Get ready to delve into the world of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter with our transcription of her exclusive interview on “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling” podcast, episode one. In this transcript, we’ve compiled J.K. Rowling’s insights and answers. While we highly recommend listening to the entire episode for the complete experience, this transcription offers a convenient way to revisit J.K. Rowling’s interview. You can find the full podcast on popular platforms like Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
I never set out to upset anyone. [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]However, I was not uncomfortable with getting off my pedestal. And what has interested me over the last ten years and certainly in the last few years, last two, three years, particularly on social media, “You’ve ruined your legacy. You could have been beloved forever, but you chose to say this”. And I think: you could not have misunderstood me more profoundly. I do not walk around my house, thinking about my legacy. You know, what a pompous way to live your life walking around thinking what all my legacy be. Whatever, I’ll be dead. I care about now. I care about the living.
Why do you think we humans, especially young kids? Why do we like stories about witches and wizards and giants and dark magic? What is it about us? And what is it about magic and magical world that we find so compelling?
I’m very interested in this, because I think it speaks to something very profound in human nature. Magic gives a person agency they wouldn’t otherwise have, and I think that’s particularly appealing to a child, because children inevitably are quite powerless. Even children in happy families are relatively powerless. And the idea that you have secret power, extraordinary power, supernatural power, [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]I think is hugely seductive to all of us to adults as well, but particularly to children.
I want to go back to the early days, and I know you’ve talked about this period in your life so much over the years. You know, this time just before Harry Potter was published, but I also know that our stories aren’t static. You know, they shift over the time with the benefit of hindsight and new experiences and just where you are in life when you’re telling the story again.
I know exactly what you mean. You’re right, I’ve been asked a million times about the moment when I had the idea on the train. And I’ve said it so many times, but you do look back and suddenly you stumble into this little pool [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]of self-knowledge or memory that can be so illuminating. So I had the idea for “Potter” on a train when I was 25. Why did that idea come? I’ve never really known. It just fell into my head, and I immediately thought, “I’ve got to write that. God, I love that idea.” The funny thing is, I was never a great reader of fantasy. The thing that interests me most is human nature. Above anything else.
But there was something about this particular story. This boy, who was unhappy, and without any power, suddenly realizing what he had and who he was.
Can you take me back to your life in the 1990s? I’ve heard you describe that time as essentially your greatest fear come to life.
Yeah, the early 1990s for me were not good. [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]I was in a real period of flux at the time. My mother was very ill. I had moved from London to Manchester. And then my mother died actually on the night of December the 30th, 1990. But I didn’t realize she died until the early hours of New Year’s Eve. She was 45. She’d been ill for a very long time. But none of us realized death was imminent.
That kind of took a wrecking ball to my life really. To me this decade now was infused with loss. And I think perhaps that would have colored my feelings about the story I was writing perhaps that would have made me want to put it away forever. But in fact, that sense of loss and this real despair that I felt started going to the story.
At that point the story changed suddenly everything darkened and deepened.
[The story that Rowling had begun to write on the train that day was about an orphan boy.]
I slightly glibly used the trope for six months before my mother died. In reality, of course, is a tragedy to be an orphan. And now I really understood what lost was.
This little manuscript that only I knew, this story, no one else had seen it. I hadn’t spoken about it really to anyone else. You know, this was the thing that I just clutched onto as I went off on my journeys.
[In 1991, at the age of 25, Rowling broke up with her boyfriend, quit her job, and she left the UK.]
I decided I need to get away. I went abroad. I knew that I liked teaching, [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]and so I thought I’m just going to go away. I’m going to take a year out, I’ll teach. I don’t really know why, but I chose to go to Portugal.
Initially it did the job. “I am away. I’m in a different environment. This is helping me.” But I think that emotionally I was still incredibly vulnerable. I know I was emotionally vulnerable. So while there was a lot of fun and there was relief [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]in not being surrounded by the familiar, I was pretty lost and pretending not to be lost.
So you go to Portugal and you meet a guy.
I did. I met a guy. I think I’d been there six months, maybe. In a bar with my friends, [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]good looking guy, told me he was a journalist. We began dating. It was okay. It was okay.
I was drifting along in something that wasn’t perfect, but it was good to be wanted. It was good to have affection. But I was kind of a drift.
And then I became pregnant accidentally. And while pregnant, he proposed to me. And then I lost the baby. I miscarried. Which was hugely traumatic. It was traumatic physically and it was traumatic emotionally. [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]And that was another massive loss. And I think at that point, I really was in a very… I was certainly not in a balanced state of mind. And when I lost the baby, I do remember having a moment in my grief for the baby. I do remember having a moment where I thought, “so we’re not going to get married.” That’s clear, right? And I’m almost speaking to myself: “That’s clear, Jo, we’re not going to marry this guy”.
But he was putting huge pressure on me to get married. So I went through with it. And then became pregnant almost immediately when married. Which is a joyful thing because I cannot imagine a world without my Jessica in it.
So in with all the bad, there was an amazing, wonderful thing came out of it. And that was my daughter.
But as I understand it, even before your daughter was born, your husband had become increasingly abusive.
Yeah. The situation was a bad situation. But until you actually go through it, [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]you don’t know what you would choose to do.
I left him twice before I left for good. And then I went back twice. The marriage at this point has turned very violent and very controlling. At this point, he’s searching my handbag every time I come home.
I haven’t got a key to my own front door because he’s got a control with the front door. And I think he’s not a stupid person.
I think he knew he’d also suspected that I was going to try and bolt again. It was a horrible state of tension to live in because you have to act. And I don’t think I’m a very good actor. I don’t have a very good poker face. And that was a huge strain to act as though I wasn’t going. That’s a terrible way to live.
And yet, the manuscript kept growing. I’d continued to write. In fact, he knew what that manuscript meant to me because at a point, he took the manuscript and hid it. And that was his hostage.
When I realized that I was definitely going to go, this was it. I was definitely going. I would take a few pages of the manuscript into work every day. Just a few pages, so he wouldn’t realize anything was missing. And I would photocopiate. [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]And gradually, in a cupboard in the staff room, bit by bit, a photocopied manuscript, grew and grew and grew and grew. Because I suspected that if I wasn’t able to get out with everything, he would burn it or take it or hold it hostage.
That manuscript still meant so much to me. That was the thing that actually I prioritized saving. The only thing I prioritized beyond that obviously was my daughter. But on that point, she’s still inside me. So she’s as safe as she can be in that situation.
[In July of 1993, Rolling gave birth to a baby girl and named her Jessica.]
I do remember thinking very clearly, and that was probably the moment I knew I had to leave, about a month before I did leave: “she’s not going to grow up and watch this happening to her mother. She’s not going to grow up and think that this is normal or okay.”
I’d been planning a kind of “orderly withdrawal”. I’d been trying to set things up so I get my daughter out. Everything’s smooth, everything is arranged. But then they came a night, or I don’t even know what triggered it. And this was probably about a week before I planned to make my exit. They came a night where he became very angry with me. And I cracked, and I said, “I want to go, I want to leave.”
And he became very violent, and he said, “If you’re leaving, you can leave, but you’re not getting Jessica. I’m keeping her. I will hide her.” So I put up a fight. And I paid the price.
There was a very loud and a violent scene, which terminated with me lying in the street. And then I thought, “right, I’m going to the [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]police.” And I went to the police. And I was assessed. And I was agreed that I clearly had just been beaten. Now I was pretty bruised. And I filed a complaint. And the next day went up to the house with the police, and got Jessica back.
But the thing is, I am still that person. You see, I, to me, the draw line is very clear.
When you move back to the UK, what did your life look like?
Well, I’m not going to say it was as low as you can go, because it wasn’t. I had very kind people who helped me. I could go stay with my sister, which was obviously not the case for some people who find themselves in my situation. I think I spent two, three weeks with my sister. And then I moved into my own place, which was really a glorified bedsit.
Wait, a glorified what?
Bedsit. Do you not have that phrase?
What is that phrase?
I mean, it’s like a room and a half. You know, so my first flat was like, there was a bathroom, but the kitchen, pretty much everything else is together.
Like a studio apartment…
Okay, but that sounds so much more glamorous. And I call Jessica “Decca”. So Decca and I were sharing a bedroom.
But I was living on benefits, which you would call welfare, [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]obviously. And I was at this point, my mental health was not good. I’d never lived in Scotland, although I have Scottish ancestry. I was really here because my sister was here.
I was dissociating. I was losing time. I was definitely had suicidal [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]thoughts. I was in a very dark shaky place.
It stripped away the essential. It showed me even though I was a mess, candidly I was a mess. I had the story that I loved beyond anything in my life. It was love like I never experienced before. And that was so powerful. And I do remember continuing to work on that story.
I spent 17 years working on “Potter”. [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]And there are things I understand in that story that no one else can possibly understand. And which I stayed true to, even as my own life improved. And my own state of mind became healthier.
I was still very committed to those parts that I’d plotted in darkness as it were. Because there was a truth to them. And there was a power to them.
I could have no idea what was going to come.
A part of the folklore around Harry Potter, which turns out to be true, is that originally the first book was rejected by 12 different publishers before finally someone was willing to put it out.
Publishing wants to be with the zeitgeist, which is a business decision. I think sometimes they make mistakes. And what they think is the zeitgeist is a very particular and narrow view of the zeitgeist, but that’s another discussion.
I think there were three things going on with the book. Firstly, boarding school, passe, no one’s going to be interested. Secondly, it’s too long. So the first one’s 95,000 words. And I can’t even remember how long “Phoenix” is, “Order of the Phoenix”, but little is that they know what was coming. And then thirdly, I don’t think it was necessarily. It might have been that he was a boy. So then they want me to not use my first name. They want me to use my initials.
The first time I saw the book in a bookshop… now that to me was a bigger deal than I could express to you. I am a published writer. Look, there it is.
Do you remember where you first saw it in a shop?
I remember vividly. It’s actually not there anymore. It was the Waterstones on Main Street. And I genuinely didn’t go in there to look for it. I went in there to buy a picture book for my daughter. And I turned and I looked at the R section of the, you know, the chapter books. And I was, as I thought, “it will be there?”, I saw it. It’s a completely unknown book. There’s no fanfare. There was no big launch party.
It wasn’t in the window.
No, of course not! It’s just quietly appeared on the shelf. And it was one of the best moments of my life. It was the most incredible feeling. There was very little marketing budget. But it became clear, fairly early on, that children were telling children about the book. It was word of mouth. It started to get bigger and bigger.
I was so ill-equipped for what happened to me. [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]Now, I was grateful. I was hugely grateful that the work was loved. That part brought me nothing but joy. And materially speaking, I mean, my life had been transformed. At that point, I was living… for the first time I’d been be able to buy a house, but I was scared.
What was happening to me in terms of fame was outstripping me constantly. So I buy this very ordinary house that’s standing on a nice ordinary street. And I’ve got journalists parked outside my front door, they’re within feet of my front door.
So I felt like I was playing catch-up all the time with the situation. It was changing far faster than I could deal with. And all the time, I have this lurking fear, because I know that there’s someone out there who does not wish me well. So, you know, that was strange.
And then, well, to tell you the truth, the reason we left that first place was that my ex husband arrived and broke in. So, moving became quite pressing issue at that point.
And in the middle of all of this, you’re still worried. You have not escaped your husband.
You see, this is the insanity of it. I’m trying to retain, like an eyewall around my location, as well, because everyone wants to come. “Can I photograph you?” “No, you can’t photograph me at home.” “Why not? You’re being so precious, you’re being so starry.” And it’s not that at all. It was quite the reverse! It’s because the last time my ex husband knew my address, he turned up and broke in.
What was that like? You’re the rising star and you’re still trying to hide.
I think that’s actually the most accurate [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]summary of my situation I’ve ever heard. You know, try and reconcile. Suddenly having a lot of press interest with really, really wanting to live under the radar for very concrete reasons. You know, not because I thought I was Salinger, not because you know, I’m Robert Galbraith, but because…
Your own safety.
Yeah. I was living in a state of real tension that I couldn’t express to many people.
As we crossed over into the year 2000, suddenly everything seemed to just supersize itself. Everything from my point of view became a bit more crazy. I was signing for like 2000 people at a time. You’ve got fights breaking out in the car park. You’ve got security there. There is something about a mass of human beings. There’s always an edge in a crowd, always.
[And in 2000, at a big crowded book signing,] we had a bomb threat at one store from allegedly a far-right Christian person. Things are getting a little bit nervous at this point, you know.