My dear friend Jennie asked me to write down the whole story of meeting J.K. Rowling, and so here it is:
When I read that J.K. Rowling was going to make a single public appearance on her American book tour for “The Casual Vacancy,” I was like, “Oh, but I absolutely must get tickets!” Which is, of course, the same reaction I’ve been having for the last decade every time I hear about one of Rowling’s rare readings/book signings. Acquiring tickets to such a thing is as about as likely as getting your hands on a bottle of baby unicorn tears. You have to enter a lottery, you have to write an essay, you have to be British, you have to be an actual kid. But I guess my girlfriend and I had a Felix Felicis amount of luck on our side this time.
The event was meant to be held at Jazz at Lincoln Center, but Lincoln Center accidentally double-sold tickets and had to move to David H. Koch Theater. (All thanks to Jo, actually. Lincoln Center was just going to refund the money to half of the people and call it a day, but Jo said she wanted to honor everyone who bought a ticket, which meant, among other things, that she would have to sign twice as many books.)
I talked/typed in ALL CAPS leading up to the event, but when Rowling walked on stage, I couldn’t even find my voice to cheer. I was so very choked up. We gave her a couple of standing ovations. In fact, it took like ten minutes to introduce her and get the presentation underway because everyone kept jumping to their feet and erupting in applause. “Jo Rowling [clapping! hollering!] is the author [screaming! shouting!] of the Harry [cheers! tears!] Potter [hails! hurrahs!] series …” And on and on until Ann Patchett, who was leading the interview, was all, “It’s like a Stones concert in here! Sit down! We only have an hour!”
After praising her as the savior of bookstores and the publishing industry and also gushing about how much she loved “The Casual Vacancy” — she compared the style to a couple of omniscient-voiced geniuses of Russian literature — Patchett asked about Rowling’s writing process, about specific plot and character stuff in the novel, and about what it is like to be the most revered author in the world. Rowling handled herself with her trademark self-deprecating humor and aplomb. A couple of highlights/quotes:
She told Patchett that the difference between “The Casual Vacancy” and “50 Shades of Grey” is: “People have sex in this book but no one really enjoys it.”
Patchett talked about Rowling’s willingness to take it all the way w/r/t evil and villainy in her books. Patchett made the point that children’s literature and young adult literature are much braver and bolder in that respect, and Jo said that it’s so important for children to have stories they can use to grapple with darkness: “Children are very familiar with fear. It gives them a safe place to deal with fear. It’s very, very wrong to censor what a child reads from that point of view.”
Jo said she is able to deal with editing pretty well, she thinks: “I’ve never hit anyone.”
A favorite quip: "All of our lives are absurd in some ways, ridiculous in others. That is life."
Patchett was reluctant to switch from her own interview questions to the pre-submitted audience questions, but the audience questions were actually way better. One of the best ones was, “Which fictional world would you most want to live in?” Jo said the obvious answer is Hogwarts, but that she lived there for 17 years and can still visit any time she likes. And so: “Meryton and try to cut out Elizabeth Bennet with Mr. Darcy.” And then: “Oh, who doesn’t have a thing for Mr. Dacry?”
Every time she mentioned Harry Potter, the excitement in the room was barely containable. The whole place was alive with collective admiration.
After the interview and Q&A, Jo did a reading from “The Casual Vacancy,” and then they called us up row-by-row to have our books autographed. (The only option for an autograph was the copy of the book they handed you right before you reached the table.)
However surreal it was to be in the room with Rowling, you have to multiply that times a billion to understand what it felt like to be queued up and walking towards her. Everyone was vibrating with energy and excitement, chattering away about how meeting her was their biggest dream come true and no one could believe it was really happening and how she’d changed their lives. It was just talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk and some occasional squeals. The closer I got to her, the less I could hear of what anyone else was saying, and when it was my turn to walk to the table, everything else in the world fell away.
As soon as I handed her my book, I was absolutely overcome with emotion, like a white-hot fire of gratitude and awe burning inside me. I managed to choke out a tiny “t-t-t-hank you” as tears streamed down my cheeks. She smiled at me when she took the book from my hands. When my voice shook and broke, she looked up from the book, tilted her head to the side, locked her eyes on mine, and smiled at me so sweetly. She told me I was most welcome and signed my book and gave it to me and the handlers shuffled me and my girlfriend out the door.
She’s more beautiful in real life than even the pictures you’ve seen. Her eyes are a knowing, Dumbledorian blue. She has impeccable posture and her hands move with the grace of a pianist. She’s funnier too, and the way she laughs is a little bit wicked, like how you’d imagine Jane Austen laughed to herself. She drank champagne and also water while signing books. She told one girl who was wearing maroon and gold scarf: “It’s always a pleasure to meet a fellow Gryffindor.” And another girl who thanked her for staying awake so late to sign so many books: “No, thank you for staying awake to say hello.”
Outside the theater, people were laughing and squealing and hugging and posing with their books for photos and snapping pictures of their tickets and each other. I barely held myself together, just sort of ducked my head down and weaved through the crowd because I was crying so hard. I cried the whole cab ride home. I cried later in the night. I cried this morning. I cried when I was telling my best friend the story over the phone. I’m crying as I’m typing this.
Loving Harry Potter doesn’t make me unique, I know. It is a distinction I share with a billion other people, literally. Wanting to meet J.K. Rowling — hell, revering J.K. Rowling — doesn’t make me unique either. It is not uncommon to feel like she changed the way I think about reading, changed the way I think about story, changed the way I think about life and myself and heroism and friendship and kindness and humor and courage and magic. It is not even uncommon to feel like J.K. Rowling saved my life. I’ve been reading all day on Tumblr and Twitter and Facebook about people who had the exact same reaction as I did last night. An entire generation, multiple generations, who didn’t only lose themselves at Hogwarts, but found themselves there as well.
And I guess that’s what makes the experience of meeting her truly remarkable: that I could share it with so many other people who responded the same way, yet feel so singularly moved by it. To feel as if a balm has been applied to the hidden, secret, sacred pieces of me simply by having the chance to stand in front of a children’s book author and express a fraction of my gratitude for what she’s given me. The books were for billions, this event was for thousands, but when J.K. Rowling smiled at my tear-stained face and said “You’re welcome,” it felt like it was just for me.