In October 2000, an 11-year-old Canadian fan got to interview J.K. Rowling with Shelagh Rogers
When J.K. Rowling created Harry Potter more than 20 years ago, she ensured a special connection with the boy wizard: they shared a birthday, July 31.
Feb. 7, 2019 marks the fifth annual Harry Potter Book Night. To celebrate, we revisit J.K. Rowling's conversation with Shelagh Rogers from 2000.
Since first meeting Harry in 1997, readers across generations have celebrated the wizarding world created by Rowling over seven books and an award-winning play.
In 2000, Rowling was interviewed on CBC Radio by Shelagh Rogers and 11-year-old Lauren McCormick. Rogers and McCormick asked questions submitted by young readers across the country.
1. Is this your first trip to Canada?
"It is my first trip to Canada. I've always wanted to come here. When I was a child, about eight years old, my father was offered the opportunity to come and work in Canada for a year. For a moment we thought we were all coming to live in Canada. We were all very excited and it fell through. We were very disappointed."
2. What did you think Canada would be like?
"Beautiful, and I haven't been disappointed. We went to Niagara yesterday, so I actually got a chance to tick off something on my 'lifetime to-do' list. Visiting Niagara was one of mine and it was just stunning."
3. I [Lauren McCormick] received an invitation in the mail to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It was secretly sent to me by my grandmother before she died, but signed by the deputy headmistress Minerva McGonagall. I was 10 years old at the time I received it. I know it wasn't real. I'm able to tell the difference between real and imaginary. Is there any harm allowing a kid to fantasize?
"I don't think there's any harm at all allowing someone to fantasize. In fact, I think trying to stop someone fantasizing is a very destructive thing indeed. I think you're very typical of children who absolutely do know the difference between fact and fantasy."
4. There have been some issues in certain parts of the country about witchcraft and devil worship and that sort of thing. What do you say to that?
"I get asked this a lot, as you can imagine. First of all, I'd question whether these people had actually read the books because I see them as very moral books. These books are absolutely not about devil worship. I vacillate between feeling faintly annoyed that I'm being so misrepresented and finding the whole thing funny because it is laughable that someone would say that about these books. I think someone who has actually read them would agree with that. But there's always the rogue person who can't see what's right under their nose."
5. There's lots of fun and fantasy in these books, but there are also life lessons in these books. What did you intend to write when you started?
"Initially, I intended to write a story. No more or no less than that. I love stories. We need stories. I don't set out to teach people specific things. I never sit down at the beginning of a novel and think, 'What is today's lesson?' But those messages that are in the books, they grow naturally out of the story and I suppose they come naturally from me."
6. In all your books, the continuing theme is that people are not what they appear to be. Sometimes they seem dangerous and are good. Sometimes helpful people are bad. It looks like Harry is being taught to overlook first impressions and to be suspicious of people. Do you think that's something kids need to learn more than other generations?
"You're right. This is a recurring theme in the books. People are endlessly surprising. It's a very jaded person who thinks they've seen every possible nuance of human nature. Sometimes I am asked, 'What would be your recipe for a happier life?' I've always said, 'A bit more tolerance from all of us.' One way to learn tolerance is to take the time to understand people's motives. Harry is often given an erroneous first impression of somebody and he has to learn to look beneath the surface. When he looks beneath the surface, he has sometimes found that he has been fooled by people. On other occasions, he has found some nice surprises."
7. Your books have started a renewed interest in Latin.
"I recently went back to my old university where I had studied French and classics. I had to give a speech, which was very nerve-wracking because I'm speaking to incredibly studious and learned people, some of whom used to tell me off for cutting lectures. I said in my speech, 'I'm one of the very few people who has ever found a practical application for their classics degree.' It amused me that wizards would still be using Latin as a living language, although as scholars would know I often use Cod Latin and Mock Latin. I take great liberties with the language for spells because I see it as a mutation that the wizards are using."
8. What were you like as a kid?
"Quite an introvert. Quite insecure. I was like Hermione. Hermione is the character who is most consciously based on a real person and that person is me. She's an exaggeration of what I was like. Characters who might have been inspired by a living person are in the minority in my books. Most of my characters come from my imagination, but there are a smattering who are inspired by real people and they take on a life entirely their own once they become fictional characters. The starting point often ends up being a million miles away from the character as written. But Hermione didn't. Hermione's a lot like what I was like when I was younger."
9. What was school like for you?
"We moved from a school in Bristol, which is quite a big city to this tiny little Dickensian village school. I hated it. I had a real dragon of a teacher, who is now deceased so I can speak freely. She used to sit everyone in the class according to how clever she thought they were, which is a vicious thing to do. She asked me a couple of questions when I joined the class and found out I couldn't do fractions and put me in the stupid row. After a few months of teaching me, she decided I'd been seated wrongly, so she made me swap with my best friend in the clever row. That was a very early bitter lesson in life. Don't be too clever. It loses you friends."
10. Why do you think your books appeal to adults as well as kids?
"I can only speculate about this because I'm very bad at being a critic of my work. I'm far too close to it. I find it very difficult to say why things are so popular and so on. I'm guessing that it's because I write what I find funny, as opposed to what eight year olds find funny. I suppose other adults find it funny too."
11. Has [your daughter Jessica] read through the series with you?
"Initially I said I wouldn't start reading them to her until she was seven, because I do think the themes are a little demanding. At five, she was asking me to read them to her. I actually cracked and started reading them at six because she was at school and she was surrounded by kids asking her about Harry Potter. I felt it was mean that I had made an exception of her. She wasn't part of this enormous part of my life and it felt I was excluding her, so I read them to her."
12. How can one series of books have such extreme effect on readers and non-readers and at the same time, school boards are banning them from their curriculum?
"Penetrating question. It is a difficult one. I find the series seems to cause conflicting emotions in people. For example, in Britain, the two groups of people who seem to think in Britain that I'm wholeheartedly on their side are people who support the boarding school system and practicing wiccans. In fact, they are both wrong. I don't believe in boarding schools. I don't send my daughter to a boarding school and I didn't go to a boarding school. I am neither a practicing witch, nor do I believe in magic. People have presented me with every possible argument. I've been told on the evidence of the books that I must be very right-wing or I must be very left-wing. It's very odd."
13. Why did you choose to write about a boy?
"I started to write about Harry in 1990. What is odd is that it took me six months to suddenly think, 'Hang on a minute. Why is he a boy?' The simple answer is, that's the way he came to me. This scrawny, black-haired boy with glasses on appeared in my brain. So I wrote him because he's the character who came to me. But I did stop and wonder, 'Shouldn't it have been Harriet?' At that point it was too late because Harry was too real to me as a boy and Hermione was with me at this point. I feel that Hermione is an absolutely indispensable part of the team. I love her as a character, so I didn't change it. I wanted to go with my initial inspiration."
14. Do you think the popularity of the books would have changed if they were told from the point of view of Hermione vs. Harry Potter?
"I honestly don't know, but that wouldn't have stopped me doing it. If Hermione had strolled into my head as the main character then I would've done it that way. I truly never once stopped to think, 'I won't do it that way because that won't be popular.' The moment I do that I am lost because the fun for me all along has been writing for me.
"The only people I have ever listened to have been editors, in terms of what makes the book better or worse. Occasionally, I have argued against them and kept it the way I wanted to do it. I'm not a tyrant about it. I think they have very valid points and I have changed things. On other occasions, I have felt particularly strongly about a passage and I keep it. It's never been acrimonious. I have great editors."
15. Why did you create a magical society where men and women play such traditional roles? It seems most of the women wizards pitter and patter around the house, while the men do all the dark work.
"Well, that's not entirely true because if you look at Professor McGonagall she's a very powerful witch and she's in a position of power. In fact, if you look at the Hogwarts staff, it is exactly 50/50. Although it is true you have a Headmaster, as opposed to a Headmistress. But that has not always been the case. There have been equal numbers of Headmistresses. Do witches patter around the house? No. Mrs. Weasley stays at home, but if you think it's easy raising seven children, including Fred and George Weasley, then I pity you. Women who have had seven children will not see that as a soft option."
J.K. Rowling's comments have been edited and condensed.