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 two. 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 think my publishers were definitely on the alert for trouble.
Do you remember when you first understood that people were calling your writing “dangerous”?
So I think it was in about 1999 that I first became aware that, yeah, the books were being banned, [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com] that there was a vocal pushback against these books, as “dangerous and immoral”. Wicked, you know, extreme words were being used, that I was harming children, that these books were poison for children’s minds.
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 that 2000 people at a time, and we had a bomb threat at one store. Allegedly from a far-right Christian person.
[About the backlash in the United States of America]
The experience in America was not for the first time very different from the experience in the UK. I remember speaking to my American editor about it, and he was pretty robust about it. You know, he felt, “it’s not true, these are very moral books”. I remember saying to him “this was inevitable.” And by that I meant it’s got too big. It’s just got too big.
You know, there are plenty of other books about witches and wizards out there. But I think a lot of the pushback was the sheer scale of it. People were alarmed by the scale of it.
There are two groups of people who think I’m wholeheartedly with[Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com] them. One, are people who believe passionately in the boarding school system, and the other group are practicing witches. I have to say I’m not on either their side. I don’t believe in magic in that sense.
When you would see these people burning your books, they’re really burning them, trying to get them banned and remove from schools and libraries. How did you understand what was going inside of them?
Well, I think that this is something I explore in the “Potter” books. A sense of righteousness is not incompatible with doing terrible things. You know, most of the people in movements that we consider hugely abhorrent… many, many, many of the people involved in those movements understood themselves to be on the side of righteousness, believe they were doing the right thing, felt themselves justified in what they were doing.
I suppose for me, book burners, by definition (predictably), to me, have placed themselves across a line, across a line of rational debate. “I’m simply going to destroy the idea that I don’t like. I can’t destroy it, so I’ll destroy it’s representation. I will burn this book.” There is no book on[Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com] this planet that I would burn. No book, including books that I do think are damaging. Burning to me is the last result of people who cannot argue.
One theme that really jumps out right at the start of the books is how people like Harry’s Aunt and Uncle keep saying to him, don’t ask questions. And I just wonder, what’s the significance of having this whole seven book journey start with that theme?
Well, there you are, you see. We’ve just returned immediately to the book burners. They are completely certain that they are doing the right thing. And that justifies cruelty, unmerited punishment, telling him he’s things he’s not. You know, he’s bad, he’s wrong, and hiding information. And the “don’t ask questions” and the burning of the letters, they, well, you have it right at the start. You are not allowed to look beyond what we say is normal. What we say is the world.
There are plenty of stories, you know, especially children’s stories where the heroes are the heroes and the villains are the villains, and the only real question in the stories is whether the heroes can defeat the villains. But that’s not the Harry Potter story at all. You know, the heroes are flawed. Some people we think of as villains turn out to be the ones who save the day. And, you know, so many characters that we at first glance think are bad or scary are actually just misunderstood. And one of the early themes of the books is that if you want to figure out the truth, you shouldn’t jump to conclusions that [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com]your prejudices can betray you, and that your first judgment might not be accurate. You really seem to have this deep awareness of this type of human behavior that, you know, the temptation to fall into this like very simplistic, black and white kind of morality. But there is also a clear presence in the books of the reality that there is such a thing as good, and that there is such a thing as evil. And even though it’s not always easy to tell, you ultimately have to. How do you discern when a behavior falls on one side of that line or the other?
I mean, that’s such a deep question, and it goes to the heart of “Potter”, and it goes to the heart of much of my worldview. The irredemably evil character in “Potter” has dehumanized himself, so Voldemort has consciously and deliberately made himself less than human. And we see the natural conclusion of what he’s done to himself through very powerful magic. What he’s left with is something less than a human, and he’s done that deliberately. He sees humane behavior as weakness. He has reduced himself to something that cannot feel the full range of human emotion.
There’s a huge appeal,[Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com] and I try to show this in the “Potter” books to black and white thinking. It’s the easiest place to be, and in many ways is the safest place to be. If you take an all or nothing position on anything, you will definitely find comrades. You will easily find a community, I’ve sworn allegiance to this one simple idea.
What I tried to show in the “Potter” books and what I feel very strongly myself, we should mistrust ourselves most when we are certain. And we should question ourselves most when we receive a rush of adrenaline by doing or saying something. Many people mistake that rush of adrenaline for the voice of conscience. “I’ve got a rush from saying that, I’m right.”
In my worldview, conscience speaks in a very small and inconvenient voice, and it’s normally saying to you “think again, look more deeply, consider this.” And I was struck early on actually in the “Potter” phenomenon by how the two characters that cause the most furious debate, and I’m actually using the word furious quite literally there at times, were Dumbledore and Snape. People wanted Dumbledore to be perfect. He’s deeply flawed. But to me, [Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com] he is an exemplar of goodness. He did wrong. He learnt. He grew wise. But he has to make the difficult decisions that people in the real world have to make. Very difficult decisions.
Meanwhile, you have Snape. Incontrovertible a bully, he can be mean, he can be sadistic, he’s bitter. But he is courageous. He is determined to make good what[Transcription by TheRowlingLibrary.com] he did terribly wrong. And without him, disaster would have occurred. And I have had fans really angry at me for not categorizing Snape in particular. Just wanting clarity in simplicity, let’s just agree this is a really bad guy. And I’m thinking when I can’t agree with you because I know him. But also I can’t agree with you, full stop, because people can be deeply flawed.
People can make mistakes. People can do bad things. In fact, show me the human being who hasn’t. And they can also be capable of greatness. And I mean greatness in a moral sense, not in a fame or an achievement sense.