JK Rowling is the author of 15 books, including the seven Harry Potter novels, The Casual Vacancy and, as Robert Galbraith, three crime novels. Her first screenplay, for Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, is currently in production; she is also collaborating on a new play, Harry Potter And The Cursed Child, which sees Harry as a grown-up father of three and opens in London next June. Lauren Laverne was lead singer in Kenickie, and is a TV and radio broadcaster, currently hosting the BBC 6 Music morning show. She is also co-founder and broadcast director of the website the Pool.
Rowling and Laverne meet on a grey day in east London, Laverne on a flit between her radio show and an awards ceremony, Rowling cabbing it from west London (she doesn’t drive). It’s the first time they’ve met, though they’ve liked each other on Twitter, where Rowling has nearly six million followers and Laverne 380,000. Rowling wants to meet Laverne because, she says, “she’s smart, funny, my kind of woman” (and a name to impress her 22-year-old daughter, Jess). Laverne, meanwhile, is deep in the Harry Potter years, with eight- and five-year-old sons. The two women hit it off straight away, Laverne with that DJ’s knack of filling a silence, while Rowling – shyer, less comfortable in front of the camera – laughs and gets louder and more than keeps up. She shares a phone pic of her 12-year-old son, and recalls the only photoshoot she really enjoyed (the one where Annie Leibovitz scrubbed off all her makeup and shot her holding a burning book, “and I
fire”). They could have gone on, but here’s what we got...
LL OK, let’s chat. So apparently this is part of a series about how the art of conversation is dying. And I’m not sure if we’re a test case or…
LL But I thought I’d ask what kind of conversations you like the best – who do you like to talk to the most?
JR Well, it’s very corny, but my husband is definitely my best friend. My sister. I’m a small-group person. My dream is a small group I know very well, then we have an intense conversation. I don’t want an argument, but I want a conversation about things that really matter.
JR I don’t think I could be friends with someone who was
LL I remember once having to chat to an MP. It was a late-night TV show and they brought in the next day’s papers to look at, and there was a picture of a dog on the front page. And you know that wistful way posh people talk about animals? It’s one of the things I’ve never learned. I don’t even know what face to do. Also, anything where people talk about the route they took to get here.
JR Well, I can’t drive, so I’m even worse. Someone else has driven me, and I’m always thinking about something else.
LL My friends and I have a Women’s Quarterly, because it’s so hard to get everyone together. But we have a quarterly date where we go out and sit down, and almost roll our sleeves up, because we have to get to
JR Two of my closest female friends live abroad, so we’re like that. You almost have an agenda: we’ve got to get through these things.
LL We definitely pre-discuss what we’re going to discuss. We’ll say it as a joke, but those are the conversations that put the world to rights. I also talk to my mother all the time. We had a recent discussion about the menopause. She said it wasn’t all bad, and that actually as you get older your testosterone levels increase.
JR I’m a bit clueless because, not to bring the mood down dramatically, my mother died before she reached menopause. I need to force my girlfriends to talk to me about it.
I’m not going to ask if you’ll have more kids, because that’s intrusive. But I would have had more...
LL My mam started by saying, as you get older, you take less and less shit. And I’ve been writing recently about looking at 40. I’m 37, and I want to decide how to approach it.
JR I genuinely loved turning 40. See, I wasn’t very good at being young. I feel like I’ve got happier and happier. I feel like I’m hitting my stride.
JR I can see that in you – but I still think you were better at it than me.
LL Oh, I don’t know. The unbridled hedonism never sat all that well with us, really. I’m looking forward to being in my 40s, then I’ll know where I am. But it’s a wonderful time, especially with the kids.
JR I’m not going to ask if you’re going to have any more, because I think that’s an incredibly intrusive question. But I will say, I would have had more if I’d been younger.
JR Yeah, definitely. But I was 39 when I had my youngest, so I just decided to draw a line. I felt we’d been really lucky, we had three amazing children, so I stopped. But I was never going to reach a point where I thought, never again.
LL I can’t imagine getting to that point myself. My attitude has always been that the joy of it is the unknown. The whole experience of having children is about your loss of control – you don’t get to pick who they are.
Lauren Laverne and JK Rowling Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
LL I wanted to ask you about naming things, because you have an interesting relationship with the power of names. Obviously, having written under different pseudonyms, and having characters with these wonderful, Dickensian, perfectly fitting names.
JR I think they were offering odds of 100-1 that I’d call my son Voldemort. 100-1! It was worth a bet. But you’re right, names are really important. Choosing a pseudonym for Robert Galbraith was a really big deal.
JR Well, when I was a child I wanted to be called Ella Galbraith. So I thought I might be LA Galbraith, but then I didn’t want to use initials.
JR Yes, and I really didn’t think it through – there’s also JK Galbraith, the famous economist. It was only after I’d chosen Robert, for Robert Kennedy, who’s my political hero of heroes, that I thought, it’s as though I want to be found! What am I doing?
JR But by then I’d sent out the manuscripts to a whole load of publishers. And there was a small press that wanted to take it, God bless them. But by that time Little, Brown were interested, so… And it would have been a big secret to ask a small press to keep.
JR It was becoming increasingly problematic, but I had this dream that I’d manage to get two or three books out before being rumbled.
LL I wondered if the name allowed you to write in character, to be him.
JR Do you mean choosing a male pseudonym? I feel quite sexless as I write. Gender doesn’t impinge at all. But it was a great liberation, thinking, “No one will know that it’s me.” I was so thrilled with every rejection letter, you have no idea. It just felt so real, it was all about the writing. There was one publisher who said, “Look, we really like this, but we’ve just taken on another guy who’s working in the same geographical area” – and I was delighted. I’m not going to say I was as excited as any first-time author would be, because it’s
the same. Any first-time author would be very cast down: “You liked it – and you’re not going to take it on!” I was just, “You liked it! That’s great!” I wish it could have gone on a bit longer.
JR Do you know, I read all sorts of numbers and I don’t actually know. But a good few, yes.
LL And were they more wounding? What kept you going?
JR [Long pause] That’s such a good question because you know I was not confident then at all. But I wanted it so badly, I wasn’t going to give up. And I don’t think I’ve ever felt, before or since, anything like the elation of realising I was going to be published.
JR My agent rang me and… he was so low key about it! One publisher had kept it for six months, which obviously gave me a lot of hope, and then they said no. I was devastated. Then [my agent] phoned me up and said, “Well, Bloomsbury want it” – very casual! Not realising he’s giving me the gift of my life. And there was this long pause, and I just said: “So… you’re saying I am going to be published?” I was beside myself.
LL Terrible Pete Best moment for whoever passed on it.
JR Well, funnily enough, the first publisher ever to turn down Harry wrote Robert [Galbraith] his rudest rejection. So I think it’s safe to say I will never write for them. They clearly don’t like me, in whatever way I present myself. [Laughs]
JR You know, I can say this now, I was quite diffident about saying it for a long time. But I did have a belief, with Harry, that the difficult thing would be persuading someone to take it, because it didn’t fit. People said children’s books had to be half the length, and what an old-fashioned subject, a boarding school. I did have this feeling that the difficult thing would be persuading someone to publish it – but that if it
LL I wondered how you measured success. I read your Wikipedia because we were doing this…
JR Oh God, have you read it? I’ve never read it. I’ve read yours.
LL No spoilers, but as far as all the traditional metrics go, you’re fucking acing it.
JR It’s really weird you’re asking me that question, because four days ago I wrote the answer in the fourth Robert Galbraith book. Because when you meet my detective in book four, he is reflecting on how success never feels the way you think it will be. Some people would assume that you’re sitting around feeling simply marvellous and shining your baubles. But I remember, a week after I got my American deal, which got me a lot of press, one of my very best girlfriends rang me and said, “I thought you’d sound so elated.” From the outside, I’m sure everything looked amazing. But in my flat, where I was still a single mum and I didn’t know who to call to do my hair, everything felt phenomenally overwhelming. For the first time in my life I could buy a house, which meant security for my daughter and me, but I now felt: “The next book can’t possibly live up to this.” So I managed to turn this amazing triumph into tragedy, in the space of about five days.
LL I think of that as the Big House Syndrome, which slightly scares me. Because lots of my contemporaries have gone off and done really amazing things, and I think of myself as chugging along, slightly under the radar, but consistent, right? I’m like a medium termer: stay in work, keep your head down. The scary thing about that
visible kind of success is that you then have to keep doing it – and you don’t know how you did it in the first place.
JR You did the thing that felt natural, and then you’re put in this position where it feels very unnatural. You’re trying to reconnect with this thing that felt normal five minutes ago.
LL Yeah: now do it again! But the Harry Potter legend is it came to you as a kind of universe, in its entirety.
JR There is truth to that. It was like an explosion of colour, and I could see lots of detail about the world. Of course the whole seven-book plot didn’t come at once, but the basic premises were there.
LL And how many of these worlds can you keep going in your head at one time?
JR I think I’m probably at capacity right now. There’s the play, which will be incredible. And I’m allowed to say that because I’m collaborating with Jack Thorne and John Tiffany on the story, which has been indecent amounts of fun. I gave them a lot of material that I had, and we worked together – but it will be a theatrical experience and that’s nothing to do with me, that’s really about John.
LL And what about the screenwriting? Is that your first?
JR I always knew Warner Bros wanted to do something with Fantastic Beasts and, being slightly control-freaky, I thought I’d better tell them that I had an idea. Then I sort of wrote a screenplay without meaning to. I know that sounds incredibly disingenuous.
LL Sort of like Withnail going on holiday by mistake.
JR Well, as you say, there are no accidents. But I was doing that fatal thing of thinking, “Well, I wonder what it would be like.” It was very sketchy. But here we are, and now I’ve written it properly. It’s been a virtually vertical learning curve.
LL My favourite Harry Potter fact is the Italian university that made kids read it and then measured their empathy levels, and found that reading it made them empathic.
LL I knew you would have read it, and I knew you would love it.
JR Of course I love it! Who wouldn’t love that? I was out with a group of friends the other night and one said to me, “The book still means so much to these twentysomethings!” And I said I really understand it, because I know how much it meant to me to meet Morrissey.
JR Big Smiths fan. And the people who mean something to you at 16, 17 are the people who are getting you through stuff. So I absolutely understand why someone who is hanging on to Harry Potter as a safe place at 13 is excited at 21 to talk about what [Hogwarts] house they’d be in. I don’t think it’s infantile. I don’t think it’s any more infantile than me being excited to meet Morrissey. I was with my sister-in-law and she said, “Put. Your. Hand. Down.” I was walking around afterwards with my hand out like that [mimes a stiff handshake].
JR I said, “Morrissey touched me!” She said, “I know, you look stupid.” I met him in such a bizarre situation, in Harvey Nichols. We were looking at each other, getting nearer and nearer, and at almost exactly the same moment we both put out our hands. What was amazing to me was, Morrissey knew who I was. I wanted to go back to my 16-year-old self, who’s lying there in the dark with the joss sticks, listening to Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now, and tell her: “You’ll meet him! He’ll know who you are!”
LL I wanted to ask you about money, because every time women have a conversation about money, an angel gets its wings. I wanted to ask what you’ve learned about it over the years, having had none, then loads, then giving lots away – apparently you fell off the Forbes rich list because you’d given so much away.
JR Yes, I did. I think I’ve had the most peculiar experience because I’ve been at every financial level you can be, pretty much, from completely skint. My family didn’t have a great deal of money, but we didn’t go without. I suppose the level that I missed, or was probably in briefly for about two weeks, was having a comfortable middle-class life. I passed through that.
LL The train is not stopping, the Hogwarts Express is passing through!
JR I was just about in a place where I thought, “OK, if I keep working, we’ll be OK, we’re secure,” when suddenly, bang! And I thought, “I did not expect this,” it was like I’d overshot the mark. And that’s a hard thing to say to people, because you can hear millions wanting to kneecap you, for saying that it’s in any way scary. But it was very frightening.
JR I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. I didn’t know anyone who had ever been through anything like it. One of the reasons I was very keen to meet Oprah Winfrey…
LL [Into the tape recorder] Oprah was not available today.
JR [Laughs] I did really enjoy being interviewed by her because we were able to have that conversation. She was someone who didn’t grow up rich, then suddenly had money and no one to talk to – and you don’t meet many women in that position. She said to me, “Have you accepted that you will always be rich?” and I definitely haven’t. And I said to her, “Have you?” and she said, “Yes, I know now that I will be rich for ever.” That hasn’t kicked in. When I was pregnant with my son, I went through a real worry about money that was completely irrational, and I think that was related to stress – I had a book coming out, and a baby on the way. I think it was a flashback to the last time I had been pregnant, when I really was poor. I reconnected with the self who was panicking she wouldn’t be able to clothe the baby.
LL My dad’s an academic and my mum was teaching in college when I was little, they are both from very poor backgrounds – and she can’t have an empty cupboard, it just reminds her. My dad can’t throw anything away.
JR I really empathise with that. I hate not having cash on me, and that’s definitely a connection to having been on benefits and, you know, just watching my cash dwindle through the week and praying it will last.
LL My dad calls it “walking around money”. What’s interesting about that is, you have this theme running through all your work of advantage and disadvantage, and the cumulative nature of those things.
JR True. And it is something I feel very strongly. I met a man a couple of years ago who had grown up with a huge amount of money. And he said to me in passing, “You know, money is not the most important thing.” Which is both true, and profoundly ignorant. Because when you have no money, it is absolutely the most important thing. Only someone who has never had to worry can make a statement like that.
LL Do you think it’s the same with fame? It feels a nebulous thing, but it goes back to the power of names. You give your name to something, your support, and it really matters.
JR Yes. I’ve tried hard to support things that burningly matter to me, or that I can speak about with some authority – I’m president of Gingerbread, the one-parent charity, which means a lot for obvious reasons. Multiple sclerosis research – that’s what my mother had. It’s hard, though, because you get asked 10 times a day. There is guilt that you haven’t done everything. But if you do, you just become white noise.
LL What about being recognised? The disguise I have going for me is that all the BBC lady DJs look a bit the same. So it’ll be, “Are you Jo Whiley?” But I notice that you say, “Since Harry got famous” and not, “Since I got famous.”
JR I had a really uncomfortable relationship with it for a long time. My fantasy for years was that I would one day hand over my credit card in a shop and they’d say, “Oh you wrote my favourite book!” I imagined that you just got to have a very private and quiet life. I hadn’t expected to be papped in a swimsuit.
LL And being a woman, your head’s above the parapet.
I know the lyrics to everything after hearing it once
LL If you don’t love it, if you don’t pursue it, people are slightly suspicious. There’s a cultural assumption that [fame] is the thing, the apotheosis of achievement.
JR Lisa Kudrow, from Friends, said, “You imagine it as a hug, but when it happens it can feel like an assault.” I remember the first time I stepped out of a car at a red carpet event – that wall of noise I found terrifying. I didn’t feel it as a warm shower of love. It’s not that I don’t feel incredibly warm to the individuals making that noise, because I do, but in toto it was very frightening.
JR If you want to be an author, the odds are you’re a pretty introverted person, who doesn’t particularly want to worry about what they look like. And fame, in its modern incarnation, demands pretty much the reverse mindset.
JR You’re swimming in your own medium. Twitter for me has been an unmixed blessing, trolls included. Because there came a point where Harry became so enormous that, at a reading, there were 2,000 people. You can’t answer everyone’s question. Twitter gave that back to me. No one has to buy a ticket. It’s very democratic.
LL There’s a lovely line on your website, Pottermore: “your magical corner of the internet”. If you were in charge, would you kick the trolls out?
JR My block and mute lists aren’t long because I have quite a high tolerance for people I wouldn’t necessarily want to be friends with – I’m interested in what they’re saying. You wouldn’t want to sanitise your timeline to the point that you weren’t seeing some of these characters. Let’s call them characters. When did you start tweeting?
LL About 2009. I really liked it. Because I have this thing, quite similar to you, where I’m really friendly but quite private. I still find it creative and interesting. I think you’re not supposed to. Sometimes I think I don’t care about the things I’m supposed to care about.
JR Life’s far too short. It really is, isn’t it? In your 20s those things matter so much more but, I don’t know. I’ve loosened up a lot.
LL It’s all the best people’s favourite medium. I think the special thing about radio is, it’s very profound but in a very ordinary way. You’re properly a part of people’s daily lives, you have people being born, growing old, dying, going through difficult things in their lives, and you can accompany them.
JR I always listen to Radio 3 when I’m working actually, because the human voice I find very distracting.
LL Yes, if I’m sitting in the office of the Pool, our website, I’ll always have some Steve Reich on. Also, I have a weird thing where I know the lyrics to everything after I’ve heard it once. When I’m interviewing someone, I’ll have their songs playing on a loop in my head. The worst ever was when I filmed Ant and Dec’s Christmas special on a boat in Newcastle. We stayed up drinking till 7 in the morning, it was hilarious and brilliant, but the entire time I had Let’s Get Ready To Rhumble going round and round in my head.
LL If people looked at my iPhone, they’d see there’s nothing remotely cool. I’ve never cared about that stuff.
Introduction by Melissa Denes. This conversation has been edited for length.
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