IN HER only Scottish event for her new best-selling novel for adults, JK Rowling told the Lennoxlove Book Festival last night that it might not have been written had it not been for the encouragement of her husband.
She told a packed-out session that when the idea for the book came to her she had felt a sense of excitement – “but perhaps you’d have to be inside my head to know why”.
“The core of the idea was ‘local council election: teenagers sabotage it’. I told a couple of people, but if I had gone by the looks on their faces, the book would never have been written.
“It is the mark of either how much my husband loves me or how right I was to marry that man, but he was the only person who, when I told him my idea, said: ‘Yes, that sounds good’.”
Sometimes Rowling appears defensive or ill-at-ease in interviews, but last night she appeared relaxed not only answering questions from Muriel Gray on the stage, but also in dealing with questions from the audience. Later, in the signing queue, she admitted that this had been her favourite book festival event.
One of the first questioners told her that she had been reading The Casual Vacancy at the doctor’s when its use of the C-word made her give an involuntary shudder.
Rowling, who admitted that moving away from fantasy had felt liberating, defended the word’s use in the context of realistically explaining the kind of unpleasant teenagers she was writing about.
The novel’s core themes about the dangers faced by teenagers were, she said, particularly close to her.
As a 15-year-old, she had been bullied by a boy who subsequently became a friend. That made it easy, she revealed, for her to write about Sukhvinder, a Sikh girl who is bullied by a classmate so badly that she begins to self-harm.
As a teacher, she had been shocked to come across girl pupils who self-harmed. “It’s a frightening phenomenon, and it seems to be quite rife,” she said.
Ironically, she added, although it felt painful to write about Sukhvinder, writing about Fats, the would-be cool teenager who is her tormentor, was a joy. “Fats Wall and Albus Dumbledore are two of my favourite characters to write about.”
Some commentators – especially in America – have criticised the bleakness of Rowling’s portrait of small-town English life.
“But it’s not like Hogwart’s,” she insisted. “It’s not a great battle between good and evil. There’s no easy answers, no solutions, just so many shades of grey.”
Both in a brief spell as a social worker and as a teacher, she had come across families where the bond of parental love had been broken and teenagers were left vulnerable and alone.
Her husband Neil’s former work in a drugs rehabilitation clinic also helped to provide her with some of the details of methadone treatment, although not any of her storylines.
To one questioner who asked about how to write fantasy, she explained that the key lies in preparing the plot’s structure as thoroughly as possible.
“There are so many rules. One of mine is ‘Never have sex near unicorns’. There’s just something tacky about it.
And that’s why although Harry had a bit of a snog, it didn’t go further than that!”
It does in The Casual Vacancy – and the packed tent was reduced to a hushed silence as Rowling described writing a scene in which one of the teen characters is raped.
But this was a warmly receptive and appreciative audience, and Rowling left to prolonged applause, an hour-long signing queue, and general gratification that the world’s most famous author had graced their local stage.