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“I do have a tendency to walk on the dark side sometimes…” JK Rowling
JK Rowling is all smiles on the Centaur stage in one of Cheltenham Literature Festival 2012's main attractions.
It's fourteen years since she was last at the festival. Back then she was promoting the second entry in the Harry Potter series and a lot has changed. For one thing, the sell-out audience today is in the region of a couple of thousand compared to just over a hundred back then.
The other key difference to then is Rowling's almost incomprehensible level of fame, and the atmosphere in the auditorium is at times more akin to a rock concert, or even revival meeting, than an author discussion. The congregation applaud and cheer at Potter references, questions are asked through barely masked tears, and there's an intensity of emotion in the air that at times is rather unnerving to be a part of, let alone to be the individual it is all directed toward.
It's relatively easy to understand then that it isn't easy being JK Rowling. A somewhat diminutive figure on the stage, her responses are always careful, always considered, and resonate far beyond the world of Hogwarts. Which after all is where her future lies.
"We all know that we need to save money, but what will be the cost of allowing a not insignificant proportion of our society to sink?" she asks. The singular pulse of this argument is the core of the novel, which she also revealed had the working title of "Responsible".
The key character, perhaps unsurprisingly, is an adolescent. Krystal however is not Hermione Granger. She's illiterate, promiscuous, ignorant, occasionally violent, and also trying desperately to hold her family together. But Rowling is vehement in her opinion of how the character is to be read, saying "If you don't feel that Krystal's worth saving, then I really don't have anything to say to you as a human being."
There've been glimpses of this side of Rowling in the press over the years. Though now a very rich writer, it is palpable that she is as she says "middle class, I was raised in a very middle class family."
In her novel, "redemption comes from the middle class", and in her obvious admiration for those who give up their time for parish councils, such as the deceased Barry Fairweather, the "casual vacancy" of the title, Rowling can be seen to believe this is a reality of the world we live in. Fame such as hers, though it can be a daunting barrier to a normal life, doesn't negate her life experience and therefore undermine her argument when she is sincere, articulate and ultimately correct in her opinions.
There is an ordinariness to the most famous living writer in the world as she sits and talks about her first snog ("wet") and glimpses of her life at home. Like the children's author Cressida Cowell said in her interview for Waterstones blog, she enjoys getting herself in front of people to prove that she's actually just a person, and there's a sense that Rowling thrives on these rare opportunities. "This has always been my favourite thing to do, to sit in front of readers" she says, and in her interactions with her fans it is very clear that she very much means it.
But, as JK Rowling, it is not enough to have written a powerful first adult novel. "Writing is necessary to me" she says, both as a means to tell the stories she feels she must, and as a way of coping with her depression. "I do have a tendency to walk on the dark side sometimes" she admits, but writing has always, and will always help.
"My youngest child asked me the other day, 'Mummy, if you had to choose between us and writing, what would you choose?' And I said, 'Well I would choose you but I would be very, very grumpy.'"
What is next though? Rowling mentioned she has a couple more adult books in early planning, but there was a ripple of applause from the Potter cult when she confessed, "Probably the next thing I write will be for children..."
Dan Lewis for blog.Waterstones.com, at Cheltenham Literature Festival