"Harry Potter" fans enjoyed a rare treat last week. In a surprisingly candid TV event, Oprah Winfrey interviewed the famously reticent J.K. Rowling, discussing the author’s family, career, and her journey through the "Harry Potter" series. The women spoke in an elegant tea-serviced suite in the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland, the very hotel where Rowling finished writing the "Harry Potter" series.
“We have a lot in common,” Oprah observed during the intimate conversation. And indeed, the similarities are striking. Both are self-made billionaires with “rags to riches” stories of their rise from poverty. Both oversee vast media empires built on their brands. And both have had an unlikely and not insubstantial impact on reading and literacy.
The conversation was immediately open and easy, with Oprah and Rowling chatting like friends. They shared their own personal experiences and struggles, including the insecurities that come with gaining enormous wealth after poverty, and their sadness at approaching the end of very successful chapters in their lives (Oprah's show is in its last season; Rowling has written what is probably the last of the "Harry Potter" series).
Rowling is the first self-made billionaire author in history. The series of books she created about a young wizard with a lightning bolt-shaped scar have sold more than 400 million copies worldwide and are currently available in 69 languages and 200 countries.
Perhaps the most arresting moment of the interview came when Oprah asked Rowling about bringing the "Harry Potter" series to an end.
Rowling: [The characters] are all still in my head. I mean, I could write. I could definitely write an eighth, ninth, tenth. I could, easily.
Oprah: You could. Will you?
Rowling: I'm not going to say I won't. I don't think I will. I loved writing those books. I loved writing it. So I feel I am done, but you never know.
Rowling went on to say she’ll keep writing books because she “literally can’t stop,” delighting millions of fans around the world.
Oprah called it one of her most fascinating interviews, and indeed, Rowling’s easy forthrightness in describing her harrowing journey through fame made for a captivating interview.
The Potter author received 12 rejections from British publishers before Bloomsbury Publishing accepted the manuscript.
“A lot of people didn’t want it,” Rowling said. “A lot.… and for some reason, I was even quite pleased at the rejection letters – F. Scott Fitzergerald got rejection letters, it’s part of being a writer.” In spite of going through a difficult time in her life, Rowling persisted with the story. “I did really believe in it… I just had faith in the story.”
When the books went on to sell millions, Rowling, who had few family members or friends she could go to for support, said she was “willfully unaware” that the universe of "Harry Potter" had spread to such a vast degree. “I had no partner at the time…. [W]hen I went home and closed the door, it was just [daughter] Jessica and me.… I didn’t have anyone around me, to be honest.”
When people asked how she was handling the fame, Rowling assured them, “ 'Yeah, I'm coping, I'm coping.' But the truth was, there were times when I was barely hanging on by a thread,” she said.
To protect herself from the overwhelming shock the “Beatlesesque” fame could bring, Rowling said she never googled "Harry Potter" or her own name until years later, after she had married her husband and had a support system of friends and family in place.
The billionaire author now lives in Edinburgh with her second husband, anesthesiologist Neil Murray, and their three children.
Although her children aren’t yet "Potter-philes," Rowling told Oprah she read her 7-year-old son David the first book in the "Harry Potter" series, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”
“[It was] bizarre,” she said “because I hadn’t read Philosopher’s Stone for years… and yet, I finished the book and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s quite a good story.' I can see why people like that,” she said, laughing.
Husna Haq is a frequent Monitor contributor.