Updated: JKR Discusses the Role of Death in the Series, Religion, the US Presidential Election and More in New Interview (Complete Translation Now Online)
Feb 09, 2008
Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling has given a new interview to Spanish language newspaper El Pais in which she openly discusses many subjects including her series, inspirations, real-life heroes, and even the upcoming United States Presidential election. Thanks to TLC Reader Rosianna, we now have for you a complete translation online. A slight caution for younger readers, however, as the interview contains one instance of mild adult language. In this interview, topics range from themes of death, religion, privacy and even the current US political elections are all covered, and much more. You can read the full interview which took place in Edinburgh during early February below:
“To be invisible… that would be the best…”
J. K. Rowling (Bristol, England, 1965) or “Jo” to her friends, has the same look: frightened and happy, as Harry Potter, her fictional character. She wrote the first book because she needed it, and she continued writing until the seventh which is now released (on the 21st of February in Spain; as everywhere, in Salamandra), without looking the other way, without realizing the gigantic number of, children, youths, adults, who have become addicts from this enormous book of magic and reality which is perhaps the biggest seller in history.
Harry Potter is her hero: he saved her and as a consequence has left her emotional: she has abandoned him but cannot live without him. She told us this last Tuesday morning in Edinburgh, where she has lived for years, in the only interview she has given to Spanish media.
We brought her cheese from Asturias, to remind her of her prize from the “PrÃncipe de Asturias de la Concordia” and greetings from the foundation that decides those awards.
Occasionally she has spoken, in her interviews, of another great solitary person like herself, of Francis Scott Fitzgerald. It stroke us as an opportunity to start to talk to her in the same vein, of solitude and death, and of melancholy, which are the themes which dominate the last part of Harry Potter, perhaps her alter ego.
Q: You usually talk of Scott Fitzgerald, a melancholy man.
A: Yes, I have spoken of him to make a distinction between a writer that due to nature and talent had the impulse to write and could not share this need to write with his social life. I mentioned him because these days with so much emphasis on the media, it seems as though there is some sort of obligation, which says that a writer must be a public person. In my case, people think that because I am a well-known author, I should be good giving interviews and appearing in photographs. People expect to see you enjoying yourself on television programmes and expect that you like to be a public person, a performer. But I’m not. I like the life of the writer. I enjoy the solitude.
Q: It’s interesting, sometimes in Harry Potter, above all the most recent installments, there has been a certain amount of sadness and solitude, which is reminiscent of Fitzgerald.
A: Undoubtedly. It’s sadness, which is born from grief. And Scott Fitzgerald had two afflictions: that of his talent and his need to create and the affliction of his private life, which was catastrophic. Those two afflictions are enough to lead anyone to alcoholism.
Q: Those afflictions can come in that time between childhood and adolescence, when the phantoms arrive and they stay with you forever.
A: Yes, I think adolescents are very aware of death. They feel as though they are so pressured that, for them, death is only a step away. They are very fragile people. In Great Britain there is a culture of fear towards teenagers, towards young people in general. And it shouldn’t be that way. We need to be protecting them instead of protecting ourselves from them.
Q: Talk a bit about death. In the sixth and seventh Harry Potter books, death appears no just as a word or thought but as a possibility, something obvious and a reality.
A: That was always the plan, that death should appear in that way. Since he was young until Chapter 34 of the seventh book, Harry is required to be a better man in that he is obligated to accept the inevitability of his own death. The plan of the books was that he should have contact with death and with the experience of death. And it was always Harry alone who had to have that experience. It all came down to conscience, because the hero had to live these things, do things, see things on his count. It’s part of that isolation and sadness that comes with being a hero.
Q: That 34th chapter [quotation ’ re: Harry realizing he won’t survive] sounds like the beginning of 100 Years of Solitude by GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez.
A: That’s very flattering.
Q: It’s a book about death and obviously solitude, like yours… the character of 100 Years of Solitude accompanies his grandfather to see the ice and you take Harry to visit death.
A: For me, that chapter is the key of all the books. Everything, everything I have written, was thought of for that precise moment when Harry goes into the forest. That is the chapter that I had planned for 17 years. That moment is the heart of all of the books. And for me it is the last truth of the story. Even though Harry survives, of that there was no doubt, he reaches that unique and very rare state which is to accept his own death. How many people have the possibility of accepting their death before they die?
Q: It’s an experience close to everyone. When one has seen death in someone close to them, one asks themselves how that look that we will no longer see will be, what will happen next.
A: Definitely. It strikes me as extraordinary that regardless of the fact that we all know we are going to die, death remains a mystery. We feel as though death is like something secret which happens to very few people. And all of a sudden, someone close to you dies and the bomb drops. Harry has a premature understanding of death, long before Chapter 34. And that has an evident parallel with my life. If someone close to you in your life dies, as my mother did, the fact that death reaches us all returns to you more explicitly. And that is something that you should live with always.
Q: We live in dark and sad times; you say it in your books, especially in this one. How do you live in these times?
A: I have to believe in the kindness of the people. I think people are in nature, good. But actually, I continue watching American politics very closely. I am obsessed with the US elections. Because it will have profound effects on the rest of the world. The political situation in the US in recent years has badly affected your country as mine.
Q: And if you had a magic wand, what would you do?
A: I want a Democrat in the White House. And it seems a shame to me that Clinton and Obama are rivals because they are both extraordinary people.
Q: This morning, upon entering the hotel I saw that you carried The Times in one hand and on the front there was a photo of Hillary crying.
A: Well, it was one small tear. And she is allowed a tear on occasion. A life in politics is very hard on a woman. If you don’t cry, you’re a bitch. And if you do cry, you’re weak. It’s difficult. On the other hand, it’s acceptable for a man to cry.
Q: Solitude, death. We speak of dark things. At its best, literature comes from that.
A: Well, I think it was Tolkien who said that all the important books are about death. And there’s some truth in that because death is our destiny and we should face up to it. All that we have done in life had the intention of avoiding death.
Q: You said that you saw your soul as something undeniable.
A: Yes, that’s true. But I also have said that I have many doubts regarding religion. I feel very attracted by religion, but at the same time I feel a lot of uncertainty. I live in a state of spiritual flux. I believe in a permanent soul. And that is reflected in the last book.
Q: What makes you happy?
A: Family and work, obviously. I consider myself so lucky to have a family… my children are, above all other things, the most important. Even though it’s difficult to make being a mother compatible with writing.
Q: Before coming to see you, I asked the Spanish scriptwriter, Rafael Azcona, for a question to ask you, and he responded that I should ask his niece Sara, six years old, who is a Harry Potter addict.
A: That’s fantastic.
Q: But you say that you should read your books from the age of seven years or older.
A: Well, my eldest daughter was six when she started to read them. I have always known where I was going to go with the books. So yes, I think that a six-year-old child can understand the first book [Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone] even though the last one is quite dark. The fifth book is the darkest of all because there is an absence of anticipation and an oppressive atmosphere. I think because of that, people didn’t like it as much. Even though there are readers who prefer this book to the others, they are a strange minority. The fifth, the sixth and this last one I don’t think are suitable for a child of six years.
Q: And when you wrote the first one, did you think of a designated reader?
A: That’s the problem. I called it a children’s story because the main character was a child. But it was always a child who I wanted to be older. And at the end he’s a man, a young man but a man. That is something unusual in children’s books: that the protagonist grows. And it makes me enormously happy that people continue reading and enjoying the books. They grew older with Harry Potter. But I never thought adults were potential readers.
Q: Peter Mayer, the editor, who was the first I heard talk of Harry Potter in Spain, said that the key of this success is that the series has become reading material for adults.
A: Yes, it’s incredible. Only now am I capable of looking back and realizing everything. For 10 years I didn’t allow myself to think about it. I think I did it to protect myself. It’s very difficult to live with that pressure, but I lived constantly denying the facts. After each publication I made a point to not read any reviews.
Q: Literature saves people, or helps to save them. How did writing affect you?
A: Let me tell you one thing. Simply the fact of writing the first book saved my life. I’m always told that the world I created is unreal; it was that which allowed me to escape. Yes, it’s true; it’s unreal up to a point. But not because my world was magical but because all writers evade themselves. Additionally, I did not write only to escape but because I searched to understand ideas which concerned me. Ideas such as love, loss, separation, death… and all that is reflected in the first book.
Q: What else did that first book give you?
A: A place in a prosaic level, writing that book gave me the discipline, the focus and the ambition, which back then was reduced to simply seeing the book published.
Q: How was the day of publication?
A: I saw my dream become reality. It was an extraordinary moment. I couldn’t believe it, I was entranced. And in some way almost immediately I felt as though a train was pushing me from behind at full speed, as in a cartoon. I thought: “What’s happened to me?” Three months later I received an incredible advance, according to my standards back then. In that time, I was renting a flat, I didn” have security or savings. I wore second-hand clothes. Then, money was scarce and to have that money all of a sudden was extraordinary. That night I couldn’t sleep. The next day, journalists started to appear, they gave me an important prize, The Sun called me to buy the rights for the story of my life and the journalists began to patrol in front of my house. And let me tell you something: it scared me a lot.
Q: Is that why you’re scared of journalists even now?
A: No, I’m not scared of them. I remember a pair of journalists in particular who noticed my incredulity and vulnerability and helped me. One of them told me that I had every right to keep my daughter away from the press because I refused to take her with me to interviews and have them take photos of her. I’m talking of the press of this country, of the United Kingdom. That’s how it works.
Q: Your books appear to be full of personal details.
A: I tend to use significant dates. When I need a date or a number, I use something related to my personal life. I don’t know why I do it, it’s a tic. Harry’s birthday is the same date as mine, for example. The numbers that appear or dates that are in the books are related to my life.
Q: Writing your first book entranced you. And the pressure of the success, knowing that millions of people waited for your work?
A: I made a serious decision not to think about it. Obviously there were moments when some news items filtered through, above all during books four and five. There you can notice the pressure and I think that’s evident in the writing.
Q: How did that happen?
A: When I arrived at the fourth book I was very burnt out. I had produced a book a year for four years at the same time as raising my only child without a nanny or help of any kind. I was exhausted. And in reality I thought: “I can’t do it anymore, I have to stop”. I told this to my editor, that if I continued like this I wouldn’t be able to continue writing. And so I met the man who is now my second husband.
Q: You are Harry Potter. And you say it yourself: “Harry is mine”. Have you always known how you were going to finish? Did you always know there were going to be seven books?
A: I always knew what was going to happen. From the start I had the whole plot outlined, without the detail but I always knew that the story was going to finish. And it has finished, even though many fans are disgusted, There isn’t a way of reviving Harry’s story. His story has finished. But finishing it was very hard. It was devastating.
Q: The ending is moving: “The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years.”
A: It’s symbolic. We all repeat the lie again and again: that time cures everything. And it’s not true. There are things that aren’t cured, such as when someone you love dies.
Q: You also wrote: “Harry Potter, the Boy who lived”. The teacher says it and you say that he lived because he had faith in his convictions, thanks to that he conquered Voldemort. Are you like that?
A: I would like to say yes because I believe in a hero with heroic attributes. I read on a site: “A hero is not braver than everyone else. He is only brave for five minutes longer…” Harry is like that.
Q: In all the books there is the moral that one can save themselves if they have friends, but Harry’s story is also one of solitude.
A: I agree entirely. I have given Harry my fault, which is a tendency to shut myself in, to isolate myself when I am under pressure, sad or happy. I tend to isolate myself. But I know it’s not good, that it’s not healthy. And I gave that to Harry. Even though that is what also makes him heroic, it is what prepares him to act on his own.
Q: Is Harry your hero?
A: Yes, well, in real life, my hero is Robert F. Kennedy. I created a boy who tries to act with morality, whom even though he is attacked and hurt physically and emotionally nevertheless continues to be attracted by the good side of things. And he is genuine and loyal and I find heroism in all these things.
Q: People are aware of the figures of your life, of how wealthy you are, but less so that you are human; it is as though they see you with a magic wand like Harry Potter.
A: Sadly, it is like that. When I see my name in lists of powerful people, something I don’t do much, I think about it. Power isn’t something I want and additionally, I don’t have it. Yes, I am rich.
Q: Imagine that for a moment you had the ability to make yourself invisible.
A: To be invisible? That would be the best…
Many, many thanks to Rosianna for providing us this excellent translation in such a short period of time. Also, thanks to HarryLatino and all who mailed.
Update: Additional quotes from this interview are now online thanks to reader Kamyll who was kind enough to translate part of an additional document found on the left side of web article. You can find the selected translated quotes that did not make it into the web article below:
On F. Scott Fitzgerald:
Q: He drank to find himself, to be alone?
A: Yes, but his chosen partner says a lot. The people we are attracted to say plenty about who we are. He couldn’t have a peaceful life with his wife Zelda. He chose to be with someone who sometimes made it impossible to write. He didn’t have that peace so necessary when it comes to create something.
On the Time Magazine photo of Senator Clinton:
Q: Crying can be a way of laughing?
A: Could be, and in this case, after reading the article, that tear was indeed a happy tear.
Q: Our souls floating around, looking for what?
A: That’s the big question, but I hope we don’t have to come back! I don’t want to come back!
After stating she does need read reviews:
Q: And could you really do that?
A: Yes, is very good not to be aware of the reviewers or what they’re saying about you. I wrote what I wanted. When I finished the seventh book I though it was the best I’d written. It was the book I wanted to write. I was more satisfied with that book that any other. If I’d read any review what good it would have made? It was written, there was nothing else I could do, but now I can allow myself to look back and what happens is what you just said: adults started to read the books to their children and then they continued to read on their own. There’s nothing more gratifying than to listen to people saying that entire families read the books together. I’ve heard that a lot. They read one chapter together and then they gathered again to read the next one. Is unbelievable isn’t? A lot of families told me they did that and is gratifying in so many levels. The books have become a social act.
Q: Have you done that with Jessica? Are you going to do it with the rest of your children?
A: Jessica is fourteen and she is a fervent admirer of Harry.
Q: What did she tell you after she read the books?
A: She asked me why I did this thing or another, and I my answer was that that’s the way it had to be. Yes, sometimes you can give an automatic answer, like some things were made up as literary mechanisms, elements that helped the plot. In other cases, is harder to explain the process of writing. I wrote it because it came up that way. Sometimes I wrote as if something or somebody was saying it to me.
Q: Could you describe what that something was?
A: There are so many answers to that question. I could say: “It was me, it was my subconscious.” Yes, it was my subconscious, so what I’ve written comes from everything that I’ve done and all the people I’ve known because everything and everyone are somewhere in my head. Or I could say it was the muse, and I like to think it was the muse, because that means the writer is not aware of the origin of what they’re writing, or at least is not fully aware of it, and I know it’s a clichÃ©d word about the Harry Potter books, but they’re magical.
Q: That means that you went through the same thing that happened to Juan Rulfo when he wrote “Pedro PÃ¡ramo” because he couldn’t find it in his bookshelf.
A: I love that story and it’s true, in my case it’s exactly like that, although I didn’t write what I wanted, but what I needed to write at that moment.
On celebrity and life in the public eye:
Q: People often notice the figures in your life, how wealthy you are but few times they say that you are also a human; it’s like they see you with a magic wand, like Harry Potter.
A: Yes, unfortunately they do. The thing about power is interesting because really what kind of power do I have? When I see my name in lists of powerful people, something I don’t do often, I think about it. Power isn’t something I want and additionally, I don’t have it. Yes, I am rich. I’ve made a lot of Money, for which I’m grateful, but that’s the way it is. When people approach me and ask about the amount of money I have… the other day I was on the street and a woman came up to me and asked if I was J. K. Rowling, I said yes. She then said: “You deserve everything you have.” I don’t think she was talking about the money, and when someone says that to you it’s wonderful; but I think that the obsession with money is global, here in the UK we have lists, millions of lists, rich people over 40, under 40 for which I no longer qualify because I’m 42… wealth is an obsession I don’t know if it’s the same way in Spain.
Q: Are you happy?
A: Much more than I was before.
Q: What have you managed to get rid of?
A: I’m very relieved to be older and accepting who I am and knowing who I am. When I was twenty and during all that decade I had a very bad time, I think it happens to loads of people, they just don’t say it. I made a lot of mistakes; some of them were very bad. Now I feel much more confident.
Q: The fantasy in literature completes people.
A: Yes, that’s right. Humans need fantasy and magic. We have a need for mystery. Sir Frank Frasier (in The Golden Bow) says that in religion the man depends on God, but in magic the man depends on himself, which allows us to measure the capacity of man and magic becomes an ideal existence. Magic carries a human existence, in Book 6 the Prime Minister says to the Minister of Magic “You can do magic! Surely you can sort out anything!” and the minister answers: “Yes, the trouble is, the other side can do magic too.” We need magic and I defend it at all cause. Magic is a very important part of literature and that’s why it’s always going to be there.
Q: There’s this dialogue between Harry and Professor Dumbledore: “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
A: And Dumbledore says: “Of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth would that mean that is not real?” That dialogue is the key; I’ve waited seventeen years to use those lines. Yes, that’s right. All this time I’ve worked to be able to write those two phrases; writing Harry entering the forest and Harry having that dialog.
Q: And sometimes, Harry is in the real world.
A: Of course. It’s important to have light and darkness, it’s a very conventional mechanism, but to be able to create a transition between a mundane universe and the cruel and oppressive existence adds shadows. As the story moves forward what I was hoping to reach was that what used to be going to the Dursleys became something comical. As Harry gets older and keeps gaining power and confidence he find himself better with the Dursleys, and the place of darkness and evil is exactly what used to be the world of light and magic. This family goes from being cruel to be funny and in book seven it even becomes pathetic when we found out that his Aunt was a jealous woman and even, form Harry’s point of view, a broken one.
Q: Your Spanish editor wanted me to ask you about the faith of the non-magical Dursley family.
A: Very well, I’ll have to write an eight book. (laughs) Really, I thought it wasn’t necessary to write about the Dursleys. I thought the reader would know that they had been protected and they were out of hiding. When fans ask me this I tell them that thanks to the final encounter between Harry and Dudley they can try to have a friendly relationship, that they send Christmas cards and visit each other every once in a while. It would be awkward but they’d try, because it’s all about staying in touch. They could never be good friends, put they’d try to have a friendship… Dudley knows that Harry saved his life. Well, he thinks he saved his life when actually he was saving his soul.
Q: There are more scars left in your life, in Harry’s life?
A: If you’re asking me if I’m going to write more books, if I have unfinished business, the answer is yes… But with Harry, I took him to work at the Ministry, I have to believe that there’s a possibility to get rid of corruption, and I see it in that battle, but he’s become a middle-age father worrying about if his kid is going to do well in school.
Q: In the real world. No magic wand?
A: No, always with a wand.
Q: Do you have that magic wand?
A: Isn’t that the muse?
Q: You still write with a pen?
Q: Maybe that’s the magic wand?
A: Yeah, maybe it is… and look: the magic wand has ruined my finger for using it so much.
Q: You said in the past you would have chosen the resurrection stone like Harry.
A: And I would’ve been wrong… I think that when something dies it belongs somewhere else, every person has a responsibility towards another. I have it with my children and if I were trying to rescue somebody from death it wouldn’t be good for them. My duty is to my children and their future. Resurrection is a huge temptation but it’s dangerous.
Q: Maybe writing is some kind of Resurrection Stone.
A: Yes, of course, but I think you realize that once you’re writing to make a dream come true. If it’s just like that then, for me, writing loses its worth. Describing your fantasy is not the same as creating a world.