Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Guest Post: J.K. Rowling's Writing Process in Her Own Words, part 1

                             (Read part 2 of Shelley's post here.)
I am delighted to welcome to the blog today published writer and theater director Shelley Souza.  I met Shelley recently through SavvyAuthors as a participant in my online class, A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter.  As always when I present this workshop, I learn more than I teach, and Shelley is a perfect example of why.  To help inform her own writing and understanding of craft, Shelley has delved deeply beneath the surface of Jo's work in order to understand the person and the process which produced Harry...thus she is a font of great insight.  Also, having been raised in Britain, Shelley helped me understand much of the cultural background of JKR's work that I had missed.

Shelley is as enthused about JK Rowling's craft as I am, and because she believes the best way to understand Jo's writing process is through her own words, Shelley's spent a huge amount of time researching through old interviews.  The post she has put together for us is a wonderful compilation of what JKR has said throughout the years in various interviews regarding her own writing process.

So now, please join me in welcoming Shelley!

A Peek Into J.K. Rowling's Writing Process in Her Own Words, part 1

As a writer, I am as much drawn to J.K. Rowling as I am to her books. The books came first but my interest in Rowling as a person and as a writer followed very quickly. As a reader, I would love to have read these books when I was young as much as I love reading them today. For one thing, they’re very British. And their inventiveness is legend. But as a writer, what inspires me more than Rowling’s imagination is her intuitive approach to the construction of the plot, and her self-confidence in her ability to tell a story.

I was born and raised in London (and attended boarding school). At first Harry Potter reminded me of one of my favourite series when I was about ten, the St. Clare books, by Enid Blyton. Both stories are set in a boarding school but that’s where the similarity between them ends. In Enid Blyton’s books, girls of a certain class in the forties and fifties attended boarding school. The goal was to train these girls to be morally good and practically efficient, in preparation for becoming a good wife and mother. (Not that I read them to learn how to be a good wife and mother! I liked the St. Clare books primarily for the classroom and midnight antics the girls got up to. And I also liked the teachers, in particular, the headmistress, who was always fair; unlike my teachers and headmistress in real life). Rowling has said the reason the Harry Potter books are set in a boarding school has nothing to do with the British class system.
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?[1]
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Readers readily accept that Hogwarts is a boarding school because Rowling plants the idea in their imagination before they see the school for the first time, along with Harry and his friends. Students arrive at night, after travelling all day on a special train. On their arrival, Professor McGonagall tells the first years that their house will serve as their family during their time at the school. Hogwarts provides a safe environment in which to meet even the most dangerous wizard. In the early books, it would be implausible for Harry to encounter Voldemort away from the protected grounds of Hogwarts. He wouldn't know enough magic to defend himself successfully against the greatest wizard of dark magic in the last fifty years. When a reader accepts the author’s main setting without question, the author has succeeded in laying down the cornerstone of her world in the reader's mind. Rowling's cornerstone is Hogwarts. It stands for the learning of magic; and as such plays a pivotal role in the continuity of the wizarding world.

The credibility of Harry Potter’s world depends on strict rules that govern the internal logic.
I loathe books that have inconsistencies and leave questions unanswered. Loopholes bug the hell out of me. I hate getting to the end of a book and thinking, but if so and so had told Mr. Y. back in chapter three, it need never have happened. And so I try to be meticulous and make sure that everything operates according to laws, however odd, so that everyone understands exactly how and why.[2]
The five years I spent on Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone were spent constructing The Rules. I had to lay down all my parameters. The most important thing to decide when you're creating a fantasy world is what the characters CAN’T do. . . . You can tell with The Simpsons. It's a work of genius. You can tell that they've structured it in such a way that they're never at a loss for what their characters can and can't do. That's why they're so believable - even though they're little yellow people.[3]
My impression of J.K. Rowling is that what you see in Harry Potter is who she is, as a person. Not the magic (which is her imagination) but her logic, morality, themes, and sly sense of humour.

When asked why the wizarding world needs money, she answers:
There is legislation about what you can conjure and what you can't. Something that you conjure out of thin air will not last. This is a rule I set down for myself early on. I love these logical questions![4]
And on whether Harry Potter is a moral tale, she says:
I did not conceive it as a moral tale; the morality sprang naturally out of the story, a subtle but important difference. I think any book that sets out to teach or preach is likely to be hard going at times (though I can think of a couple of exceptions).[5]
One exception might be Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
I know I read Little Women when I was eight, because we moved house shortly afterwards, when I was nine. Naturally, I whole-heartedly identified with Jo March, she of the burning literary ambition and short temper.[6]
Or The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.
The tone is perfect; a seamless mix of the fairy-tale and the real. It also has a plain heroine, which delighted me beyond words as a child, because I was a very plain little girl and I hadn’t met many literary heroines who weren’t breathtakingly pretty. The opening paragraphs of The Little White Horse have stayed with me all my life. Goudge says that there are three kinds of people in this world: Those who find consolation in food, those who find consolation in literature, and those who find consolation in personal adornment.[7]
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (the tale of The Deathly Hallows was inspired by The Pardoner's Tale); and possibly, Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.[8]

I think it is fair to say Dumbledore embodies Rowling’s ideal philosopher.[9]

Finally, though not exhaustively, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels possibly influenced Hermoine’s conscience to fight injustice, just as Mitford's life has influenced Rowling's political beliefs.
Jessica Mitford has been my heroine since I was 14 years old, when I overheard my formidable great-aunt discussing how Mitford had run away at the age of 19 to fight with the Reds in the Spanish Civil War. She was incurably and instinctively rebellious, brave, adventurous, funny and irreverent, she liked nothing better than a good fight, preferably against a pompous and hypocritical target.[10]
Rowling has said she writes for herself and that she writes for herself as a reader. So that even though she is not writing with a particular audience in mind—“I never really imagine a target audience when I'm writing. The ideas come first”[11]—she is writing with a particular reader in mind: herself. When Diane Rehm wanted to understand why children were drawn to the books, Rowling replied:
That's such a very hard question to answer, because...without being disingenuous, I wrote what I wanted to write. And I wrote the sort of thing that I knew I'd like to read *now* as an adult, and I knew that I would have liked to have read it when I was 11.[12]
I didn’t go into it thinking, this is what works; therefore, I will do that. But from letters I get and the reactions I get, particularly from children, it is the characters they care about most. Yes, they are very deeply amused by the magic going on, and so on. But they really deeply care about the characters, particularly the three central characters – Harry, Ron and Hermione.[13]
In a sense, I'm too close to it to be able to see whether there's, you know, a particular thing that draws children in, and in many ways I don't want to analyze it too much, because I'm scared that if I decide that it's factor X that is making children in these numbers like it, I might try a little too hard to put a lot of X in book 4 or 5. And I don't want to do that. I just want to write it the way I'm writing it at the moment, and enjoy writing it, and do it my way, without trying to, you know, work to a formula[14]
Rowling’s decision to introduce the thestrals near the beginning of book five, instead of at the end of book four, reveals her thought process as both reader and writer. Because Rowling writes the idea of a story for herself, first, rather than with a target audience in mind, how she thinks as a reader during the course of her writing greatly influences the choices she makes as a writer:
At the end of Goblet of Fire, we sent Harry home more depressed than he had ever been leaving Hogwarts. Now I knew that the thestrals were coming and I can prove that because they are in the book that I produced for Comic Relief, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. These unlucky black winged horses. However, if Harry had seen them then, and we hadn't explained them then, I thought that would be rather a cheat on the reader in that Harry suddenly sees these monsters but we don't go anywhere with them. So to explain to myself, I said, you had to have seen the death and allowed it to sink in a little bit, before, slowly, these creatures became solid in front of you. So that's how I am going to sneak past that one.[15]
Her compelling cast of characters came to life in her imagination because she never faltered in her belief that Harry Potter was the story she was meant to write.
It took me five years to work out this very long plot. On that train, I came up with lots of the characters you meet at the school. Loads and loads of detail, but not really the narrative. It’s as though, subconsciously, for years, I had been preparing for writing Harry Potter.[16]
During those five years this mass of material was generated, some of which will never find its way into the books, will never need to be in the books. It's just stuff I need to know, for my own pleasure—partly for my own pleasure and partly because I like reading a book where I have a sense that the author knows everything. They might not be telling me everything but you have that confidence that the author really knows everything.[17]
At first glance it appears that there isn't much interpretative thought appended to the quotes I selected. I deliberately structured the post to comprise mainly of Rowling's words, not my interpretation of them, because I learned so much about my process as a writer, simply by reading what Rowling had to say about hers.

-- Shelley Souza

(Read part 2 of Shelley's post here.)

(Check Out JK Rowling's Newest Release -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here!) 


Susan here -- I can't thank Shelley enough for wading through all these interviews and organizing a wonderful peek into Jo's writing process.  Please be sure to join us Thursday for the second half of Shelley's post.  And in the meanwhile, you can get to know Shelley better through her Tumblr blog!

Shelley Souza received a Master of Fine Arts in directing from U.C. Irvine and spent over two decades developing and staging new plays by established and emerging playwrights. She has authored hundreds of articles on new technology (which she loves) and ghostwritten four books of non-fiction for clients of an independent publisher. She is a member of the Authors Guild and SCBWI.