Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Odds On Harry

There's been a sudden flurry of renewed media interest in Harry Potter book 7, still being written by author JK Rowling. That's because JKR gave one of her very rare interviews recently, in which she let "drop" a couple of statements about the possible fate of some unnamed characters.

I put "drop" in quotes because JKR, for my money, is one of the most careful and cagey interviewees I've ever seen. She's known for years the shape and ultimate direction of her story, and since the books have become such a publishing phenomenon, with thousands of people speculating on what she's going to do next and what will happen to their favorite characters, she's had to really hug the major plot points close to her chest. She's *good* at that, and I admire her for it because it shows how much she cares about her story. She's also savvy enough to know that fueling speculation from time to time just peaks our interest. But she's not, repeat not, going to give away anything major or anything that we couldn't have perhaps already guessed.

So it's amusing to see the brouhaha that often results from some of her simple statements. People can spin them all kinds of ways. One often quoted exchange from the recent interview is this:

Jo: The final chapter is hidden away, although it has now changed very sightly. One character got a reprieve, but I have to say two die that I didn't intend to die ...

Judy: Two much loved ones?

Jo: Well, you know. A price has to be paid. We are dealing with pure evil. They don't target the extras do they? They go for the main characters, or I do.

and then there was this:

Richard: I was dodging around the death bit, because I know you can't answer that queestion, But you know how Conan-Doyle got sick up to there of Sherlock Holmes ...

Jo: Yeah

Richard: so pushed him off the cliff at the Reichenbech falls, I'm not asking if you have done that obviously, but have you ever been tempted to bump him off because it is such a huge thing in your life.

Jo: I've never been tempted to kill him off before the end of book 7. I have always planned seven books and that is where I want to go, where I want to finish on seven books. But I can completely understand the mentality of an author who thinks well I am going to kill them off because that means there can be no non-author written sequels as they call them, so it will end with me and after I am dead and gone, they would not be able to bring back the character and write a load of ...

Richard: That never struck me before. I thought it would free you up.

Jo: Agatha Christe did that with Poirot, didn't she, she wanted to finish him off herself.

The furor over these quotes seems to come from (A) people being worried because she said two characters will die in book 7 and (B) people thinking perhaps there was a slight slip of the tongue or that she said more than she intended in the "I've never been tempted to kill him off before the end of book 7" line.

Let's look at those in reverse order for a moment, because I think the first one is more interesting.

The "I've never been tempted" quote comes in the context of that long rambling exchange when the interviewer is pushing her on whether or not she's ever been tempted to do Harry in simply because she's tired of writing the character or stories. Rowling charitably goes where the interviewer wants to go here, but it seems pretty clear that she simply means to say that she never would have killed Harry off on a whim. She planned seven stories, and seven stories she will write, no more, no less. She's been clear about that in other interviews. If he dies, and that's still a big if, it will not be until the end and the final confrontation, no sooner. I think it's clear she has some sympathy for other authors who have decided to kill off main characters to stave off unauthorized sequels, but can we really believe that a woman who has so carefully crafted, plotted, themed and envisioned a sub-ceation of these proportions would suddenly decide to kill the hero if she hadn't planned to all along, just to safeguard her literary creation for posterity?! Especially considering she's given tacit approval to thousands of fan-fiction stories about him already. Come on! Let's be honest. Whatever Harry's destiny is, Jo Rowling decided it long, long ago and (here's the important part) it has shaped every bit of the narrative that precedes it. The Harry Potter sories are grand stories, and teleologically shaped.

Now, having said that, I'm going to go out on a limb and say the most interesting part of the interview was that she said two characters that she had not intended to kill (and not just any two characters, but two "main" characters) have died thus far in the writing of the book 7. The fact that at least two characters are going to die is not gasp-worthy in and of itself, considering the wizarding world is now in an all-out war against Voldemort and his minions. But it is interesting to note that two characters have died that Rowling herself did not expect to kill off, and "one got a reprieve." Hmm. Even more interesting.

I think this says volumes about Rowling's artistry and creativity. She has set herself firm limits as to the ultimate scope and shape of her story, but within those limits, she is writing freely and still exploring where the narrative wants to go. She is still choosing among the smaller "what ifs" even with the grand finale in view. That's exciting. Like "fireworks in your pocket" (as a professor of mine once described the dance of freedom/limits when writing traditional poetic forms). What this tells us is that the story's very much still in process, a living, breathing story whose rich depths and implications are still being played out in the fertile imagination of its author. Wow! Book 7 is going to be stunning.

Of course newspapers and magazines have picked up on the various quotes and have begun running odds on who's going to die. I opened this week's copy of *Entertainment Weekly* to find the headline "Will Harry Potter Die?" imposed over a picture of movie-Harry leaping from the unseen clutches of the Hungarian Horntail. The story speculated on which characters might or might not die, and gave some rather brief and lame reasons for its conclusions. In case you're curious, they gave Voldemort even odds and the odds on Harry are 9-2. (More evidence of her artistry --that we're still this unsure this late in the game!) Hagrid's 3-2, Ginny's 6-1, Snape is 2-1 (though I was surprised they thought he would die a martyr on the right side; I wasn't sure that idea had caught on in mainstream media); Ron 20-1, and Hermione 50-1. Frankly, I think they missed a whole plethora of just as likely possibilities, all of whom could be considered "main" characters in some sense. Let's not forget the rest of the Weasleys (Percy, anyone?), Peter Pettigrew, Draco Malfoy and Remus Lupin, just for starters.

And let's not forget that Harry DID survive that Hungarian Horntail. He's "the boy who lived," you know. It was the title of the very first chapter in the very first book. Wouldn't it be a wonderful title for the last chapter too?

More thoughts on Harry soon!


Erin said...

Whew! I'm getting psyched just reading your entry here. And thinking maybe I should start subscribing to EW again... I think you're right that Rowling hasn't revealed anything she didn't mean to. I am intrigued by the idea of her still being surprised by what's happening in the last book, while still obviously having such an intricate plan for it all. I'm absolutely astounded by the sheer craftsmanship of her world and each little piece of it, how beautifully it all fits together and inspires deep thought.

It's funny, whenever my grandma hears something about Rowling on TV, she says, "Gee, I'd think she'd be getting tired of writing those books by now. She should just stop." And I try to explain to her that it's a 7-book series, and that it always was intended that way, and she can't just suddenly stop writing because she's worth more money than the queen. But she doesn't quite understand that... :-P

What I would like to hear now is a date, and preferably one in the slightly near future... Meanwhile, I at least have book 13, the capper of the Series of Unfortunate Events, to look forward to in October...

Beth said...

I've been back at the HogPro boards again recently, after a long season of only getting to check in every few weeks. Now I'm trying to check in at least every couple of days, and I'm amazed by the sheer amount of excitement and speculation surrounding book 7 -- and since it's John Granger's forum, almost all of the speculation is intelligent and worth thinking about, even though I don't agree with all of it!

Anyway, I'm getting so excited about book 7. There's been no date announced yet, but there have been significant rumblings (even from the direction of Rowling's publisher) that book 7 will likely come out next summer. All dependent on her finishing it, of course, and she's stated clearly that it's not done yet. I guess the best part is, we still have a year anticipate, imagine and ask questions. I plan to do some creative speculation on the blog in coming months, whenever the HP mood strikes!

I've only read the first in the Series of Unfortunate Events. I found it light and funny (and a great vocabulary builder for young readers) but didn't really get so into the story that I felt like I needed to rush right out and get the next one.

I guess Harry's just the fictional hero whose stolen my heart...


Erin said...

Series of Unfortunate Events is definitely a different type of series than HP. I think it too was always planned as a series with a certain number of installments - 13 in this case - with particular tidbits dropped at strategic times, and it explores moral issues, particularly as the series progresses, but it's much more tongue-in-cheek; you're never really concerned about the characters the way you are with HP. I like the adventure in the stories but read them primarily for the ridiculous one-liners, which often are tied in to the vocabulary. Perhaps my all-time favorite, from the Unauthorized Autobiography which otherwise made very little sense (I think I read it too early): "It was as cold and bitter as a cup of hot chocolate that has had vinegar stirred into it and been refrigerated for several hours." :D