12 July 2006

What J. K. Rowling really said

Last month J. K. Rowling gave an interview to the Regis & Kelly equivalent on Channel 4 in Britain, which was quickly amplified around the world. And as usual when remarks are amplified, there was a bit of distortion. Carefully vague remarks about unnamed characters dying in the last Harry Potter novel got turned into a worldwide debate about whether Harry himself would or should die. Examples of some of the more impassioned commentary appear at Chasing Ray, Xterminal, and the bottom of editorial columns in several great metropolitan newspapers.

Come on, people! If we're going to read that much into Rowling's words, the least we can do is examine those words closely and not hear more than they actually say. Here are Rowling's comments, as quoted by the Guardian newspaper:

The final chapter is hidden away, although it's now changed very slightly. . . . One character got a reprieve, but I have to say two die that I did not intend to die. . . . A price has to be paid, we are dealing with pure evil here. They don't target extras, do they? They go for the main characters. Well, I do.

I've never been tempted to kill him [Harry] off before the end of book seven, because I always planned seven books and that's where I want to go. I can completely understand, however, the mentality of an author who thinks, "Well, I'm going to kill them off because that means there can be no non-author-written sequels...so it will end with me, and after I'm dead and gone they won't be able to bring back the character."
So what we have learned, Dorothy? First, Rowling isn't going to tell us that Harry or any other major character lives, or that anyone dies. She's floating both possibilities. She's keeping us in suspense. That's her job as a good storyteller.

Second, Rowling is sticking mighty close to her original outline of several years ago. Her final chapter has changed only "very slightly." Three characters have different fates, but their living and dying has altered the final chapter only a little. The original game plan is still on.

Third, yes, Rowling said that her "pure evil" villains will "go for the main characters." Which they've been doing all along. Since before HP1, in fact. But "going for" or "targeting" people isn't the same as landing a fatal hit. Going for a main target can cause collateral damage, as every war shows us. Again, Rowling is producing suspense, keeping the stakes high and the outcome uncertain.

The comments that produced the most anguished words (during a summer holiday when there wasn't a lot of other news from the English-speaking world to write about) were about Harry himself. Does Rowling want to keep other authors from writing about him by killing him off?

Again, it's important to note that Rowling's sticking to the same plot outline she wrote as an unknown hopeful. She had no idea her creation would become a billion-dollar enterprise. She had no idea that thousands of people would be writing their own Harry Potter stories. She was just hoping to get published. She therefore didn't plan out her overall story arc with the goal of protecting Harry from posthumous licensing.

Rowling has some of the fiercest trademark lawyers on the planet on her side, but she hasn't tried to stop fanfiction writers. She's just not that protective. And she knows the real "threat" would come from her literary heirs, not her fans. Rowling's a healthy woman in middle age with two real children and other books she wants to write. It's very early for her to start worrying about what might happen to her fictional world "after I'm dead and gone."

Furthermore, the structure of Rowling's comment on authors killing off their characters doesn't imply that she's taking steps to be one of them. It implies the opposite. If I say, "I completely understand, however, the mentality of an author who wants to spell out exactly what her characters intend when they speak," that doesn't mean that I plan to use a lot of adverbs in my own writing. It means that I see myself as looking at that mentality from the outside.

If Harry or any other main character is going to die in HP7, it will be because J. K. Rowling planned that death over a decade ago.

Tomorrow: Rowling's job is to create suspense about which of her characters live. Mine is not.


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Unknown said...

I think you hit the nail on the head, here. The quotes from the interview that have been making the rounds have been taken out of context and taken to mean something that Rowling clearly did not say. She tried very hard not to give specifics, and not to answer the question about Harry, but the interviewers kept badgering her.