though since I’ve given interviews in here it’s as though I’m advertising this is where I write, so I don’t tend to work in here as much any more.

I: What do you remember specifically about being in here – what were your circumstances exactly that you felt compelled to write – to write a children’s book.

JKR: Well, I’ve always written, although this was the first thing I tried to get published. My circumstances then were: single parent, recently divorced, not working, very, very broke and determined to finish the book because I was about to start training as a teacher and I knew that I would have no time – no time at all to write. It was a self imposed deadline. I just wanted to finish this book and just try and get it published.

I: So Harry Potter existed in your head for some time before ..

JKR: Harry Potter came to me on the train in 1990. I was sitting there just staring out of the window and the idea just fell out of nowhere – it was the purest stroke of inspiration I’ve ever had in my life. And I’ve been writing about him ever since. Literally. I have box – loads of stuff that’s traveled with me – to Portugal where I was working, back to Edinburgh, so it’s been growing and growing. But it was in Edinburgh that I carved a book out of that massive amount of material.

I: That single idea was what?

JKR: The single idea was Harry. This boy who didn’t know he was a wizard, who for 11 years had made very odd stuff happen. There was plainly mystery about him but he didn’t know what it was. And that then he got the letter that told him that he had a place at Wizards school. And I just thought it would be a lot of fun to write. I had never thought of myself as a children’s writer. Everything I’d written up to then had been geared towards adults, although I never tried to get any of it published. So it chose me rather than me choosing it. I never sat down and thought “All right, let’s try and write for children now.” It was plainly a story that was going to appeal to children.

I: And the name … just something simple and ordinary?

JKR: Harry is one of my favorite boy’s names. Potter was actually the name of a family I used to play with when I was very small – I doubt that they’d remember me. But I just liked the surname, so that’s where that came from. People have asked me if it was Dennis Potter because I come from the Forest of Dean but it wasn’t.

I: In terms of writing stories, I mean, it struck me in two kinds of ways, here we are in the traditional sense of school days…

JKR: Yeah. Well, I just … I don’t think of it as primarily a school story. Obviously there is a school that is essential to the plot. I just think of it as the kind of place that most children … I… would love to go. It’s scary and it’s exciting and you are relieved of responsibilities to your parents or authority from your parents. I didn’t go to a boarding school – I went to a comprehensive. The idea of getting into this place that is so exciting and living there among your peers – it’s just enthralling … I think. So the fact that it’s a boarding school is important in plot terms because Harry has to be removed from this appalling family he’s been brought up with … this very suburban, abusive family. And he’s removed to this place that’s much scarier but much more fun.

I: You could do anything there that you like.

JKR: Absolutely. I hope … the books are supposed to be funny as well. And a lot of the humor for me comes from the conflict between this magical, very subversive world, and the work-a-day world where people refuse to see what’s right under their noses which is there are still wizards living everywhere, but in secret. …. Well, it amused me (laughs). Sorry… okay, get a grip, right. I thought it was funny.

I: How did you dream up Quidditch?

JKR: Oh, Quidditch. Well, working along the same sort of twisted logic, if they were living in a secret alternative universe all over the world, they are not going to support football or golf, the most boring game in existence. They’re clearly going to have their own sport. So I made up a sport that I thought would be amusing; four balls, seven asides on broomsticks, very dangerous and very violent, and I would be rubbish at it if it existed – I’m very uncoordinated but the idea appealed to me. Most of the kids I meet like, they love the idea of Quidditch in fact – they really love it. I think because of the violent aspect of it.

I: Unintelligible – 6:35

JKR: Absolutely. As do most adults but we pretend it’s not there.

I:  [Unintelligible] Do you just write it or do you structure it all along?

JKR: Sometimes it’s sort of a day of pure indulgence. I sit down and just let myself just write. But normally that means you’re going to hit about one and a half good ideas and the rest will be rubbish. It’s normally very, very, very finely planned – what I’m going to do that day even. I make meticulous plans in advance and I bore children rotten when I meet them and say to them, “Yes your teachers are right – plan it. You’ll never write something as good if you just sit down and ramble.” Sorry to be so depressing on that one.

I: There always has to be an evil force?

JKR: Yeah. Oh yeah.

I: And you had Classics… Everybody nasty has a name — Malfoy, Voldemort… These names all have a classical linguistic ring to them.

JKR: Well, yeah. I just collect unusual names. Some of them definitely come from the fact that I studied Classics and some of them, the names you’ve just mentioned, are twists on French. They’re invented French names that mean something vaguely nasty. You have to be very careful about giving me your name if you have an unusual name because almost for sure you will find yourself two books down the line popping up at Hogwarts.

I: Give us some of the names you’ve used.

JKR: Some of them… Dumbledore is old English for bumblebee because he’s headmaster of the school and that’s because he likes music and I imagine him humming to himself a lot. That’s where that came from. So I just like the name Dumbledore – it’s got a nice ring to it. Some of them – street names, odd things – a couple came from books of saints – names like Bathilda and Hedwig – just excellent witchy names. Quite blasphemous now that I think about it. And there are a few names but I have to be very careful of people I’ve met and used their names. I have to be careful. I don’t want to be sued. I can’t tell you.

I: You love alliteration, clearly.

JKR: Yes. A lot of incidental characters have alliteration – it’s easier for children to remember I think.

I: Daedalus Diggle

JKR: Well, I like that one.

I: Piers Polkiss?

JKR: Yeah, Piers Polkiss. It’s a bit unfortunate really because I tend to choose… someone said to me recently, “I wanted to call my son Neville and I can’t now because I gave the name to someone who’s a bit hopeless in the book,” although I like him very much. But what can you do, you can’t please anyw, any, everyone.

I: Is a part of you in one of the characters?

JKR: Yeah, definitely, the girl, the main female character, Hermione. She’s a caricature of what I was at 11. A right little know-it-all, but underneath very insecure. That’s very much what I was like, but I wasn’t as clever as her. If I’d have been as clever as her I would have been, you know, genius. She’s a lot cleverer than I was. But I was definitely that kind of little girl who constantly thinks they’ve got everything wrong and then ends up with 110 % and everyone wants to kill them or kick them.

I: I was very curious as a reader.. at least I do, as a reader, see it. It’s all written very visually.

JKR: Oh, I hope so. I think I see things before I write them. I visualize things quite clearly and then it’s trying to express what I’m seeing. I don’t know that every writer writes like that. Now I’ve met other writers sometimes I think the words come first but with me the vision of it comes first and then I’m trying to capture that as accurately as I can. So that’s flattering that you would say that you see it very clearly because I’m trying to show you what I’m seeing. If you see what I mean.

I: It’s almost written [unintelligible 10:45]

JKR: All I ever wanted to be was a novelist. My absolute ambition for the book was not that it would be made into a film, much as I love films. So what my absolute ambition was to be able to walk into a book shop and see it on the book shelf. Having said that, now I stand back from that, yes, I think it would make a good film because there’s a lot of action in it and I can see that some of it would work very well visually. So yes, I agree with you. But that wasn’t in my mind … I wasn’t writing thinking which camera angle will this chapter take, you know. Not at all.

I: How difficult was it to get it published?

JKR: It seemed difficult at the time but now I think I probably had a very easy time of it. It was turned down by three publishers before Bloomsbury which actually isn’t that many at all. But one of them kept me hanging around for about a year saying we might, we don’t know, and that was bad for my nerves and it made it feel far more difficult than it probably was. I was very lucky. The second agent I approached took me on. That was the big break. That was the biggest break- I was taken on by a very good agent, Christopher Little, and it was then up to him to take it around to publishers which again saves your nerves. I wasn’t the one having it come back on my door mat every morning.

I: [Unintelligible ‘training as a teacher’ 12:15]

JKR: I did train as a teacher and the year I was doing my postgraduate year of Education I was waiting to hear from publishers. I already had my agent, just before I started teacher training, I got my agent. So all that year I was on tenterhooks whether it would happen or not. And at that point my realistic ambition was teach part-time, write part-time, which would have been a great life. I like teaching. My ultimate dream was to be able to write full-time but I knew how few children’s writers manage to make a living wage out of this so I wasn’t under any illusion.

I: So had you started the second Harry Potter book?

JKR: Yeah. But it was going pretty slowly because by this time I’m studying full time, I’m obviously still looking after my daughter, and writing time was pretty thin on the ground at that point.

I: So when did things turn round?

JKR: Everything turned round … Two things happened. First of all I got a grant from the Scottish Arts Council which I think was the highest grant they’d ever given – it was 8,000 pounds which to me at that time was a fortune. And that was purely so I could afford to take only part-time teaching work and I could afford to finish book 2. And then shortly after I got that grant Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone sold to America for an amount that was way outside my wildest dreams and then that was it. I could afford to give up teaching. Completely. Which is a very scary feeling and completely paralyzed me because .. first of all I got the phone call saying there’s an auction going on in New York and my immediate reaction was to laugh hysterically because this was so beyond my ken. And then an hour later I got a phone call telling me that Scholastic had won the auction for a six figure amount and instead of feeling as you would expect wildly happy, I felt utter terror. Because I’d nearly finished Book two at this point and suddenly I couldn’t write. The stakes had been up so much I thought Book two was going to be a horrible let-down to everyone and every word had to be worth a certain amount of dollars. I found it very scary.

I: Because of expectations having grown…

JKR: Yeah, absolutely, from being totally obscure where I was really quite happy and writing purely for me, suddenly I felt as though about 100 people were looking over my shoulder every time I set pen to paper and it was a very weird experience. I’m not being ungrateful. I couldn’t be happier now. But that’s because I’ve now finished Book 2 and I’m happy with it. But for a month or so I just felt terrified.

I: Did you know when you were writing Book 2 that Harry Potter would continue?

JKR: Yeah, I’d always .. from … almost from the start I’d envisioned it as a seven book series which would see him through wizard school and then he’d be a fully qualified wizard at the end of it. That was the big story … Harry qualifies as a wizard, you see. And there was another bigger plot that was going on but I can’t really talk about because it will ruin in for people who will read all the books. All of them were plotted in quite a lot of detail already. Which obviously made it easier in a way. It wasn’t as though I had to go back and think what’s the next book about – I already knew.

I: So the seven book cycle of stories is already written in your head.

JKR: Oh yeah, bits of all the books, bar five, book five is still the sketchiest of the lot, so if people are waiting longer for five than any of the others that’s why. ‘You heard it here first.’ Bits of all the other books, except five, are written already and the final chapter of book seven is written. For my own satisfaction, so I’m constantly reminded what I’m aiming for.

I: So the end is written?

JKR: Yeah, the very, very end is written.

I: [Unintelligible 16:00] Do you need another coffee?

JKR: No, I’m fine. I’ve still got enough. [moves, replaces spoon on saucer] Continuity! [laughs]

I: So I’ll ask it again, the end of book seven is written already?

JKR: Yeah, the whole chapter is written because, for my own satisfaction, it reminds me where I’m going. But so many children now have expressed so much interest in it that I kind of feel that it should be under lock and key, you know, it feels quite valuable – “it’s already written!” and that chapter deals with what happens to the survivors after they finish school. Because when Harry leaves school, that’s it, I’m not going to write about him any more and that’s going to be horrendous – it will be like bereavement because by the time I write Book seven I would have been writing about it for twelve or thirteen years. I have to let go at some point and that will be it.

I: But you have a commitment to Harry Potter for at least 5 years. 

JKR: Yeah, which I’m perfectly happy about because I love writing those books. Yes, I’m happy, I love it. [pause] That’s all I have to say on that bit, I’m sorry. [laughs]

I: You change [traffic noise, unintelligible 17:25] when I met you down in London, the Smarties prize… 

JKR: Yeah, that happened after… I won the Smarties prize about a month after after I’d sold the American rights. That was the big change in my life generally … my day to day life because after that people became … journalists specifically … became interested in me and before they had no reason at all to be interested in me. So that was a “steep learning curve” I think they call it. That was a bit scary for awhile.

I: And actually getting the Smarties?

JKR: The Smarties was amazing. You probably know that’s voted for entirely by children. And winning that was just wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Partly because a lot of the publicity had focused on the fact that I was a single mother and I had written in cafes and that’s perfectly true and it’s interesting, I can see why that’s a good story. But when you win Smarties that meant, “Oh and by the way the book may be all right as well.” So that meant quite a lot to me.

I: Give me some examples of some things kids have said to you… I mean the first time a kid came up to you and said “You wrote Harry Potter, did you?”

JKR: First of all they always ask me, “Where do you get your ideas from?” And the obvious answer is that I don’t know. They just come. But that’s so boring. So I try and think of some ideas I’ve had that I can see a sort of reason. And they ask me about Quidditch a lot, why I called it that and where I got the rules from. And they’re interested in the made-up words. They want to know why I call non-magic people Muggles very often because they like the word, they think it’s funny. And that comes from “mugs” obviously.

I: Do you remember anything an individual child has said to you?

JKR: There’ve been loads of different things. My favorite one was actually not something someone said, it was a girl who wrote to me after I’d been to visit her school. She wrote me a letter saying, “You were very nice to us and you were very very interesting but you really should brush your hair.” I liked that one quite a lot. And I get letters from little girls who send me their photos and they say to me can they be Hermione in the film and I say “There is no film and if there was one I wouldn’t be casting it so sorry. But thank you for your photo which was lovely.” Sometimes I get the feeling that boys have been prodded into writing because their mothers are so amazed they read a book. Boys tend to write about how many times they’ve read the book. They’re so proud of themselves that they kept rereading it. And often I feel vindicated in that … it’s a long book. The main problem with publishers prior to Bloomsbury having the book was that it was too long for a nine year old. But I get a surprising amount of letters from kids saying, “I’m glad it’s that long because most books I like finish too soon.” Which is heartening. You hear so much about kids not playing and reading, they still are

I: But when you were writing it did you think you were writing for nine to twelve year olds?

JKR: No. In fact until Bloomsbury told me I was writing for nine year olds I didn’t know who I was writing for – that’s the truth. Except for occasionally avoiding a polysyllable where a perfectly good monosyllable would do, I never stopped to think about it. I write what I enjoy reading, truthfully, and I was quite interested to see what a publisher would think was the appropriate age span because I didn’t really know.

I: Do you feel like you’re writing for everybody?

JKR: Well I do feel like I’m writing for everybody because I’m sure that if someone else had written the books I would enjoy writing [sic] them and I’m 33 next week, so I hope I’m writing them for everyone. I’ve heard a lot … I’ve had a surprising number of letters from adults who unashamedly … they don’t say, “Oh, I bought it for my daughter,”  they just say, “Oh, I picked it up and I really enjoyed it.” And the best one was a 60 year old woman who wants to join the Harry Potter fan club. I like that one a lot.

I: She read it and said I want to join the fan club.

JKR: Yeah. With no excuses like this is my grandchildren – I want to join the fan club. That was brilliant.

I: Do you feel protective about the book? It seems likely by the time this goes up …

JKR: Yeah, I think you do. The only control you have really as a writer, as an author, is that you … There has been quite a lot of interest – there have been different television and film companies expressing interest … the only control you have is to sign the contract with someone you truly believe will make the right film. But after that it is out of your control. So yes, I do feel anxious about it and I feel nervous about it, and I will only sign a contract when I really believe that’s the case. But it is a leap of faith always, obviously.

I: [inaudible question 22:30] Sorry, for the Devil’s advocate question, but if it goes to America, DreamWorks or Disney, chances are that Harry Potter won’t be English

JKR: I can’t really say anything there. But it’s not going to be DreamWorks (oops) .. or Disney as a matter of fact [looks directly into camera] Can we not put that on there because I’m not really supposed to say that – my agent would, like, shoot me. He would shoot me. But … I want Harry to be British. I will fight as hard as I can for him to be British. If he’s not British, it won’t be for want of trying on my part. I suppose as the last resort I shall have to picket the cinema. What can I do?

I: How far have you got?

JKR: Yeah, I’ve just finished book three. Which was the most complicated plot yet so my head is still crammed with it. It’s quite difficult to promote Book two when your head is full of Book three and this will continue until Book seven obviously when I’ll probably feel as well as being really sad this sense of liberation that I finally can talk about anything without giving things away.

I: What’s Book three called?

JKR: Book three is called Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban which will mean nothing to you unless you’ve read Book two. I’m not trying to sell more books, I’m just telling it like it is. It’s meaningless unless you’ve read Book two.

I: The plot is that much more complicated?

JKR: Yeah. In a way I hope it’s the most complicated plot but sometimes you can’t tell until you get about half way through. I really enjoyed writing it for that reason but any more complicated and my head will explode. I think that was probably the most complicated of all of them.

I: How hard work is it …[unintelligible]

JKR: In some ways it’s not really hard work at all because it’s the thing I love most of all. And it’s a dream just to wake up in the morning and think what am I doing today and say I’m writing and I’m getting paid for it. This is the dream of my life. But I make it hard work for myself. I re-write endlessly. Sometimes you spend, I spend, I don’t know about everybody, an entire day staring at a piece of paper and come away with three lines of writing. Other days I can write 2,000 words, 3,000 words and be happy with most of it. Probably the most difficult part of it is that you never can tell when inspiration is going to strike.

I: Do you write on the computer or longhand?

JKR: No, I still write longhand. It’s partly superstitious I think. It worked twice – writing everything out longhand and then typing it up. So I don’t want to break the winning formula.

I: When you wrote the first book… did you have any idea, what was your highest expectation?

JKR: My highest expectation, no, most far-fetched dream was a kind review in a decent newspaper and the idea that maybe I would be able to teach part time and write part time. But it seemed to me, to me this huge hurdle of even getting published which indeed it is, it’s not that easy, so I didn’t really look much past that. So everything that’s happened since has been well beyond my wildest expectations. It really has. I still sometimes can’t quite believe it’s happened.

I: Do you worry that Harry Potter is taking over everything? That it will become too much?

JKR: If it becomes too much for me, that will probably be my fault. At the end of the day it’s up to me who I speak to and what I do with Harry and I don’t think I will become sick of him. Other people might but there’s nothing I can do about that.

I: There seems a chance here that this is a character that may well last, the way that Winnie has or Tin-Tin has…

JKR: I hope so. My highest ambition would be that long after everyone’s forgotten that I was a single mother, that I was poor and I wrote in cafes, people are still reading about Harry Potter. That’s my highest ambition. I’m unashamed in wanting as many people as possible to read the books. I always wanted Harry to be wildly famous. Because that to me is the mark that loads of people had enjoyed the book. I never expected — and this is the simple truth — I never expected me to be in any way famous. So that was a bit startling. I kind of wanted to be famous in the way that some day you had over your credit card and someone will say, “My God, didn’t you write Harry Potter?” but not in the sense that your pictures would be in the papers. That was a bit disorientating (sic).

I: [Unintelligible 27:10]

JKR: Yeah, and that’s fine by me. I want Harry Potter’s name to live.

I: Will your name remain the same on the books?

JKR: Yeah, it’s a bit late to change JK now. I don’t mind JK. I quite like it, but if the publishers had known, if they had had a crystal ball, they wouldn’t have bothered. Because it became apparent so quickly that I was a woman and really it was a pointless exercise.

I: [Unintelligible 27:50] I was there at the Carnegie Medal presentation and you didn’t win but it received “highly commended” status…

JKR: I got commended. I’d like it to say “highly” but it didn’t. But I was very happy with commended.

I: [inaudible 28:00] chosen by librarians and talking with the kids about the books that had won and they wanted to talk about Harry Potter [both laugh]

JKR: I have to be careful about what I say there, don’t I?

I: Anything memorable about the Carnegie event?

JKR: To be short… the Carnegie has a particular prestige. It’s the one I think most people have heard of. And to be short listed was wonderful. Partly because one of my favorite books as a child, if not my favorite, was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Gouge which is largely forgotten now I think, I have difficulty finding it in book shops, won the Carnegie in 1946. So to be short listed for it is very meaningful to me. I can’t say much more there.

I: That’s fine. We’re almost done. Why do you think kids and others like the books, like the character?

JKR: I think in one way Harry is hero in the best sense in that he has admirable qualities. More admirable qualities than I do. He’s a nobler person than I am. At the same time he is a human person and when he’s bullied or goes through any of the difficulties any school child goes through he has normal human feelings of wanting to hit back, and wanting to win, and wanting to beat his adversaries, and I think he’s quite a human person even though he’s a hero. And I think certainly his two best friends are recognizable in many people I’ve met. Some of the unpleasant characters, too, are very recognizable, I think. I’ve met them several times over in my life so possibly for that reason. But it’s very hard for me to say because I wrote something I enjoyed. I never once when I wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone stopped to think about “Will this appeal to that marketing group?” I wrote it purely … the sole criteria was what I found scary, what I found funny, and characters that I liked. In a way you’re asking the wrong person.

I: But you knew you were writing for children?

JKR: Well, plainly it was a story that I thought children would like. It took me six months or so to get into… at first I tried too hard to write for children because I’d never tried to write anything for children before and what came out of my pen was sickening. I kept reading it and thinking, “Right, that’s patronizing, that makes me want to vomit, that’s too sickly for words,” and after six months I gave up and thought “OK you’re just going to write it for you.” And every now and again I’d go back and as I say just delete the polysyllable and put in a nice serviceable monosyllable and that was it.

I: What was it like going on Blue Peter?

JKR: Oh, life time ambition fulfilled. I was very nervous about telev.. I said, “No,” to… in fact I was offered a few interviews on television prior to that and I didn’t want to go on because I find it nerve wracking, and then Blue Peter … the perennial appeal of the Blue Peter badge. At last I got it. Yes! I was so proud… embarrassingly proud – to have a Blue Peter badge. I would have gone through far more to get a Blue Peter badge.

I: Do you still have it?

JKR: I still have it. I’m going to frame it. My daughter’s not allowed to touch it. Is that it? Brilliant… [Exeunt omnes.] [Rowling has since won a Gold Blue Peter Badge.]

Speak Your Mind