When J. K. Rowling, author of the hugely popular Harry Potter books, came to visit O, The Oprah Magazine last fall, we weren't sure what to expect. Rowling answered our questions about everyone's favorite wizard, the magic of reading and her own most-loved books. At the top of her list is The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by acclaimed Irish writer Roddy Doyle. This unflinching novel chronicles a woman's relationship with a violent man in a way that brings fresh insight to the subject—and, far from being a punishing read, it is surprisingly engaging and uplifting. Books That Made a Difference O, The Oprah Magazine: Why do you love The Woman Who Walked Into Doors?
J. K. Rowling: It is the most remarkable book. Roddy Doyle gets inside the head of his character so utterly, so completely. I don't think I've ever encountered such a believable, fully rounded female character from any other heterosexual male writer in any age. I should emphasize that I would feel the same way about the book if it had been written by a woman; I would still think it was the most remarkable achievement. But when I sit back and think, 'A man wrote this?'—phenomenal. He has created a woman who, you imagine, will go to the bathroom and defecate. He also leaves her with her dignity, even though what she's going through is a horrific thing. And he does it all in such a subtle way. I do think he's a genius. His dialogue is irreproachable. And your heart...you're totally drawn into his books. I'm very passionate about Roddy Doyle, and I've never met him, which is a frustration to me.
O: Well, maybe you could now...
JKR: My editor edits Roddy. And I'm always just missing him! But I might freeze, being in the same room.
O: You're saying it's difficult to write outside your gender, but you've chosen to create Harry Potter. Is that hard?
JKR: If I say no now, that's going to sound really arrogant. But I had been writing the first book for six months before I stopped and thought, 'Why's he a boy?' And the answer is, He's a boy because that's the way he came. If I had stopped at that point and changed him to Harriet, it would have felt very contrived. My feminist conscience is saved by Hermione, who's the brightest character. I love Hermione as a character. She's kind of a caricature of me when I was younger. I was obsessed with achieving academically, but underneath that I was insecure.
O: We love Hermione, too! We identify!
JKR: I think we have a very strong female character in her.
O: You have a young daughter. Do you read Harry Potter to her?
JKR: I kept thinking you've got to be 7 years old before you read Harry. And then I cracked because it was unfair to her, really, that all these kids at school were asking her about this stuff and she had no answers to give them. So I started reading Harry Potter to her when she was six. Now they are her favorite books, which makes my life an awful lot easier. O: You admire Roddy Doyle and Jane Austen—both of whom write about class distinctions. You do in Harry Potter, too. Was that a conscious decision?
JKR: Well, a German journalist said to me, 'There's a lot about money in the Harry Potter books.' And I had never really thought about that before. But kids are acutely aware of money—before they're aware of class. A kid isn't really going to notice how another kid holds his knife and fork. But a kid will be acutely aware that he doesn't have pocket money. Or that he doesn't have as much pocket money. I think back to myself at 11. Kids can be mean, very mean. So it was there in Ron not having the proper length robes, you know? And not being able to buy stuff on the trolley. He's got to have sandwiches his mom made for him, even though he doesn't like the sandwiches. Having enough money to fit in is an important facet of life—and what is more conformist than a school?
O: I think one reason your books are so popular is that they're not sanitized. They're very real.
JKR: I think so. I hope so. The funny thing is, I have people saying to me, 'Oh, so you're an apologist for boarding schools?' No! See, you laugh. In America, people laugh. In Britain, it's a big deal. In Britain, it's, 'Aha! So which boarding school did you go to?' I didn't go to boarding school. Harry Potter has to be set in a boarding school for reasons of plot. How would it be interesting if the characters couldn't get up at night and wander around? You're going to have them go to a day school and trot home, and then break into school every night? And then you have people who think the books are too dark, too scary. After The Chamber of Secrets was published, this grandmother wrote to me and said, 'I was appalled to see you encouraging joyriding.' It was like, 'Okay, hello?!' I read the letter, and for a moment I thought, 'Where did I say joyriding was good?' And then I realized, it's a very, very literal approach to things. Harry steals a car, so it's good to steal cars—no! I didn't say that.
O: Your books create a believable world in that everybody isn't wonderful all the time. The characters aren't examples for how all children should behave.
JKR: What we forget is that kids lead this whole hidden life, however close they are to their parents. I'm aware of this with my 7 year old daughter. I don't find it constantly, but I know it's the reality. It's the slow process of separation—and slightly underground. I have to be aware that my daughter is leading this kid life I cannot share. And that's part of the books. Harry's in a unique position because he has no living parents. So for him, all life is kid life. Ron and Hermione go back to a safe place. Harry hasn't got a safe place. In fact, he finds his safe place in the scary place.
O: With so much on your plate, when do you find time to read?
JKR: I never need to find time to read. When people say to me, 'Oh, yeah, I love reading. I would love to read, but I just don't have time,' I'm thinking, 'How can you not have time?' I read when I'm drying my hair. I read in the bath. I read when I'm sitting in the bathroom. Pretty much anywhere I can do the job one-handed, I read.