An interview with J. K. Rowling — who longs to have dinner with Colette…

I met J. K. Rowling in — well, actually, I can’t tell you where I met her. Her office is in a proper Secret Location. Quite good fun, really, unless you decide to be annoyed about the whole palaver. But why be annoyed? I was awfully curious to meet her. So I arrived, and there she was, petite and blonde and shaking my hand with what I would call reserved warmth. A lady who likes her glamour, the day we met she was casually chic in jeans, Converse and a blue jacket draped round her shoulders. Her make-up was subtle, but precise; her hands were perfectly manicured. She looks like someone who has settled into being who she is now.

The struggling single parent — who wrote her first novel on a manual typewriter in cafés while surviving on social security and battling depression — is now a 47-year-old woman who has made £560 million from her books and has learnt how to handle what that unprecedented, breathtaking success has brought. Riches and fame — yes, but also the kind of intrusion that makes her cautious about the questions she’ll answer. She is especially protective of her family: she married Neil Murray, a doctor, in 2001, and has since had a son and a daughter; she has a teenage daughter from her first marriage.

Published five years after Harry Potter’s swansong, Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, is a tale of modern-day class conflict and local government in the West Country. She is good to chat to: writing well about characters and relationships — as she does — comes from listening to what people say and her answers are serious and thoughtful, with a hint of mischief. I liked her. We talked until our time was up, and the door to the Secret Location was shut once again . . .

The Casual Vacancy is clearly a book with a conscience. What kind of social role do you think fiction can still have?

I think it’s got a social role. I think that perhaps the best you can hope for is a tiny incremental shift in thinking — which sometimes is enough to effect some real changes. But having said that, I didn’t write The Casual Vacancy to make an argument. It’s not a polemic, it’s not party political — I don’t think a good novel was ever written that could be confused with a manifesto. I think a novel should be primarily a story, and The Casual Vacancy is a story. Perhaps its greatest value is to demonstrate what the issues of the day are — not necessarily to say what you should conclude about those issues; anything that makes people argue! This is largely a book about people arguing — and I suspect that people may argue about this book. That’s a good thing. That said — if you do achieve a tiny incremental shift in feeling or compassion, that’s more than most politicians achieve, isn’t it? So one shouldn’t undersell it.

What research did you do for the book?

Very little. I drew mostly on my own life experience. I’ve had a peculiar life in many respects: I’ve passed through a huge number of economic states; and I suppose you could say social states. My financial status has fluctuated insanely throughout my life; when I was at my poorest I came into close contact with people who were living, for example, the way the [working-class] Weedons are living; and as someone who attended a state school and who has taught in state schools, I have run up against teenagers like every character in the book. I’ve also rubbed shoulders with the likes of the [posh middle-class] Mollinsons, with all of their views. I grew up in a very middle England town, and many of the attitudes that the middle class express in the book are incredibly familiar to me from my childhood.

I did a phenomenal amount of research on Sikhism. I wanted to have a family of colour in this village; I wanted them to be a complex family. The Jawandas in this novel are the middle-class dream in many senses: they represent the new upper echelons of society. You have two very high-achieving parents, you have three beautiful children, things are going wrong in that family — but one of the reasons is that there is a huge amount of pressure from many different places — on the mother in particular. One of the pressures upon her is a form of corrosive racism; racism that’s unacknowledged — and that’s why it’s corrosive, because it’s very much there and I think in the book I show that. I knew I wanted them to be a Sikh family because I was friendly, when I was in my 20s and living in London, with a girl who came from a Sikh family. Once we were talking about equality between the genders, and she told me that women can perform all the religious rites within the Gurdwara [Sikh temple], and that, explicitly, in the holy book women were set as equals alongside men. I found this fascinating, I’d never heard of a religion in which that happened — and I’d been raised in the Christian tradition. The founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, is the Guru who disappeared into the river, was gone for three days, and when he re-emerged said: “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim, we are all equal.” And the poetry of that — in a book that’s all about, well, it’s all about how the light of God shines from every soul; so I had to have a Sikh family. So I know much more about Sikhism than ever appeared in the book, which is often the case. I remember from Harry Potter researching things that gave me a line and a half. But I always knew it worked, and it worked for more reasons than the readers would know.

Unlike the Harry Potter books, this novel doesn’t have a central character. How did that affect your writing? Was it harder, easier, or simply very different to writing the Harry Potter books?

[Harry’s] the point of view, and sometimes I had to get quite tricksy for things to work. With this, it was a key part of the idea of the book that you would share the interior life of a diverse number of characters, so that when you came to the point at the end of the book when three people choose to ignore a certain situation, the reader has been brought to understand exactly why each of those three people could ignore something like that happening under their eyes. So, I can honestly say that I relish the challenge of it — and the freedom of it.

Which author, living or dead, would you most like to meet and have dinner with?

I’ve thought about this so much! I went through all sorts of people in my mind, all my favourite writers; and then I had to focus on who I’m having dinner with. I thought of P. G. Wodehouse — but then if you read his letters, he only cared about writing and Pekinese dogs. And I’m no Pekinese — so I think we’d have struggled to stretch out light conversation over three courses. So I discounted P.G., with regret. Oh, and I discounted Jane Austen, who is on some days my favourite author of all time, because I think she’d be a bit scary. Was it Emily Brontë who said she had a mind like a small pair of scissors? It came down to a two-way contest: Colette and Dickens. Colette is terrifying. But if she were in a mellow mood, and prepared to tell the truth about her life, you would have the most fascinating dinner in the history of the world. But then, Dickens also had an amazing life, and I’ve just got a feeling that I would have a very good time with Charles Dickens. And he was a performer, wasn’t he? I think he could be phenomenal company. So I think by a nose I would choose Charles Dickens, because you might get to ask questions and see the real person. With Colette you might get past the starter and realise this is a catastrophe, why didn’t I choose Charles . . .?

With which literary character do you most identify?

I’ve got to be honest. Jo March. I read Little Women when I was eight; and I didn’t know that there was someone out there like that. Someone who burningly wanted to write, because I did want to write, and she even had my name! And she had my bad temper, because I’ve got a short fuse. And she was plain, in a family of pretty girls, and I was plain. So it’s got to be Jo March.

E-books or print? What does the future hold?

I think both. It’s a very, very interesting time for publishing. I don’t think anyone’s going to call it until a couple more years have passed, because we’re in a state of real upheaval. I value, as a writer, what a traditional publishing house does. I could have gone the self-published route, as some established authors are; what I really wanted when I was looking around for the The Casual Vacancy, was to get the right editor for it. Just to have the support and that critical pair of eyes. I don’t see them [publishers] as evil gatekeepers; because art is subjective. It would be very unreasonable of me to say [hisses], “Oh! Those terrible people who turned down Harry Potter! Don’t they realise what idiots they are!” They’re allowed not to like the book, you know? That’s their job. I don’t walk around feeling bitter about that. I don’t think I have anything to feel bitter about, let’s face it!

What do you think about children seeing the Harry Potter films before they read the books?

I don’t like it. I can’t imagine any author being delighted that someone saw the film first. And with my own children, I’m very strict — you’re allowed to watch the film when you’ve read the book, when Mummy’s read the book to you. And not just my books — I’m quite draconian. Very depressingly, I met someone quite famous, I won’t say who it is, who said to me, “I absolutely love your work.” And I said: “That’s so kind, thank you so much.” And after a few minutes of being absolutely effusive about “my work”, it turned out that this person had seen all of the films and never read the books. I was quite crestfallen — because the films are not my work! That was other people’s work — people of whom I’m immensely fond; I love the films and I love the actors in the films, but they’re not my work.

If you could give one piece of advice to the person you were before you were published, what would it be?

I struggle with this. It would have been impossible to prepare myself for what was coming. Genuinely impossible. I wasn’t equipped at the time to take in maybe the most useful pieces of advice I could have given myself. One thing I could have said to myself is: “Trust your instincts about people. They won’t ever be wrong.” And that might have given me the confidence to ride the tide with a little more grace.

Sometimes authors return to characters in ways that they didn’t expect. What might Harry Potter be like as a middle-aged wizard?

I think Harry, as a character, is done. I’m as sure as I can be on that. Barring brainstorms, barring in ten years’ time thinking of something that Harry must do, I can’t imagine it happening. He can get on with his life. He had a pretty eventful youth. I like the idea that he’s living in peace. I shut down the possibility of that by writing the epilogue inDeathly Hallows — I think that’s why some fans didn’t like the epilogue very much, because it did close a door. I am absolutely not ruling out the possibility that I would do something connected with the world — I have no plans to do anything like that, but it could happen. I created a big world that I loved playing in — but I think Harry is done as a character.

What are you reading now?

I’ve just finished The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. I saw her interviewed, and I got a bit of a girl-crush on her — so I wanted to read that, and I liked it a lot.

And of course: what do you make of Fifty Shades of Grey?

Haven’t read it. I have girlfriends who have read it. Lots of girlfriends — it’s like a domino effect. I want to meet some men who have read it, and find out what it’s told them about female sexuality. Now that’s an article I would like to read.

 What book changed your life?

There are so many. But the weird thing is that the book that immediately leapt to mind was Manon Lescaut, by [18th-century author] Abbé Prévost. And I haven’t read that book for 27 years! But I’m going to give that as my answer, because I think my subconscious is quite right. I studied it as part of my degree, so I was about 19 or 20, and it’s stuck with me — for ever. Fundamentally it’s a tale of obsessive love. What I took from it was how much of love is illusion. I’ve seen that proven in my life ever since. And it’s always that book I return to in my mind, when I watch that happen. Isn’t that what a really great book does? It becomes part of the furniture in your head.