THE MOST POWERFUL MYTH surrounding J.K. Rowling — second only to the myth of Harry Potter himself — is how the author created Harry Potter. The myth is so irresistible that any single mother with limited means writing a book will hear someone at some point say to her in a spirit of encouragement: “Look at J.K. Rowling.” They’ll say it even if they know nothing of Rowling or the mom.
In this creation myth, a single mother, Joanne, her baby sleeping in a stroller beside her, scribbles at a local café to escape her unheated apartment. From a fortunate confluence of imagination, postpartum hormones, financial straits, and broken marriage blues, she inks a first novel on paper napkins. A thousand or so napkins plus seven follow-up books later, her series redefines the children’s book market and sells 450 million books worldwide.
Rowling has herself described the characterization as “50 percent true, 50 percent embroidery.” She was not, for example, a homeless, teenage meth addict. She was a college graduate planning to get her teaching certificate upon finishing her novel. And while Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone would be her first book, at 30 she had already tried writing two novels, and had consumed, since childhood, a steady diet of Tolkien, Dickens, Hardy (the word “Dumbledore” came from The Mayor of Casterbridge), Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild, Barry Hines, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers. The idea for Harry came to Rowling on a train to Kings Cross Station more than six years before the book was finally published — a gestation period close to that of an African elephant. Not exactly the spontaneous mythological birth of Harry springing out of Rowling’s head. And while she was clinically depressed and living on benefits (unlike the United States, Britain regularly provided them to graduates embarking on new careers), her accommodations, though poor, were heated, and writing paper was within her budget. She simply liked going to the café so that she wouldn’t have to interrupt her writing flow to make herself another cup. Rowling is a practical woman. On her “castaway” interview with BBC Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs, the book she said she’d take with her wasn’t Shakespeare’s sonnets or the collected works of Proust — it was an SAS Survival Guide.
Rowling’s real life story is neither as romantic nor as tragic as has been portrayed in the media, but that’s not the point. The myth tells us something important, if off-putting, about ourselves: we want the creative process of the down-at-heel single mother to be a fecund miracle, in the same way we want all rags-to-riches stories to involve a firm but romantic pulling-up of bootstraps. On this side of the pond, we in the United States call this dream American, but it is just another variation on our fantasy about artistic creation in general. Deprivation kindles an emotion so powerful that in the garret a gushing Van Gogh paints The Potato Eaters.
Self-reliance, the 19th century concept of relying on one’s own resources and abilities without fuss or help, is the basis for such pervasive and lyrical 19th century idioms as “pulling one’s self up by one’s boot straps,” “hoeing one’s own roe,” and “paddling one’s own canoe” (“Voyager upon life’s sea, To yourself be true, And whate’er your lot may be, Paddle your own canoe.”) This idea has informed our modern Western attitude about how individuals are expected to make it in the world. To be sure, artists and others with self-made success stories, such as Doris Lessing, have often described their privation in these terms: “I had no money, I could have got some by writing to my family, of course, but it had to be the bootstraps or nothing.”
Desperation over one’s financial straits is very similar in quality to the creative struggle itself. The initial stages of creation can be as psychologically barren and oppressive as being broke; the dreaded “blank page” described by artists, consciously or not, echoes the odd American self-reliance colloquialism. Black jazz artists would borrow the 18th century “every tub must stand on its own bottom,” popular among Southern blacks, to describe complete improvisation, and the choreographer Twyla Tharp, in her book The Creative Habit, has described the desperate, random, groping-in-the-dark of one’s first creative steps as “scratching.” Almost unheard of today, “scratching for oneself” was used in the 19th century to describe taking care of oneself: “Shaking off the other child, [she] told him to scratch for hisself a time, while she began to prepare the supper” (Alice Cary, Married, not Mated, 1856).
But, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who coined the phrase “self-reliance” in his essay of the same name, wasn’t writing about “making it” without assistance. His Self-Reliance was about the genius inside us all and the imperative to follow one’s own instincts and ideas, like Tharp and the jazz improvisationists. Whatever “scratching” Rowling had to do (one can easily imagine her scouring the Oxford English Dictionary), whatever “strand of creative code in her imagination,” as Tharp calls it, gave her the impulse to write Harry and find her inner genius, the success of Harry Potter can’t be attributed to her poverty. That she was poor while writing made it all the more essential that she had state benefits, the charity of friends, and that café to keep her on course to work through to the end.
All this could explain why Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, a plot-driven, ribald meditation on our attitude about the poor, the powerless, and the nature of self-delusion, crackles with a righteous indignation over how society shirks social responsibility by buying into what is essentially a bastardized version of self-reliance. It’s as if the absurdity of her own single mom myth-meme rankled Rowling to write her first book of adult fiction to adults with the bleak message: this is how the world works, folks.
Rowling uses her own personal experiences of being powerless, not just as a single mother but as an alienated teenager in the Forest of Dean. Rowling has said that one of the first things she did before she began writing The Casual Vacancy was to draw a map of Pagford, the novel’s fictional setting. Her hands-on approach is revealing of her novelist intuition. Rowling understands the close relationship between literature and real life. As Gabriel García Márquez has observed, “Writing something is almost as hard as making a table […] Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved.” A writer’s material — reality — is just as hard as wood. Fashioning fiction out of one’s personal experiences requires certain tricks and techniques, according to Márquez. Rowling uses Pagford to repossess a familiar childhood landscape. In the detailed reimagining of the invented place, cartographic and otherwise, she locates the novel’s center of gravity: a local council election. She knows what matters most to the Pagfordians: their conflicting ambitions and clashing perceptions of reality, what ties them to their allies, what separates them from their enemies, how elusive their happiness is, and the location of their disappointments, which lead them to turn their coldness on each other.
Because Pagford is inspired by Rowling’s childhood home, the novel is fraught with issues of subjectivity, both hers and the book’s characters. Rowling has admitted that she was dying to escape her rural town, and we, as readers, feel her suffocation. Pagford and its citizens are for the most part insufferable — hypocritical, provincial, petty, and so self-deluded and lost in their own perceptions of events that they can do nothing to connect with each other. The rural ensemble is divided horizontally in upstairs/downstairs fashion, but here “upstairs” are the adults trying to control events in the town, and “downstairs” are the teenage children who hate them. The teenagers seem to possess the moral compass, the “self-drawn map of what constitute[s] fair play,” hence their disgust with the goings-on upstairs.
The “cold open” of the book is the sudden death by aneurysm of Barry Fairbrother, a compassionate member of the local Parish Council originally from the local housing project, the Fields. Fairbrother led the school’s rowing team with the hope of enfranchising students, particularly those from the Fields, like Krystal Weedon, to the quiet chagrin of many in Pagford. Rowling introduces the characters by following their reactions to the news, which set the plot in motion. Howard Mollison, Fairbrother’s nemesis, leader of the Parish Council and the owner of the local café and delicatessen, tries to fill the vacant seat (the “casual vacancy”) with a Pagfordian who, like Howard and unlike Fairbrother, wants to cut off the Fields and the Bellchapel Addiction Clinic, both of which have been sponging off the good citizens of Pagford for long enough.
One English review of Rowling’s book complained that Rowling’s depiction of the Parish Council election makes the plot implausible because district councils, not parish councils, have the power to cut funding. While this may be true, the criticism misses the point. A hot contest for a parish council seat is not just funny, it’s catastrophically sad. To the characters, the Parish Council election means everything not merely because they cannot see beyond the limited confines of Pagford (Howard believes it to be the most important place on earth; his favorite song, “The Green, Green Grass of Home”), but because they are deluding themselves about their own happiness. When they cannot find fulfillment because their respective vested interests in the election’s outcome either don’t materialize or wind up ruining their reputations, they are condemned to return to the same desperately ineffectual states of fear, loneliness, and estrangement in which they started. The vacant seat is their false talisman. When Howard and his secret lover, Maureen, confront Parminder Jawanda, a Fairbrother ally, with the news of his untimely demise, “they watched Councillor Jawanda disappear around a corner” and “were contemplating the casual vacancy: and they saw it, not as an empty space but as a magician’s pocket, full of possibilities.”
Rowling makes the pathos of the casual vacancy the objective reality of Pagford. This is fiction after all: Rowling makes the rules and we accept them. Though Rowling is known for her vivid imagination, it is her knack for capturing the realties of human behavior and psychology that makes the story feel surreal. Maybe Rowling knows too well from personal experience that reality is often stranger than fiction. Her own father sold his first edition copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at Sotheby’s for $48,000. The book was a gift from Rowling for Father’s Day in which she wrote, “Lots of love from your first born,” with a drawing of a hand reaching for a running gnome. Life in the English provinces resembles the wildest imagination. So do family relations.
Tharp argues that artists don’t consciously choose their “field of vision”; it’s in their creative DNA. The Casual Vacancy, though described as a “tragicomedy,” is for the most part a satire, a parody of constantly moving targets: provincial towns, Britain’s politics, 21st century society. Rowling treats these targets the way she views the world as an artist — from a distance. This “observational focal length” gives The Casual Vacancy a Rear Window effect. Like James Stewart with his view of the neighboring apartment building, we witness the characters react to Fairbrother’s death with binoculars that we can sometimes peer through. But, even when middle-aged Samantha’s wrinkled cleavage is described in sharp focus, we are not up close. With some notable exceptions, we don’t know the characters’ deep inner complexities, making the story sometimes feel allegorical. There could easily be versions of these characters in Texas or Long Island.
The Casual Vacancy’s success and failure lie in Rowling’s commitment to its social message. The grimly realistic end to the book’s unlikely teenage heroine, Krystal Weedon, alone effectively relays her point, but because Rowling is a moralist, the book collapses into melodrama. What Rowling believes is wrong with society’s treatment of the poor becomes more important than sustaining the satirical construct and tragicomic tone of Pagford, and the integrity of the story suffers. She betrays her own choices as the storyteller. Her intellectually driven idea for the book (the working title for the book was “Responsibility”) takes over her intuition.
Despite this, Rowling creates a novel that lingers in the conscience and forces self-evaluation in the reader. Her goal of waking us up is noble and she does it masterfully. The most successfully drawn characters are the adolescents: Fats, a nihilistic teenager with sociopathic tendencies who mines his own hatred of his adoptive middle-class father by finding “authenticity” in crime, destitution, sex with Krystal Weedon, and Krystal herself. In stark contrast to Fats’s middle-class life, Krystal must take care of her heroin-addicted mother and younger brother, Robbie, to prevent the state from taking Robbie away. Rowling’s descriptions of Krystal’s world — the rank filth, the prostitution and violence — are written with the force of someone who wants to bludgeon you into awareness.