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Listening to JKR - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Listening to JKR
I'm listening, at the moment, to the JKR/Stephen Fry conversation, "Living With Harry."

Interesting stuff. (It keeps stopping on me, so it's taking awhile!)

JKR talks about the kind of dark side of the books, and talks about the sanitizing of children's literature. I think this really explains a lot--there are people going mad trying to include every possible segment of society and contemporary idea, but the reason that HP, I think, comes to the forefront is that it doesn't shy away from diversity of emotion. She's right when she points out that by pretending dark feelings and emotions don't exist, we isolate people who have perfectly normal human feelings, and the isolation really magnifies those things. In other words, Harry's threat to kill Bellatrix after she kills Sirius isn't at all out of the range of normal human behavior, but far too much children's literature would stop him at feeling moderately peeved, the way you might feel if someone didn't show up to give you a coffee break on time. I think this goes a long way toward explaining why HP absolutely demolished the competition. Some of the other stuff I've read recently has included such deep emotional moments as:

1. Girl doesn't want her father to marry a nasty stepmother, so she makes cookies that force the stepmother to tell the truth, which happens to include that she's only after the father's money. Nowhere in this story is there anger at the father, or a desire to hurt the future stepmother (except inasfar as she is hurt by having her engagement broken up). There's no consequence to the girl for baking the cookies, and the only tension is whether or not she can get the stepmother to eat them.

2. Girl fears that her boyfriend is cheating on her and discovers that her parents' marriage broke up because her father is gay. Response to the first? Boyfriend shows up unexpectedly and all is well. Response to the second? "Oh, cool! It's the ultimate fashion accessory, a gay father!" And the mother comes and plays with them as well. Everything is very shiny. (This is a comedy book, I'll grant, but it's still endemic.)

3. Girl must save world--good!--but even when someone dies, her emotions don't engage, and her plot is to be rescued by everyone else. And then, yay, someone who was supposed to be dead turns out not to be! Woo-hoo! Mild nervousness replaces fear, slight fogginess replaces grief, and anger? What's anger? This is the Barney the Dinosaur version of children's and YA lit.

The other thing about the range of emotion on the dark side is that it's a mirror of what's light. If you can't have true horror, you also can't have true joy, because the emotional world is a circle, and it closes by dilating--if you want to lessen one part of it, it lessens the others as well. It's a kind of emotional correctness--I think the rationale is if we don't acknowledge that sometimes, we want to do violence, then naturally we will not find it acceptable to feel violent urges and will not act on them. This kind of thing isn't done by bad people, of course. It's done by conscientioius people trying their best to protect children... but I still think it's misguided. Human nature is what it is. We're all werewolves, and the best stories know that and confront it. But the werewolf isn't a werewolf because of his wolfiness; he's a werewolf because he's also human and is capable of the higher things.

Fry didn't ask her to reveal the ending of course, but he did run by the theory that Harry gives up all his powers to defeat Voldemort and lives as an ordinary Muggle. JKR kind of "EEEEK"ed, and said, "Well, that would be a good ending," which Fry said she could use and she just laughed and said, "Sure, and be sued for plagiarism by thirteen million children."

The interesting thing in that part of the interview for me was that very legitimate fear of being accused of plagiarism if someone has guessed the ending. That's just a terror that I have almost any time I sit down to write something--will someone think I stole that? I think the reason my first NaNo effort, last year, failed was because I knew that I'd initially gotten the idea trying to think through what would happen if Darth Vader hadn't died--how would the galaxy respond to redeemed Vader? I took it out of the SW universe, scratched off serial numbers, and made the character quite different... but I knew. And I couldn't stop knowing.

Now, on the EEEEK. Does that mean she thought it was one of those scarily accurate guesses, or was it just that kind of moment we get when we read a plausible but horrifying idea... "Whoa, that could happen!"? I don't know. From the tone and her offhand mention that if she did that, she'd be accused of plagiarism, my guess is that it's not what she has in mind. If it were, I doubt she'd say, "Hey good idea... can't use it." On the other hand, is it that heart-pounding moment of saying, "Oh, damn! Should I change it?"

Just other stuff:
  • She likens C.S. Lewis's World Between Worlds pools (from The Magician's Nephew) to a library, where you can go from one world to another by opening a book. I like the idea a lot.

  • She doesn't care all that much about any accent except Hagrid's, which she strongly identifies as West Country.

  • She says she was introverted as a child, and books made her feel "not alone" a lot more than friends did. I can identify. (I'm not sure why she puts her introversion in the past, though, especially since in the same interview, she mentions having to unplug after public events and disconnect them from the flow of her life--that's classic introvert behavior.)

  • During the discussion of dark emotions, she mentions that on her first signing trip to America, she saw three shows in a row (around Halloween) about how to explain to children that such-and-such a thing "isn't real." This disturbed her. I like her for being disturbed by this; it's inherently disturbing. I'll write more on this subject myself later.

Meh, that's it. They talked for half an hour, but there just wasn't all that much in terms of new information, unless it was in the gaps in my jump-around playback.
26 comments or Leave a comment
swatkat24 From: swatkat24 Date: December 10th, 2005 04:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, that's interesting! I've never heard of that interview before. I agree with you on the portrayal of emotions in the HP books - I'm not particularly familiar with contemporary YA Lit, but the reason the HP books attract so many of us adults is because of the completely honest portrayal of human emotions in the books.

where you can go from one world to another by opening a book

That's one of the loveliest things that Lewis ever came up with. And quite true too, on the metaphorical level. *g*

thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: December 10th, 2005 04:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
Perhaps she was using introverted to mean shy or reserved. Everyone isn't as much into MB typology as we are :)
disassembly_rsn From: disassembly_rsn Date: December 10th, 2005 04:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
The points you make about emotional depth, even for the darker emotions, are quite interesting.
From: myxginxblossoms Date: December 10th, 2005 05:15 pm (UTC) (Link)
She likens C.S. Lewis's World Between Worlds pools (from The Magician's Nephew) to a library, where you can go from one world to another by opening a book.

That reminds me of The Great Library in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series--it's got all the English-language books in the world, and one can read one's self into the world of any book from there.

Sounds like an interesting interview overall.
snorkackcatcher From: snorkackcatcher Date: December 10th, 2005 05:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hmm, interesting ... I'll have to listen if I can stand it. :) (Radio reception in my flat is appalling, and the sound quality isn't mucb better getting streaming audio over a dialup connection.)

The thing that makes me think the EEK! moment isn't a giveaway is that it's a recorded (and presumably edited) interview, and if Fry really had got the correct ending and received a giveaway reaction, I'd imagine they would have edited it out as a major spoiler. (The idea of giving up powers makes me wonder about Petunia, though, in the light of the 'more to come on her' in an earlier interview -- but maybe it was just that femgenficathon story that makes me think that.)
a_t_rain From: a_t_rain Date: December 10th, 2005 10:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
The thing that makes me think the EEK! moment isn't a giveaway is that it's a recorded (and presumably edited) interview, and if Fry really had got the correct ending and received a giveaway reaction, I'd imagine they would have edited it out as a major spoiler.

Having listened to the interview, I think it sounds like a theatrical gasp rather than a real one, anyway.
From: mrs_bombadil Date: December 10th, 2005 11:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think it sounds like a theatrical gasp rather than a real one, anyway.

I agree. The timing was wrong too...if it were genuine, wouldn't she have done it at the first mention of the theory? Instead, Fry continues talking for several seconds before she answers.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 10th, 2005 11:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, yes... obviously theatrical, but I was wondering what the significance of a theatrical gasp is at that point. "OMGYouGotIt!" or "OMGWTFBBQ?"
a_t_rain From: a_t_rain Date: December 11th, 2005 02:29 am (UTC) (Link)
I took it as a joke more than anything. I'm not sure there is a deeper significance.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 10th, 2005 08:50 pm (UTC) (Link)

Not real

"During the discussion of dark emotions, she mentions that on her first signing trip to America, she saw three shows in a row (around Halloween) about how to explain to children that such-and-such a thing "isn't real." This disturbed her. I like her for being disturbed by this; it's inherently disturbing. I'll write more on this subject myself later."

What an odd thing to feel you have to do to a child! I got quite a bit of criticism the only thing I've had to explain to my daughter wasn't real. She used to be terrified of anyone in a large dress-up suit especially Santa and even at 11 they make her uncomfortable. Shopping centres were a nightmare at Christmas, especially as we'd have Santas waving at her. I had to explain to her that Santa wasn't real and it was just us putting the presents by the tree and there was absolutely no chance of Santa coming into our house. This was when she was just 4 so she immediately told all the other children at pre-school (I forgot to tell her not to). I, of course, then got accused of trying to take the magic of childhood away from her. I've never had to explain that anything else wasn't real (except for the Easter bunny, of course). Nothing she has ever read or watched seems to have confused her.
There seems to be a list of acceptable make-believe and one of non-acceptable make-believe. It's certainly stronger here in Australia than it was in the UK and I can imagine the USA is worse (or better, depending on your point of view) in the USA.

I haven't come across the interview (probably not played here in Oz) so thanks for the commentary..


tamerterra From: tamerterra Date: December 11th, 2005 06:10 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Not real

I myself prefer the term 'doesn't exist here.' I mean, unless it's frightening, what's the harm?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 11th, 2005 06:41 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Not real

Right--I think that's what it boils down to. What on earth is the harm of a kid believing in Hogwarts for awhile? You outgrow it. And adults believe plenty of weird and wacky things (witness urban legends). If it makes the world a little better for a little while, then how is it hurting anyone? Sometimes the kid is scared, and that's a reason, and sometimes the belief is harmful to other people (some racist tropes), but... Harry Potter?
From: mrs_muggle Date: December 10th, 2005 09:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
I thought you'd like the library idea!
eir_de_scania From: eir_de_scania Date: December 10th, 2005 09:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
The thing I like the most about the HP books is that the characters act like real people. No-ome's perfect, but their flaws are understandable. I was surprised to find so many fans thinking they should act more like Role Models for childres. :-O And that JKR should be more Politically Correct.

Not only does PC make books unbelievable boring, the complainers are happily forgetting that what's PC differs to various degrees between countries...
inkpenpaper From: inkpenpaper Date: December 11th, 2005 01:06 am (UTC) (Link)
I have this problem. I get really attached to my characters, and get really upset when they do horrible things, so I don't let them. Unfortunately this cripples them as characters...

It's hard to strike a balance between good person doing horrible things, but still being good.
story645 From: story645 Date: December 11th, 2005 05:18 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm tempted to ask for the titles of all of those books. By chance, have you done a write up on Eragon yet? I can barely get through it, but it's incerdibly hyped, so I'm curious about your opinion.

And the interview sounds cool, and her ideas do go a long way to explaining why the HPverse and has such realistic characters.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 11th, 2005 05:39 am (UTC) (Link)
I haven't read it yet. I know my younger cousin (first, once removed; she's fourteen) likes it, but I can't comment.

The books are:
The Truth Cookie (as one might expect, the one about cookies to make the stepmother tell the truth)
Girl (Nearly) 16: Absolute Torture (Woo-hoo! Gay father fashion accessory!)
Land Of Elyon #2: Beyond The Valley Of Thorns : Beyond The Valley Of Thorns (Pardon me, but could you rescue my heroine again?)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 11th, 2005 05:41 am (UTC) (Link)
(I should point out that Girl really isn't an awful book--it's quite funny in some places and the heroine is kind of okay; it's just very low on the old conflict.)
story645 From: story645 Date: December 11th, 2005 05:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm wondering if it's some mental block against humor dealing roughly with issues. Happens in humor fic all the time too.

And what is it with fantasy names? Why can't they be simple?
njelruch From: njelruch Date: December 11th, 2005 08:42 pm (UTC) (Link)


I didn't have a clue about the first two, but I totally called #3 wrong. I'd have sworn it was Magyk.
(I seem to remember it meeting all of the above requirements, plus having several HP ripoff moments)
digimom57 From: digimom57 Date: December 11th, 2005 05:22 pm (UTC) (Link)


I am so happy to see an adult site talking about Harry Potter. It is an exceptional book to read and does show and express the emotions that a lot of writers are afraid to explore for the fear of offending the tender ears of their readers. I hope to be able to be a part of your community and learn more from your writings.
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 11th, 2005 06:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
This may be just because I'm a mean, cynical person, but I think some of the trend in limiting the emotions in children's books is sometimes self-serving. I saw red over a YA book where a boy wasn't coping too well over his parents' divorce but eventually concludes it's HIS problem. He needs to grow up and mature instead of whining about the changes in his life. The reason it infuriated me was that the divorce had a lot in common with the divorce of the parents of a girl I knew back in junior high. She also thought she shouldn't whine, complain, or act upset over any of the changes in her life, with the end result that she was on the verge of a nervouc breakdown, "forgetting" to eat sometimes for two days running. Stories like this strike me as an adult telling kids they didn't have any right to be hurt by the adults in their lives. And, if they are, it's their problem.

Maybe I'm not saying this well. There's a difference between a situation having an emotional cost and it being something that shouldn't be done. I'm trying to think how to say this without running on for several pages. Look, on a simpler scale, say I'm waiting for a ride that never shows up and wind up walking home for two miles through the rain. I'm mad at the ride. Say I then find out the ride didn't show up because he stopped to save lives at a six car pile up he passed on the way. I realize I'm wrong to be angry. I'm also cold and wet and miserable, and I bet it will still be a while before I stop feeling angry even if I realize I shouldn't be directing it at my friend. Hopefully, I can go off and calm down.

It seems like a lot of kids' stories would 1) have me be the bad guy for being mad before I knew what was going on, 2) have me be the bad guy for not getting over being mad as soon as I knew the situation, or 3) not get in the nitty gritty that how I deal with this feeling - directing it at a person who doesn't deserve it or finding a better way to deal with it - may be the real dividing line between good and bad in this situation.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 11th, 2005 07:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree with a lot of that, actually, and I think the reason the one with gay-dad bugged me was that the girl's parents had been divorced for years and it wasn't a new situation--so not only is she finding out something out that could fundamentally undermine her sense of self ("I was just part of an experimental phase?"), she's also finding out that her parents have hidden things from her and lied for years.

As an adult society, we're pretty enamored of the idea that there should be no trade-offs. If something is good, then it must have no bad consequences, or at least only negligible ones, and anyone who feels the cost is very high must be convinced that it's those feelings that are wrong. And kids get the brunt of it, because they're the ones most likely to get swung around willy-nilly by adults seeking their own pleasures. Books, written by adults, really do seem to have the idea that the kids can't possibly have serious negative feelings, at least not any feelings that might have an impact on what the adults do.
From: noxasclepia Date: December 12th, 2005 03:01 am (UTC) (Link)
She likens C.S. Lewis's World Between Worlds pools (from The Magician's Nephew) to a library, where you can go from one world to another by opening a book. I like the idea a lot.

I've seen that in a couple of instances, but the one that affected me the most was actually from a video game series.

The first title in the Myst series has a plot (amongst others) that's almost identical, but treated as real - a man has the ability to write worlds into existence via the process of writing a book. He creates these worlds, populates them, they are real and explorable. Interestingly, they are not always perfect; some are doomed to fail (perhaps not 'written' [created] well enough?) while others are destroyed by the man's two sons.

That game actually inspired me to be a better writer - to mentally treat each story's world as if it could be real somewhere (even if only in my head, hehe), which guarantees that I give it the attention it requires, else it fails and my characters lives are lost. :)
From: (Anonymous) Date: December 12th, 2005 05:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
*here via Daily Snitch*

- on sanitizing childrens literature of dark emotions;
There was a Swedish childrens author who was critisized rather harshly for introducing death in books for children. Astrid Lindgren wrote wonderful books, starting 40-50 years ago, and faced some of the issues Jo does today. I don't know why adults seem to think that children can't face difficult things. Thei're not as frail as we think they are.
maaria0 From: maaria0 Date: December 13th, 2005 05:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes the Bröderna Lejonhjärta (The Brothers Lionheart). I love that book, but if I remeber correctly the controversy rose not from the death of the big brother but rather from the ending of the book,

SPOILER for the ending:

as the most likely interpretation is that the brothers commit suicide.

26 comments or Leave a comment