SPIEGEL Interview with J.K. Rowling: 'I've Really Exhausted the Magical'
J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults, "The Casual Vacancy," was published on Thursday. In a SPIEGEL interview, the best-selling author talks about life after Harry Potter, describes her paranoia about losing everything she had gained and dispenses a few parenting tips.
They are nothing more than ordinary photocopies, a stack about 3 centimeters (1.2 inches) high, but a great deal of secrecy has been made about them. At night, the pages have been sitting in a safe at the Ullstein Verlag in Berlin.
When SPIEGEL requested an interview with J.K. Rowling on the occasion of her first novel after Harry Potter, it wasn't clear if the author would let journalists read the book before it was published on Sept. 27. But there sit the 576 pages of "The Casual Vacancy" (which is being published in German as "Ein Plötzlicher Todesfall") in a sun-drenched conference room at the Ullstein offices.
Rowling's first novel for adults begins with the character of Barry Fairbrother, who goes out to eat with his wife to celebrate their wedding anniversary. But Fairbrother isn't actually the hero -- he dies from an aneurysm on the third page. He lived with his family in Pagford, a seemingly idyllic town in the west of England. He was a social climber, who grew up in a neighboring public housing estate, The Fields, and before his death fought to make sure it should continue to belong to Pagford.
Rowling shows the social panorama of a small English town. She describes a successful family of Indian doctors; a father who beats his wife and kids in private; a political spokesman who is as powerful as he is fat; and four teenagers who rebel against the stuffiness of the self-satisfied middle-class world.
Today, Rowling, 47, is one of the richest women in Britain. The seven volumes in her Harry Potter series have been translated into 72 languages and have sold approximately 450 million copies worldwide. Her fortune is estimated at about 700 million ($900 million), and she is said to have donated 120 million to charity in recent years.
When she published the first Harry Potter book in 1997, Rowling was living as a single mother with financial problems in Edinburgh. She still lives here, and takes an interview at her office in the city center. She is punctual and friendly and in general goes out of her way not to behave like a star.
SPIEGEL: Ms. Rowling, there isn't any magic or sorcery in your novel. Did you miss it?
Rowling: I think I've really exhausted the magical. It was a lot of fun, but I've put it behind me for the time being. If there is a connection between Harry Potter and my new novel, it's my interest in characters.
SPIEGEL: After the last Harry Potter volume, did it ever cross your mind to stop writing?
Rowling: No, I didn't even consider it. I've been writing my entire life, and I'll always write. But at times I have told myself that I don't necessarily have to publish anything else. The success of Harry Potter has given me lots of freedom. I can pay my bills, and I don't have to prove anything to anyone anymore.
SPIEGEL: But can't all that freedom also lead to writer's block?
Rowling: I like writing too much for that. More of a problem is the fact that Harry Potter comes with so many business-related responsibilities that I'm able to write less often than I'd like. Besides, I have three children, although I'm used to working around my children. Yesterday, for example, I had a wonderful writing day. I got the children ready for school, and once my husband was out of the house with them, I made breakfast for myself in the kitchen. Still in my pajamas, I took my breakfast to bed with me, grabbed my laptop and spent four hours working in bed. Delightful.
SPIEGEL: Why did you decide to write a book for adults after Harry Potter?
Rowling: I don't think about who the audience is for my books. I simply hit upon the idea of writing a novel about a political election in a small town , because I believe that it enables you to say a lot about society and different social classes. I was thinking about 19th-century English novels at the time.
SPIEGEL: "The Casual Vacancy" takes place in a fictitious town in western England called Pagford. Barry Fairbrother, a respected member of the town council, dies at the beginning of the book. His death triggers a struggle in Pagford over who will replace him. You interweave the stories of more than 20 characters in the course of the novel. Why does the whole thing take place in a small town?
Rowling: First of all, because I grew up in a town much like Pagford and am very familiar with what life is like there. And for an author, a manageable little world like that gives you the chance to carefully examine how the actions of individuals affect the lives of others. Secretly we're all a little more absurd than we make ourselves out to be. That interested me, as did the dependencies and addictions we tolerate to properly play our social roles. One of the characters is a father and a doctor, as well as a workaholic. And then there is a respected wife who drinks too much for her own good, as well as two characters who find comfort in food. These are all addictions that we tacitly accept, despite the occasional reports that we drink too much on average or that people are getting too fat. And yet these addictions do have a destructive effect.
SPIEGEL: Middle-class hypocrisy is an important theme of the book. What do you find interesting about that?
Rowling: An unpleasant tendency in human interaction is that we view each other with less and less empathy. Instead, we judge others whom we really shouldn't be judging, because we know them far too little. The feeling that we can never sink as low as some neighbor or a person to whom we feel superior boosts our self-esteem. I believe that lack of empathy is behind many problems, and I believe that it's disrupting our society. In Great Britain, there is a steady decline in the willingness to be truly generous, and by that I don't mean monetary generosity, but friendship and sympathy for others.
SPIEGEL: What's causing it?
Rowling: In difficult economic times, people become less willing to help others. These are not good times for empathy.
SPIEGEL: The middle class in your novel doesn't lead a very happy life either.
Rowling: At times I found it depressing to write the book. It just happens to be a novel about self-deception, which is why unacknowledged problems play a big role in it, as do the blind spots in our self-awareness. However, some characters in the novel are also firmly convinced that they are doing everything right, which in turn is also very amusing. There is plenty of ambitious competition and hypocrisy in the middle class, which makes it a rather fertile environment for a writer.
SPIEGEL: The likeable characters in the book are four teenagers, who all have virtually silent relationships with their parents, and whose home life is filled with aggression and destructiveness. Are you that pessimistic about the relationship between the generations?
Rowling: I would never recommend my novel as a parenting guide. But we happen to live at a very hectic and hurried time, and I believe that many parents are too wrapped up in themselves.
SPIEGEL: As the mother of three children, as well as the author of the most successful books for young people, what would you say makes for good parents?
Rowling: I can best answer your question as a former teacher: listening. I would never claim that I do everything right -- most certainly not -- and teenagers can sometimes be pretty unbearable. But the problems begin as soon as communication stops. That's been my experience. The most important, and most difficult, thing is to listen to the sorts of things you'd rather not listen to. It's also the undoing of some of the characters in "The Casual Vacancy."
SPIEGEL: In this novel, one of the likeable characters also dies at the end. How difficult is it to kill off your protagonists?
Rowling: Graham Greene said that every writer must have a chip of ice in his heart. When I was writing "The Casual Vacancy," I was often distraught and unhappy, but that doesn't change the fact that I know exactly what has to happen to the characters. And it also has to happen, even if the scenes are difficult to write.
SPIEGEL: Did you ever enjoy killing off a character?
- 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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