Or, J.K. Rowling and the Strong Pull of Imaginary Worlds
Most of my friends and family don’t know this, but I’ve been known to traffic with pirates.
About seventeen years ago, I was writing my second (unpublished) novel. In it, there was a minor character, a pirate in a painting, and despite all the intricacies of the book’s plot, despite the depths of the characters and the meaning of it all to me, I kept coming back to that one pirate.
My next — and best — book was about him and his son.
I don’t say “best” because it received critical acclaim, or was published — or even self-published. I don’t think it’s flawless — far from it (hence its not being self-published). The few people who read it liked, or even loved it, but this is hardly what anyone would consider worthy of the adjective “best.” For me, that came from the experience of it — delving into a picaresque world at once strange and so familiar, cliché and particular, frightening and like home. It was fun, in short, to write about these people and the world they lived in, and whenever I needed an escape from my real life, it was thrilling to slip into that one as quickly as one of my main characters would slip into a gentleman’s coat.
Since then, I’ve written other things, but my fiction has rarely felt exactly the same. Between the age of 15 and 22, I was unhindered by just about anything, writing novels out of need and passion. After that book, the novels soon dried up. I’ve created countless (probably mostly bad) poems, and dozens of short stories, some of which I hold close to my heart. But nothing is like my pirate novel. I often still find myself going back to that world in some spare moments, creating stories about other characters inside it, or continuations of stories I started.
It’s one of the things that makes fiction writing, to me, the most spiritual kind of writing. There’s something sacred about creating worlds and characters that come so vividly to life for you, and that were inside you even if you never realized. I always think of the Kerouac quote that puts it so aptly, though he was probably talking about something a bit different:
Your art is the Holy Ghost blowing through your soul.
And that’s why, when I read essays like this one by Eryn Carlson, published in the Boston Globe, entitled “An open letter to J.K. Rowling: Please, just stop”, I can’t help but shake my head.
Like many people, Carlson assumes that Rowling is still writing about Harry Potter and his world, or approving collaborations or creations inspired by it, to make money, or maybe out of some sort of contractual obligation. But I don’t think that’s the case at all.
Let me be clear: I’m not writing this as a fan of Harry Potter or of J.K. Rowling. I like both just fine. The Harry Potter books have given me many delightful moments over the years, and I was thrilled to visit Platform 9 ¾ in London years ago, and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando more recently. I know what Hogwarts House I’d be sorted into, and am curious about which one I’d belong to at America’s equivalent of Hogwarts, Ilvermorny. But as the fact that I don’t know the latter attests, I don’t belong to official fan website Pottermore. I’m not one of those people who rereads the books or can quote every line of the movies. When I think of the stories I’m excited to share with my son as he grows up, the Harry Potter books are among them, but far from the only ones on the list.
So I’m not writing this because I think Rowling is a saint, her books are the greatest ever written, or anything like that. I’m writing this to defend a fellow fiction writer, and to explain what I think is happening.
I could be wrong — I don’t know Rowling or her contractual obligations personally. But all I can think of is, here is someone who found a story in a time of despair, who built and built upon that world, who created characters she’s seen through for years. It’s hard to imagine she could completely walk away from that — and having millions of fans around the world would make such a thing even harder.
So when you think “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (which I haven’t read or even bought yet — I’ll probably wait for the craziness to die down and get it from my library in a few months), or the movie adaptation of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” are pure money grabs on the part of Rowling, think again. Sure, I may be wrong, but it doesn’t really make sense. She hardly seems like she needs more money. But who could leave a place they’ve crafted so intricately, with such warm, loving characters (well, at least on the good guys’ side)? The Harry Potter universe is still growing because of the fans, the investors, and, maybe most of all, because of a writer who’s still under its spell.