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Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, July 7, 2000

Associated Press
J. K. Rowling, 34, brought the world
in the realm 'Harry Potter.'

Author stunned by
Potter mania

There's something about Harry

By Audrey Woods
Associated Press


EDINBURGH, Scotland -- J.K. Rowling, creator of the boy wizard Harry Potter, is running a few minutes late for an interview -- not quite five, in fact.

A slight figure in black trousers and a trim red-suede jacket, she slowly descends the hotel staircase, scanning the lounge for a reporter and photographer.

"Are you looking for me?" she asks, apologetic and far too polite to consider the obvious -- that most reporters would happily wait much more than five minutes to talk with a literary phenomenon like Joanne Kathleen Rowling.

After a quick trip upstairs, she drops her handbag onto the floor outside her suite and crouches to rummage in it for the key.

"I know I have it here!"

And so she does -- to the door, and to the hearts and minds of millions of children and a lot of adults who like her books simply because they're fun to read.

Rowling's transformation from struggling single mother to best-selling author is well-known, and the 34-year-old's star is still ascending.

Did the creator of this magic world have the slightest inkling that so many people would take Harry to their hearts -- and in 40 languages?

"Never in a million years," she says, still a bit stunned by it all.

"Certainly, according to all the publishers that turned Harry Potter down, I was quite right in thinking that if ever it got published it was highly unlikely it would sell very many copies," she says.

The whole series -- which has sold 35 million copies worldwide -- has been plotted out since 1995, when Rowling finished book one, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," writing in Edinburgh cafes while keeping body and soul just barely together after the failure of her marriage.

The writing is still fun, but the latest adventure was "an absolute killer," she says, especially toward the end of the year it took to write.

"I had to be sure that that book was right because it's the central book of the seven and it's very important in plot terms. ... But it was an awful lot of work," she says. "Now that I've finished, it's my favorite. It won't be to some."

Her works are not without controversy. Some parents have objected to frightening passages and to the subject of witchcraft.

Rowling says she had no wish to upset children but she does want to write the story her way. "I have good reason for doing it. There are certain things I want to explore and if it's the last thing I do, I will not be knocked off course."

It's a safe bet most readers like the course she's on. And she considers one of the major pluses of her success the chance to meet young readers.

"Meeting kids who've read the books is pure, unadulterated pleasure," she says.

Rowling's respect and affection for children is almost tangible, and there is no mystery to her connection with them. Nor is she surprised by the adult readership.

"I've always felt that a good book is a good book. I never felt there was a big gulf between children's and adults' literature," she says.

She did not write with any plan to teach moral lessons.

"I write for myself. I did not write for imaginary children: 'What would they need to learn now?' "

That goes, too, for the humor.

"It is what I find funny," she says, "not what I think children find funny. ... They can read it and not get every joke and still can find most of it funny."

Humor, of course, does not always travel well between cultures. And as American readership of the books is huge, that was a worry.

"The first time I did a reading to American children ... I was terrified," Rowling says. "The passage I was reading I had read countless times before and I always knew where the first laugh came." She knew she had no guarantee the American kids were going to get the humor. "But the roar of laughter came ... and it has been exactly the same every other place," she says.

Then what's this about changing words in the U.S. edition so American children could understand them?

Rowling pretends to bang her head against the sofa in mock frustration. "SO much has been made of that," she groans, noting it was only done where words had been used that really meant something different to Americans.

Her American editor noted the word "jumper" -- British for pullover sweater -- means a kind of dress in American. She had had no idea. "He asked, 'Can we change it to sweater?' which is just as British." That was fine with her.

Rowling is less happy with reports that the upcoming movie of the first book was to have been set in the United States with an American cast until Steven Spielberg dropped out of the planning. There's been criticism, too, of the choice of "Home Alone" director Chris Columbus to make the movie, and much concern that it will be "Hollywoodized."

"Chris is as keen as I am to keep this thing as British as possible," she says. "And as American children have proved in their droves, they're not remotely fazed. ... It's patronizing to assume that they wouldn't cope well with being able to understand that things are different in Britain. Of course, they understand."

Rowling also feels strongly about the witchcraft controversy that led to some schools banning her books from class.

"I truly am bemused that anyone who has read the books could think that I am a proponent of the occult in any serious way," she says.

"I'm certainly not a witch myself," she says with a laugh, "and you would be surprised how many otherwise intelligent people have asked me that question."

She disagrees that witchcraft is off-limits in children's books. "I think it's a source of great fun, drama. Magic is going to be a theme of children's literature as long as the human race exists," she says.

Rowling says that if she should ever write an adult novel, it will not be because she thinks she has to do so to be taken seriously. "I've never seen writing for children as second-best," she says.

"I am always going to be the Harry Potter author. I actually have no problem with that. I can't imagine myself ever being ashamed of these books."

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