DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
J.K. Rowling has a new novel. She has moved away from Harry Potter, the boy wizard whose stories prompted millions of kids, including mine, to obsess over books big enough to serve as doorstops. Having concluded that series, she's written a novel for grown-ups - a story of troubled teenagers and their even more troubled parents.
A local politician in an English town drops dead, prompting people who knew him not to mourn, but to start asking what his suddenly empty seat on the town council could mean for them. There is no magic in "A Casual Vacancy," though readers of the Potter books may well recognize Rowling's acute and often painful observations of human nature.
Why write this book on this subject?
J.K. ROWLING: Because, as I think most writers will tell you, I just needed to write this book. It was an idea that came to me in 2007. I had the idea actually in the States. I was on tour promoting the last in the Potter series - "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" - and I was on a plane and had the idea for "The Casual Vacancy."
And exactly as it had happened with Harry Potter, I knew it was something I really, really wanted to write. I became excited about the idea of writing it. It's a very personal book in a lot of way. Clearly, it's not a memoir. I'm not in the book. It's not my story, but it does address themes, subjects that are very important to me. And, yeah, so that was the starting point.
INSKEEP: Started on a plane in the United States. I wonder why there. Because it was a plane and you had time to yourself?
ROWLING: Yeah, I think so. I mean, there appears to be something to do with vehicles and movement that stimulates my writing. Obviously, it was a train with Harry Potter. I wasn't actually on my own. I was traveling with my family and with people from my publisher. And I can't even tell you why I had this idea at the time, but there it was.
The basic idea was for a small town election occasioned by the death of a man who had been a lot of things to a lot of people in the town and what happened in the aftermath of his death. And even then I knew that there would be an element of subversion in the story. And that comes largely from the...
ROWLING: Yeah, subversion, largely from the teenagers in that they attempt to influence what's going on.
INSKEEP: Even thought there are a lot of adult characters in this book, in the end it does revolve around young people, a handful of them.
ROWLING: The teenagers definitely drive the plot. There are five teenagers and they are simultaneously victims, protagonists, and in one case, I suppose, the whole plot revolves around the question of what we do with someone like this particular teenage girl, who's Crystal. She comes from a very deprived family. She's rather disruptive in school.
There are just a lot of aspects to her situation that interest me. In some ways, they're 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.
INSKEEP: Give me a better idea of what you mean there. Explain that for people.
ROWLING: Well, I think that I've had a very strange life. I've passed through a lot of different economic states in my life. My family was not particularly well off, although I came from a middle class and pretty well educated family. I attended a school very like the school that's depicted in the book, which means that it's a state-run school full of children from all kinds of different backgrounds. And then there came a point after the breakdown of my first marriage when, as I say, is very well documented, I existed for a while exclusively on welfare - on what we call benefits and you call welfare.
INSKEEP: Would you help us understand a little bit the class system in Britain, because...
ROWLING: I am not - Steve, I'm not qualified to do it. I'll say that - I'm really not qualified to do it, because this book's set in England, so I'm going to say English, although I now live and work in Scotland. But 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.
I grew up in what I would call a lower middle class family. Not too far back, this was a very working class family. So I don't think that I had a - I know for a fact I didn't have a very grandiose upbringing. And I'm not really qualified to speak about the subject of class, except from my point of view.
INSKEEP: Well, I'm curious if you, as you went through the changes of your life, if you had difficulty being accepted by people from other classes even as you started making lots of money.
ROWLING: No. I wouldn't say that that happened. 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. In other words, well, I can think of a very recent example. I don't know whether you'll know this expression, but a man said to me, he told me where he lived, and he said now, of course, we have no riff-raff around there. But - you do understand the expression, clearly.
ROWLING: And 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.
INSKEEP: And it's in that tension between the upper classes and the so-called riff-raff that J.K. Rowling finds much of the tension in her novel, "The Casual Vacancy." We're going to hear more of our conversation tomorrow when Rowling talks of depicting teenagers and of what her own teenage daughter thought of the book.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.