Transcript of JK Rowling's Casual Vacancy interview
- 26 September 2012
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Harry Potter author JK Rowling was interviewed by BBC arts editor Will Gompertz about The Casual Vacancy, her first novel since her phenomenally successful Harry Potter series ended in 2007.
Here is the transcript of their interview about her adult-themed book which she describes as "slicing through" the society of a small village community.
When I had the book, the first 30 pages I was thinking "this is JK Rowling, the woman who wrote those Harry Potter books" and it took a while for me to get through that process. Maybe it was me and the way I was approaching it, but I sensed there was a certain nervousness in your authorial voice in the very beginning.
I don't mean this in an arrogant way but I did not sit down to write this novel thinking "got to prove". I had nothing to prove. Now I certainly don't mean that in an arrogant way, I certainly don't mean that I think, well, you know, I can't improve as a writer. I certainly don't mean that I'm coming from a place of self-satisfaction.
But Harry Potter truly liberated me in the sense that there's only one reason to write, for me: If I genuinely have something I want to say and I want to publish it. I can pay my bills, you know, every day. I am grateful for that fact and aware of that fact. I don't need to publish to make a living.
We both know what it takes to write a novel, we both know how much blood, sweat and tears go into writing a novel, I couldn't put that amount of energy into something purely to say I need to prove I can write a book with swear words in it. So no, there was no nervousness - and again I don't mean that arrogantly. I felt happy writing it, it was what I wanted to do.
I've been asked this question so many times, do you feel you need to write a book for adults? No, I don't need to write a book for adults. I think it very likely that the next thing I publish will be for kids. I have a children's book that I really like, it's for slightly younger children than the Potter books, and I think probably the next thing will be for children.
I loved writing for kids, I loved talking to children about what I'd written, I don't want to leave that behind. But I wanted to write this as well.
Casual Vacancy has lots of swear words in it and lots of adult themes, do you worry that children who are fans of yours will be on an internet site where you can easily download books in one click, and they'll suddenly be faced with really quite vivid language?
Well, I hope that we've made it really clear that this isn't a book for children.
I've been very open about what the themes are, we've talked about what the story's about. I would have thought that parents can make a very clear choice... I would have to ask why have kids got such untrammelled access to the internet that they are downloading… Well, I would be more worried about other things they could be downloading if they're running amok on the internet on their own.
There is something of Dickens about this book.
I'm very flattered! When I did start writing it I was aware that I was doing a contemporary version of what I love, which is a big, fat 19th-Century novel set in a small community. So to an extent, swear words notwithstanding, that is what the Casual Vacancy is. It is a parochial - literally - novel that's looking at slicing through a society, with everything that that implies. That's what I wanted to do.
Do you aspire to be the Dickens of our day?
No [laughs]. Again, I think it's a curious thing being me, because it was all an accident and then, when you become very successful, people assume there was a game plan. So there are no motivational posts on my wall saying "Be next Dickens" - well, because he's Dickens. It would be so outrageously presumptuous to say that. You pay your respects to him and then move on.
What do you aspire to as a writer?
To get better. I think you're working and learning until you die. I can with my hand on my heart say I will never write for any reason other than I burningly wanted to write the book. I very rarely think about who I'm writing for, except that clearly there is an adult/child divide and certainly my next book is a children's book, if that's what I do publish next - she said, covering all her bases.
The one thing Potter has left me with is an absolute dread of committing myself because it came back to bite me so often.
This is your first published adult novel. It is inevitably going to sell truckloads. It is going to get reviews good, bad and indifferent. People around you are going to say nice things about it. How will you judge if it's been a success or failure?
The simple answer is speaking to readers. I have to say that latterly with the Potter books, when the hype became insane, it was a monster that was out of control. Speaking to readers really brought you back to what it should be about.
So ultimately, the people who have read the book, who are not paid to have an opinion, are generally the best benchmark of whether you have done what you set out to do. But you're right that that was a consideration for me, particularly with being published next time round.
It was very important to me to approach publishing the book in a certain way. I didn't want to have an auction, I didn't want to announce that I had a new book and watch a feeding frenzy, so it was important to me to go out quite quietly, and find the right person.
I had a great conversation with David Shelley [at Little, Brown & Co] and I just knew he understood what I was doing and he was prepared to take not a risk, in the sense that clearly the name would shift some books, we all knew that. But equally, if you fall flat on your face, it's a much more public experience.
It was important to me simply to have an editor who understood what I was doing and to have a quiet conversation about that before I committed to any deals. And I found the right person. David is that person.
What was that wavelength? What did he say, and you say, that made you feel, "yes, this is sympatico?"
I can't really reproduce it. It was a very interesting conversation because he didn't know I had a book and there were just things he said to me, I don't want to be very specific because I don't want to prime anyone else to say them. There were things he said that I knew meant he would understand exactly why I was writing it and what I was doing.
Very specifically, he knew the Potter books very well. We had certain conversations about characterisations and political themes.
I hadn't told him that I'd written a book for adults [but] he started talking about 'why aren't you?', and then we had whole conversation about the fact that I had.
So he believed in you as a novelist?
He did, but it was more than that.
I'll put it this way: When he read the book, he singled out certain things about the book that I would have liked someone most to single out about it. I just knew I had the right person. It's a very intangible thing. It's like falling in professional love, isn't it? And once you've got that, something clicks and you know you're in safe hands.
How involved was he in the editing of the book?
We certainly made some cuts. I decided to move some things around, he made some great suggestions. The book is broadly what it was when I gave it to him. I didn't change much but what we did change tightened it up a lot, which is what you want.
Did you create it in a similar fashion to your Potter novels - you had loads of research and described carving your novels out of it?
I did, really. I always know way more than I need to know. I have backstory on every character that I didn't need. And, in fact, some of it was in the novel and I took it out. I just need to know much more than the reader does.
If it goes well will we hear and see more from these characters?
No, she said with enormous relief, this is definitely a stand-alone book. I loved writing it but it's a discrete story, it's done. I'm not keen to leap into another series.
It seems incredible to me that as a writer you've created a portfolio of characters which connect with millions, maybe even billions of people. And those characters have got plenty more story in them. Surely to goodness, as a writer, you can't leave them be.
It was murder saying goodbye. But truly, where Harry's story is concerned, I'm done. I just think it would be for the sake of milking it and that's just not in me.
Clearly there was an appetite for eight, nine, ten, and I could have done it. I know that world so well that moving in and out of it is like walking through my own front door. But I had enough plot for seven novels, and to go further would have been money for old rope. Couldn't do it. And that's largely why I slapped on that epilogue. Because the epilogue says he's leading a quiet life, and he's earned it. He's done.
Now, having said all of that, I have always left the door ajar because I'm not that cruel. If I had a fabulous idea that came out of that world, because I loved writing it, I would do it. But I've got to have a great idea, I don't want to go mechanically into that world and pick up odds and ends and glue them together and say "here we go, we can sell this". It would make a mockery of what those books were to me. They really kept me going through some very rough times... So I just don't want to betray them in that sense.
But you're right, you know what, if I did have a great idea for something else, I probably would do it. I'm very averse to the prequel / sequel idea. I've never seen it work well in either literature or film. That's a personal preference.
I don't know you at all, but you're clearly a very nice person, and you say you feel wonderful about publishing this novel. But you're also quite shy but I don't believe you feel liberated about it.
Everyone's nervous, of course. I was nervous every time I brought out a book.
Deathly Hallows, at the time it was the fastest-selling book - it's now been outstripped by Fifty Shades of Grey - but people around you say, "it's a cert, blah, blah, blah," but it's not. I was still nervous, because I felt this massive duty to the fans.
That was an occasion when I did think about who I was writing for because I was so invested in these characters and people have grown up with these characters.
So I'd done exactly what I'd wanted to do but in the weeks before publication of course you're thinking 'oh my God, how are they going to feel about it?' But this time, I'm being absolutely honest, any writer that doesn't say they feel a frisson as publication date approaches, of course they're a bloody liar.
This book, some people will hate it, I'm quite sure of that, because that's in the nature of literature and art. That's the way it goes.
I'm very insecure in some areas of my life and in this area of my life, I'm bizarrely... It's the place where I'm more secure because I feel that's as it should be. There are books, other people call them "wonderful books", that I hate and that's ok. It's a book and no one's going to die.
I'm proud of this book, I like it, and if you can say that, however nervous you are on publication day, you're streets ahead of the game. Because to put out something you're not that happy with or that you think "God, I wish I'd had another year to rework it", and I have been in that position, is very different.
When were you in that position?
There were a couple of the Potters and I definitely knew that they needed another year. There's one towards the beginning and there's one towards the end, that I definitely felt that about. I had to write on the run and there were times when it was really tough. And I read them, and I think "Oh God, maybe I'll go back and do a director's cut". I don't know.
But you know what? I'm proud I was writing under the conditions under which I was writing. No one will ever know how tough it was at times.
A couple of tangential questions - firstly Leveson. You gave a very moving account of what happened to you. Do you think it will change anything?
Do you know, I just don't know. I'm fascinated. I'm following it very closely, not just because I participated, but because I think it's a massive question for our culture. We've got to get it right.
I passionately believe in freedom of the press. But having been on the receiving end of some dubious / illegal behaviour, how do we mop this up? I don't know. I hope and pray it does change things because I think it's toxic, what has been allowed to go on.
Do you think it will?
If I had to bet, I'd say it will change things but I think there will be massive resistance on the part of some aspects of the media.
It was a big deal giving evidence to Leveson, because you're in that paradoxical position of trying to stick up for your privacy whilst slightly invading your own privacy. So I had to think long and hard about what went into the statement and there were a couple of things that didn't go into the statement because, even though they represented some of the worst things that had happened to me at the hand of the press, or my family, I would have been invading my own privacy quite seriously to talk about them. So that's the odd thing about an inquiry like this.
Another random question: In 2001 you were awarded an OBE. You've sold hundreds of millions of books, you've given thousands of pounds away to charity. I personally am quite surprised you haven't been made a dame.
No comment! (Laughs)
Do you think literature is overlooked slightly in our culture?
I can't talk about this on camera.
In an interview very recently, you said you were pro-Scottish union. Why?
I think devolution has been fantastic for Scotland, I really do, and I suppose, pragmatically, I think we've got a great deal, currently. I think that independence right now is not a great idea. We're in the middle of a huge, terrible, terrifying world recession. I just think now is a time for stability. And Scotland's doing great under devolution. I think economically we're in a pretty stable, sound condition. I would be personally quite averse doing anything that destabilised that in the next few years.
Jo Rowling, thank you very much indeed.