Rowling Draws On Personal Experience In 'Vacancy'

Steve Inskeep talks to author J.K. Rowling in the second part of the interview on Morning Edition looking at her new novel The Casual Vacancy. The character of Krystal, a troubled teenager, grows out of Rowling's observations as a teacher.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The new novel by J.K. Rowling includes a scene inside a school. This is not the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the central location of the Harry Potter books. This time, Rowling writes of a grim state-run school in real-life England. Misbehaving kids are sent to a guidance counselor who wearily reflects, quote, "many of them were devoid of work-a-day morals. They lied, misbehaved and cheated routinely. And yet their fury when wrongly accused was limitless and genuine."

Krystal, a troubled teenage girl who comes to that counselor, gradually emerges as the central figure of Rowling's novel "The Casual Vacancy." The character grows out of Rowling's observations as a teacher.

J.K. ROWLING: When people are very damaged, they can often meet the world with a kind of defiance that Krystal - and in an even more extreme form Krystal's mother Terri exhibits this, this automatic denial, this wish not to take responsibility for anything, this fear that if fault is found, they will be condemned and ruthlessly punished. I think that both the girl and the mother feel that way.

And I saw that a lot when I was teaching. And yet it does absolutely, it can and does often go hand in hand with a very routinely cavalier relationship with the truth, and with what you and I would consider very basic morals.

INSKEEP: But if you get to that point where they're actually unjustly accused, they'll dig in.

ROWLING: Yeah, definitely. I mean, one of the great problems for me is that the poor - and I can here only really speak about Britain, though I suspect this is a fairly universal attitude - the poor are so often discussed just as this large, shapeless mass.

You lose your individuality a huge amount when you have no money, and I certainly had that experience. You become a statistic and in person you become very depersonalized, too. You don't have an answer to the question "What do you do?" You become part of a problem. You're someone who stands in a line to get money. It's not where you want to be, and you become very voiceless.

INSKEEP: You know, I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but there's a young man named Andrew who starts sending out email that is damaging to his father. And then you have this line here about the teenager.

(Reading) He thought it was all over, finished, done with. Andrew had never yet had reason to observe the first tiny bubble of fermenting yeast in which was contained an inevitable alchemical transformation.

And it's almost like Harry Potter-style magic transformed to real life. You do some small thing and you have no idea what consequences may come afterward.

ROWLING: I'm glad you read that line, actually. Not because it's got the word alchemical in it, but because it goes to the heart of these teenage characters, that they are this curious mix which I think is very characteristic of adolescence, of being truth seekers in the way that adolescents often are. They crave the big picture. They crave the grand gesture. They often go to the heart of things.

In this book, a couple of times I have my teenage characters groping for truths that the adults are simply blind to. Yet, at the same time, they have very little empathy, which I think is true of a lot of teenagers. In fact, I think it's almost an inevitable side effect of being an adolescent, that you don't quite understand the damage you can do.

INSKEEP: Have your kids read this?

ROWLING: My eldest daughter has. She's 19. And I would not recommend it for a seven and nine-year-old, which is what my other two children are.

INSKEEP: Of course not. What does your eldest daughter think?

ROWLING: She had a curious reaction, actually. She came to me and she said, I finished it. And I said, Right. And she said, I cried. And I said, Good. (Laughing) Because I don't think I could - yeah, I would've been very surprised if she hadn't. And then she said, it's made me realize how much I don't know. And I said, What do you mean. And then she talked about some of the characters in the book.

And we had actually a very interesting conversation, because Jessica can remember our lives changing very dramatically. But she wasn't old enough when we left a life of real poverty to remember some of what I can remember. And I suppose this book brought it home to her, what kind of existence we could have had actually.

INSKEEP: But she remembers a little?

ROWLING: Oh, yeah. Yeah. She was four or five when our fortunes really changed. And she can remember the flat we were living in when I - when Harry Potter was published. And she can remember me getting the deal that meant we could buy our own house, which looked impossible at one point. I didn't think we were going to own our own house, maybe ever.

INSKEEP: Have you spent any time thinking about how the critics might receive this book?

ROWLING: Surprisingly little. I mean, obviously, I'm aware that everyone can read it, which will be great because I've been working on it on and off for five years, so it's been a long time in the making.

I truly don't mean this in any kind of an arrogant way, but I feel very liberated at the moment. And whatever, whatever the reviewers feel about "The Casual Vacancy," it is what I wanted it to be, and you can't say fairer than that as a writer. So if they like it, that will be wonderful. If they don't like it, that will be OK. I do feel that I'm a very lucky, lucky person. In all sorts of ways, and one of the ways in which I'm fortunate is Harry Potter set me free to write whatever I want to write. I don't - you know, we're not living hand to mouth. Clearly, I can afford to pay all of my bills and now my writing life is, it's a great experience. I can really do whatever I want to do. So, I'm a very fortunate person. I'm a fortunate writer.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much for the time.

ROWLING: Steve, thanks so much. Really enjoyed it.

INSKEEP: That's J.K. Rowling, whose first post-Harry Potter novel is called "The Casual Vacancy."

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Poverty Informs J.K. Rowling's New Novel For Adults

The Casual Vacancy

by J.K. Rowling

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The extended interview above includes parts one and two of the Morning Edition interview, plus additional material.


J.K. Rowling has a new novel. She's moved away from Harry Potter, the boy wizard whose stories prompted millions of kids to obsess over books big enough to serve as doorstops. Having concluded that series, she's written a novel for grown-ups called The Casual Vacancy, a story of troubled teenagers and their even more troubled parents.

A local politician in an English town drops dead, prompting not mourning, but an outbreak of speculation over his suddenly empty town council seat. There's no magic in Vacancy, though readers of the Potter books may well recognize Rowling's acute and often painful observations of human nature.

Rowling tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that Vacancy was a book she felt a deep need to write. "Exactly as with Harry Potter, I knew it was something I really, really wanted to write. I became excited about the idea of writing it," she says. "It's a very personal book ... It's not my story, but it does address themes, subjects that are very important to me."

Rowling got the idea on a plane, while touring the United States to promote the last Harry Potter book. "There appears to be something to do with vehicles and movement that stimulates my writing," she laughs. Rowling was, famously, on a train when she had the idea for Harry Potter.

J.K. Rowling is taking her first steps into the world of adult literature after the immense success of the Harry Potter series. i i

J.K. Rowling is taking her first steps into the world of adult literature after the immense success of the Harry Potter series. Debra Hurford Brown hide caption

itoggle caption Debra Hurford Brown
J.K. Rowling is taking her first steps into the world of adult literature after the immense success of the Harry Potter series.

J.K. Rowling is taking her first steps into the world of adult literature after the immense success of the Harry Potter series.

Debra Hurford Brown

There are kids in Vacancy, but they're worlds away from Harry and his wizarding pals. "I knew that there would be an element of subversion in the story," Rowling says. "Largely from the teenagers, in that they attempt to influence what's going on."

She describes those teenagers as simultaneously victims and protagonists: "I suppose that the whole plot revolves around the question of what we do with someone like this particular teenage girl ... from a very deprived family. She's rather disruptive in school; there are just a lot of aspects to her situation that interest me," Rowling says. "In some ways, for very personal reasons, because — as is very well-documented — I, too, have passed through a period of poverty in Britain and can understand some of those issues."

"I think that I've had a very strange life," Rowling adds. She came from a well-educated, lower-middle-class background, she says, but as many biographies have noted, she ended up on welfare after her first marriage broke down. Pressed to describe what "middle class" means in the British class system, Rowling laughs. "I'm really not qualified to do it ... I think you could ask 10 English people the same question about class and get a very different answer. Social mobility is one of the great issues of the day here, as I'm sure it is in America."

Rowling says she hasn't met with class prejudice since her success. But, she adds, "I would say that I have many times met with the assumption that my attitudes have changed much more than they have towards people who are still in the kind of situation I once was." She recalls an encounter with a man who described his neighborhood as free of "riff-raff." "His assumption was that I would be glad to have kept out of my area the kind of person that I used to be, because I think, you know, not that long ago he would have considered me riff-raff, too."

Rowling's experience with poverty — and with teaching — informed her portrait of the deprived and disruptive Krystal. "When people are very damaged, they can often meet the world with a kind of defiance," she says. "This automatic denial, this wish not to take responsibility for anything, this fear that if fault is found, they will be condemned and ruthlessly punished ... I saw that a lot when I was teaching. And yet it does absolutely, it can and does often go hand in hand with a very routinely cavalier ... relationship with the truth, and with what you and I would consider very basic morals."

But when characters like Krystal and her mother feel powerless or unjustly accused, their anger can be intense. "One of the great problems for me is that the poor ... are so often discussed just as this large, shapeless mass. You lose your individuality a huge amount when you have no money, and I certainly had that experience," she says. "You become part of a problem. You're someone who stands in a line to get money; it's not where you want to be, and you become very voiceless."

Another teenager in the novel, Andrew, posts to a web site an anonymous message about his abusive father — unaware that his actions will have a lasting and far-reaching impact. "It goes to the heart of these teenaged characters," says Rowling, "that they are this curious mix, which I think is very characteristic of adolescence, of being truth-seekers in the way that adolescents often are. They crave the big picture, they crave the grand gesture ... yet at the same time, they have very little empathy."

Rowling adds that her 19-year-old daughter has read Vacancy. "She had a curious reaction, actually. ... She said, 'It's made me realize how much I don't know.' .... She wasn't old enough when we left a life of real poverty to remember some of what I can remember, and I suppose this book brought it home to her, what kind of existence we could have had."

But Rowling says she hasn't thought much about the reaction of professional critics. "I truly don't mean this in any kind of an arrogant way, but I feel very liberated at the moment. And whatever the reviewers feel about The Casual Vacancy, it is what I wanted it to be, and you can't say fairer than that as a writer."

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