Even by Wizarding World standards, this one is bizarre. Rumours were recently circulating that J.K. Rowling was collaborating on, or even writing, a book called What’s Left of the Jungle Book, based on the exploits of a guide at a West Bengal tiger reserve in India. It turns out the rumour was the result of a chain of misunderstandings, mistranslations and over-eager speculation between a group of students, the reserve guide and a potential publisher. J.K. Rowling has not arranged to meet the guide in California, has never visited the Buxa Tiger Reserve, and has no plans to base any work – fact or fiction – on this subject.
There has been some press misreporting recently that J.K. Rowling is about to publish four more Harry Potter stories. Just to clear this up, these are not books written by J.K. Rowling.
It is a series of four short non-fiction eBooks, to be published by Pottermore Publishing, inspired by the British Library exhibition and its companion books Harry Potter: A History of Magic.
The A Journey Through… series of eBooks contains no new material by J.K. Rowling and are bite size e-reads, each themed by Hogwarts lessons, with material adapted from the companion audiobook narrated by Natalie Dormer. They have been published in this format to make the content available in other languages for the first time.
For more information about these eBooks, go to Pottermore.com.
Q. Do you have tips for others trying to write?
A: I have to say that I can’t stand lists of ‘must do’s’, whether in life or in writing. Something rebels in me when I’m told what I have to do before I’m fifty, or have to buy this season, or have to write if I want to be a success.
Ten Habits All Best-Selling Writers Have In Common. These Five Tips Will Transform Your Writing! Follow J.K. Rowling’s Golden Rules For Success!
I haven’t got ten rules that guarantee success, although I promise I’d share them if I did. The truth is that I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children’s books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words.
So forget the ‘must do’s’ and concentrate on the ‘you probably won’t get far withouts’, which are:
This is especially for younger writers. You can’t be a good writer without being a devoted reader. Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.
Moments of pure inspiration are glorious, but most of a writer’s life is, to adapt the old cliché, about perspiration rather than inspiration. Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.
Resilience and humility
These go hand-in-hand, because rejection and criticism are part of a writer’s life. Informed feedback is useful and necessary, but some of the greatest writers were rejected multiple times. Being able to pick yourself up and keep going is invaluable if you’re to survive your work being publicly assessed. The harshest critic is often inside your own head. These days I can usually calm that particular critic down by feeding her a biscuit and giving her a break, although in the early days I sometimes had to take a week off before she’d take a more kindly view of the work in progress. Part of the reason there were seven years between having the idea for Philosopher’s Stone and getting it published, was that I kept putting the manuscript away for months at a time, convinced it was rubbish.
Fear of failure is the saddest reason on earth not to do what you were meant to do. I finally found the courage to start submitting my first book to agents and publishers at a time when I felt a conspicuous failure. Only then did I decide that I was going to try this one thing that I always suspected I could do, and, if it didn’t work out, well, I’d faced worse and survived.
Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be the person who actually finished the project you’re dreaming about, rather than the one who talks about ‘always having wanted to’?
By this, I mean resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.
I often recommend a website called Writer Beware (https://accrispin.blogspot.com) to new and aspiring writers. It’s a fantastic resource for anyone who’s trying to decide what might be useful, what’s worth paying for and what should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, there are all kinds of scams out there that didn’t exist when I started out, especially online.
Ultimately, in writing as in life, your job is to do the best you can, improving your own inherent limitations where possible, learning as much as you can and accepting that perfect works of art are only slightly less rare than perfect human beings. I’ve often taken comfort from Robert Benchley’s words: ‘It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up, because by that time I was too famous.’
Q. What do you love most about the writing life?
A: I can’t answer this without sounding melodramatic. The truth is that I can’t really separate a ‘writing life’ from ‘life.’ It’s more of a need than a love. I suppose I must spend most of my conscious life in fictional worlds, which some people may find sad, as though there must be something lacking in my external life. There really isn’t! I’m a happy person, by and large, with a family I adore and quite a few activities I enjoy. It’s just that I have other worlds in my head that I often slip in and out of and I don’t really know how it would feel to live any other way.
Q. What does it feel like having your work scrutinised?
A: Having your work scrutinised is an inevitable concomitant of being a professional writer. I never dreamed that there would be a fandom the size of Harry Potter’s picking over the books. It’s staggering and wonderful. Given that I’m fairly obsessive myself, these are kindred spirits.
I could have spent literally every hour of every day discussing Potter characters, plot twists and theories with fans over the last ten years, but as I want to work on new things, I don’t give in to this temptation that frequently.
I miss the days when readings and events were slightly more low key. I’m not complaining, but when audiences grow big you obviously can’t reach everyone who wants to ask you a question. Being able to engage with people on Twitter goes some way to solving this for me. It’s astounding that people are still so interested in those books, and I doubt I’ll ever stop interacting as long as there are readers who know the world so well.
I’m in a new phase with the fandom right now, because I’m working within the wizarding world again, on Fantastic Beasts. Once again, I’m balancing wanting to interact with fans, with not being able to answer certain questions fully, because we’re only two films into a five film series. It’s a nice problem to have, though.
1. How do you manage two very different fictional worlds (Cormoran Strike and the Wizarding World) and two very different formats (books and screenplays)?
I’ve never had any problem moving between fictional worlds, even if I’m working on them simultaneously. There can be a lot of hanging around waiting for notes on the draft of a movie script, so I like to have a novel on the go in the background.
I envision the different fictional worlds as different rooms to which I have access. At worst, when entering one of the rooms, I have to spend a bit of time re-orientating myself, finding my bearings again, checking what I’ve put in which drawers. However, they’re discrete places in my head, and the moment I re-enter one of the worlds, the characters are as fully real to me as when I left them. Cormoran Strike has never reached for a magic wand, and Newt Scamander doesn’t limp or drink Doom Bar.
The difference between screenplays and novels is more challenging. It isn’t that one is intrinsically easier than the other, but that I’m far less used to writing the former, whereas novels and I are old friends.
2. What comes first, plot or character?
I’m most interested in character, but plot usually comes first. I need to know the broad outline of the story before I start hatching characters. Having said that, a couple of stories have grown out of a single character. Character can be plot.
3. How do you come up with titles and how important are they?
Titles usually suggest themselves, but coming up with them always make me nervous. I think they’re quite important, which adds pressure. I have no idea what the third Beasts movie will be called, even though I already know the whole story. On the other hand, I already know the titles of the fifth Galbraith book and the children’s story I’m writing next.
4. Does the process of making film and TV put pressure on you to write faster, and do audiences’ reactions influence where you go with plot and how you develop characters?
Fan reactions to Harry Potter were both exhilarating and overwhelming, often at the same time. I saw it as my job back then to make sure that I arrived at the ending I had planned for the series before the first book was even published. The final destination was hugely important to me, for reasons that were both personal and artistic, and I plotted a course towards it despite being subjected to a lot of (almost entirely good-natured) buffeting from readers. Part of the fun of a series is the way people invest in the relationships from book to book (or film to film), and I love the fact that people have strong opinions on what should happen next. On the other hand, I never set pen to paper without knowing way more than will eventually appear on the page or screen, and I usually have a fairly strong idea of where I’m going, that won’t change.
In the case of the Beasts movies, I’m writing original screenplays, so there’s a practical need for the work to be done by a specific date so that filming can commence on time.
Where the Cormoran Strike novels are concerned, and even though I love the TV adaptations, I still finish the novel when it’s ready, no sooner! When I agreed to the books being adapted for TV I made it clear that the books would come as and when Robert Galbraith chose. Luckily, he loves writing them, so we should hopefully be seeing Strike on TV for some time to come.
5. Why choose Twitter rather than a well-placed press article or interview to make your opinions known?
Well, firstly that assumes that my main objective in tweeting is to ‘make my opinions known’ rather than what I think most people’s reason is for being on Twitter, which is to engage with other people, to debate and joke. I think for a lot of well-known people, it’s a bracing dose of normality. Nobody’s shy about telling you you’re an idiot. Twitter’s a great leveller. It isn’t for everyone, but nearly all the writers I know love it, because they’re in their own medium.
There’s a time and a place for a press article, but tweeting is something that happens for me on writing breaks. At its best, it’s fun and fascinating. People in all their diversity and strangeness interest me more than anything else on the planet, and Twitter is as good a place as I’ve ever found for seeing human nature in the raw!
Q: Do you create as much detail beyond what we see in the Fantastic Beasts films as you did for the Harry Potter books?
A: Warner Bros had optioned the rights to the Fantastic Beasts years previously, so I knew that it might one day become a movie, but the only discussions we’d ever had about it were quite vague. I do remember thinking that if anything ever came of it, I’d have to make sure they got Newt Scamander right, because even though he never appeared except as a name within the Potter books, I knew a lot about him. He’d captured my imagination while I was writing his little book. I envisioned a doggedly different, awkward man who was at a loss with humans but phenomenally skilled with beasts.
As for Dumbledore and Grindelwald, I knew a huge amount more than ever appeared in the books, and this is my chance to show/tell some of it. Of course, in a film, one is revealing a story in a very different way than one does in a novel. Sometimes a single look does the job of three paragraphs. As readers of the original books will know, the pair of them don’t meet for a long time between their teenage interactions and their epoch-making confrontation in 1945. Nevertheless, we’ll be exploring their backstory in the films.
Q: What kinds of ‘beasts’ are we dealing with here – human or animal?
A: The idea of beasts works on several different levels within the movies. There’s the literal sense of non-human creatures: some of them cute, some of them terrifying, some simply strange. Then there is the metaphorical sense of the beast inside a man, the crude emotions that a manipulative genius like Grindelwald knows how to stoke and use. We’re also dealing with the idea of beastly people: that some humans are something less than human. Even where there is great charisma and intelligence, there may be an utter lack of conscience. Finally, I’m exploring the idea of creating beasts, which is to say, othering or dehumanising our fellow people, as the first step towards cruelty or extermination.
So through this beastly landscape walk our original four characters, led by the shambling figure of Newt Scamander, who loves the purity of creatures that the world might call monsters. The human world around Newt and his friends is becoming darker and more complex, and the original hunt for escaped creatures will become a hunt for something much more elusive and difficult: a return to humanity.
1. What are you writing right now?
I’ve just finished the fourth Galbraith novel, Lethal White, and I’m now writing the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts 3. After that I’ll be writing another book for children. I’ve been playing with the (non-Harry Potter/wizarding world) story for about six years, so it’s about time I get it down on paper.
2. What is a typical writing day?
I try to start work before 9am. My writing room is probably my favourite place in the world. It’s in the garden, about a minute’s walk from the house. There’s a central room where I work, a kettle, a sink and a cupboard-sized bathroom. The radio is usually tuned to classical music, because I find human voices the most distracting when I’m working, although a background buzz, as in a café, is always comforting. I used to love writing in cafés and gave it up reluctantly, but part of the point of being alone in a crowd was being happily anonymous and free to people-watch, and when you’re the one being watched, you become too self-conscious to work.
The earlier in the day I start, the more productive I am. In the last year or two I’ve put in a couple of all-nighters on the screenplays for Fantastic Beasts, but otherwise I try and keep my writing to the daytime. If I’ve started around nine, I can usually work through to about 3pm before I need more than a short break. During this writing time, I generally manage to drink eight or nine mugs of tea. Being incredibly clumsy, prefer eating things that won’t ruin the keyboard when dropped. Popcorn’s ideal.
3. You have collaborated on several projects. How does that work?
By nature I’m quite solitary, so novels and I suit each other perfectly, but the collaborations I’ve been involved in have been pure joy, mainly because of the people involved.
For ten years I said no to proposals to adapt Harry for the stage, usually as a musical, and using the existing books. So when I met producers Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender, I wasn’t sure what I was going to hear. I only knew that they wanted to do something new, which was intriguing, because I had no desire to go endlessly back over old ground.
I couldn’t have asked for better collaborators on the stage play than John Tiffany (director) and Jack Thorne (writer). Incredibly, John and I knew each to say hello to years ago, when I used to write in the café at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. When we met for the first time about Cursed Child, I stared at him, thinking, he looks so familiar, where have I met him? And he told me, and the whole thing felt oddly fated.
I told John and Jack what I thought had happened to Harry, Ron and Hermione in later years, explained how focused I was on Harry’s son Albus, who’d been given the burden of not one, but three legendary names, and together we created the story that Jack wrote.
I have so many wonderful memories of the earliest rehearsals, of seeing the costumes and illusions for the first time, but what I remember most fondly about the three of us working together is the laughter. I loved the process from beginning to end.
I particularly remember the first full dress rehearsal I watched. By this time I knew the script backwards, had heard it read all the way through and watched individual scenes acted, but nothing prepared me for seeing it in its entirety, in the theatre. I found it incredibly moving and it brought back a tsunami of memories about the seventeen years I spent creating the characters and writing the Harry Potter books. John and Jack did a superb job. Very few people have come inside the world with me and it creates a particular bond.
The big difference between theatre and movies for me is scale. When I go down to WB Studios Leavesden and see a thousand people at work on Fantastic Beasts, building sets, making costumes, doing digital effects, making models and props and all the hundreds of other things that go into making a movie, it can feel utterly overwhelming. Terrifying thoughts run through your mind, such as, I must not break an arm, because all these people’s jobs depend on me getting the screenplay finished.
However, at the heart of the process is a very similar collaboration to the one I had on Cursed Child, this time with David Yates, the director, and Steve Kloves, who was the writer on seven of the eight Potter films and is a producer on Beasts.
In spite of the fact that I’d watched Steve close up for all those years, I found screenwriting utterly different from novel writing and very challenging at first. Basically, I learned how to write a screenplay as I went along, knowing that the movie was definitely going to be made, which is, to say the least, atypical. Steve gives great, pithy notes. The one that made me laugh longest was when I had a character in a cut scene in an early draft say, ‘They’re children!’. He said, ‘Yeah, unless we’ve got the casting badly wrong, that’ll probably be obvious.’
David knows the world of Potter intimately now, after directing four of the eight original movies. I love working with him. I learn a lot just listening to him talk about images. Even though I have a highly visual imagination, I’ve had to learn just how much can be said onscreen without a word, and David and Steve have taught me that.
The thing with movies is, however frustrated you get with the screenwriting process, and right at the moment when you think ‘never again, this is too hard’, you go down to the film set and join in with one big glorious game of pretend, with the world’s best pretenders saying your words, and dressing out of the most fabulous dressing up box, and what with the lights and the smoke and the music you’re suddenly in love with the process all over again.
4. What exactly is your role as producer? How much say do you have in the look and feel of the films?
Warner Bros and David Yates, the director, have always let me have my say, though not necessarily the final word. That’s true of all the producers, of whom I’m only one: our input is taken seriously but it is very much a collaborative effort. The director is ultimately responsible for everything that’s seen on the screen. As the screenwriter, the majority of my input comes at an earlier stage.
5. Do you write for readers or for yourself?
This is a tricky question in some ways, because a writer who truly only wrote for themselves probably wouldn’t try and get published. At the same time, I agree with Cyril Connolly’s words: ‘Better to write for yourself and have no public, than write for the public and have no self.’
I certainly write ‘for myself’ in the sense that I have to write. It’s almost a compulsion. I need to do it. I don’t feel like myself if I’m not writing regularly, and I feel restless and odd if I have nothing to write, which these days is never, because I’ve got so many different projects on the go, by choice. I also write for myself in that I need to feel excited about a story to want to capture it on paper. I’m afraid I couldn’t write anything just because I knew people wanted it. The impetus always has to come from within.
On the other hand, no story lives unless someone is prepared to listen. As a writer, your highest aspiration is to touch people, to connect, to amuse or console. What could be more wonderful than hearing that your book helped somebody through a tough time? I think of the times when books have been my best consolation and source of strength, and I’m proud beyond words when I hear that anything I wrote did the same for other people.
I have one simple rule when I block people on Twitter, which I do very rarely. I block when my personal line has been crossed in terms of aggressive or insulting language.
Some recent publicity was given to the fact that I blocked a fan on Twitter. Contrary to the fan in question’s assertion, they were not blocked because they asked a question about Johnny Depp playing Grindelwald.
I saw several of this particular individual’s tweets by chance, and they were saying things to and about me, and about somebody with whom I work closely, that crossed the line of what I’m prepared to accept. The question about Grindelwald was not one of those tweets and I didn’t see it until the person in question began claiming that that was why they had been blocked.
Twitter has given me back a way of talking to readers directly and allows me a profound connection with a fandom that is, in the main, kind, tolerant and friendly. However, I have a duty towards my own mental health and happiness, too. The block button, is a useful last resort at times when somebody either forgets, or perhaps doesn’t care, that they are talking to a fellow human being.
When Johnny Depp was cast as Grindelwald, I thought he’d be wonderful in the role. However, around the time of filming his cameo in the first movie, stories had appeared in the press that deeply concerned me and everyone most closely involved in the franchise.
Harry Potter fans had legitimate questions and concerns about our choice to continue with Johnny Depp in the role. As David Yates, long-time Potter director, has already said, we naturally considered the possibility of recasting. I understand why some have been confused and angry about why that didn’t happen.
The huge, mutually supportive community that has grown up around Harry Potter is one of the greatest joys of my life. For me personally, the inability to speak openly to fans about this issue has been difficult, frustrating and at times painful. However, the agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people, both of whom have expressed a desire to get on with their lives, must be respected. Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.
I’ve loved writing the first two screenplays and I can’t wait for fans to see ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’. I accept that there will be those who are not satisfied with our choice of actor in the title role. However, conscience isn’t governable by committee. Within the fictional world and outside it, we all have to do what we believe to be the right thing.
Welcome to the first bit of rubbish in my wastepaper basket…
A rumour has made its way all the way into the press that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will be made into a film – and not just one film! A trilogy, with Dan, Emma and Rupert returning to their original roles, to be released in 2026.
I have no idea how these stories emerge, but to set the record straight once and for all: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a stage play, it was conceived and written as a stage play, it was always intended to be a stage play and nothing else, and there are absolutely no plans for it to become a movie, a novel, a puppet show, a cartoon, a comic book series or Cursed Child on Ice.
In September 2016, J.K. Rowling was invited to be a guest listener on Ruth & Martin’s Album Club, in which special guests review an album they have never heard before.
I’m not quite sure how the Violent Femmes passed me by. I turned 18 the year this album came out, but I was obsessed with The Beatles at the time. Of contemporary bands I really loved, the standouts were the Smiths and the Psychedelic Furs. I loved any band with a great guitarist. I played guitar myself, mostly alone in my bedroom.
It’s possible that I heard the Violent Femmes but I’ve forgotten. They could easily have been part of the informal seminars on alternative music I received from the muso I dated in my late teens. His parents were Dutch and we hung out mostly at his house, because we were allowed to smoke in his attic bedroom. I’ve got happy memories of sunlit wooden rafters and smoke rings and walls covered in black and white pictures he’d clipped out of NME, while the Dead Kennedys, Jah Wobble or the Birthday Party blasted out of the speakers. Setting aside the fact that I had a pair of very long-lived goldfish named after Guggi and Gavin of the Virgin Prunes, I never became a whole-hearted convert of his favourite bands. Much as I adored him, I didn’t share Muso Boyfriend’s attitude to music: his scorn for the accessible and tuneful, the baffling mixture of irony and obsession with which he regarded his favourites, and his conviction that if the herd hates something, it’s almost certainly brilliant.
The NME was Muso Boyfriend’s bible and it took a hard line on nearly anything commercial or popular, talking about bands in the top ten with the kind of contempt most people reserve for child abusers. A few real Gods could be forgiven commercial success, obviously: people like Bowie or the Stones, but the likes of Nik Kershaw might as well have been Thatcher herself as far as NME were concerned
When the Stranglers released ‘Feline’ and it went to number 4 in the album charts, an NME journo went into meltdown, ranting about the fact that people who’d never heard ‘Rattus Norvegicus’ were now calling themselves Stranglers fans. You could almost see the flecks of spittle on the page. (I’d bought ‘Feline.’ I didn’t own ‘Rattus Norvegicus.’) And I still vividly remember an NME interview with Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet, a band I never liked, though I admired Gary’s chutzpah in agreeing to talk to them. The interviewer’s disapproval of Gary and everything he stood for reached a glorious peak with the phrase ‘this whorehouse called success.’ I never made much headway arguing about this sort of thing with Muso Boyfriend, though, so after a bit of snogging I’d cycle home and listen to ‘Rubber Soul.’
My first live gig and my first music festival were both with Muso Boyfriend: Big Country at Dingwalls in Bristol, supporting act: John Cooper Clarke, the punk poet. We spent my 18th birthday at the Elephant Fayre in Cornwall, hitching there from South Wales. I’d told my parents some whopping lie about how we were getting there, probably that Muso Boyfriend’s older brother was driving us. Half an hour of unsuccessful hitching later, it suddenly occurred to me that my parents had said they were going shopping later. This meant they might soon be driving past us, so I kept diving for cover every time a Honda Civic came into view.
We finally got a lift, thank God, so I survived to enjoy my birthday at the Elephant Fayre. We pitched the two-person tent by a marquee full of Rastas selling tea and hot knives and saw the Cure, whom Muso Boyfriend was weirdly keen to hear, in spite of the fact that they’d actually been on Top of the Pops. The only other act I remember well from the Elephant Fayre is Benjamin Zephaniah. He did a poem about having the shit kicked out of him by a policeman. Twenty odd years later, I was on a team with him at a kids’ book quiz at the Edinburgh Book Festival.
You’ve now listened to it, at least 3 times, what do you think?
I didn’t Google the band or the album before listening, because that felt like cheating, so I knew virtually nothing about them except that this came out in 1983. When I told my friend Euan which album I was going to review he assured me I’d like it, but his favourite album’s by The Cramps, so that wasn’t entirely reassuring.
Wanting to concentrate, I go outside to my writing room in the garden, which has a wooden ceiling. This, unlikely as it may seem, is relevant information.
So I put on the Violent Femmes and hear a catchy acoustic guitar riff and I think, this is great! I’m going to love them! I’ll get a Violent Femmes T-shirt, buy the entire back catalogue and bore everyone rigid with my new obsession!
But then the vocalist kicks in and I have an immediate, visceral response of ‘no, scratch everything, I hate this.’ The change of mood is so abrupt my mind goes blank. I try to analyse why I moved from appreciation to intense dislike in a matter of seconds, but the best I can do is ‘I’ve heard voices like that before.’
By the time I reach track seven, all I can think about is the Toy Dolls’ cover of Nelly the Elephant. I’m not proud. I know this says more about me than the Violent Femmes.
After I’ve listened to the whole album once, I look down at the place where I was supposed to be making notes and all I’ve written is: ‘his upper register sounds like a bee in a plastic cup,’ which the professional writer in me recognizes as ‘not 500 words’. Feeling glum, I postpone a second listen to the following day.
It’s raining next morning and I can’t be bothered to go and find shoes, so I don’t take the album into the writing room, but stay in the kitchen. With minimal enthusiasm, I put on the album again.
This is weird. The vocalist is actually, um… good. Where did the bloke I heard yesterday go? Now I’m not busy hating him, I notice all the great hooks and how they sometimes sound like a manic skiffle band. There’s a nice bit of bluesy slide guitar and an actual xylophone on ‘Gone Daddy Gone’. Plus, when he half talks, half sings, Gordon Gano (I checked the album credits) sounds a bit Lou Reed, and I love Lou Reed. Apart from being the vocalist, Gano also happens to be the guitarist I fell for yesterday.
I can’t understand why he grated on me so much first time round. Beneath my wooden ceiling, he was the Ur-voice of all those NME-approved punky bands I never liked: nasal, whiny and brash. Today, sitting beside my kettle, he’s raw, catchy and soulful.
Only then, staring into a mug of tea, do I have the little epiphany that you, clever reader, saw coming a mile off. Listening to an album that reeks of 1983, in a room that bears a passing resemblance to that attic of long ago, was a mistake. It wasn’t Gordon Gano who was the problem: it was me. I was listening with a ghostly eighteen year old ex-boyfriend at my shoulder, and behind him, a chorus of snarling early eighties NME journalists, all ready to jeer, because even if I like the Violent Femmes, I’ll like them in the wrong way.
So the sun came out and I took the Violent Femmes back across the wet lawn into the writing room, telling myself that it’s not 1983 any more, and this is between me and the Violent Femmes, nobody else. On the third listen, I realized that I loved the album. Before I knew it, I was listening to it over and over again. Only then did I let myself look at their Wikipedia page.
The Violent Femmes, I read, were ‘one of the most successful alternative rock bands of the 1980s, selling over 9 million albums by 2005.’ Yes, the Violent Femmes ended up in that whorehouse called success, and you know what? It only makes me love them more.
You can read the full review here.
In June 2016, as the UK prepared to vote in a referendum on whether it should leave the European Union, J.K. Rowling wrote a piece for her website. Here it is in full:
On Monsters, Villains and the EU Referendum
J.K. Rowling, 2016
I’m not an expert on much, but I do know how to create a monster.
All enduring fictional bad guys encapsulate primal terrors and share certain traits. Invincible to the point of immortality, they commit atrocities without conscience and cannot be defeated by the ordinary man or by conventional means. Hannibal Lecter, Big Brother, and Lord Voldemort: all are simultaneously inhuman and superhuman and that is what frightens us most.
As this country has entered what will come to be seen as one of the most divisive and bitter political campaigns ever waged within its borders, I’ve thought a lot about the rules for creating villains. We are being asked whether we wish to remain part of the European Union and both sides of this campaign have been telling us stories. I don’t mean that in the sense of lying (although lies have certainly been told). I mean that they are appealing to us through our universal need to make sense of the world by storytelling and that they have not been afraid to conjure monsters calculated to stir up our deepest fears.
This is nothing new, of course. All political campaigns tell stories. They cast themselves as our champions, flatter us with tales of who we are or could be, sell us rose-tinted memories of the past and draw frightening pictures of the perils that lie ahead if we pick the wrong heroes. Nevertheless, the tales we have been told during this referendum have been uglier than any I can remember in my lifetime. If anyone has enjoyed this referendum, it can only be those hoping for greater personal power at the end of it.
The Leave campaign’s narrative has descended to this: we are being exploited or cheated by the EU. If we can’t see that Britain will only regain superpower status if we leave the union, we must be unpatriotic, cowardly or part of a corrupt elite.
Remainers have mostly countered, not with an optimistic vision of the union, but with bleak facts: money is pouring out of the country at the prospect of the Brexit and experts in every field think that leaving the EU will be a catastrophic mistake. Be afraid, says Remain, turn back while there’s still time: you are hurtling towards a precipice.
However, Remain are finding many ears closed to their grim prognostications. The economic crash of 2008 left a pervasive feeling in its wake that financial institutions are not to be trusted. ‘The establishment’ has become a term of blanket abuse. We live in a cynical and insecure age. Trust in disinterested sources has been shaken, while popular culture glorifies the hunch and the gut feeling. In America, they call this ‘post-truth politics’. Forget the facts, feel the fury.
The ‘Leave’ campaign is benefiting from our widespread cynicism and, unsurprisingly, fanning it. ‘People in this country have had enough of experts,’ Michael Gove declared recently on television. So what if the Financial Times, the markets and the heads of the Bank of England and the International Monetary Fund agree that Brexit will do severe damage to the economy? They’re just scaremongering, says Gove. Leaders of both campaigns want us frightened only by monsters of their choosing.
For some on the Leave side, the EU is not merely imperfect, or in need of improvement: it is villainous. The union that was born out of a collective desire never to see another war in Europe is depicted as an Orwellian monolith, Big Brotheresque in its desire for control.
Widespread confusion about what the EU does and does not do has been helpful to Leave. The results of a recent IPSOS/Mori poll reveal the depth of our ignorance. We dramatically underestimate the amount of international investment we receive from the EU, while grossly overestimating how many laws it makes, how much it spends on administration and the number of EU immigrants in this country. In some cases our guesses were out by factors of ten.
Immigrants, of course, have been at the centre of some of the nastiest arguments of this campaign. Reasoned discussion has proven nigh on impossible. Remainers insist that we retain border control and that we need immigration, not least because so many of our medical staff running the NHS come from abroad. They insist that our defensive capability and our anti-terrorist strategies are enhanced by membership of the EU. Their arguments have proven only partially successful, because Leave has been busy threatening us with another montster: a tsunami of faceless foreigners heading for our shores, among them rapists and terrorists.
It is dishonourable to suggest, as many have, that Leavers are all racists and bigots: they aren’t and it is shameful to suggest that they are. Nevertheless, it is equally nonsensical to pretend that racists and bigots aren’t flocking to the ‘Leave’ cause, or that they aren’t, in some instances, directing it. For some of us, that fact alone is enough to give us pause. The picture of Nigel Farage standing in front of a poster showing a winding line of Syrian refugees captioned ‘Breaking Point’ is, as countless people have already pointed out, an almost exact duplicate of propaganda used by the Nazis.
Nationalism is on the march across the Western world, feeding upon the terrors it seeks to inflame. Every nationalist will tell you that their nationalism is different, a natural, benign response to their country’s own particular needs and challenges, nothing to do with that nationalism of yore that ended up killing people, yet every academic study of nationalism has revealed the same key features. Your country is the greatest in the world, the nationalist cries, and anyone who isn’t chanting that is a traitor! Drape yourself in the flag: doesn’t that make you feel bigger and more powerful? Finding the present scary? We’ve got a golden past to sell you, a mythical age that will dawn again once we’ve got rid of the Mexicans/left the EU/annexed Ukraine! Now place your trust in our simplistic slogans and enjoy your rage aginst the Other!
Look towards the Republican Party in America and shudder. ‘Make America Great Again!’ cries a man who is fascist in all but name. His stubby fingers are currently within horrifyingly close reach of America’s nuclear codes. He achieved this pre-eminence by proposing crude, unworkable solutions to complex threats. Terrorism? ‘Ban all Muslims!’ Immigration? ‘Build a wall!’ He has the temperament of an unstable nightclub bouncer, jeers at violence when it breaks out at his rallies and wears his disdain for women and minorities with pride. God help America. God help us all.
Donald Trump supports the break up of the EU. The inheritor of a family fortune, he has never needed to cooperate or collaborate and he appears incapable of understanding complexity or nuance. Of foreign leaders or would-be leaders, Trump is joined only by Vladimir Putin and Marine le Pen in urging Brexit upon the UK. Other than those three, there is no major political leader who isn’t begging Britain to stay put, for the political and economic stability of Europe and the wider world.
I’m the mongrel product of this European continent and I’m an internationalist. I was raised by a Francophile mother whose family was proud of their part-French heritage. My French ancestors lived in the troubled province of Alsace, which spent hundreds of years being
alternately annexed by Germany and France. I’ve lived in France and Portugal and I’ve studied French and German. I love having these mulitple allegiances and cultural associations. They make me stronger, not weaker. I glory in association with the cultures of my fellow Europeans. My values are not contained or proscribed by borders. The absence of a visa when I cross the channel has symbolic value to me. I might not be in my house, but I’m still in my hometown.
The ‘Leave’ campaign is selling itself as the courageous option. Take a leap of faith, they say. Step off the cliff and let the flag catch you! With the arrogance of a bunch of mini- Trumps they swear that everything will be glorious as long as we disregard the experts and listen to them. Embrace the rage and trust your guts, which Nigel Farage undoubtedly hopes contain a suspicion of brown people, an unthinking jingoism and an indifference to the warnings of history.
For many of our countrymen, I suspect a ‘Leave’ vote will be a simple howl of frustration, a giant two fingers to the spectres that haunt our imaginations, against terrorism that seems almost supernatural in its ability to hit us in our most vulnerable places, against huge corporations who refuse to meet their basic moral obligations, against bureaucracy we are afraid will strangle us, against shadowy elites we are told are working to do us down. How easy to project all of this onto the EU, how satisfying to turn this referendum into a protest against everything about modern life that scares us, whether rationally or not.
Yet how can a retreat into selfish and insecure individualism be the right response when Europe faces genuine threats, when the bonds that tie us are so powerful, when we have come so far together? How can we hope to conquer the enormous challenges of terrorism and climate change without cooperation and collaboration?
No, I don’t think the EU’s perfect. Which human union couldn’t use improvement? From friendships, marriages, families and workplaces, all the way up to political parties, governments and cultural economic unions, there will be flaws and disagreements. Because we’re human. Because we’re imperfect. So why bother building these ambitious alliances and communities? Because they protect and empower us, because they enable bigger and better achievements than we can manage alone. We should be proud of our enduring desire to join together, seeking better, safer, fairer lives, for ourselves and for millions of others.
The research demonstrates that we don’t know what we’ve got. Ignorant of what it gives us, we take the benefits of EU membership for granted. In a few days’ time, we’ll have to decide which monsters we believe are real and which illusory. Everything is going to come down to whose story we like best, but at the moment we vote, we stop being readers and become authors. The ending of this story, whether happy or not, will be written by us.
On Monday 24th April 2014, J.K. Rowling was the first of five guest editors on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour Takeover week. You can listen to the programme here.
Before you read the following, please be warned that it’s probably of interest only to people who live in Scotland or the UK (and not all of them!) If you read on regardless, you need to know that there is going to be a referendum on 18th September on whether or not Scotland should leave the United Kingdom. If you’re only vaguely interested, or pressed for time, there’s a mention of Death Eaters in paragraph 5.
I came to the question of independence with an open mind and an awareness of the seriousness of what we are being asked to decide. This is not a general election, after which we can curse the result, bide our time and hope to get a better result in four years. Whatever Scotland decides, we will probably find ourselves justifying our choice to our grandchildren. I wanted to write this because I always prefer to explain in my own words why I am supporting a cause and it will be made public shortly that I’ve made a substantial donation to the Better Together Campaign, which advocates keeping Scotland part of the United Kingdom.
As everyone living in Scotland will know, we are currently being bombarded with contradictory figures and forecasts/warnings of catastrophe/promises of Utopia as the referendum approaches and I expect we will shortly be enjoying (for want of a better word) wall-to-wall coverage.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I am friendly with individuals involved with both the Better Together Campaign and the Yes Campaign, so I know that there are intelligent, thoughtful people on both sides of this question. Indeed, I believe that intelligent, thoughtful people predominate.
However, I also know that there is a fringe of nationalists who like to demonise anyone who is not blindly and unquestionably pro-independence and I suspect, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve lived in Scotland for twenty-one years and plan to remain here for the rest of my life, that they might judge me ‘insufficiently Scottish’ to have a valid view. It is true that I was born in the West Country and grew up on the Welsh border and while I have Scottish blood on my mother’s side, I also have English, French and Flemish ancestry. However, when people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste. By residence, marriage, and out of gratitude for what this country has given me, my allegiance is wholly to Scotland and it is in that spirit that I have been listening to the months of arguments and counter-arguments.
On the one hand, the Yes campaign promises a fairer, greener, richer and more equal society if Scotland leaves the UK, and that sounds highly appealing. I’m no fan of the current Westminster government and I couldn’t be happier that devolution has protected us from what is being done to health and education south of the border. I’m also frequently irritated by a London-centric media that can be careless and dismissive in its treatment of Scotland. On the other hand, I’m mindful of the fact that when RBS needed to be bailed out, membership of the union saved us from economic catastrophe and I worry about whether North Sea oil can, as we are told by the ‘Yes’ campaign, sustain and even improve Scotland’s standard of living.
Some of the most pro-independence people I know think that Scotland need not be afraid of going it alone, because it will excel no matter what. This romantic outlook strikes a chord with me, because I happen to think that this country is exceptional, too. Scotland has punched above its weight in just about every field of endeavour you care to mention, pouring out world-class scientists, statesmen, economists, philanthropists, sportsmen, writers, musicians and indeed Westminster Prime Ministers in quantities you would expect from a far larger country.
My hesitance at embracing independence has nothing to do with lack of belief in Scotland’s remarkable people or its achievements. The simple truth is that Scotland is subject to the same twenty-first century pressures as the rest of the world. It must compete in the same global markets, defend itself from the same threats and navigate what still feels like a fragile economic recovery. The more I listen to the Yes campaign, the more I worry about its minimisation and even denial of risks. Whenever the big issues are raised – our heavy reliance on oil revenue if we become independent, what currency we’ll use, whether we’ll get back into the EU – reasonable questions are drowned out by accusations of ‘scaremongering.’ Meanwhile, dramatically differing figures and predictions are being slapped in front of us by both campaigns, so that it becomes difficult to know what to believe.
I doubt I’m alone in trying to find as much impartial and non-partisan information as I can, especially regarding the economy. Of course, some will say that worrying about our economic prospects is poor-spirited, because those people take the view ‘I’ll be skint if I want to and Westminster can’t tell me otherwise’. I’m afraid that’s a form of ‘patriotism’ that I will never understand. It places higher importance on ‘sticking it’ to David Cameron, who will be long gone before the full consequences of independence are felt, than to looking after your own. It prefers the grand ‘up yours’ gesture to considering what you might be doing to the prospects of future generations.
The more I have read from a variety of independent and unbiased sources, the more I have come to the conclusion that while independence might give us opportunities – any change brings opportunities – it also carries serious risks. The Institute for Fiscal Studies concludes that Alex Salmond has underestimated the long-term impact of our ageing population and the fact that oil and gas reserves are being depleted. This view is also taken by the independent study ‘Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards’ by Iain McLean, Jim Gallagher and Guy Lodge, which says that ‘it would be a foolish Scottish government that planned future public expenditure on the basis of current tax receipts from North Sea oil and gas’.
My fears about the economy extend into an area in which I have a very personal interest: Scottish medical research. Having put a large amount of money into Multiple Sclerosis research here, I was worried to see an open letter from all five of Scotland’s medical schools expressing ‘grave concerns’ that independence could jeopardise what is currently Scotland’s world-class performance in this area. Fourteen professors put their names to this letter, which says that Alex Salmond’s plans for a common research funding area are ‘fraught with difficulty’ and ‘unlikely to come to fruition’. According to the professors who signed the letter, ‘it is highly unlikely that the remaining UK would tolerate a situation in which an independent “competitor” country won more money than it contributed.’ In this area, as in many others, I worry that Alex Salmond’s ambition is outstripping his reach.
I’ve heard it said that ‘we’ve got to leave, because they’ll punish us if we don’t’, but my guess is that if we vote to stay, we will be in the heady position of the spouse who looked like walking out, but decided to give things one last go. All the major political parties are currently wooing us with offers of extra powers, keen to keep Scotland happy so that it does not hold an independence referendum every ten years and cause uncertainty and turmoil all over again. I doubt whether we will ever have been more popular, or in a better position to dictate terms, than if we vote to stay.
If we leave, though, there will be no going back. This separation will not be quick and clean: it will take microsurgery to disentangle three centuries of close interdependence, after which we will have to deal with three bitter neighbours. I doubt that an independent Scotland will be able to bank on its ex-partners’ fond memories of the old relationship once we’ve left. The rest of the UK will have had no say in the biggest change to the Union in centuries, but will suffer the economic consequences. When Alex Salmond tells us that we can keep whatever we’re particularly attached to – be it EU membership, the pound or the Queen, or insists that his preferred arrangements for monetary union or defence will be rubber-stamped by our ex-partners – he is talking about issues that Scotland will need, in every case, to negotiate. In the words of ‘Scotland’s Choices’ ‘Scotland will be very much the smaller partner seeking arrangements from the UK to meet its own needs, and may not be in a very powerful negotiating position.’
If the majority of people in Scotland want independence I truly hope that it is a resounding success. While a few of our fiercer nationalists might like to drive me forcibly over the border after reading this, I’d prefer to stay and contribute to a country that has given me more than I can easily express. It is because I love this country that I want it to thrive. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on 18th September, it will be a historic moment for Scotland. I just hope with all my heart that we never have cause to look back and feel that we made a historically bad mistake.