JK Rowling: ‘The worst that can happen is that everyone says, That’s shockingly bad’
Harry Potter sold millions and made her one of the richest women in the world. Now JK Rowling has written her first book for grown-ups. But is the magic still there?
JK Rowling‘s new novel arrives with the high drama and state secrecy of a royal birth. Its due date is announced in February, and in April the disclosure of its title, The Casual Vacancy, makes international news. The release of the cover image in July commands headlines again, and Fleet Street commissions a “design guru” to deconstruct its inscrutable aesthetic, in search of clues as to what might lie within. Waterstones predicts the novel will be “the bestselling fiction title this year”. Literary critics begin to publish preliminary reviews, revealing what they think they will think about a book they have not yet even read.
I am required to sign more legal documents than would typically be involved in buying a house before I am allowed to read The Casual Vacancy, under tight security in the London offices of Little, Brown. Even the publishers have been forbidden to read it, and they relinquish the manuscript gingerly, reverently, as though handling a priceless Ming vase. Afterwards, I am instructed never to disclose the address of Rowling’s Edinburgh office where the interview will take place. The mere fact of the interview is deemed so newsworthy that Le Monde dispatches a reporter to investigate how it was secured. Its prospect begins to assume the mystique of an audience with Her Majesty – except, of course, that Rowling is famously much, much richer than the Queen.
In the 15 years since she published her first Harry Potter, Rowling has become both universally known and almost unrecognisable. The scruffy redhead who used to write in the cafes of Leith has slowly transformed into a glossy couture blonde, unknowable behind an impregnable sheen of wealth and control. Once a penniless single mother, she became the first person on earth to make $1bn by writing books, but her rare public appearances suggested a faint ice maiden quality, less Cinderella than Snow Queen. Sometimes she didn’t appear to be enjoying the fairytale at all, complaining to Leveson of having had to hire privacy lawyers on more than 50 occasions, and suing a fan for writing an encyclopedia of Potter facts. The press began to hint at a coldly grandiose recluse.
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.
In a way, that’s what she is. Rowling has written seven Harry Potter books, and sold more than 450m copies, but her first novel for adults is unlike them in every respect – unless you count the location where the concept came to her. “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.”
The story opens with the death of a parish councillor in the pretty West Country village of Pagford. Barry had grown up on a nearby council estate, the Fields, a squalid rural ghetto with which the more pious middle classes of Pagford have long lost patience. If they can fill his seat with one more councillor sympathetic to their disgust, they’ll secure a majority vote to reassign responsibility for the Fields to a neighbouring council, and be rid of the wretched place for good.
The pompous chairman assumes the seat will go to his son, a solicitor. Pitted against him are a bitterly cold GP and a deputy headmaster crippled by irreconcilable ambivalence towards his son, an unnervingly self-possessed adolescent whose subversion takes the unusual but highly effective form of telling the truth. His preoccupation with “authenticity” develops into a fascination with the Fields and its most notorious family, the Weedons.
Terri Weedon is a prostitute, junkie and lifelong casualty of chilling abuse, struggling to stay clean to stop social services taking her three-year-old son, Robbie, into care. But methadone is a precarious substitute for heroin, and most of what passes for mothering falls to her teenage daughter, Krystal. Spirited and volatile, Krystal has known only one adult ally in her life – Barry – and his sudden death casts her dangerously adrift. When anonymous messages begin appearing on the parish council website, exposing villagers’ secrets, Pagford unravels into a panic of paranoia, rage and tragedy.
Pagford will be appallingly recognisable to anyone who has ever lived in a West Country village, but its clever comedy can also be read as a parable about national politics. “I’m interested in that drive, that rush to judgment, that is so prevalent in our society,” Rowling says. “We all know that pleasurable rush that comes from condemning, and in the short term it’s quite a satisfying thing to do, isn’t it?” But it requires obliviousness to the horrors suffered by a family such as the Weedons, and the book satirises the ignorance of elites who assume to know what’s best for everyone else.
“How many of us are able to expand our minds beyond our own personal experience? So many people, certainly people who sit around the cabinet table, say, ‘Well, it worked for me’ or, ‘This is how my father managed it’ – these trite catchphrases – and the idea that other people might have had such a different life experience that their choices and beliefs and behaviours would be completely different from your own seems to escape a lot of otherwise intelligent people. The poor are discussed as this homogeneous mash, like porridge. The idea that they might be individuals, and be where they are for very different, diverse reasons, again seems to escape some people.
“They talk about feckless teenage mothers looking for a council flat. Well, how tragic is it that that’s what someone regards as the height of security or safety? What would your life be like if that’s the only possible path you can see for yourself? But I don’t know if that’s a question some people ask themselves. 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.
Written from multiple perspectives, the novel invites the reader into their heads, where internal logic helps make sense of what can look, from the outside, inexcusable. But Rowling waits a long time before leading us inside the Weedons’ minds, to reveal unspeakable traumas. The delay serves to amplify the shock, but runs the risk of showing only their dysfunction for so long that the reader might start to laugh at them. “I was aware that a reader might think I was laughing at Krystal. And I’m not. At all. Not for a second,” Suddenly she is intently serious. “One person who has read it said he found it very funny when Krystal told Robbie to eat his crisps before his Rolos. Well, I wasn’t making a joke. At all. To me, that was quite a bleak moment. To me, it’s heartbreaking. To me, that makes me want to cry.
“So I suppose you can never know. But then,” and she starts to smile, “in some people’s eyes, Harry Potter was a book of the occult and devil worship, so I do know that you can’t legislate for what readers will find.”
Someone else told Rowling they felt sorry for her daughter’s friends, assuming they were the inspiration for The Casual Vacancy’s teenagers. “But I haven’t laid them bare, I’ve laid my friends bare.” 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 and her younger sister, Dianne, had a difficult relationship with their father, and Rowling “couldn’t wait to get out of there”; she studied French and classics at Exeter University, went to work for Amnesty in London, lost her mother at 25 and moved abroad to teach English, returning at 28 with a six-month-old daughter, Jessica, following a short and catastrophic marriage to a Portuguese journalist. Broke, clinically depressed and suicidal, she moved to Edinburgh to be near her sister and survived on benefits while writing the first Harry Potter. After many rejections, the manuscript was bought by Bloomsbury for £2,500. Her editor advised Rowling to get a teaching job, the likelihood of her earning a living from children’s books being, in his view, decidedly remote.
A 2007 documentary shows her 10 years later, soaring into a stratosphere of unimaginable wealth and fame. Watching it now, what’s striking is the discrepancy between the happily-ever-after finale of her rags-to-riches miracle and the unhappiness etched upon her face. There is a hunted expression in her eyes, a wary tension in her features and a slightly brittle chippiness in her comments. None of this is discernible today, so I ask if it took time for the emotional DNA of unhappy early years to mutate and catch up with her new life.
“Well, it has now. But there was a definite lag. For a few years I did feel I was on a psychic treadmill, trying to keep up with where I was. Everything changed so rapidly, so strangely. I knew no one who’d ever been in the public eye. I didn’t know anyone – anyone – to whom I could turn and say, ‘What do you do?’ So it was incredibly disorienting.”
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.”
Having always longed to be a writer, she now found herself in charge of a business empire stretching all the way to Hollywood, as the Harry Potter films began smashing box office records. “And it’s a real bore. Should I be more diplomatic? Oh, I don’t care. No, there is literally nothing on the business side that I wouldn’t sacrifice in a heartbeat to have an extra couple of hours’ writing. Nothing. That sounds hideously ungrateful because it’s made me an awful lot of money, and I’m very grateful for that. But it’s not something that interests me, and there have been lots of opportunities to do things that make more money, and I’ve said no.”
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.'”
When I ask her to name the worst thing about her life today, she can’t think of anything. After a long pause, “The very worst thing right now, this second, is that we’ve got no food in the fridge – what are we going to have for dinner tonight? Big deal. But no, I can’t think of anything dreadful in my life.” And fame has had its upsides; meeting Barack Obama and the legendary Democrat speechwriter Bob Shrum were the two greatest starstruck moments of her life. She has only ever once resorted to a disguise in order to go out without being recognised, but that was to buy her wedding dress. “I just wanted to be able to get married to Neil without any rubbish happening.” She won’t say what the disguise was – “In case,” she grins, “I need to use it again.” She’s stopped minding that people get her name wrong (it rhymes with bowling, not howling), and quite likes being JK as a writer and Jo in real life. “Jo the mother is where I want to be the most private.”
She is not so private that she won’t say which way she’ll vote in the Scottish referendum – “I’m pro union” – and seems sanguine about the speculation that surrounds her every public move. 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.”
I quote to her from a 2005 interview: “The first thing I write post-Harry could be absolutely dreadful and, you know, people will buy it. So you’re left with this real insecurity.” Rowling nods vigorously. “But it’s true, isn’t it? Absolutely, that was my worst nightmare. The moment I said I’d finished a book, I knew what would happen. There would be a bidding war, and I would end up with someone who’d got the fattest wallet, who had bought it because I’d written Harry Potter. That would have been why.
“But I was really lucky on this, because I had a meeting with David Shelley, who’s now my editor, without him knowing there was a book. So we just had a conversation, and I could tell he was really on my wavelength. So then I sort of vaguely mentioned what I might have, without saying it’s virtually finished. There was no auction. It was just a great way to find an editor.”
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”
• The Casual Vacancy is published on Thursday by Little Brown at £20. To order a copy for £15 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.