As some of you know, I was one of the winners of Scholastic's Open Book Tour Sweepstakes, so I attended last night's event. The guest I took is the person who gave me my first copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and made me promise to read it, my dear friend Professor Kathryn N. McDaniel of Marietta College. (She's the author of "The Elfin Mystique: Fantasy and Feminism in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series" in Past Watchful Dragons: Fantasy and Faith in the World of C.S. Lewis.)
It was an unforgettable night. I took detailed notes so I could share the event with those who are interested.
Ms. Rowling was introducted by Keith Olbermann of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, who made relevant points about how meaningful interaction between reader and writer can be (using his own childhood example of writing a fan letter to Roald Dahl after reading James and the Giant Peach and receiving a reply from Dahl), and how J.K. Rowling's works have inspired people to become readers, rereaders, and writers.
Ms. Rowling came onto the stage to a standing ovation from a packed Carnegie Hall audience. She admitted to being nervous and then said she was going to read a section from Deathly Hallows she had never before read in public. It's one of her favorites, but she hadn't read it previously, because it contained spoilers, and she needed to be certain that everyone in the audience had already finished the book. She knew we had, so she could read it. She read from the chapter "The Silver Doe," beginning on page 378 (starting with "I'm sorry") and continuing through the end of the chapter. Her voices were wonderful, especially the increasingly-shrill tones of Hermione. There were lots of giggles. When she read the line "No, I heard you coming out of my pocket," she got tickled, and started to laugh, and the audience cracked up, as well, and it took a moment for her to get back to reading. She did a fabulous job. At the end of the reading, she received another standing ovation, and got teary-eyed, and told us not to make her cry before she had to answer questions.
The question and answer session was the heart of the event. My summaries below are "bare bones" and do not do justice to the warmth, wit, and thoughtfulness with which she answered. There were gasps, laughs, "aaawwwws," etc. from the audience throughout her replies. She responded to questions for an hour.
Question: What question were you expecting that you have never been asked?
Answer: No one has ever asked Rowling what Dumbledore's wand was made of - although she's been asked about almost all of the other characters' wands - and she was always worried someone would ask, and she would have to be careful about giving away too much information. She'd decided she'd just say "elder" if anyone asked, and hope she could leave it at that.
Question: Did Neville ever find love?
Answer: Yes. He became the Herbology Professor at Hogwarts, but was seen by the students as especially "cool" because he lived above a pub. That's due to the fact he married Hannah Abbott, who became the new landlady of The Leaky Cauldron.
Question: How did you decide Molly would be the one to kill Bellatrix?
Answer: Of course Neville had good reasons to want revenge on Bellatrix for his parents' torture, but Rowling always knew it would be Molly who finally disposed of her. She said there were two reasons for this.
1) She wanted to show that Molly was a very good witch in her own right who had, by necessity, been something of a "light under a bushel." Her skills are considerable but always in the background - magical cooking, for example, is not easy - and Rowling wanted to communicate the fact that "because a woman dedicated her life to her family" doesn't mean she lacks impressive abilities and powerful talents.
2) She wanted to contrast two kinds of love: Molly's maternal love for her children, which is the core of her life, and Bellatrix's obsessive love for Voldemort. The showdown between these women is a meeting of, a battle between, these two kinds of love. In this case, Molly's is the more powerful.
Question: How would the last books have been different if you had stayed with your original plan and killed Arthur Weasley in Order of the Phoenix?
Answer: They would have been very different. Rowling didn't want to do that, because it would turn Ron into half-a-Harry (having lost a parent) and removed the Weasleys as a source of refuge. She especially did not want Ron to change. He is the last of the three main characters to reach adulthood; his defining moment is when he confronts all of his insecurities (via the locket) after he returns to Harry, saves his life, and retrieves the sword. Before this turning point, his lingering insensitivity and inmmaturity is the source of much of Ron's humor and personality. She wanted to preserve that as long as possible, and let his transformation, his "growing up," take place in book seven. Additionally, she wanted to bring the series full circle by ending with an orphan (Teddy Lupin), just as she had started with an orphan (Harry Potter). She did not kill Remus Lupin and Nymphadora Tonks lightly, just because she let Arthur live. She loves them, especially Lupin. But she wanted to show that one of the evils of war is that children lose their families, and this is a repercussion that affects later generations. She also wanted to imply that Harry would become a great father figure to Teddy, a better stepfather even than Sirius had been able to be to him.
Question: This was easily the funniest question of the evening. A little girl asked what improper charms Aberforth Dumbledore had used on goats.
Answer: Rowling looked stunned, and then asked, "How old are you?" (I believe she was eight.) Then Rowling blushed slightly and said that there might have been any number of charms one might use on a goat, such as a charm to keep the goat clean, or to keep its curly horns - "and that is my answer to you." The older audience members got the joke and had quite a laugh, but the little questioner seemed quite satisfied, too.
Question: The next question was asked by a teenager who prefaced her question with thanks to Rowling for inspiring her to have ambitions, and to care, and to be herself against overwhelming odds. She did not go into details, but it was clear she had faced a difficult personal struggle, and the books had been a source of strength for her. It was a very poignant and serious comment, and both the questioner and Rowling seemed very moved. Then she asked if Dumbledore ever had the chance to fall in love.
Answer: Rowling replied by saying that the young lady who asked the question deserved an honest answer. Rowling always thought of Dumbledore as gay. Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was. It excused Dumbledore a little more because falling in love can blind us to an extent, but he met someone as brilliant as he was, and rather like Bellatrix with Voldemort, he was drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him. That's how she saw Dumbledore. Recenty she read the script for the sixth film, and the writers had Dumbledore saying to Harry, "I knew a girl once, whose hair...." She had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter, saying "Dumbledore's gay!" When the audience laughed and applauded, she said, "The fanfiction, eh?" She also joked that she would have mentioned this earlier if she'd known the audience would react so positively.
Question: If Ron spoke a word in Parseltongue, does that mean it can be learned, or must someone be born to speak the language?
Answer: Ron mimicked a sound he heard, but he can't speak the language. Parseltongue is more of an inherited ability than a skill one can learn.
Question: What did Dumbledore write in his letter to Petunia to make her keep Harry?
Answer: Dumbledore appealed to her sense of fair play. He also alluded to her early desire to come to Hogwarts as a young girl, and called on that part of her that had wanted to be a part of the wizarding world, to help protect it now by protecting Harry.
Question: Why wasn't Harry killed by the basilisk fang, if basilisk fangs can destroy horcruxes?
Answer: The poison in a basilisk fang can destroy a horcrux if it is wounded beyond repair. Harry was almost instantly healed by Fawkes, however, so he was first repairable and then repaired.
Question: Why couldn't Harry talk to Dumbledore's portrait and learn all he needed to know?
Answer: First, Dumbledore knew that to tell Harry about the Hallows was to tempt him. One of Harry's weaknesses is his impulsiveness. If Harry were forced to work it out slowly, however, and think things through, his good heart might overcome his hot head. We see in the final book that one of Harry's coming of age moments lies in deciding not to act, which is difficult for him. Second, portraits can only move within other portraits in the same building, or within other portraits of the same person in different buildings. Figures cannot simply move in and out of all pictures everywhere. So there are limitations to the wizard portrait as a communication device. Besides, if Dumbledore had told Harry everything up front, there would be no plot for the seventh book.
Question: Did you consciously model the Death Eaters on Nazis?
Answer: To a degree, yes, because Nazis are one symbol of evil that is easy to recognize. But they represent ideas more than specific historical examples. Rowling wanted "Harry to leave our world and find the same problems in the wizarding world." The books as a whole are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a plea to end bigotry. We should recognize other regimes of the past - and present - in the books. In the end, the message to readers is this: "Question authority. You shouldn't assume the regime or the press is telling you all of the truth."
Question: How did it feel finishing the last book as compared to finishing the first?
Answer: Finishing them felt strangely similar. Finishing the first book felt like a huge accomplishment. The following novels were in the middle, but the last book also felt like a big turning point. Even though she knew the end of the series was coming, she mourned it for weeks after she had completed it. She said it was like a bereavement.
Note: At this point, the announcer broke in to ask a question. When the disembodied voice called her name, Rowling looked around and said, "God?" Then she joked, "And people say I don't believe in you." That brought laughs.
Question: Since Harry saved Draco's life, does Draco now owe him a debt in the way that Peter Pettigrew owed Harry?
Answer: The debt Peter owed Harry wasn't a magical kind of bond. Dumbledore mentioned this to Harry because he suspected there was enough good in Peter that Harry's mercy would eventually make a difference to him. Peter was a weak man, who was drawn to personalities more powerful, but he had enough conscience deep within him to open his fingers just enough to spare Harry in the end. Draco may become an improved Draco, but he will never be a good guy. The worst burden Harry could put Draco under is this recognition that Harry saved his life. The moment that flashes between them in the epilogue is meant to reflect this. Draco nods. It's an "It's so embarrassing that you saved my life" moment.
Question: What were the professions of James, Lily, Sirius, and Remus?
Answer: Remus would have been pretty much unemployable because of his condition, anyway, but none of them really had the opportunity for careers. They left school and immediately worked full-time for the Order of the Phoenix, fighting Voldemort. James had family money, enough to support himself, Lily, and Sirius, and they fought until Lily became pregnant, and then James and Lily went into hiding. They never had proper adulthoods. The war took that from them.
Question: Did Hagrid ever marry and have children?
Answer: No. His pool of potential mates was small. Madame Maxime thought he was cute, but in the end she was more sophisticated than he was, and they didn't really connect. (The lady who asked this question - at sixty-three, she was the oldest person to ask a question - was unhappy with this answer, and Rowling joked, "Hey, at least he survived!")
Question: Did Snape's portrait ever hang in the Headmaster's Office?
Answer: At first, it did not hang there, because Hogwarts itself- the magical building and its staff - understood that Snape had abandoned his post. Thus he was unworthy to be included on the wall. But, after the events of Deathly Hallows, Harry insisted that Snape's portrait hang on the wall next to Dumbledore's. Rowling loves the fact that people are still debating whether or not Snape is a good guy. She said he loved very deeply and was very brave, and she values both of those things extremely highly. He was also bitter, vindictive, and mean. She would like to think, however, that in those last moments of Snape's life, he and Harry "achieved a kind of peace."
After the Q&A, she signed copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. She made a point to meet each person's eyes and respond to everyone individually. I was impressed by her genuine happiness in meeting her readers. I was also pleased to have the chance to thank her personally for her books and her appearance.
And that, my friends, is my report!