Photo Gallery: Interview with J.K. Rowling

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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?

'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
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