SPIEGEL Interview with J.K. Rowling: 'I've Really Exhausted the Magical'
Part 2: 'Being Rich Was Never My Goal'
Rowling: No, never. Although that's not quite true. There was one exception. The only character I was happy to kill off was Bellatrix Lestrange in the last Harry Potter volume. Being able to kill her was a pleasure.
SPIEGEL: Your novel is filled with observations about the middle class. Given your life today, is it even possible for you to make such observations anymore?
Rowling: Many parts of my life are perfectly ordinary, if that's what you mean. One could even call it boring, but that's what I like about it. I love cooking, and I like being at home with my two younger children, who are seven and nine. No one who knows me personally knows me as J.K. Rowling -- in my private life, I use my husband's last name. But sometimes I transform myself. I put on a glamorous dress, go to a film premier or appear at the opening ceremony of the Olympics, and then I'm J.K. Rowling.
SPIEGEL: It sounds a little confusing.
Rowling: I like the distinction. It enables me to have more easygoing encounters in my private life. Once people get to know me, they don't really think about the fact that I'm also J.K. Rowling.
SPIEGEL: What's the good part of being the world's most famous female author?
Rowling: One of the nicest things is when a 21-year-old girl comes up to me, as happened recently, and says: You were my childhood. Can I hug you?
SPIEGEL: And the hard part?
Rowling: The hard part, hmmm Actually, I don't even want to talk about the hard part, because I'm truly and deeply thankful for what has happened to me. But if I really had to name something, it would be the feeling of being overwhelmed by my sudden fame. I wasn't prepared for that. It was really a shock. I can deal with it today, because I have a lot of support.
SPIEGEL: You've become rich and famous by doing the kind of work that means a lot to you. It's a very rare exception. Do you perceive that as a luxury?
Rowling: Absolutely, and I'm really enormously grateful for it, but the important thing is that being rich was never my goal. Years ago, I received a letter from some organization -- I think it was from America -- that wanted to name me its entrepreneur of the year. I replied that I regrettably had to decline, because it was pure chance that I make so much money. It was never my intention. I wrote a book that I thought was a good book. That's all.
SPIEGEL: Has success changed you?
Rowling: It has, and anyone who says it doesn't is not telling the truth. First of all, success has taken many cares out of my life, because I was a single mother at the time, I had a temporary contract as a teacher, and I didn't know how much longer I'd be able to pay the rent. When I signed the American book contract for Harry Potter, I came into an enormous amount of money practically overnight. It triggered a tsunami of requests for money, as you can imagine. I was completely overwhelmed. And I suddenly felt responsible in many different ways. At first I thought: You can't screw this up now. I was downright paranoid that I would do something stupid and would have to move back into the small rented apartment with my little daughter Jessica. I wanted to make sure that everything was secure. I was practically putting money under my mattress. I felt the same sense of panic when it was time to distribute money. I just started giving it away in all directions, which doesn't help anyone in the end. The way I grew up, I simply wasn't prepared for a situation like that.
SPIEGEL: How did you grow up?
Rowling: I don't come from a very wealthy family. I went to a state school, and I had girlfriends whose families lived at the poverty line. Later, at the University of Exeter, I was in the company of wealthier people for the first time. I got to know their prejudices and became upset that they saw the world in such stereotypical ways. That was long before I found myself in a similar situation.
SPIEGEL: How do you feel in the company of rich people today?
Rowling: Because of the unusual course of my life, I was able to observe how the behavior of people changes when they become rich. I clearly remember an encounter with a man, who I prefer not to describe in detail. In that encounter he said to me, very matter-of-factly: Luckily there are no riffraff around here. Apparently he assumed that I shared his values and would have the same opinion as he did. It didn't even occur to him that only 15 years earlier, I would have been one of those people that he considered to be riffraff.
SPIEGEL: Do you find that sort of behavior offensive?
Rowling: I think it's alarming that people believe that success -- and in our society, wealth is equated with success -- enables one to forget how life felt before. As if one could simply exchange one's values. I think it's truly alarming that some people could think that my memories could be simply deleted, as with a computer program. To this day, I don't take it for granted that I can pay my bills, and that I can keep my house. It may sound improbable, but even today I take nothing for granted.
SPIEGEL: But you've been one of the wealthiest people in Britain for more than a decade.
Rowling: I've also become much more organized. I've established a foundation, and I have trustees. We make joint decisions on how we spend the money, and we make sure that the money reaches the right people. Naturally, all of this changes a person. The pressure I've endured in recent years has also changed me, because after I signed the international contracts for Harry Potter, I had to fulfill the expectations that all of the publishing houses had of me.
SPIEGEL: You've kept a tight rein on the publishing of your new novel. Until the day of international publication, only about 30 people worldwide had seen the manuscript. Why is it so important to you to retain so much control?
Rowling: In the end, there was tremendous hype over the publication of Harry Potter, and it eventually spun out of control and became very stressful for me. This time I wanted things to be a little more normal and reasonable.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, you're still a long way from normal. Normally the publishers simply send out advance copies weeks before publication.
Rowling: I talked about it with Stephen King. He's probably the only author in the world who's been in a situation similar to mine. He tried it with advance copies, but before long they were being offered for sale on eBay. It just happens to be the world in which we live, one in which a manuscript can be copied many times over within seconds. It's a huge problem for authors and publishers.
SPIEGEL: How important is it to you that "A Casual Vacancy" becomes a success?
Rowling: We have to define what we mean by success.
SPIEGEL: Good reviews, lots of readers.
Rowling: I'm sure that I'll never have another success like Harry Potter for the rest of my life, no matter how many books I write, and no matter whether they're good or bad. I remember very clearly that I was thinking the same thing when the excitement over the fourth Harry Potter volume literally exploded. The thought was unsettling to me at the time, and I still feel that way today. With this book, quite honestly -- and there will be people who don't believe me, but it doesn't matter -- with this book, the most important thing to me was that I'm satisfied. I don't mean this in an arrogant way at all. Every writer prefers good reviews over bad ones, and every writer wants to have lots of readers. But if it doesn't happen, that's fine too. Perhaps I won't throw a party then; I'll simply go home and keep writing.
SPIEGEL: Is it a debut of sorts?
Rowling: Yes, in a sense it is. It's my first book after Harry Potter, and in a way it's also liberating.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Rowling, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Claudia Voigt
- Part 1: 'I've Really Exhausted the Magical'
- Part 2: 'Being Rich Was Never My Goal'
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The Casual Vacancy
Little, Brown Book Group; September 2012; 480 pages; 24.99 euro.
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