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Upward and Onward Toward Book Seven -- Her Way

Author J.K. Rowling is 'quite driven' about her outrageously popular Harry Potter series and assures she'll weave the story line as she, not readers, sees fit.

October 25, 2000|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Last week, sales of the four "Harry Potter" books hit 43 million. Already No. 1 on every major bestseller list, the newest title, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," also is history's fastest-selling book. Warner Bros. is preparing a "Harry Potter" film, cast with unknowns. Potterisms, terms found only in these volumes, have entered the broad vernacular. (Don't stand for it if someone likens you to Draco Malfoy.) High on the list of hot kiddie collectibles this season are Hogwarts journals and lightning bolt ink stamps. Look outside on Halloween and you will see numerous children with round eyeglasses, hoping to play Quidditch with their brooms.

No longer a mere literary hero, the wizard-in-training is a commercial typhoon. So if you happen to be having tea with J.K. Rowling, perpetrator of this astonishing phenomenon, it might be reasonable to inquire: Will success spoil Harry Potter?

Absolutely not, insists Rowling, who is just this side of obsessive about the boy who appeared to her fully formed on a train ride between London and Manchester. (Religious allegorists take note: Few other epiphanies have proved so profitable.) In a clingy purple dress and heels that look like upside-down skyscrapers, Rowling is fierce about her young wizard and the grand themes around him.

"I have known Harry, and I have been writing about Harry for 10 years," Rowling said. "He is very, very real to me."

On a quick visit from Scotland last week, Rowling, 35, sipped tea and ignored a plate of tidy little sandwiches. Her readers know her as J.K., but friends call her Jo, short for Joanne. Rowling was so grateful five years ago when Bloomsbury Press paid about $4,000 for her first book, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," as the first book is known in Great Britain ("Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" in this country) that she didn't protest the decision to use genderless initials instead of an identifiably female first name. More boy-friendly, they told her.

Rowling said she sees it as her mission to convey the life story of the boy named for a family she grew up with on the English border with Wales. Harry Potter's saga is so complete that Rowling sees the tale as one gigantic story broken into seven books "I think I'm quite driven on this," Rowling said on a busy afternoon of engagements scheduled by her U.S. publisher, Scholastic. "I want to get this story out of me. It's that simple. There's no other reason to keep writing."

As if she were Harry's guardian--not the awful Dursleys of her story--Rowling talks fast and furiously about the boy with the lightning bolt scar. She laughs readily, and at her own expense, agreeing, for example, that maybe it was a little presumptuous for an unpublished author to set forth on a seven-volume serial novel. "My response is, you can be as arrogant as you want when you haven't done anything," Rowling said. "What the hell do you have to lose?"

Thanks to Harry Potter, what Rowling has gained is an enormous fortune. She and her daughter, Jessica, now 7, own a secluded home in Edinburgh. For the first time in her life, she has enough disposable income to purchase anything she wants--such as the glittering ring she spotted in a jewelry store window not long ago, and marched right in and bought.

But Rowling dismisses reports that Harry has made her the third-highest-paid woman in Great Britain. "Not true," she said. A recent British newspaper report that she makes 56,000 pounds a day is just plain hilarious, Rowling said, adding, "If that's true, my banker should call me and say where is it?"

Slender and animated, Rowling is passionate and intense when she talks about Harry. When the pair met, so to speak, Rowling was 25. By the time she put his story to paper, she was divorced. She was so poor that she could barely afford to heat her apartment, so she wrote at an Edinburgh coffee house, pushing her daughter's pram with one hand and composing prose with the other. A congenital introvert, Rowling still writes her first drafts in longhand, with final edits on a computer. In fact, she said, "the place I am most comfortable on Earth is sitting when I am writing."

Filled with symbols and archetypes, the "Harry Potter" series is really one giant fairy tale. But only Rowling knows the ending. She writes with relentless self-criticism.

"One of my strengths, I think, is that I am able to know when I haven't done my best," Rowling said. "I think I'm generally able to see where I fall short." Before the Potter apparition, she nearly finished two novels for adults but had the good sense to stop while she was behind. "If either one had been published, if some editor had had some sort of death wish," Rowling said, "I think I'd be sitting here feeling very apologetic."

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