As the release of her first post-Potter book The Casual Vacancy approaches, Jo Rowling has begun a series of interviews and appearances with a lengthy piece in The Guardian in which she discusses her life before, during and after Harry Potter, and politics and society and how it ties into the new book. And she says that having dreamed up Harry Potter on a train, the idea for The Casual Vacancy came to her on a plane this time! She also reveals that her next book to publish will most likely be another children’s story, and that the long awaited ‘political fairytale’ is still sitting on her laptop, almost finished.
The video below summarizes the interview nicely, but you can read the whole thing over on the Guardian website. Spoiler warning: the article contains a lot of detail about the contents of The Casual Vacancy. We’ve included some highlight quotes below.
Famous people who appear incredibly controlling are generally one of two things: monstrous megalomaniacs, or unusually sane souls insulating themselves from insane circumstances. There is seldom much middle ground, and I find out where Rowling belongs when her publicist calls an hour before we’re due to meet. I fear the worst. Is there going to be some ludicrous last-minute cloak-and-dagger demand?
No, it’s just that Rowling has been stuck in her office for ages and fancies a change of scene. Could we meet round the corner instead? I find them in the lobby of a modest hotel. Surely we’re not going to talk here, in earshot of every passing guest?
But Rowling is completely relaxed about this arrangement. Warm and animated, quick to laugh, she chatters so freely that her publicist gets jumpy and tells her to lower her voice. “Am I speaking too loud?” She doesn’t look a bit concerned. “Well, I can’t get passionate and whisper!” When I tell her I loved the book, her arms shoot up in celebration. “Oh my God! I’m so happy! That’s so amazing to hear. Thank you so much! You’ve made me incredibly happy. Oh my God!” Anyone listening would take her for a debut author, meeting her first ever fan.
“Obviously I need to be in some form of vehicle to have a decent idea,” she laughs. Having dreamed up Potter on a train, “This time I was on a plane. And I thought: local election! And I just knew. I had that totally physical response you get to an idea that you know will work. It’s a rush of adrenaline, it’s chemical. I had it with Harry Potter and I had it with this. So that’s how I know.”
There has been a horribly familiar change of atmosphere [since the 2010 election], it feels to me a lot like it did in the early 90s, where there’s been a bit of redistribution of benefits and suddenly lone-parent families are that little bit worse off. But it’s not a ‘little bit’ when you’re in that situation. Even a tenner a week can make such a vast, vast difference. So, yeah, it does feel familiar. Though I started writing this five years ago when we didn’t have a coalition government, so it’s become maybe more relevant as I’ve written.”
Like so many British novels, The Casual Vacancy is inescapably about class. “We’re a phenomenally snobby society,” Rowling nods, “and it’s such a rich seam. The middle class is so funny, it’s the class I know best, and it’s the class where you find the most pretension, so that’s what makes the middle classes so funny.” The book is so funny I was halfway through before noticing that every character is, to a varying degree, monstrous.
Rowling grew up near the Forest of Dean in a community not unlike Pagford. “And this was very much me vividly remembering what it was like to be a teenager, and it wasn’t a particularly happy time in my life. In fact, you couldn’t give me anything to make me go back to being a teenager. Never. No, I hated it.”
Her mother, a school lab technician, was diagnosed with MS when Rowling was 15. “But it wasn’t just that – although that did colour it a lot. I just don’t think I was very good at being young.”
She’d had therapy when at “rock bottom” while writing the first Potter. “And I had to do it again when my life was changing so suddenly – and it really helped. I’m a big fan of it, it helped me a lot.” Her other salvation came with her second husband, Neil Murray, a doctor she married in 2001 and with whom she has a son of nine and a daughter aged seven. “When I met Neil, it felt as if he stepped inside everything with me. He changed my life. But, prior to that, to be alone with it all, with a small child, was…” She searches for the word, and opts for understatement. “Difficult.”
Sudden wealth was not a straightforward joy. “You don’t expect the kind of problems it brings with it. I am so grateful for what happened that this should not be taken in any way as a whine, but you don’t expect the pressure of it, in the sense of being bombarded by requests. I felt that I had to solve everyone’s problems. I was hit by this tsunami of demands. I felt overwhelmed. And I was really worried that I would mess up.”
Advertisers were forever offering fortunes to use Potter characters, and McDonald’s wanted to sell Harry Potter Happy Meals, but all to no avail. “I just hate meetings. Though it’s true that once you’ve made a lot of money people around you might be full of ideas about ways to make lots more money and might be disappointed that you don’t want to seize every opportunity to do so.”
Has her accountant ever suggested Jimmy Carr-style tax avoidance schemes? She looks appalled. “No! God, no, he’s not that kind of accountant. No. No one’s ever put that kind of thing to me – but then, they wouldn’t, they just wouldn’t. I do take a pretty dim view of those things. I actually chose my accountant because he said to me, ‘You have to make a fundamental decision. You have to choose whether you organise your money around your life or your life around your money.’”
The endless rumours that The Casual Vacancy would be a crime thriller just made her laugh. “It was all started by Ian Rankin. Ian and I did once have a conversation in which he rightly said the Potter novels are in the main whodunnits, so we were talking about that, and that led to him telling everyone that I was writing a crime novel, which was never the case.”
Whodunnits are her literary guilty pleasure – “I love a good Dorothy L Sayers” – but then again, she doesn’t really feel guilty about that: “There’s no shame in a Dorothy.” She hasn’t read Fifty Shades Of Grey, “because I promised my editor I wouldn’t.” She doesn’t look as if she feels she’s missing out. “Not wildly,” she agrees drily.
Her emotional world is now, she thinks, finally reconciled to her external reality. “In the end you reach a very healthy point, I think, where you disconnect. You really do. And I am there. And it’s been glorious for five years, it’s been thrilling, the sheer freedom. I am the freest author in the world. I can do whatever the hell I like. My bills are paid – we all know I can pay my bills – I was under contract to no one, and the feeling of having all of these characters in my head and knowing that no one else knew a damned thing about them was amazing. It was just blissful. Pagford was mine, just mine, for five years. I loved that. I wrote this novel as exactly what I wanted to write. And I loved it.”
She swears she doesn’t care how well the book sells. “I’m not being snotty about that, but I feel quite disconnected from that sort of expectation.” There may be no commercial ambition left, but still perhaps an artistic point to prove? Some critics were always sniffy about Potter’s literary merit – “In an arbitrarily chosen single page of the first Harry Potter book,” despaired Harold Bloom, “I count seven clichés” – and I wonder if Rowling wrote The Casual Vacancy with those critics in mind. “No, I truly didn’t sit down and think, right, now it’s time to prove I can…” She breaks off and sighs. “I don’t think I physically could write a novel for that reason.”
To write such an ambitious book without ambition was neither a contradiction for Rowling, nor even a choice. “I just needed to write this book. I like it a lot, I’m proud of it, and that counts for me.” She did consider publishing under a pseudonym. “But in some ways I think it’s braver to do it like this. And, to an extent, you know what? The worst that can happen is that everyone says, ‘Well, that was dreadful, she should have stuck to writing for kids’ and I can take that. So, yeah, I’ll put it out there, and if everyone says, ‘Well, that’s shockingly bad – back to wizards with you’, then obviously I won’t be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live.”
I don’t doubt her, but her certainty has the faint zeal of a convert, so I ask how she can be sure. “Because I’m not the person I was a few years ago. I’m not. I’m happier”