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Rowling Draws On Personal Experience In 'Vacancy'


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


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." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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