Breaking the spell: Can JK Rowling cast Harry Potter aside?

CAN JK Rowling work her magic with adult fiction or will the change of genre prove a curse for the Harry Potter creator, asks Dani Garavelli

CAN JK Rowling work her magic with adult fiction or will the change of genre prove a curse for the Harry Potter creator, asks Dani Garavelli

IT IS being launched amidst the kind of secrecy that might surround a missile strike on foreign soil. At 8am on 27 September, The Casual ­Vacancy, JK Rowling’s first book for adults, will go on sale with booksellers possessing little more information on what’s inside than the 137-word blurb publishers Little, Brown released in April.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Expectation has been building for months – some branches of Waterstones have been promoting the book since spring; several parodies have been spawned and fan-dom website Hypable has been drip-feeding followers whatever tidbits of information it can lay its hands on. But all anyone knows for certain about the new work is that it’s a 512-page darkly comic novel in which a ­sudden vacancy on a parish council ­reveals undercurrents of animosity in a village. Is it biting social satire or cosy crime? No-one will say. The cover, a gaudy red and yellow with an X in a ballot paper box, yields no clues beyond the obvious, that the author is trying to put as much distance between herself and Harry Potter as possible. And those few lucky enough to secure review copies have had to sign up to what has been dubbed a “super-embargo” – a confidentiality agreement which forbids anyone who signs it from revealing its very existence.

The unusual (some might say defensive) marketing strategy is a reminder of just how much is at stake for Rowling, creator of the biggest franchise in the history of children’s literature. Worth £560 million, there is no financial imperative for her to keep on writing never mind experiment with a new genre. She must know the omens are not good. Author of the Twilight series Stephanie Meyer’s sales took a dive when she moved into adult fiction. Her sci-fi novel The Host sold a total of 2 million in hardback (where the fourth Twilight novel sold 1.3 million copies on its first day). And no one doubts there will be banks of ­critics – irritated by the scale of Rowling’s fame – who have already set themselves against her latest enterprise.

“It’s a very brave move – hats off to her,” says Glasgow-based crime writer Denise Mina. “The easiest thing for her to do would be to stop writing. Writing’s really hard. Maybe once a day you think, ‘Why am I trying to do this?’ And most of us can say, ‘Well, I bought that boat’. But she has no need to keep doing it.”

The news that Rowling’s editor at ­Little, Brown would be David Shelley, who has a track record in editing crime authors, has led many to conclude The Casual Vacancy is a mystery in the ­spirit of Poirot or Midsomer Murders. This has brought a negative reaction from some who view the genre as old-fashioned and effete. However Mina believes Rowling could well have tapped into the zeitgeist. “I think we are going to see a big upsurge in cosy crime,” she says. “People think it’s irrelevant, but they forget it is actually is a microcosm of a bigger statement in a small setting. In these really sinister times of Hillsborough and Leveson and police corruption, I don’t know how much more [urban noir] people can take. People don’t read crime to find out the truth about the world – they read it for escape.”

As the rest of the world awaits her book, Rowling is continuing to upgrade her 17th-century mansion in Edinburgh. She may not be part of the fabric of the Scottish scene – she doesn’t attend many functions and her only Scottish book promotion is at the Lennoxlove Book Festival – but she seems committed to staying in the country where she got her first break. Having bought and demolished a neighbouring house to extend her garden, she was recently granted planning permission for a 40ft Hogwarts-style treehouse for her children.

For all the envy Rowling’s lifestyle inspires in some, there are still plenty of people who wish her well. Others say she is lucky to be in a position where she is free to experiment. “She invested a considerable amount of time and energy in the Harry Potter series and if she felt she wanted to move on, it’s good she was in a position to be able to do that,” says Professor Willy Maley, co-founder of Glasgow University’s creative writing programme. “Yes, it is a bold thing to do. But there are many other writers who have been pigeon-holed and are stuck in a groove which they find difficult to get out of.”

Why would Rowling put herself through this, unless she was determined to prove herself as a serious adult author? This is why – Little, Brown has implied – she insisted promotion be kept to a minimum. Rowling wants her current book to stand on its own merit and not on her reputation. Yet there’s a contradiction there. Without any information, booksellers are being forced to trade on her name alone. While less well-known authors are forced to attend book signings across the country, Rowling is doing a handful of TV interviews and even fewer personal appearances. And any ­attempt to dampen down expectations was surely sabotaged by US publisher Michael Pietsch’s claim that The Casual Vacancy reminded him of Dickens.

At Blackwell Bookshop in Edinburgh – whose location close to Nicholson’s Cafe (where the author began her writing career) and the Balmoral Hotel (where the last chapters of The Deathly Hallows were penned) places it at the heart of JK Rowling country. Sales manager James Anderson anticipates a launch-day frenzy on a par with the publication of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.

“We have a pre-order scheme running, posters around the shop and at every till point – it’s one of the most anticipated books of the year.” Anderson says. ­“People are already talking about it – they want to see how she writes away from Harry Potter.”

The timing of the launch at 8am GMT means that bookshops in some corners of the globe will be opening their shops at midnight. “It is frustrating that it’s been so tightly-guarded,” says Anderson, “but that’s part of the anticipation – that no-one’s seen the book other than her editor and herself.”

Vanessa Robertson, who owns The ­Edinburgh Bookshop, is also expecting a lot of interest from diehard Harry Potter fans, but warns the author will face intense scrutiny. “The thing is, you couldn’t criticise the Harry Potter books – if you did, you were likely to get abusive letters. I do worry that with this, if it’s not up to standard, critics are going to be ready to condemn it. People need to be impressed. If it’s good and she pulls it off, they will think ‘great’. But, if it’s a case of selling it on the basis of the name rather than the content they won’t be so happy.” «