J.K. Rowling: On Setting Priorities

J.K. Rowling (pronounced ROHE-ling) has made a lot of friends lately, and she doesn’t know most of them. According to Publishers Weekly, there are 8.9 million hardcover and paperback Harry Potter books in print. Her US publisher had to move up the publication of the second book in the series because fans of the first were busily ordering the UK edition from Amazon.com. The series has been translated into 28 languages, and Christopher Little, Rowling’s agent, receives “a considerable amount” of requests from potential Harry Potter licensees every day. Her book-signings are mob scenes—kids wearing wizard’s robes and lightning bolt decals on their foreheads wait hours for a glimpse of “the Harry Potter Woman.”

Even with millions of new friends, there are still bad days. At a tour stop at a New Jersey Borders, staff drastically underestimated demand, and in the resulting frenzy, a store manager was punched and bitten. Rowling’s domination of the bestseller lists (at one point, Harry Potter books were one, two and three on The New York Times bestseller list) prompted some in the publishing business to grumble about children’s titles being listed with general adult fiction. At the same time, protective parents and librarians in Michigan, Minnesota and New York called the books anti-Christian and expressed concern that kids might be encouraged to practice witchcraft. “Yes, I’ve heard it’s been banned,” Rowling frequently told attendees at signings during her fall US tour.

But never mind that. Rowling’s original problem, getting time to write, has only intensified. It’s been widely reported that Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in Edinburgh cafes and had to squeeze in paragraphs between diaper changes and feeding time. That may be partly true, but if she had to juggle before, she has many more balls in the air now. Her appearances include 60 Minutes, The Today Show and The Rosie O’Donnell Show. Fan letters and promotional tours combine to compete for other slices of Rowling’s time. Fortunately, she set aside a few minutes for WD.

You’ve said that you’ve always wanted to be a writer but intended to write for adults. Will you try that after you’ve finished the Harry Potter series?
If I’m known forever as a children’s writer, I will never consider that “second best”—I don’t feel I need to write for adults before I’m a “serious” writer! For me, the idea always comes before I consider an audience. In truth, I never consider the audience for whom I’m writing. I just write what I want to write. So, perhaps I will write for adults one day, but only if the idea is right.

Whom do you consider your influences? How have they affected your writing?
Writers I most admire are: E. Nesbit, Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov and Colette. But as for being influenced by them… I think it [may be] more accurate to say that they represent untouchable ideals to me. It is impossible for me to say what my influences are; I don’t analyze my own writing in that way.

How do you meet the demands of raising your daughter, deal with the press and promotion, and still make writing a priority?
I meet the demands of writing, promotion and my daughter in the same way every working mother copes—with great difficulty sometimes, and by learning to say no! My daughter comes first, Harry second, and then I start weeding out non-priorities.

Will you get input into any Harry Potter spin-offs (or do you want it)?
I have input into the film [script approval]. Other than the film, there are no spin-offs at the moment. I have turned down everything else. I would never have sold film rights to Warner if I hadn’t believed that they would do a faithful interpretation of the book, and I still believe that they will..

Do you find that non-English language readers identify with your brand of humor?
As far as I can tell—I can’t read Norwegian—the reaction in other countries has been very similar to here. The humor seems to have translated very well, from the reaction I get from foreign children.

You’ve said before that you want to keep your favorite authors to yourself. Are there secrets about Harry that you’ll keep to yourself?
There are things I know about many of the characters in the Harry books that might not make it into the books themselves… too much information, not enough space!

This interview appeared in the February 2000 issue of Writer’s Digest.

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