Who's Afraid of J.K. Rowling?
As J.K. Rowling prepares to unleash the sixth book in her stupendously successful Harry Potter series, she is communicating to the public through only one venue: her official website.
This weekend, as millions of copies are sold, the only reporters she will be talking to are a group of 70 specially selected children. They will read the book at a Harry Potter slumber party in Edinburgh Castle attended by the author and then quiz her at a one-hour press conference the next morning.
Upon the book's release, she will do a total of two interviews with the U.S. press: one on broadcast (NBC's The Today Show), and one in print (Time Magazine).
Is J.K. Rowling cleverly thumbing her nose at the media circus, or using her status to remain aloof from the masses? And why has she virtually stopped granting interviews, deigning only to answer the questions of a group of teenagers?
No other currently publishing writer could get away with this sort of behavior. No other writer could decline to send advance copies to reviewers -- and even threaten to sue bookstores that sold advance copies. No other writer could afford to shun the public eye. These days, authors are out there publicizing their books as much as actors publicize their movies, or musicians publicize their albums.
But then again, no other writer can sell 50,000 books an hour. (Less than 1 percent of published books sell more than 50,000 copies -- ever.) And no other writer can call herself "the wealthiest female author in the world."
The volumes in the Harry Potter series are some of the few books that don't need publicity to keep selling -- others that come to mind are the dictionary, the almanac and the Bible. And Harry is still a largely unexplained phenomenon. Every fan has her or his own reasons for loving him. As an avid reader of the series, I am actually emotionally attached to the little underdog; he represents true goodness, and I feel it deeply when his fellow students don't trust him, or when a new teacher treats him unjustly. I'm also hooked on Rowling's knack for creating mysteries at the beginning of a book and then coming to a surprising, yet completely believable, revelation at the end.
As many facts as I can churn out about Harry, I know very few about Rowling. She, like Harry, surmounted great obstacles: she was a divorced single mother on welfare living in an unheated apartment when she wrote the first book. She also briefly worked for Amnesty International doing research into human rights abuses in French-speaking parts of Africa, so she has spent some time fighting the good fight. But there are precious few personal facts about her out there.
Artists today are personally connected to their output: Beautiful, leggy young things sell movies, music, and even books. But Rowling no longer shills for her own product. She doesn't seem to think information about her private life is germane to the experience of the books. She prefers a quiet lifestyle tucked away in Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband and three children.
True, she no longer has to shill for her own product. But most authors, even if they achieved her level of prominence, would still want the fame. They'd still have glitzy, star-studded book parties that cost half the amount of international aid to Sudan. They'd hobnob with other literati elite like Sonny Mehta and John Grisham. They might still guard Harry's future secrets closely, but they'd have no trouble talking ad nauseum about their childhoods, their political views, and their diet/workout regimens.
Rowling has said she doesn't enjoy appearing before the media, and has been critical of it in the past; at one point early on, when she was still doing interviews, she said she never expected to spend so much time talking to journalists. In a recent book, she included an officious reporter named Rita Skeeter who hounds Harry and maliciously publishes false rumors about him.
Though she denies the obvious comparison, it's hard not to draw a parallel: Rowling has often had to fend off rumors, such as the one that existed for years until it was disproven in court, that she stole ideas from another author. On her website, she devotes a whole section to debunking any rumors fans might hear; recently, she denied one that said she was posting messages on fansites.
Whatever the reason for Rowling's virtual press boycott, the children's event planned for this weekend shows that she still wants to communicate with her fans -- but only directly, and only answering questions that she wants to be asked.
As an avid Harry Potter reader, I don't know if it would add to or detract from the books if I knew more about her. But, even though I'd love to interview her, and I'd love to hear from her someday about why she shuns public life, I admire her reticence. There is still something that separates writers from other celebrities: the ability to lead a relatively anonymous life, no matter how many books you have in print. And as J.D. Salinger, the most famously reclusive writer, said, "A writer's feelings of anonymity-obscurity are the second most valuable property on loan to him."