Over and over again they asked me the same question, with tiny variations. “What is it that makes Harry Potter so popular?” “What’s the magic formula?” “What advice would you give anyone wanting to write a children’s bestseller?”
And I always gave them non-answers. “It’s not me you should ask.” “This has taken me by surprise as much as anyone.” “It’s hard for the author to be objective…”
As Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. The trouble is, nobody knows what they are.” Harry just happened. The idea slid into my mind on a train journey from Manchester to London, and I wrote it the way I thought I would like to read it. I then had the immense good fortune to find an agent who liked it. After a lot of rejections, Chris found a publisher prepared to take a chance on an overlong novel (45,000 words was consdiered about the right length for a nine-years-old then; Philosopher’s Stone was 95,000), set in a boarding school (a horribly unfashionable subject), by a completely unknown author.
When I started writing the Potter series I was aiming to please nobody but myself, and the more I was asked, the more I was sure that I ought not to try and analyse the reasons for its gathering popularity. I knew that if I tried to find this formula everyone was talking about, I would become self-conscious, start “doing” J.K. Rowling rather than being her. I was concerned for the safety of the fragile glass bubble within which I wrote, and which was still bobbing along intact on the swirling tide of madness that was gathering around Harry Potter, the still centre of the storm.
For similarly self-protective reasons, I kept myself as ignorant as possible about the degree of a fan activity that was taking place both on the Internet and off it. Occasionally friends or journalists would impart some starling piece of information about what was going on out there; it tended to harden my resolve not to know. If that sounds bizarre or, worse, ungrateful, then I can only say that a day in my shoes would have convinced you otherwise. The letter I received daily made it perfectly clear how invested in the characters’ futures my readers had beome. “Please don’t kill Fred or George, I LOVE THEM!” “If Hermione becomes Harry’s girlfriend that will show that you can be smart and still team up with the hero!!! This would be a really good message!!!!” “Why didn’t you let Harry go and live with Sirius and be happy?” “I read somewhere that you are going to make Draco and Harry become friends and fight evil together, I think this would be a good thing and show that Draco is not all bad.” “Ms. Rowling, your books are a safe place in a dangerous world. May I urge you to resist commercial pressure: let your characters keep their innocence.” “DON’T KILL HAGRID. DON’T KILL HAGRID. DON’T KILL HAGRID” (repeated hundreds of times over ten sides of A4 paper).
Not until some time in 2002 did I finally crack and do the thing that people assumed I did daily. I googled Harry Potter.
I knew, of course, that there were fan sites out there. My postbag was full of mentions of them, my readers assuming that I was au fait with what was happening online. My PA, Fiddy, had had contact with a few of the webmasters. But I was still utterly unprepared for what I found during that first, mammoth trawling session.
The fan sites were so professional looking; easily up to the standard of any of my publishers’ sites. And they had tens of thousdans of visitors. They had forums, message boards, editorials, rolling news, fan art, fan fiction, quotes of the da from my books… and the shipping wars… my God, the shipping wars…
I had already heard of the Leaky Cauldron; it was one of the biggest and most popular Harry Potter sites on the Net, and I had been told about a couple of great things they had done (freeing the already-free Dobby got my attention). But I had never seen it for myself, never realised exactly what went on there. I sat and read editoriales, predictions, theories that ranged from strange to wild to perfectly accurate. I was, frankly, stunned… and I remain stunned.
Reading the book you now have in your hands has been an astonishing experience from me. It is as though I have, at last, achieved the ambition I held for years: to go along to a bookshop at midnight on Harry Potter publication night, in disguise, and simply watch and listen.
At long last I understand what was going on while I was holed up writing, trying to filter my exposure to Potter hysteria. A great chunk of my own life has been explained to me; Melissa has filled in an enormous number of blanks, taken me to places I wish I could have visited with her (like the House of Pancakes, to meet the United States’s most promiment anti-Harry Potter campaigner); explained jokes that fans assumed I understood; introduced me to people they thought I knew; filled me in on arguments I had inadvertenlty started. She has reminded me of incidents I had half forgotten in the furore surrounding every publication from 2000 onwards – the stolen truck full of copies of Order of the Phoenix, that irksome “Green Falme Torch,” and the endless War on Spoilers…
The online Harry Potter fandom has become a global phenomenon with its own language and culture, its own wards and festivals, its own celebrities, of which Melissa is certainly one. She was a fan who ended up with her own fan club, one of the online fandom’s most tireless champions and representatives, endeavouring, always, to be fair and honest and impartial.
So this book is a history of a community, written by an insider, and I have found it inspiring, moving, humbling, amusing, and, on ocassion, downright alarming. It can be read as a warts-and-all exposé of a fan mentality or as a story of the world’s biggest book group or as the personal journey of a group of people who would never otherwise have met. The tale of the online fandom is every bit as extraordinary as Harry’s own, and it has left me with a feeling of awe and gratitude. At last, I know what was really happening out there – and it is wonderful.
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