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 firstHarry 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.