J.K. Rowling’s first novel written officially for adults, The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown, £20), has been trailed by such a fanfare that it is easy to forget she did not always have it easy when it came to getting publicity.
As the children’s books reviewer for The Times I was sent the first Harry Potter book, to my mind still by far the best, in the summer of 1997. I fished it out of the pile of 100 or so books sent to me every month and took it on holiday. It was so delightful that I made up endless excuses — pregnancy, heat exhaustion, back trouble — to escape from my family and hide away reading it.
In my enthusiastic review, I noted that the book had the makings of a cult and guessed that “in years to come 30-somethings will swap secret references to Quidditch”. When the second book arrived I asked Rowling’s then publishers Bloomsbury if I could have lunch with her next time she was in London. The answer came back that she had loved my review and would be delighted to meet; but she would have her young daughter with her, so could she come to my house instead of a restaurant?
As I had a toddler in tow this suited us both. We could talk while supervising jigsaw puzzles in the living room. Jo Rowling and little Jessica arrived by taxi, we had a pleasant natter over smoked salmon, and I covered for Jo while she had a furtive fag in the garden “because I don’t want Jessica to see me smoking”. She was clever, sharp, passionate; modest yet inquisitive; alert as an alley-cat, yet appealingly vulnerable. I felt that if I had been at school with her I would have longed to be her friend. I certainly would not have wanted to be her enemy.
She told me she had the whole plot of seven books worked out in advance, and that Ginny Weasley would turn out to be the most magical of all Harry’s friends, being the seventh child of a seventh child. “But you must not tell anyone that,” she said fiercely.
As the years rolled on, it became evident that while the bare bones of the plot might have been in Rowling’s mind, there was much spadework still to be done, and Ginny’s magicality eventually became buried under the role of boring love-interest. All the same, I swore to keep these details secret.
I assumed I would easily be able to sell a feature based on the interview, even without breaking confidence. So did Rowling. We were both wrong. “Sorry, we’ve had enough about J.K. Rowling lately,” said The Times. The Daily Mail followed suit. I shelved the idea and thanked fate, and Jessica, that I hadn’t splashed out on a restaurant meal.
Until Hollywood stepped in, the adult publishing world thought Rowling was just a surprisingly successful children’s author. The book received minimal publicity help. But Harry Potter’s popularity spread around playgrounds, at bus stops and up and down school dinner queues. Children loved to dive into this consummately British fantasy — the complete parallel world, the ebullient innocence, the boarding-school set-up tweaked for our time. The ablest readers instantly took it up, followed by the average readers, and then, most wonderfully of all, by the reluctant readers, who found themselves caught up in the tide. My son Tycho, then aged eight, devoured the book in days. On finishing it, he put his head in his hands and lamented, “I so wish I knew other people who had read this book, then I could talk about it with someone.”
A few years later the TV news showed us overweight American children queuing at midnight for the latest title; a few more years and the cult, along with the lives of a team of child stars, was engulfed by a movie franchise. If Tycho wants, he can now talk about Harry Potter with the world; the trouble is that when something is so well-known, its magic is lost.