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JK Rowling at the Edinburgh Book Festival
[thanks to JK Rowling Official Website]
Lindsey Fraser: Well, we must be the luckiest five hundred people in Edinburgh today. My name is Lindsey Fraser and I am delighted to congratulate you, on behalf of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on getting up so early on this Sunday morning. Welcome to this very special event. Of course, J K Rowling does not need an introduction, so my job is really very easy today. Thanks to the Harry Potter books, her life has changed dramatically— I am sure that you know how the story goes. Thanks to the Harry Potter books, our lives have changed as well. We are part of an international readership and that is reflected in the fact that some of the people here today have travelled from far and wide. It is like a huge reading club that is immersed in the world that she has created. She does not often talk directly to her readers these days, and no wonder. She is too busy writing huge thick books to get out much, but she has made an exception today, first to read from her latest novel and then to take some of your questions. I know that you want to show how very pleased you are to see her today. Ladies and gentlemen, Jo Rowling.
J K Rowling: Morning. I am going to do a very short reading for you from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and then I will take some questions. Is there anyone here who has not finished reading the book? I know that there is someone at the back, because I know her and she told me. They seem to be mainly grown-ups: would that be right? If there are any younger people who have not finished reading the book, we need to be careful not to give away the big ending, if you know what I mean. If you have questions about the big ending, maybe you could save them for when you get your book signed afterwards. I try not to ruin people’s appreciation of the book if they are still reading it, so I have chosen a reading from quite early on in the book, just before Harry goes back to Hogwarts. He and Ron get quite a surprise—for Harry, it is quite an unpleasant surprise, I have to say.
J K Rowling read an excerpt from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Questions from the audience
Out of all your books, which one is your favourite?
It varies. I would have to say that it is probably Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, although at the moment—it is unfair of me to say it—Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is my favourite book. Sorry. I am the only one who has read it and I think it is rather good. I am normally like this when I write a book. Usually when I am just over halfway I normally love it, but by the time I finish it I completely despise it and think it is worthless rubbish. At the moment, I really like how the sixth book is going. A lot happens in the sixth book and a lot of questions are answered. I really have a sense that we are nearly there and it is time for answers, not more questions and clues, although obviously there are a few clues as I am not quite finished yet. I hope that that is sufficiently frustrating for you, knowing that you can’t read it yet!
Which books did you read when you were a child and which books do you read now?
When I was a child, I would read absolutely anything. My favourite books for younger people would be I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, which I really love, The Little White Horse, all the classic children’s books… I love E Nesbit—I think she is great and I identify with the way that she writes. Her children are very real children and she was quite a groundbreaker in her day. I also read a lot of adult books. The last novel that I read was Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which I have been meaning to read for years. It is a cracking read. I have just been on holiday and, for the first time in five years, I did not take any Iris Murdoch with me, because it is so depressing. I was just about to put one in my case and I thought, “Why do this? Why put yourself through this?”, so I didn’t bother. I read Wilkie Collins instead and it was a much better experience.
All the paintings we have seen at Hogwarts are of dead people. They seem to be living through their portraits. How is this so? If there was a painting of Harry’s parents, would he be able to obtain advice from them?
That is a very good question. They are all of dead people; they are not as fully realised as ghosts, as you have probably noticed. The place where you see them really talk is in Dumbledore’s office, primarily; the idea is that the previous headmasters and headmistresses leave behind a faint imprint of themselves. They leave their aura, almost, in the office and they can give some counsel to the present occupant, but it is not like being a ghost. They repeat catchphrases, almost. The portrait of Sirius’ mother is not a very 3D personality; she is not very fully realised. She repeats catchphrases that she had when she was alive. If Harry had a portrait of his parents it would not help him a great deal. If he could meet them as ghosts, that would be a much more meaningful interaction, but as Nick explained at the end of Phoenix—I am straying into dangerous territory, but I think you probably know what he explained—there are some people who would not come back as ghosts because they are unafraid, or less afraid, of death.
Who is your favourite character in the books?
I have loads of favourite characters. I really like Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid and Dumbledore. I love writing Snape—even though he is not always the nicest person, he is really fun to write. I love writing Dudley. If I could meet anyone, I might choose Lupin. I really like him. My favourite new character is Luna—I am very fond of her.
Is Aunt Petunia a Squib?
Good question. No, she is not, but—[Laughter]. No, she is not a Squib. She is a Muggle, but—[Laughter]. You will have to read the other books. You might have got the impression that there is a little bit more to Aunt Petunia than meets the eye, and you will find out what it is. She is not a squib, although that is a very good guess. Oh, I am giving a lot away here. I am being shockingly indiscreet.
How do you think of all the names, like Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs?
Those names all came out of the creatures that they turned into. I had a lot of fun with those. Wormtail was the most difficult one. My sister loathes rats and her problem with them is their tails, so that is what gave me the idea. You actually know how I get some names because I stole your Mum’s maiden name, didn’t I? You have to be careful if you get friendly with me because you tend to turn up in my books, and if you offend me, you often turn up as a nasty character. I found the name McClaggan the other day, which I think is a great name. There is a McClaggan in book six because I thought that it is a surname that is too good to waste.
In your stories, will Harry Potter ever grow up as a wizard?
Well, I don’t think it is giving too much away to say that he will survive to book seven, mainly because I do not want to be strangled by you lot, but I am not going to say whether he grows any older than that because I have never said that. You are good at putting me on the spot!
Are any of your characters based on real people?
The only character who is deliberately based on a real person is Gilderoy Lockhart. [Laughter]. Maybe he is not the one that you would think of, but I have to say that the living model was worse. [Laughter]. He was a shocker! The lies that he told about adventures that he’d had, things he’d done and impressive acts that he had committed… He was a shocking man. I can say this quite freely because he will never in a million years dream that he is Gilderoy Lockhart. I am always frightened that he is going to turn up one day. He is just one of those people from your past whom you feel you have never quite shaken off. I will look up one day at a signing and he will say, “Hello, Jo”. [Laughter]. Other people have contributed the odd characteristic, such as a nose, to a character, but the only character who I sat down and thought that I would base on someone is Gilderoy Lockhart. It made up for having to endure him for two solid years.
Have you written any other books apart from the Harry Potter books?
No. I have written other things that have not been published, which I assure you is no great loss to the world. I have written all sorts of different things but nothing else has been published. Some of it might be published one day—I don’t know. There are some unfinished things that I would quite like to finish but I do not know that I would want them to be published.
Of the many, many characters in your books, whose personality is most like yours?
There is a theory that every character is an extension of the author’s character, which makes me one of the most disturbed people, I think. [Laughter]. I do not know how many characters I’ve got, but it is nudging up towards 200, so I am really in trouble. Hermione is a bit like me when I was younger. I did not set out to make Hermione like me but she is a bit like me. She is an exaggeration of how I was when I was younger. Harry is a bit like me. If you squeeze together Harry, Ron and Hermione… I find them quite easy to write, and I think that that is because they are a bit like different parts of my personality. When you get to someone like Dolores Umbridge, no way—I am absolutely not like her. She is a horrible woman.
What form does Dumbledore’s Patronus take?
Good question. Can anyone guess? You have had a clue. There was a little whisper there. It is a phoenix, which is very representative of Dumbledore for reasons that I am sure you can guess.
What will the seventh book be called?
I think you have been put up to that. [Laughter]. I was asked about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix live on American television by a boy who was just as good looking as you and just as cute. I just said it. I had said no to all the journalists, then a little boy just like you put up his hand and said, “What is the name of the next book?” I said, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”! But I am not going to tell you, I’m sorry. You have no idea of the trouble that I would be in if I did. My agent would have me hunted down and killed, so I am not going to say.
Why is the barman of the Hog’s Head vaguely familiar to Harry? Is he Dumbledore’s brother?
Ooh—you are getting good. Why do you think that it is Aberforth? [Audience member: Various clues. He smells of goats and he looks a bit like Dumbledore]. I was quite proud of that clue. That is all that I am going to say. [Laughter]. Well yes, obviously. I like the goat clue—I sniggered to myself about that one.
Are you happy with the films that have been made?
I am happy with the films. Of the three, Azkaban is my favourite. I thought it was really good for a lot of different reasons. I thought that Alfonso Cuaron, the director, did a fantastic job and Dan, Emma and Rupert, who play Harry, Hermione and Ron, were really wonderful in the film—I told them that.
How do you make up the weird names for the potions?
Sometimes invention gives out. I was writing the latest chapter of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince and I needed to come up with another name for another potion. I sat for ten minutes at the keyboard then I just typed “X”. I thought, “I’ll go back and fill that in later.” Sometimes you really want to get on with the story. Sometimes names just come to you, which is a great feeling, but sometimes it is difficult and you have to batter your brain for a while. Sometimes it comes to you while you are washing up or on the loo or something. My husband is quite used to me saying, “Wait!” then running up stairs and writing something down.
What do you do in your spare time?
I have no spare time at all. [Laughter]. When I’m not writing or looking after the children, I read and sleep. To be totally honest with you, at the moment sleeping is probably my very favourite thing in the world to do. I know that is a bit of a depressing answer. I would like to say I was partying with Mick Jagger—well, I wouldn’t want to be partying with Mick Jagger, that is a complete lie, but it would be a more interesting answer to give you here at the festival.
Who was the first character that you invented?
Harry. He really is the whole story. The whole plot is contained in Harry Potter; his past, present and future—that is the story. Harry came to me first and everything radiated out from him. I gave him his parents, then his past, then Hogwarts, and the wizarding world got bigger and bigger. He was the starting point.
Does Hermione have any brothers or sisters?
No, she doesn’t. When I first made up Hermione I gave her a younger sister, but she was very hard to work in. The younger sister was not supposed to go to Hogwarts. She was supposed to remain a Muggle. It was a sideline that didn’t work very well and it did not have a big place in the story. I have deliberately kept Hermione’s family in the background. You see so much of Ron’s family so I thought that I would keep Hermione’s family, by contrast, quite ordinary. They are dentists, as you know. They are a bit bemused by their odd daughter but quite proud of her all the same.
Does Harry have a godmother? If so, will she make an appearance in future books?
No, he doesn’t. I have thought this through. If Sirius had married… Sirius was too busy being a big rebel to get married. When Harry was born, it was at the very height of Voldemort fever last time so his christening was a very hurried, quiet affair with just Sirius, just the best friend. At that point it looked as if the Potters would have to go into hiding so obviously they could not do the big christening thing and invite lots of people. Sirius is the only one, unfortunately. I have got to be careful what I say there, haven’t I?
If you could be one of the characters for a day, who would it be?
Definitely not Harry, because I would not want to go through it all. I know what is coming for him so there is no way that I would want to be him. At the moment, I would not want to be any of them, because life is getting quite tough for them. It would be a laugh to be someone like Peeves, causing mayhem and not bothering.
Will Ron and Hermione ever get together?
Well—[Laughter.] What do you think? [Audience member: I think they will]. I’m not going to say. I can’t say, can I? I think that, by now, I’ve given quite a lot of clues on the subject. That is all I’m going to say. You will have to read between the lines on that one.
Have you always wanted to be a book author?
Yes. I know that I wanted to be a writer when I was six because I wrote a book then. It was a work of towering genius about a rabbit called Rabbit. I gave it to my mother and she said, “That’s lovely”, as a mother would, “That’s very, very good.” I stood there and thought, “Well, get it published then”. That’s a bit of an odd thing for a child of six to think. I don’t know where it came from. I thought, “Come on, then. Proofs? Galleys?” I obviously really wanted to do it. No one in my family wanted to write. My sister writes very funny letters but they are always about one paragraph long. She does not keep it going in the way that I do.
Can you tell me more about Rita Skeeter?
I love Rita. You know when Harry walks into the Leaky Cauldron for the first time, in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? Everyone says, “You’re back” and he realises for the first time that he is famous. In a very early draft, Rita, a journalist, was there and she ran up to him. For some reason she was called Bridget—I forget why. Anyway, she detained him too long in the Leaky Cauldron and I really needed to get him moving, so I thought that I would not put her there. As I was writing book one, I was planning the rest, and book four was supposed to be where Harry’s fame became a burden to him. It really starts to weigh on him when he is exposed to the wider wizarding world so I thought that that would be the perfect place for Rita to come in. She was still called Bridget at the time. I didn’t realise that by the time I wrote book four I would have met quite a lot of Ritas and people would assume that I was writing Rita in response to what had happened to me, which was not in fact the truth. However, I am not going to deny that writing Rita was a lot more fun having met a few people I had met. I actually quite like Rita. She is loathsome—morally, she’s horrible—but I can’t help admiring her toughness. She is very determined to do the job and there is something quite engaging about that. There is more to come on Rita. It is really enjoyable to write her and Hermione because they are such very different people. The scene in which I had Hermione, Rita and Luna together in the pub was really fun to write because they are three very different women with very different points of view. You have this very cynical journalist, you have Hermione, who is very logical, upright and good, and you have Luna, who is completely out to lunch but fantastic. I really like Luna. You have these three people who are not on each other’s wavelengths making a deal. It was fun to write.
You have probably had a lot of people trying to get information out of you about the books, but what is the strangest thing, or maybe the slyest thing, anyone has done? Have you ever slipped up?
Well, you are pretty sneaky. People ask questions like, “Will there be an eighth novel and will Harry be in it?” There are questions that I simply can’t answer. Fans are very good at that, and I have to be very awake. I think that you want to know but you don’t want to know as well. You would all like me to tell you exactly what happens in books six and seven and then to erase your memories so that you can read them. I know, because that is how I feel about things that I really enjoy. I would kind of like to do it, but at the same time I know that I would ruin it for everyone.
I thought that I would give you something though, rather than get to the end of today and think that I have not given you a lot. There are two questions that I have never been asked but that I should have been asked, if you know what I mean. If you want to speculate on anything, you should speculate on these two things, which will point you in the right direction. The first question that I have never been asked—it has probably been asked in a chatroom but no one has ever asked me—is, “Why didn’t Voldemort die?” Not, “Why did Harry live?” but, “Why didn’t Voldemort die?” The killing curse rebounded, so he should have died. Why didn’t he? At the end of Goblet of Fire he says that one or more of the steps that he took enabled him to survive. You should be wondering what he did to make sure that he did not die—I will put it that way. I don’t think that it is guessable. It may be—someone could guess it—but you should be asking yourself that question, particularly now that you know about the prophesy. I’d better stop there or I will really incriminate myself. The other question that I am surprised no one has asked me since Phoenix came out—I thought that people would—is why Dumbledore did not kill or try to kill Voldemort in the scene in the ministry. I know that I am giving a lot away to people who have not read the book. Although Dumbledore gives a kind of reason to Voldemort, it is not the real reason. When I mentioned that question to my husband—I told Neil that I was going to mention it to you—he said that it was because Voldemort knows that there are two more books to come. As you can see, we are on the same literary wavelength. [Laughter]. That is not the answer; Dumbledore knows something slightly more profound than that. If you want to wonder about anything, I would advise you to concentrate on those two questions. That might take you a little bit further.
Will Hagrid ever succeed with his plans for his brother?
In a limited way, yes. Grawp is obviously the very stupidest thing that Hagrid ever brought home. In his long line of bringing home stupid things—Aragog, the Blast-Ended Skrewts—Grawp is the one that should have finished him off, but ironically it might be the one time that a monstrous something came good. By the next book, Grawp is a little bit more controllable. I think you got a clue to that at the end of Phoenix, because Grawp was starting to speak and to be a little bit more amenable to human contact.
How did Dumbledore get his scar in the London Underground?
You may find out one day. I am very fond of that scar.
How do you think up the names of the books?
Sometimes it was really easy and the title came naturally out of the plot. Sometimes it was a bit of a struggle. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets had different titles. In fact, as everyone now knows, it was once called Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, but then I removed a whole storyline that did not work at all. It gave too much information too early, so I pulled it out and it became a major part, but not the only part, of book six. There is no trace of that storyline left in Chamber of Secrets. People have been speculating that book six is a spinoff of book two, but it is not.
I was really upset when Sirius was taken…
No, no, we can’t. We’ll talk about it afterwards. I think we have given it away anyway, but never mind.
It has recently been confirmed that Blaise Zabini is in fact a male character. Will we see more of him in the next few books?
That’s correct. You do.
Also, will we see more of Snape?
You always see a lot of Snape, because he is a gift of a character. I hesitate to say that I love him. [Audience member: I do]. You do? This is a very worrying thing. Are you thinking about Alan Rickman or about Snape? [Laughter]. Isn’t this life, though? I make this hero—Harry, obviously—and there he is on the screen, the perfect Harry, because Dan is very much as I imagine Harry, but who does every girl under the age of 15 fall in love with? Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy. Girls, stop going for the bad guy. Go for a nice man in the first place. It took me 35 years to learn that, but I am giving you that nugget free, right now, at the beginning of your love lives.
In the fifth book, Harry can see the Thestrals. Can you?
Yes, I can, definitely. That is a really good question, because it enables me to clear up a point. The letters that I’ve had about the Thestrals! Everyone has said to me that Harry saw people die before could see the Thestrals. Just to clear this up once and for all, this was not a mistake. I would be the first to say that I have made mistakes in the books, but this was not a mistake. I really thought this one through. Harry did not see his parents die. He was one year old and in a cot at the time. Although you never see that scene, I wrote it and then cut it. He didn’t see it; he was too young to appreciate it. When you find out about the Thestrals, you find that you can see them only when you really understand death in a broader sense, when you really know what it means. Someone said that Harry saw Quirrell die, but that is not true. He was unconscious when Quirrell died, in Philosopher’s Stone. He did not know until he came around that Quirrell had died when Voldemort left his body. Then you have Cedric. With Cedric, fair point. Harry had just seen Cedric die when he got back into the carriages to go back to Hogsmeade station. I thought about that at the end of Goblet, because I have known from the word go what was drawing the carriages. From Chamber of Secrets, in which there are carriages drawn by invisible things, I have known what was there. I decided that it would be an odd thing to do right at the end of a book. Anyone who has suffered a bereavement knows that there is the immediate shock but that it takes a little while to appreciate fully that you will never see that person again. Until that had happened, I did not think that Harry could see the Thestrals. That means that when he goes back, he saw these spooky things. It set the tone for Phoenix, which is a much darker book.
Apart from Harry, Snape is my favourite character because he is so complex and I just love him. Can he see the Thestrals, and if so, why? Also, is he a pure blood wizard?
Snape’s ancestry is hinted at. He was a Death Eater, so clearly he is no Muggle born, because Muggle borns are not allowed to be Death Eaters, except in rare circumstances. You have some information about his ancestry there. He can see Thestrals, but in my imagination most of the older people at Hogwarts would be able to see them because, obviously, as you go through life you do lose people and understand what death is. But you must not forget that Snape was a Death Eater. He will have seen things that… Why do you love him? Why do people love Snape? I do not understand this. Again, it’s bad boy syndrome, isn’t it? It’s very depressing. [Laughter]. One of my best friends watched the film and she said, “You know who’s really attractive?” I said, “Who?” She said, “Lucius Malfoy!”
Is there more to Dudley than meets the eye?
No. [Laughter]. What you see is what you get. I am happy to say that he is definitely a character without much back story. He is just Dudley. The next book, Half Blood Prince, is the least that you see of the Dursleys. You see them quite briefly. You see them a bit more in the final book, but you don’t get a lot of Dudley in book six—very few lines. I am sorry if there are Dudley fans out there, but I think you need to look at your priorities if it is Dudley that you are looking forward to. [Laughter].
Has your original plan for the seven books changed along the way?
It has changed, but only in details. In all important respects, it has stayed the same, and the ending will be exactly what I planned before 1997. The story has taken little twists and turns that I maybe didn’t expect, but we are still on track. Each book has broadly done what it was supposed to do in taking you towards the final conclusion.
There is a lot of Latin in the spells in your books Do you speak Latin?
Yes. At home, we converse in Latin. [Laughter]. Mainly. For light relief, we do a little Greek. My Latin is patchy, to say the least, but that doesn’t really matter because old spells are often in cod Latin—a funny mixture of weird languages creeps into spells. That is how I use it. Occasionally you will stumble across something in my Latin that is, almost accidentally, grammatically correct, but that is a rarity. In my defence, the Latin is deliberately odd. Perfect Latin is not a very magical medium, is it? Does anyone know where avada kedavra came from? It is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and it is the original of abracadabra, which means “let the thing be destroyed”. Originally, it was used to cure illness and the “thing” was the illness, but I decided to make it the “thing” as in the person standing in front of me. I take a lot of liberties with things like that. I twist them round and make them mine.
Will there be a book about Harry’s Mum and Dad, about how they became friends and how they died?
So it would be “Harry Potter: Episode One”. [Laughter]. No, but a lot of people have asked that. It is all George Lucas’s fault. You won’t need a prequel; by the time I am finished, you will know enough. I think it would be shamelessly exploitative to do that. I am sure that Mr Lucas is doing it only for artistic reasons, but in my case I think that by the time you have had the seven books you will know everything you need to know for the story.
Has Voldemort or Tom Riddle ever cared for or loved anyone?
Now, that’s a cracking question to end with—very good. No, never. [Laughter.] If he had, he couldn’t possibly be what he is. You will find out a lot more about that. It is a good question, because it leads us rather neatly to Half Blood Prince, although I repeat for the millionth time that Voldemort is not the half blood prince, which is what a lot of people thought. He is definitely, definitely not.
Thank you for your excellent questions. [Applause].
Lindsey Fraser: They were absolutely brilliant questions and I think you will agree that it has been a fantastic event. Please join me in thanking J K Rowling.
Published August 15, 2004