The Casual Vacancy J.K. Rowling Interview
The Casual Vacancy the long awaited new novel from Harry Potter author J K Rowling was finally published yesterday, five years after the end of the beloved magical series. Speaking in London J K Rowling talked in depth about the critical reaction to the new book, swearing, secrecy, Sikhism, Christian Fundamentalist interpretations of Harry Potter and her own obsession with death.
Read the full transcript bellow:
The last time you appeared in public it was in front of a crowd 80,000 people at the Olympic stadium and a television audience of a billion people:
That actually makes me feel sick when you say that! It was absolutely terrifying. I did take a little bit of persuading. Danny actually asked me to do it twice before I said yes. He sad can I just meet you and talk about it. He told me exactly what was going to happen, including the queen parachuting out of the helicopter. When he told me that I just thought, nobody is even going to remember I was there. It’s brilliant. I have to say it was one of the best things I’ve ever, ever done. It was so moving it was just wonderful. I was so proud to be part of it.
The moment when the giant Voldemort went into the air during the Opening Ceremony felt like another rite of passage for the Harry Potter saga:
That was one of those moments. I attended a full dress rehearsal of the Olympic ceremony before the night and I have to say that after 15 years of being that author of harry Potter to an extent the references to Harry Potter become white noise in your life and you get used to that cropping up here and there. But every now and again I get this sort of full body chill and I had it when Voldemort rose up out of the middle of the stadium. There was this 18 meter high Voldemort and I just went icy cold. There was something that started as an idea on a bit of scrap paper. It felt unbelievable so yeah it was quite a big moment for me.
How have you spent today, the publication day for The Casual Vacancy?
Well we flew down from Edinburgh today and then I’m here with my husband and my eldest daughter. Truthfully I’ve spent most of the day trying to avoid newspapers. I will read reviews but I don’t like to do it on the day I have to go out and talk about the book. It muddy’s things for me. I will say that some of the things that have been published have been great.
We sat in our hotel and watched Men In Black 3. It was great. I’d never seen it was really good. I probably will read reviews at some point. With deathly hallows I didn’t read any reviews at all for ages. I felt about Hallows the way I feel about this book, in this case I feel I’ve done the best that I can do the book is what I want it to be. I don’t mean it in an arrogant way, but that’s it. I’m done. So it doesn’t matter. I did read reviews for Deathly Hallows months later. But it takes the heat out of it if you’re not reading them on publication day.
One thing I did read was someone called it a “500 page socialist manifesto”! I high fived my husband when I read that. I thought that’s alright, I’m not sure why that’s meant to be offensive. It’s not meant to be that just to be clear. To give some context it was Jan Moir in the Daily Mail who called it that, what a shocker!
Have you ever responded to a review or been affected by it?
No, I’ve never stalked anyone; I think you’re ill-advised to do anything like that. But yes I’ve thought about my work because of reviews. Legitimate criticism can be very useful so yeah. Sometimes you’ll read a review and go okay so it’s not your thing but it’s my thing. That’s okay too. It depends very much on who’s reviewing and hat their take on it is.
It’s been five years since Harry Potter finished so at what point was Casual Vacancy in your mind?
I had the idea for The Casual Vacancy while I was on tour in America for The Deathly Hallows. I had the idea on a plane. I know… something about me and vehicles. I have to be moving clearly to have an idea. I came up with Harry Potter on a train and so now I’m going up market. The next idea will be on a space shuttle! I was offered a seat on one actually, for a mere two million pounds I could be up in space. But I turned it down. The train had stopped when I had the idea for Harry Potter but my plane hadn’t. It wasn’t like we were in a death spiral and I thought if I survive this I will write The Casual Vacancy! I was just sitting there having a perfectly nice flight. I don’t really know why, what made me think of it. It was local election sabotaged by teenagers basically. So like the idea for Harry Potter I can’t claim that the whole idea was there at once, but that was the start of the idea.
Had you decided before that, that your next book would be adult fiction?
No I was completely open at that point I had another book for children which was half written. It’s still half written. I had a couple of other ideas, but when I had this one I thought that’s the one I really really want to write. So everything else was put on hold.
The new book does the unthinkable and makes local politics seem fascinating!
I take that as a huge compliment! I told James Dancy a few years ago in a café what the book was about. I can still remember the look on his face when I said it’s about local council election. I cannot say that his face said “oooh you must write it!”
Teenagers are clearly one of your big themes as a writer would you agree?
Yeah I think that’s true. Though I would like to warn anyone who hasn’t read this book that it isn’t Harry, Ron and Hermione! These are very different teenagers. These are contemporary teenagers.
Themes of the book include drug addiction, racism, rape, alleged paedophilia…. It’s clear that this is a very different kind of book.
It’s a cheery book! Clearly a comedy, it’s a good beach read. But yes it is different, I genuinely think even though it sits a little oddly with that list of themes, that this is a humorous book. Some of the humour may be rather dark in places but yes its life in a small town ad everything that entails.
The book is set in Pagford was it inspired by anywhere I particular?
It’s not a real place at all. It is in the West Country, which is where I grew up so I know the area. But Pagford is entirely fictional. It made me smile because apparently places were claiming to be Pagford before the book come out and I though hmmm maybe when the books out they might not be so keen to say “We are the real Pagford”. It is a very beautiful place dominated by an Abbey, the place where I grew up was dominated by a Castle although it still isn’t really Pagford. It’s a very pretty town and it has unwilling jurisdiction over a council estate ten miles away. That is the conflict in the book. Barry the local politician who dies suddenly at the start of the book is someone who’s been quite keen to maintain the link, but many townsfolk would like to see it cut adrift.
The book focuses on a range of classes, races, genders and ages was it a deliberate choice to make it a panoramic story?
I think it’s a realistic view of what that kind of community is like. I di grow up in that kind of community, although this isn’t an attempt to depict Chepstow society. I haven’t lived there since I was 18 which was rather a long time ago now. I did consciously set out to depict a small society and you get older people of different classes in very different situations.
Did you make a mental adjustment because you were writing for adults?
It’s hard to say because I have written for adults before. I need to be very careful what I say, because I don’t want to give the impression I’m sitting on a huge mound of manuscripts because I’m not. But I had tried writing for adults before Potter. So it’s not like I’d never done it before or that it was a struggle to find that voice. In some senses it’s freeing in other senses it was a challenging book because you have multiple points of view. It’s not a linear story necessarily. You’re darting around and at times moving back in time. So it had its own challenges so I loved writing t. I really really enjoyed writing it.
The book has quite a bleak and shocking climax , what sort of reaction do you hope it gets?
I don’t think I would have much to say to anyone who didn’t at least tear up a bit. I don’t think I would have warm feeling toward someone who didn’t. But it’s a vile thing to say to a reader, did you cry or are you some sort of sub-human?
Really the whole novel tends towards a point just before the final scene where the reader I hop has come to a point why three people don’t take a certain action. By then I hope that you as a reader will understand exactly why they do what they do. So I’ve had to really get inside a lot of character’s heads.
At one point in the book you write that a mother has tiny ghosts of her living children haunting her heart, is that something you can relate to?
Yes exactly and how they would hate it if they knew that. My daughter is here right now listening to that. We discussed that after she read the book. She said is that how you feel? And I said yes. Sorry but I do. The implication is that parenthood is a continual process of loss. If you enjoy being a parent it’s always bittersweet. I remember my husband saying to me about one of our youngest children, why do you feel sad when you look at them with such genuine love. I told him its mortality. We are on the conveyer belt at different points and a parting in inherent in the situation always.
Death is another theme in your books, why does it paly such a big part?
Is this my literary reputation? Well yes death obsesses me, I have to admit that. It does really. I can’t understand why more people aren’t obsessed with it. I think it does obsess them really I just may be a little more out about it. There are a few deaths in The Casual Vacancy but I wouldn’t worry about it you don’t really care about most of them. I guess I did keep killing people in Potter though. As to why death obsesses me I don’t know I think the easy answer is that my mother died when I was 25. She was only 45 at the time and clearly that was a very formative experience. But I think I always was a little preoccupied by the subject. I was born into an old family, by which I mean aged not aristocratic and people did die a lot throughout my teens. Elderly relatives kept dying quite a lot and my sister and I were the only two in my generation. So maybe that’s why because it was something I met repeatedly when I was younger.
Sikhism is a big part of The Casual Vacancy as well can you tell us about that?
I became very interest in Sikhism, years ago when I was about 25. I became very friendly with a girl who was from a Sikh family. Religion wasn’t a dominate force in her life, but we had one serious conversation about it. At the time I was very ignorant about Sikhism. But she told me how egalitarian it is and its founding principles. She was referring to the fact that men and women are set as equals in the holy books and were capable of performing all the same religious rites. I was very struck by that and never forgot it. For various reason I wanted this family at the heart of Pagford to be of a different ethnicity although in some ways they’re this perfect highly achieving middle class family.
I wanted them to be 2nd generation Britons, because that draws out a lot of attitudes among the other people in Pagford. In many ways this is a book about outsiders. These people are very much insiders and outsider simultaneously. From that small seed I ended up doing a vast amount of research about Sikhism, though ultimately very little of it made its way into the book. Ultimately that’s not what’s most important about this family. The kids in the family aren’t that bothered by their religion, they’ve been brought up at a Church of England primary school, but it’s in there in the mix.
As far as religious morality goes in this book, it’s Sikhism that provides that. Whereas the church of England is represented by very beautiful but largely empty church.
Do you have sympathy for religion yourself?
Yes, though clearly I say that as someone who’s had my run ins with Christian fundamentalists. It does amuse me because people have told me I’m so brave to tackling these subjects with Casual Vacancy. But I was thinking… I’ve had my books burnt! I wrote this cheery little book about wizards that I thought was so moral and it caused all this trouble. So I’ve got quite a way to go with to upset people as much with The Casual Vacancy. Very seriously I wouldn’t want to push the Christian metaphor associated with Harry Potter too far, because Harry was never supposed to be Christ! But it’s absolutely right to say there is Christian symbolism in the book.
I’m not being very evangelical, I struggle with faith a lot. But there’s poetry and beauty about the bible that I think most people in the western tradition will borrow from. The idea of self-sacrifice, that there’s no grater love than this, is so beautiful and powerful that I think there’d be very few people who would turn away form that idea. Am I drawn to spirituality and faith? Yes I am, I have a lot of questions and I struggle with them a lot. I think that’s apparent in The Casual Vacancy too.
Has anyone mentioned that some of the character names in The Casual Vacancy rhyme with those in Harry Potter? Like Barry and Harry or Robbie and Dobby?
I was so annoyed because it never crossed my mind. I swear to you. What’s so obvious to you isn’t obvious at all to me. I was going to call him Kevin instead of Barry and I now really wish I had. I was just looking for something that would have been a normal working class name for someone of my generation. Barry dies when he’s about 44 and I was about that age at the time, so he was my generation. I do wish now I’d called him Kevin. There’s nothing that rhymes with Hermione I know that!
Someone told me once how many characters are in the Harry Potter books and I can’t remember the exact number but it’s a ludicrous amount and it shocked me. It’s very difficult not to rhyme with any of the characters. I can’t spend my whole life trying to avoid rhyming with characters in the Harry Potter books. So no Robbie isn’t meant to be Dobby! You heard it here first. You know the truth… I thought that the mother who named him Robbie was the kind of woman who might like Robbie Williams! There you go, so now you know.
Your first Bloomsbury editor Barry Cunningham has said that you named Barry after him and to show your transition towards adult fiction you had symbolically killed him. Is that true?
I honestly think it would be simpler and achieve my aims better if from now on I just agree with every lunatic theory. Then they’ll all clash with each other and cancel each other out! But no I don’t seek out analysis of my books, that way madness lies! I would answer honestly if someone puts a direct question for me.
There are some very interesting characters in The Casual Vacancy, particularly in the way they’re left out and ignored by society
Yes Crystal (one of the teenagers) is ignorant and promiscuous, even occasionally violent. I don’t think any of us would be absolutely thrilled to find her in any of our children’s classes, but that’s the reality. The book is supposed to take a very close look at the attitudes that surround people like her and try to look at why she is like she is. I would also say that characters like Crystal have qualities that have been revealed by events in the book.
There’s been a lot of paper talk about the language in the book, particularly Crystal’s swearing can you talk about that?
It would have been ridiculous to write Crystal’s scenes without it. Firstly I attended a school very like the one in the book myself, so while Crystal isn’t a depiction of any one real person, I certainly was at school with people not dissimilar to her. Then I taught for a few years in a couple of schools that were very like this school too. So to depict a character like Crystal and not have her swear would just have been ludicrous! If I’m being honest and I think I am trying to be very honest in this book, then Crystal is going to swear.
The thing is Crystal doesn’t see what she’s saying as offensive. That’s how she’s been raised it’s the language she hears every day. In the book it even says she uses the word f*cking as interchangeable with the word very. What her middle class guidance teacher hears when Crystal speak is not what Crystal hears coming out of her own mouth.
When you were writing Harry Potter you had the odd experience that all the characters were being played by actors on screen at the same time. Did you maintain your own versions of the characters?
Completely with one exception! The only exception as Evanna Lynch who played Luna, that was such a perfect piece of casting that I did start hearing an Irish voice in my head when I wrote Luna. She really got into my head when I wrote Luna and she was just the most magnificent piece of casting ever. She had a huge identification with the character, she burningly wanted to play Luna and she was absolute perfection in the part. But if you want to be honest the Potter film cast were all too good looking! I really do love them but yeah.
With this new book you’ve been criticised by some press for the secrecy surrounding the manuscript and lack of access before it’s in stores.
I’ve said this before, I had a conversation with Stephen King in New York once, he’s the only writer I’ve ever been able to talk to about this. He’s in exactly the same position, he wanted to send out proofs in the normal manner but they kept turning up on ebay. He stopped sending out proof, so slowly the publisher to protect the public to move to this kind of position also. The internet really has changed everything. If you have the answer I really would love to hear it. It would be great to have a slightly more normal experience. As a writer you want to be able to give someone a whole book and not have it put up chapter by chapter on the internet by someone else. These things have happened. Stephanie Meyer famously had a manuscript just leaked onto the net before it’s even finished. It’s a horrible experience as a writer. This time we were giving the book to journalists ahead of time at least, with Potter it was insane we were asking journalists to review the book in half an hour. It just became horrible. There were so many things about Potter that were amazing but I hated that aspect of it. This time at least I got to speak to people well ahead of publication and they’d been able to read it in whatever time it took them to read it. Five years ago it wasn’t like that.
What is it like to see your words on a page turned into everything else which now goes with it for you?
Absolutely amazing.! I actually thought exactly that tonight. I saw a pile of the new books for the first time tonight. I hadn’t seen them on mass like that before and I had that feeling. God it’s here it’s done! Fantastic it’s out there. I did spend the first two years on this book telling myself “You don’t have to publish this” Just because I was revelling the thought that I had no contract and no one know what I was doing. It was a lovely pace to be in because there was so much pressure and expectation with Potter. Everyone was waiting for the next book three seconds after I’d published one. So I sent a couple of years luxuriating in the knowledge that for once nobody knew what I was doing. But in truth I always knew I was going to publish it, setting aside J D Salinger you write to be published. So today’s lovely it’s a celebration!