EDINBURGH, Scotland -- Surely, somewhere, at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, lies a dusty, never-before noticed spell book. In that book, J.K. Rowling, the celebrated creator of Harry Potter, could find the formula that would transform her into a critically acclaimed writer of adult fiction.
But Rowling isn't relying on magic as the release date for her adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, draws near. She believes her reputation for creating great characters and compelling stories will trump any spell that Harry or his mentor, the all-powerful Professor Dumbledore, could ever conjure.
In her only U.S. newspaper interview before Thursday's publication of The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown, $35), Rowling, in a sit-down interview in the Scottish capital where she lives, shares with USA TODAY why she wrote the novel that takes her career in a new direction, and the excitement she feels in the run-up to its release, five years after the final Potter book was published.
"Of course this might change tomorrow, but I thought I would feel more nervous because it's been five years -- and this is a very different kind of book -- but actually I feel quite excited," says Rowling, who appears relaxed and self-assured during the interview this month in unmarked business offices she keeps in one of this city's ubiquitous Georgian-era townhouses.
"I don't think everyone will like the book," she says. "But I'm proud of this book. I like this book. It is what it's meant to be. As an author, you really can't say more than that. I don't mean this arrogantly, but if people don't like it, well, that's how it should be, isn't it? That's art. It's all subjective. And I can live with that."
In a wide-ranging interview in which she talked about her writing, her family, her participation in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics and her testimony last fall in the British inquiry into the press phone-hacking scandal, Rowling, 47, offers an intimate look into her life as one of the world's most beloved writers, one whose books have sold 450 million copies around the world (there are no numbers available on e-book sales). Her vivid imaginings of the life and adventures of a boy wizard, published from 1997 to 2007, have spawned amusement parks, toys, video games, blockbuster movies and Pottermore, her fan site for everything Harry Potter.
And because Pottermania is deeply rooted in our pop culture landscape, Rowling says she understands and accepts that many readers would rather she just keep writing about the boy wizard.
"Yes, I understand that point of view. If you love something -- and there are things that I love -- you do want more and more and more of it, but that's not the way to produce good work. So as an author I need to write what I need to write. And I needed to write this book."
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Patricia Bostelman, vice president of marketing for Barnes & Noble, says The Casual Vacancy could be the biggest book of the year. "We're very optimistic about this book. She's a gifted storyteller and very skilled at creating characters and creating worlds."
For months, details of The Casual Vacancy's plot have been scant, and the book has been embargoed until it goes on sale Thursday with only a selected number of journalists given access. But Rowling, on a sunny fall day in Edinburgh, speaks in great detail about the storyline, the characters and how the book came to be. (USA TODAY was given access to the novel.)
If Harry Potter came to her while she was traveling on a train in England, the idea for The Casual Vacancy, she says, came to her five years ago aboard a plane over the USA on her way to a promotional event for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in the series that made her one of the richest authors in the world.
"I can't remember what triggered it," she says. "It just came to me. It's hard to sum up the idea, but it was for a disrupted local election, and I could see immediately that that was a perfect way to get into a small community, of examining a lot of different characters of different ages. I'm very drawn to that type of book. I like to get in among a set of people and get to know them very well."
In the novel, the tiny (fictional) British village of Pagford is turned upside down after one of its parish councilmen, Barry Fairbrother, dies. Rowling uses his death as a way to examine the inner workings of the village government, and more important, the lives of its residents.
"It was also an appealing idea because I could see that I could set it in the kind of town that I knew," Rowling says. "Although Pagford is not Chepstow, the town where I grew up -- it's smaller and the geography's wrong -- still it's an area that I know. It's an invented place, but it does owe something to the West Country (southwestern England), which is where I lived all my life really until I was 18 and I left home."
The run-up to the book's release has been relatively low-key because that's the way she wanted it. "As much as is possible I wanted this to be a normal book publication. Some of the furor that surrounded a Harry Potter publication was fun. I always loved meeting readers. I always loved doing events where I got to speak to readers, but some of it, candidly, wasn't fun at all.
"The thing took on a life of its own. Some of it was just sheer insanity, and I couldn't control it. I couldn't stop it. I couldn't rein it in. Incredible as it is to look back on it, I'm never going to be chasing that again. It was an amazing time, but it was also often stressful, and it felt like a massive weight of expectation. This is a very different kind of book, and I'm very happy that we're just doing it differently."
The Casual Vacancy takes a microscopic view of a handful of families in Pagford, including that of Krystal Weedon, a somewhat out-of-control teenager living in poverty with her toddler brother, Robbie, and her mother, Terri, who's struggling to overcome drug addiction.
"In some sense, the whole plot can be summed up with 'What do we do about Krystal?' and by extension, 'What do we do about all those people who are in a poverty trap?' But for Krystal, it's more than that, isn't it?" Rowling says. "Krystal is dealing with addiction in her family, she's dealing with decades of increasing poverty in her family with everything that means, and she's also caught in the crossfire of a local battle because this beautiful West Country town of Pagford is furious that it has jurisdiction over and responsibility for what we call a council estate (low-income public housing). So Krystal is caught up in this local battle, and of course in examining this tiny little local battle I get to explore what I think are fairly universal themes."
It's no accident that poverty and its related problems are a core issue in the novel. "The Weedon family was a way to talk about things which are also very close to my heart: poverty, what poverty means in our society, in an affluent Western country, the attitudes that are exposed in other people by the existence of such a family," she says. Rowling, who was once a single mother who relied on government assistance to care for her daughter, has established a charitable trust that helps people in need.
Because of the book's social themes, Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown, Rowling's American publisher, told USA TODAY in August that the novel "reminded me of Dickens because of the humanity, the humor, the social concerns, the intensely real characters."
Rowling says she's flattered but "uncomfortable if anyone thinks I'm walking around thinking myself the new Dickens. I think that's presumptuous of anyone, but I was conscious when I started writing The Casual Vacancy of what I wanted it to be. I did want it to be like a Trollope or a Dickens or Mrs. Gaskell in the sense that I'm taking a small community, literally a parochial community, and trying to analyze it and anatomize it in the way that they did. I really like those 19th-century novels. That's the kind of thing I love reading."
This is a very British novel, but Rowling isn't concerned about how it will be received outside the U.K. "I think there's a possibility that some people will not enjoy the book. It is a very English book, and it needs to be a very English book, because I'm talking very specifically about a society I know very well.
"I do think the themes in the book do translate across any national border because ultimately we're talking about our human responsibility, whether you think we should all be entirely self-reliant and people sink or swim, or you think we should be extending a helping hand and whether that should come from government and so on. And these are very contemporary themes in a lot of countries, particularly in the financial mess in which we find ourselves."
She's also ready for how the book will be received by critics. "Writers generally write to be published, and so as much as I can be, I'm ready for what comes my way. I haven't published this with any expectation. I've published it because it's what I really wanted to write. My writing path isn't dependent on what people expect or say of the work. I will just keep plowing my furrow."
Nor does she care if there's never a film made based on the novel.
"Personally, I don't think this is a very filmable book. That is one of the things I like about it. I think it's a very novelly novel in that a lot of what goes on happens internally. You need to understand what's going on inside people's heads. So even though a lot happens in the novel, part of the appeal of it for me is that so much of it happens in people's interior life, and film isn't necessarily the best medium to portray that."
That is so much the polar opposite of the Pottermania that gave birth to eight movies based on the seven Potter novels. The movies and the novels are the roots of the Potter legacy, but they live on through her website, Pottermore, which she says is a refuge for her.
The site is a publishing venture for the Potter e-books. On the other hand, it's a place where she posts in increments the plethora of Potter material that never made it into the books. "That's a nice giveback to fans, and it's nice for me too because it's a very low-pressure way of doing it. I can release material when and as I want. I'm also generating a little new material on the site for free, and I've loved that." (Little, Brown will publish The Casual Vacancy as an e-book as well as a hardcover Thursday.)
As important as it is for Rowling to control her publishing ventures, it's even more important that she have complete control over media coverage, primarily because of her determination to keep her children out of the limelight.
Rowling has been married since 2001 to Neil Murray, a physician. They have three children. Jessica, 19, from her previous marriage, is now a university student. Their son, David, is 9, and their daughter, Mackenzie, is 7.
"I try very hard to keep a distinction and draw a line between my professional life and my personal life," she says. "On the one hand you do want to be honest about the life experience that informs your work. On the other hand, I became well-known at a time when the British press didn't always behave in an exemplary manner towards people like me." She's referring to incidents when she and her children were photographed without her permission and her home address was printed in newspapers. "It's not that I don't want to share myself, it's simply that I have to make a decision about how best to bring up my children."
It's why she accepted an invitation to testify last fall in the phone-hacking scandal.
"I had to think quite hard about doing that," she says. "You're in a paradoxical situation. You're sitting in there trying to explain why you'd like privacy, and you're sort of invading your own privacy to explain it. So that was tough, and there were things I didn't say on the stand because a couple of them were the worst experiences I had with regards to the press, because I would have in doing so invaded my and all my family's privacy too much. I was valuable to the inquiry because I had consistently tried to keep my family out of the spotlight, and I hadn't succeeded."
What she did testify about were the numerous times her children had been photographed without her permission, the journalists who camped on her doorstep and the time a reporter somehow managed to tuck a note to her into her daughter's school backpack.
Meanwhile, she and her family live a normal life in Edinburgh "within certain limits. I do get recognized, but I must say Edinburgh is a fantastic city to live if you're well-known. There is an innate respect for privacy in Edinburgh people, and I also think they're used to seeing me walking around, so I don't think I'm a very big deal. The average Edinburgh person is very respectful of a person's right to mooch around and get on with things and go to the supermarket."
One of her public appearances this year included her participation in the tribute to children's literature during the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in London. While watching a rehearsal, she recalled that "when that section arrived and the huge Voldemort grew up out of the middle of the stage, I had one of these moments that I have every so often when my entire body goes cold and I think, 'How the hell did this happen?' And I'm staring at this 18-meter high Voldemort or whatever he was and I was thinking, 'That was once an idea in my head that no one knew about.' It was a few scribbled lines on the back of an envelope, and now it's represented on arguably the biggest stage in the world."
It was, she says, "the most humbling moment. I felt awed by it. Sometimes the Harry Potter stuff becomes white noise. It's part of the culture which is amazing, but every now and again you do have one of the those moments of 'Oh my God, how did this happen?' And that's definitely one of them."
Rowling won't set in stone when she'll next publish. "I don't want to commit. I was simultaneously devastated and liberated actually by finishing the Potter books. I truly was devastated -- 'My God, it's over. I will never again write Harry, Ron and Hermione,' but at the same time there was a massive sense of liberation so, selfishly, I don't wish to promise I will produce a book a year from here on in. I feel free now. Maybe that sense of freedom will mean I produce books more frequently. It could be. I just don't know."
And Potter fans will have to live with the fact that she's not writing anything for young adults. "No. Nothing nothing, nothing," she says emphatically, "and it would be challenging because of what I did with Harry. I have no plans to go there at the moment but never say never. If I had an amazing idea I probably would do it."
Very near completion, she says, is a book for children. The ideal reader would be 7 or 8. "I think the next thing I publish will be for children, but I don't really want to be held to that because I also know what my next book for adults will be and I really like that too so it depends. I've always had more than one thing going."
by Carol Memmott