I gave Harry a wand made of holly wood back in 1990, when I first drafted chapter six of ‘Philosopher’s Stone’. It was not an arbitrary decision: holly has certain connotations that were perfect for Harry, particularly when contrasted with the traditional associations of yew, from which Voldemort’s wand is made. European tradition has it that the holly tree (the name comes from ‘holy’) repels evil, while yew, which can achieve astonishing longevity (there are British yew trees over two thousand years old), can symbolise both death and resurrection; the sap is also poisonous.
Some time after I had given Harry his holly-and-phoenix wand I came across a description of how the Celts had assigned trees to different parts of the year and discovered that, entirely by coincidence, I had assigned Harry the ‘correct’ wood for his day of birth. I therefore decided to give Ron and Hermione Celtic wand woods, too. Ron, who was born in the February 18 – March 17 period, was given an ash wand (I think I had originally marked him down for beech), and Hermione, who was born between September 2 and September 29, received a vine wood wand (I can’t remember what I originally stipulated for Hermione; possibly I had not specified a wood for her at that stage).
I have only used the Celtic assignations for Ron and Hermione. Hagrid, for instance, has an oak wand though by this Celtic system he should have a wand made of elder; in Britain, the oak is ‘King of the Forest’ and symbolises strength, protection and fecundity; what other wood could ‘choose’ Hagrid? In any case, I liked having a hidden connection between Harry, Ron and Hermione’s wands that only I knew about (until now, anyway).
For those who are interested in the trees assigned to the different parts of the Celtic year, below is the chart that I used. I apologise to any Celtic tree experts out there for any inaccuracies I may have reproduced (I have found slight variations between sources since I first came across this information.)
December 24 – January 20 = Birch (Beth)
January 21 – February 17 = Rowan (Luis)
February 18 – March 17 = Ash (Nion)
March 18 – April 14 = Alder (Fearn)
April 15 – May 12 = Willow (Saille)
May 13 – June 9 = Hawthorn (Huath)
June 10 – July 7 = Oak (Duir)
July 8 – August 4 = Holly (Tinne)
August 5 – September 1 = Hazel (Coll)
September 2 – September 29 = Vine (Muin)
September 30 – October 27 = Ivy (Gort)
October 28 – November 24 = Reed (Ngetal)
November 25 – December 23 = Elder (Ruis)
The Irish Quidditch team and West Ham Football Club
The Irish Quidditch team players are all named after people I have known. ‘Moran’, ‘Troy’ and ‘Quigley,’ are good friends. ‘Troy’ is one of my very oldest friends and she also happens to be a passionate supporter of West Ham Football Club. It is in her honour that the only soccer team ever mentioned in the books is West Ham.
The Elder Wand
I decided that the core of the Elder Wand is the tail hair of a Thestral; a powerful and tricky substance that can be mastered only by a witch or wizard capable of facing death.
I have been asked all sorts of questions about Squibs since I first introduced the concept in ‘Chamber of Secrets’. A Squib is almost the opposite of a Muggle-born wizard: he or she is a non-magical person born to at least one magical parent. Squibs are rare; magic is a dominant and resilient gene.
Squibs would not be able to attend Hogwarts as students. They are often doomed to a rather sad kind of half-life (yes, you should be feeling sorry for Filch), as their parentage often means that they will be exposed to, if not immersed in, the wizarding community, but can never truly join it. Sometimes they find a way to fit in; Filch has carved himself a niche at Hogwarts and Arabella Figg operates as Dumbledore’s liaison between the magical and Muggle worlds. Neither of these characters can perform magic (Filch’s Kwikspell course never worked), but they still function within the wizarding world because they have access to certain magical objects and creatures that can help them (Arabella Figg does a roaring trade in cross-bred cats and Kneazles, and if you don‘t know what a Kneazle is yet, shame on you). Incidentally, Arabella Figg never saw the Dementors that attacked Harry and Dudley, but she had enough magical knowledge to identify correctly the sensations they created in the alleyway.
Every now and then somebody asks me for the difference between a spell, a charm and a hex. Within the Potter world, the boundaries are flexible, and I imagine that wizards may have their own ideas. Hermione-ish, however, I’ve always had a working theory:
The generic term for a piece of magic.
Does not fundamentally alter the properties of the subject of the spell, but adds, or changes, properties. Turning a teacup into a rat would be a spell, whereas making a teacup dance would be a charm. The grey area comes with things like ‘Stunning Spells’, which on balance I think are Charms, but which I call spells for alliterative effect.
Has a connotation of dark magic, as do jinxes, but of a minor sort. I see ‘hex’ as slightly worse. I usually use ‘jinx’ for spells whose effects are irritating but amusing.
Reserved for the worst kinds of dark magic.
Places to Write
It is no secret that the best place to write, in my opinion, is a cafe; you don’t have to make your own coffee, you don’t feel that you are in solitary confinement while you work and when inspiration fails, you can take a walk to the next cafe while your batteries re-charge. In my opinion, the best writing cafe is just crowded enough so that you blend in, but not so crowded that you end up sharing a table with somebody who tries to read chapter twenty upside down, has staff who don’t glower at you if you sit there too long (though these days I can afford to keep ordering coffees even if I don’t drink them, so that’s less of a problem) and doesn’t play very loud music, which is the only noise that disturbs me when I’m writing.
Owls feature in many superstitions across the world. To the Greeks, the owl was emblematic of Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, and if an owl was sighted flying over the Greek army prior to battle it was considered an omen of victory. To the Romans, on the other hand, the owl was an unlucky creature that predicted death and disaster. In Britain there is a superstition that it is unlucky to see an owl by daylight, a superstition I had fun with in the first chapter of ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ where, of course, the sudden explosion of owls flying by daylight represented something very lucky indeed, though the Muggles did not know it.
My wizards’ owls reflect their personality to a certain extent. Poor Ron gets Pigwidgeon, who is a Scops (these are very small owls with ears – cute, but distinctly unshowy). Poor exhausted Errol is a Great Gray, which in my opinion is the most comical-looking owl in the world – just Google the Great Gray to see what I mean. Naturally I gave my hero what I consider to be the most beautiful owl of the lot: the Snowy Owl, which also goes by the name of Ghost Owl. These are not native to Britain, so I felt that she would give Harry kudos at Hogwarts (there is no other snowy owl there, as I trust you have noticed). However, any owl expert would tell you that Hedwig is strangely atypical of her breed. Only after Philosopher’s Stone had been accepted for publication did I realise that Snowy Owls are diurnal. I think it was during the writing of ‘Chamber of Secrets’ that I discovered that Snowy Owls are also virtually silent, the females being even quieter than the males. So all of Hedwig’s night-time jaunts and her many reproving hoots may be taken as signs of her great magical ability or my pitiful lack of research, whichever you prefer.
(Incidentally: there has been a spate of stories in the press recently concerning the upswing in popularity of keeping owls as pets, allegedly as a result of the Harry Potter books. If it is true that anybody has been influenced by my books to think that an owl would be happiest shut in a small cage and kept in a house, I would like to take this opportunity to say as forcefully as I can: please don’t.)
… which means, ‘never asked question’.
Why did Dumbledore have James’ invisibility cloak at the time of James’ death, given that Dumbledore could make himself invisible without a cloak?
Prior to posting this I had a quick look on-line, and realised that some fans have been speculating about this question. However, nobody has ever asked me about it, and they really should have done. Just to allay the fears of the justifiably suspicious, this isn’t what we in the know call ‘a Mark Evans situation.’* There IS a significant – even crucial – answer.
* Note to newcomers: my attempt to put to rest certain wild theories about the unimportant character of ‘Mark Evans’ backfired when I inadvertently built up even more excitement by promising to explain his significance.
Just thought you might like to know that my personal best for Expert Level Minesweeper is now ninety nine seconds. This goes to show how much time I have been spending at this computer, typing ‘The Half-Blood Prince’. To those who suggest that I might get on even faster if I stopped taking Minesweeper breaks, I shall turn a deaf ear. It’s either Minesweeper or smoking, I can’t write if I have to give up both.
In the bad old days, when I wanted a few minutes’ break while writing, I used to light up a cigarette. I gave up smoking in the year 2000 and now chew a lot of gum instead (hence the state of my desk). However, chewing a bit of gum does not give you an excuse for a nice little brain-resting break, so instead I like to escape the complexities of the latest plot by playing a quick game of Minesweeper. Since giving up smoking I must boastfully inform you that I have become rather good and that my current best time for expert level is 101 seconds.
Meeting Melissa and Emerson
The plans for publication of Half-Blood Prince were underway and I was trying to think of a way to solve a recurring problem: the frustration often felt by dedicated (older) Potter fans at the fact that I am rarely posed the questions they most want asked. The solution, I decided, would be a face-to-face interview with one or two true emissaries of the diehard fans, capable of hitting me with the tough, book-seven-exploring, backstory-probing, inconsistency-highlighting, character-analysing questions that I hardly ever get round to answering, and certainly not at book launch time. My feeling was that even if I said I couldn’t answer – because I didn’t want to ruin theories or give too much away (or because I didn’t know the answer!) – you would at least have the satisfaction of knowing that I had been put on the spot by people who knew where the spot was. So how was I going to find the inquisitors?
Well, I could pretend it was difficult, but I wouldn’t be fooling anyone; the answer was right under my nose; in fact, if it had been any closer I would have snorted it up as surely as I snorted a well-known fizzy drink during the resultant interview. Yes, step forwards Melissa Anelli, founder of The Leaky Cauldron fansite, and Emerson Spartz, founder of Mugglenet. (Links to both can be found in the ‘fansite’ section of this website).
Why Melissa and Emerson? Because I knew, from having trawled their sites, that they know their Harry Potter back to front, that they care, not only about the books, but about the community of fans on the net, and that they were clever and funny and that I was going to enjoy meeting them at least as much as they would enjoy meeting me.
So I called them. Melissa had been tipped off to expect a call, but the ear-piercing shriek that met my words of introduction told me that she hadn’t guessed what it was all about. She was available and happy to come – one down.
I was worried that Emerson, who was not expecting anything at all, might simply hang up on me; as I heard his Dad walking away from the telephone to fetch him I was trying to think of way to prove it was really me and not some angry Harry/Hermione shipper trying to lure him down a dark alleyway. However, I didn’t need to offer an impromptu quiz on the sub-plots of books one to five; he believed me, he could make it: we were set!
I must say that I was impressed and moved by how many fellow fans posted congratulations to them when they announced on their sites that they would be interviewing me. The thrust of most comments was that they deserved the interview as a reward for all their hard work; it was uplifting to see so many people express generous and fair-minded good wishes!
I knew they were somewhere around on launch night, but didn’t see them. Not until Saturday afternoon did I finally come face-to-face with them, in the office beside my house where my long-suffering PA deals with mountains of post. I was so excited as I went through the door… for one thing, I had not yet spoken to a single fan who had finished the book…
And there they were, waiting for me. I had met Melissa twice before, though each time for no longer than it took to squeak excitedly at each other; she is (for those of you who don’t know) a good-looking redhead who shares my taste in both coffee and shoes (she presented me with some truly ambrosial coffee, available only in the States, and I openly coveted her faux-snakeskin heels). Emerson is about seven feet tall (or that’s how he looked from my 5′ 5″) and has extraordinarily long, very blue eyes; he, too, had brought presents, including a key representing the freedom of LaPorte, Indiana, accompanied by a proclamation signed by the Mayor. No, not kidding. ‘Well, it’s hard trying to think of stuff you can’t buy for yourself,’ he said as I gazed at these items, dumbstruck.
We laughed at the strangeness of the situation – it was a little like a three-cornered blind date – and then settled down to talk properly. They were both, as I had known they would be, wonderful. Funny, bright, completely committed to getting some proper answers out of me. We were supposed to be together an hour: two had passed before any of us noticed and if I hadn’t had a baby to feed, I think we could have gone on most of the night.
The transcript of the interview, plus their own individual reports on their time in Edinburgh, can be read on the-leaky-cauldron.org and on mugglenet.com. I will only say that I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed giving it. In the meantime, I am making enquiries as to what I am allowed to do in LaPorte now that I have the key.
There are quite a few real Harry Potters out there. So far I have heard of a newborn baby who actually has Harry’s full name (Harry James Potter), a barrister in London, a grandfather who was very pleased that he had become cool in his grandchildren’s eyes, a soldier who died in the second world war (I was sent a picture of his tombstone) and a clockmaker who worked in London in the last century.
For Girls Only, Probably…
Being thin. Probably not a subject that you ever expected to read about on this website, but my recent trip to London got me thinking…
It started in the car on the way to Leavesden film studios. I whiled away part of the journey reading a magazine that featured several glossy photographs of a very young woman who is either seriously ill or suffering from an eating disorder (which is, of course, the same thing); anyway, there is no other explanation for the shape of her body. She can talk about eating absolutely loads, being terribly busy and having the world’s fastest metabolism until her tongue drops off (hooray! Another couple of ounces gone!), but her concave stomach, protruding ribs and stick-like arms tell a different story. This girl needs help, but, the world being what it is, they’re sticking her on magazine covers instead. All this passed through my mind as I read the interview, then I threw the horrible thing aside.
But blow me down if the subject of girls and thinness didn’t crop up shortly after I got out of the car. I was talking to one of the actors and, somehow or other, we got onto the subject of a girl he knows (not any of the Potter actresses – somebody from his life beyond the films) who had been dubbed ‘fat’ by certain charming classmates. (Could they possibly be jealous that she knows the boy in question? Surely not!)
‘But,’ said the actor, in honest perplexity, ‘she is really not fat.’
‘”Fat” is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her,’ I said; I could remember it happening when I was at school, and witnessing it among the teenagers I used to teach. Nevertheless, I could see that to him, a well-adjusted male, it was utterly bizarre behaviour, like yelling ‘thicko!’ at Stephen Hawking.
His bemusement at this everyday feature of female existence reminded me how strange and sick the ‘fat’ insult is. I mean, is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? Not to me; but then, you might retort, what do I know about the pressure to be skinny? I’m not in the business of being judged on my looks, what with being a writer and earning my living by using my brain…
I went to the British Book Awards that evening. After the award ceremony I bumped into a woman I hadn’t seen for nearly three years. The first thing she said to me? ‘You’ve lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw you!’
‘Well,’ I said, slightly nonplussed, ‘the last time you saw me I’d just had a baby.’
What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no – my waist looked smaller! Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate!
So the issue of size and women was (ha, ha) weighing on my mind as I flew home to Edinburgh the next day. Once up in the air, I opened a newspaper and my eyes fell, immediately, on an article about the pop star Pink.
Her latest single, ‘Stupid Girls’, is the antidote-anthem for everything I had been thinking about women and thinness. ‘Stupid Girls’ satirises the talking toothpicks held up to girls as role models: those celebrities whose greatest achievement is un-chipped nail polish, whose only aspiration seems to be getting photographed in a different outfit nine times a day, whose only function in the world appears to be supporting the trade in overpriced handbags and rat-sized dogs.
Maybe all this seems funny, or trivial, but it’s really not. It’s about what girls want to be, what they’re told they should be, and how they feel about who they are. I’ve got two daughters who will have to make their way in this skinny-obsessed world, and it worries me, because I don’t want them to be empty-headed, self-obsessed, emaciated clones; I’d rather they were independent, interesting, idealistic, kind, opinionated, original, funny – a thousand things, before ‘thin’. And frankly, I’d rather they didn’t give a gust of stinking chihuahua flatulence whether the woman standing next to them has fleshier knees than they do. Let my girls be Hermiones, rather than Pansy Parkinsons. Let them never be Stupid Girls. Rant over.
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