Wordy Wednesday: The Dark Lord and His Role in Fantasy

Last Semester of College, Part 4: Julia Continues to Be Exhausted.

Things wouldn’t be too hectic right now, except that I need to be on a plane tomorrow and I need all of my work for the next week done before then. And I haven’t started yet. And it’s almost 8:00 PM already. (Also, one is supposed to pack before traveling, right? Packing is a thing?)

I haven’t been up to much this past week. Mainly doing homework and doing my best to keep my head above water. (You know, except for that little, very exciting thing known as THE CH1CON YULE BALL.) (The Ch1Con Yule Ball was a live-streamed video panel of young authors the Chapter One Young Writers Conference hosted on Saturday.) (You can watch it here.) (Also you can enter the VERY COOL GIVEAWAYS we mention throughout it here.)

Oh, and I finished the first draft of my first full-length play on Friday! That was also a thing that happened. I’d been working on the play since November, 2014, so it feels really weird that it’s actually done now. (I mean, I still need to do many, many revisions on it, but the first draft! is no longer just in my head! So weird.)

(Okay, I take it back about not having much happen over the past week.)

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. Specifically: a paper I wrote for my fantasy literature course this time last year, about “dark lord” characters. (Warning that major spoilers follow for the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings series. Read at your own risk.)

**********

In all of fiction, the most pervasive and iconic antagonists come from works of fantasy. These characters invade popular culture and transcend the stories from which they came; not everyone has read George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, but they probably have made jokes about how “Big Brother is watching you” (Orwell 2) in reference to the growing vigilance of the government in relation to technology. Likewise, even those who have never watched a Star Wars film can quote—or at least misquote—the line in which Darth Vader reveals his identity to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. But what makes so many fantasy villains so memorable, especially in relation to their counterparts from other genres? In large part, it’s due to the Dark Lord character type, in which the antagonist is a figure of absolute evil: Characters who possess no chance of redemption, no trace of goodness. Characters who wipe the concept of moral relativity off the map. This type of character doesn’t work well outside of works of fantasy for the same reason it makes the antagonists who inhabit it so memorable: it isn’t realistic. Villains of such pure, unadulterated wickedness could not exist in real life—but are of course plausible in fantastical realities. Because these works bring the battle between good and evil to such extremes, they become striking. The relationship between characters of absolute evil and fantasy is reciprocal, as fantasy provides grounds for their existence and their existence makes fantasy one of the most consistently popular genres in literature, film, and beyond. By allowing authors to transcend the realistic in their portrayal of antagonists, fantasy offers the opportunity for the rise of absolute evil in the figure of the Dark Lord—found most memorably in such characters as The Lord of the Rings’s Sauron (J. R. R. Tolkien) and Harry Potter’s Voldemort (J. K. Rowling). This provides a safe space from which to approach the concept of evil, grounds for easier development of secondary characters, and a more readily apparent opposition between the dark side and light, all of which come together to allow fantasy to remain an iconic presence in fiction.

The Dark Lord paradigm is partly so effective due to the fact that the majority of fantastical works are produced for children. Because it brings evil outside its naturally realistic context, the concept becomes less frightening for children. It no longer directly affects them, but simply characters about whom they care; it’s the difference between empathy and sympathy—the latter of which allows children to keep their distance while still learning about the malevolent. Likewise, because the paradigm pushes evil to extremes, it makes it easier to recognize, examine, and understand. Young children are not yet able to comprehend the shades of grey that contribute to the battles waged in real society, so a black and white fight between good and evil puts these concepts into a context they are able to wrap their minds around, then disseminate upon real conflicts to the best of their abilities. In essence, the existence of the Dark Lord allows children to approach the concept of evil from a safe space. This is more obviously evidenced in works such as Harry Potter, as it is a children’s series, but also was part of Tolkien’s decision-making process when writing the Lord of the Rings series. While he wrote the trilogy for adults, it is sequel to his earlier children’s fantasy The Hobbit. So, although The Lord of the Rings is much darker and more complex than The Hobbit, the original world-building that went into Middle-Earth was designed for children. Traces of this are evident throughout The Lord of the Rings. For example, in the very first pages of The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien describes hobbits as “a merry folk” (The Fellowship of the Ring 2), “smaller than Dwarves … [height] ranging between two and four feet” (The Fellowship of the Ring 1) with faces “as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red-cheeked, with mouths apt to laughter, and to eating and drinking” (The Fellowship of the Ring 2). Because Tolkien wrote The Hobbit for children, he needed a protagonist with whom the reader could connect while still being old enough to reasonably take on the plot of the novel. So, he developed a fantastical species in his hobbits that can most easily be equated to children. Hobbits even “dress … in bright colours … but seldom … [wear] shoes” (The Fellowship of the Ring 2), like the majority of children do, or at least wish they could. The child, or child-like, hero is important in stories featuring a Dark Lord antagonist due to the underdog status it gives its protagonists. The Dark Lord is not only physically larger, but generally older, more experienced, and surer of himself. Often it seems as if the character that should go head to head with the Dark Lord is the guiding figure that mentors the young protagonist, such as Gandalf or Dumbledore, not the protagonist his or herself. It is the difficulties the protagonist must endure and the occasions to which he or she must rise, however, which define the story and make the eventual victory over the Dark Lord so worthwhile. Interestingly, a similar “growing up” as that of The Lord of the Rings from The Hobbit takes place throughout the Harry Potter series, as Rowling’s conflicts likewise become darker and more complex on par with Harry and his friends as they age. Despite this, the final showdown is between The-Boy-Who-Lived and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named: a classic battle between good and evil. While the rest of the Wizarding world has descended into shades of grey by the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Ron abandons Harry and Hermione out of jealousy; Snape reveals he is a double agent; the Malfoys want nothing more than to keep their family intact—the series, in the end, is still centered on the black and white.

The existence of a Dark Lord character also opens the door for these shades of grey in secondary conflicts. The Dark Lord generally has some sort of minions who are equally as evil, albeit less powerful, as him or herself, from Sauron’s Orcs to the most dedicated of Voldemort’s Death Eaters. However, other antagonistic characters show more complexity, and generally this complexity grows in relation to how well these characters reflect the goals and/or personality of the Dark Lord. For example, in the Harry Potter series, Rowling introduces Peter Pettigrew as a manipulative, sniveling man who has “always liked big friends who’d look after [him]” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 369). However, due to Harry choosing to spare his life, Pettigrew later feels that he owes Harry, and ends up dying in the process of saving Harry from the Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Thus, Pettigrew represents a lesser evil than Voldemort’s absolute that develops over time due to how he views Voldemort and Voldemort’s directives in relation to his own moral code. The absolute evil of the Dark Lord creates a space wherein characters of lesser degrees of evil can exist, giving the reader the opportunity to further examine the nature of evil, witness varying forms of evil, and ultimately decide where he or she believes the dividing line between good and evil to be. It also lends a more realistic touch to a conflict otherwise defined by its fantastical elements, because while a Dark Lord character could not exist in the real world, these secondary antagonists likely could.

Another reason for the lasting presence of Dark Lord characters takes shape due to the form through which these antagonists oppose their protagonists. More than simply presenting a cut and dry, black and white divide between good and evil, the existence of an absolute evil draws attention to the other differences between the protagonist and antagonist as well. While in real life, the leaders of two sides of a conflict will often have similar personality traits but differing views that make them butt heads, when dealing with a Dark Lord character a distinct opposition arises in personality in addition to views. Due to the lack of moral relativism imposed by the concept of an irredeemably bad character—thus eliminating the more realistic antagonist who believes what he or she is doing is for the best, albeit in opposition to the protagonist’s views—the conflict is no longer about which side the protagonist believes to be right, but which side inherently is right. In order to intensify this divide, the Dark Lord character commonly represents not just views, but personality traits with which the hero diverges. For example, both Voldemort and Sauron crave power, while both Harry and Frodo shy away from it and prefer peace and tranquility. As Dumbledore says, “perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 718). These are stories not simply about what is right and wrong, as far as what characters stand for, but stories about what is right and wrong as far as what characters are. This comes across even further in the climaxes of these stories, as the Dark Lord loses power and the hero unwittingly gains it—only to choose to give it up in the conclusion in order to live a quiet, peaceful life; it’s the opposition between selfishness versus selflessness, cowardliness versus courage, and isolation versus—to borrow a term from The Lord of the Rings—fellowship. The Dark Lord presents himself in these morality tales that in many ways less ask the reader to decide what he or she believes to be right or wrong, but rather show what he or she should believe to be right or wrong.

Every element of these stories is colored by the Dark Lord’s existence. Harry Potter is not Harry Potter without Voldemort; The Lord of the Rings is not The Lord of the Rings without said Lord of the Rings. It’s interesting that when given the opportunity to create antagonists of absolute evil, many authors choose it, and their stories become some of the most popular not just of their genre, but of fiction altogether. In a way, believing a character to be irredeemably evil makes it easier to oppose him or her. In The Lord of the Rings, several members of the Fellowship have a friendly competition in which they compare how many members of Sauron’s army they’ve killed; this is fun, cheeky in the context of the work, because no matter what, the Orcs will never become good. Likewise, it’s easier to stomach Harry and his friends—children—killing their opponents throughout the Harry Potter series due to the fact that, not only are they fighting for their lives, but the men and women against whom they are fighting generally fit Voldemort’s vision of absolute evil. Still, it says something about humanity, that in these tales of great battles, in which the heroes slaughter countless bad guys, authors choose to write antagonists who are not human—at least not realistically so. In this way, authors such as Tolkien and Rowling go one step further in their morality tales, sharing a vision of goodness that does not condone violence except as the last resort. As the prophecy in Harry Potter states, “neither can live while the other survives” (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix 841). Characters throughout Rowling’s series try to help Voldemort, but he resists goodness, choosing instead to cement his Dark Lord status and, inadvertently with it, his imminent doom. Thus, while fantasy allows a figure of absolute evil to exist, in the end the Dark Lord must die, and more than anything else, it is this—the fact that good can and will defeat evil, no matter how strong—which makes these stories so popular. By allowing authors to transcend the realistic in their portrayal of antagonists, fantasy offers the opportunity for the rise of absolute evil in the figure of the Dark Lord—found most memorably in such characters as The Lord of the Rings’s Sauron (Tolkien) and Harry Potter’s Voldemort (Rowling). However, the general traits of the genre also assure the fall of such a character, and this provides a safe space from which to approach the concept of evil, grounds for easier development of secondary characters, and a more readily apparent opposition between the dark side and light—all of which come together to allow fantasy to remain an iconic presence in fiction, and Dark Lord characters as equally of iconic characters.

******

Bibliography

  • Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four, a Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 1999. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2007. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2000. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2005. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine, 2003. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 1999. Print.
  • Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: A.A. Levine, 1998. Print.
  • The Empire Strikes Back. 1980. Film.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Print.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. Print.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Print.
  • Tolkien, J. R. R. The Two Towers. London: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

**********

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

 

Wordy Wednesday: Every Story Is a Mystery

This past week has been busy. I spent the weekend skiing up north with my family, then Monday afternoon one of my film classes had a Skyped-in guest lecture by one of the head guys from New Line Cinema, which was super cool. Monday evening I was honored and grateful to get to read a short story at the university undergraduate library as part of an annual event in which the creative writing professors nominate students to share their work. It was my second year in a row doing it and I still can’t get over how talented the other writers here are. I’m so lucky to have gotten to share the stage with them.

I read “All She Hears,” a short story that appeared in the collection that won a Hopwood Underclassmen Fiction Award and the Arthur Miller Award last year. SUCH A COOL EXPERIENCE.

I would have loved to have stayed to listen to all the students reading that night, but my family and I left a few after I read because Conrad Pope (Hollywood orchestrator and composer) was giving a guest lecture across campus and who knows when my next chance to hear someone speak on their involvement in Harry Potter and Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean and a billion other amazing things would be, right? (And dude, he was awesome.)

Anyway, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

I feel like I’ve probably talked about this before and just forgotten, but in case I haven’t: a big epiphany moment for me in writing was realizing that every story is a mystery.

For some reason this didn’t hit me until I was reading Harry Potter for the first time in tenth grade, but I can totally see why that’s what finally got that through to me. Harry Potter is marketed as fantasy, not mystery, but while fantasy plays a big part in setting and character development and all that, what truly drives the plot forward (and keeps the reader reading) are the mysteries at the center of each book. (Fun fact: JK Rowling has hardly read any fantasy books, but is super into reading crime novels. So of course her fantasy unfolds the same way as crime.)

But it’s not just the Harry Potter series (MG-YA fantasy) that does this. It’s all books. Anna and the French Kiss (YA contemporary romance)? You spend the entire book chasing the mystery of whether or not Anna and St Clair will get together. The Hunger Games (YA dystopian)? You try to figure out what’s truly going on in the Games and Panem. And all stories rely on the resolution of the mystery in order to leave the reader satisfied at the end.

Basically: stories rely on leaving the reader guessing what will happen next. Whether you’re writing a thriller or realistic fiction, to write an interesting story you have to establish questions to keep the reader invested, lay clues for what your resolution will be so that it doesn’t seem out of nowhere, keep the reader in the dark for as long as possible so that the story feels smart and interesting all the way to the end, etc.

While your story may not rely on a crime as the central element to the plot, you can treat pretty much anything like a crime in the way you unfold the story from there: Have your character act as a detective, going out and interacting with the world, being an active agent in his or her plot. (A solid protagonist relies on action over reaction.) Make your protagonist learn things slowly but constantly, with the pace of learning speeding up exponentially as you move towards the climax, like how the pace of a crime investigation speeds up as the police get closer to figuring out who the murderer is and making the arrest.

Foreshadow. Lay red herrings. And most importantly: treat your reader as an intelligent and active part of the story. Someone who it is your job to trick and mislead–but also charm–until the very end.

So, if you’re having trouble with keeping your plot moving or don’t know where to go next, think about how you think Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would do it. Or even JK Rowling. (Sorry. Robert Galbraith.)

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

England Trip Recap (Part 3)

If you’re wondering where Parts 1 & 2 of this series are, you can find them here and here, respectively.

You’ll notice that both those posts are from over a year ago. That’s because back last July, after returning from my first trip to England, I recapped everything we did while over here up until the very last part of our last day: the Leavesden Studios Tour. At which point I got too insanely busy doing Things-That-Must-Not-Be-Named (I swear someday I’ll give details of how I spent the end of summer 2013), and by the time I wasn’t insanely busy anymore, it felt like it was too awkwardly late to put up the recap.

But now I’m in England again and I was in London over the weekend again and GUESS WHERE I SPENT SUNDAY NIGHT. THAT’S RIGHT. THE LEAVESDEN STUDIOS TOUR AGAIN.

So, who’s ready for an extremely belated (but once again relevant) recap post?

[Pictures are from both my 2013 and 2014 visits.] [In case you were wondering how my hair magically changes length and color throughout this post.]

**********

For those not in the know, Leavesden Studios is where the Harry Potter movies were primarily filmed. Now that the movies are done, they’ve opened the studios for all the devotees to be able to make pilgrimages to see the sets and props and costumes and models and concept art and blueprints and BASICALLY EVERYTHING AMAZING THAT WENT INTO MAKING THE AMAZING MOVIES.

Harry Potter Studio Tour 2013

My visit last year was with members of my high school theatre company and our families (they’d invited alumni and relatives back for the trip to England). This year I went with seven girls from my programme. (Coincidentally after stopping by Platform 9 3/4 both the night before and that morning, so various members of the group could get their pictures taken.)

IMG_5432

It was fun going through the tour a second time, because:

a) I hadn’t budgeted my time well my first time through, so I’d missed a lot of stuff in the second half.

b) I now knew how to budget my time going through the tour.

and c) I now knew when to expect the shock and glee and grateful and crying moments (and therefore got to watch my friends have those reactions).

IMG_5442Blurry Great Hall. Fun fact: They had to use actual flagstone for the floor in order to accommodate the furniture, actors, and equipment. Fake stone wouldn’t have been able to stand the weight or use. 

IMG_5454Mirror of Erised.

IMG_5459Harry, Hermione, and Ron costumes from Half-Blood Prince. Check out that cool green screen magic going on with the Invisibility Cloak.

IMG_5477Wall of portraits. The green screen ones are the ones that would move in shots. And if I’m remembering right, the others all have faces of people important to the films, like the producers and all that.

A highlight for me was definitely getting to learn so much about the behind-the-scenes stuff for the movies. As much as I love seeing things like the Goblet of Fire and Dumbledore’s office in person, I can’t get over getting to see all the green screens and lights and wires. It must have been so incredible to take part in putting all the pieces of these movies together.

IMG_5472

Another really cool thing about visiting the studio tour right now is that they’ve got a special promotion going on in which they have special displays up. My favorites were the broom-making exhibit (in which the actual broom-makers from the series talked to us and, you know, MADE BROOMS), a board game from a deleted scene (that apparently is so complex no one remembers how to play it anymore), and part of a chess board set up so you could interact with the giant pieces as they whizzed across the spaces.

IMG_5489

IMG_5500The girl working the board game display was super nice and complimented my Hogwarts Alumni tank–at which point I had to sheepishly explain that no, it was not some cool new official merchandise, but something I’d gotten off a street vendor at Oxford for like three quid. (Harry Potter merch designers: You need to get on making Hogwarts Alumni stuff.)

IMG_5525Rockin’ that subtle Ravenclaw pride.

We took a break at the courtyard that is the halfway point for Butterbeer and general fangirling.

IMG_5518

The second half of the tour focuses even more on the behind-the-scenes elements of Leavesden, with entire rooms dedicated to the prosthetics used to turn human actors into all the various, crazy creatures; blueprints; concept art; and the teeny tiny models used in the design process for later constructing the monstrous sets.

IMG_5540

IMG_5613

IMG_5622

IMG_5621

But also, of course, Diagon Alley.

IMG_5584

The tour ends with what are arguably the two best rooms (but only arguably, because the entire thing is fantastic).

The first is the model of Hogwarts that they actually used in filming for the earlier movies. I cannot enter this room without crying. (Yes. Even my second time through, I got misty-eyed.)

IMG_5630It’s just… that IS Hogwarts. That is the Hogwarts, right there, that we grew up with and saw a thousand times on screen and dreamed about.

The final room is “Ollivander’s.” Floor to ceiling, shelves full of wand boxes inscribed with names coat the walls. Each person to work on the movies has a box. It’s beautiful.

IMG_5677

Last year, a worker used a laser pointer to show us where all the Big Name People’s boxes are. No one was there to do that this year, but I still remembered a couple.

IMG_5675

After that, all that was left to do was spend my (parents’) life savings in the gift shop and make plans for our next Harry Potter movie marathon. (Because Harry Potter = true love.)

**********

~Julia

Story Time: I MET JK ROWLING

Friday I pulled on the dress that had been hanging in the corner of my dorm room for the past several days and slid my feet into my favorite, battered pair of grey Converse. I applied my mascara with extra care while my hair hung damp against my shoulders, fresh from a hurried shower.

I wished I’d remembered to paint my nails. I chugged a cup of English breakfast tea. I stuffed Fellowship of the Ring (my current reading for class) in one pocket of my backpack and my bright pink umbrella (because English weather) in another.

Then, I carefully lifted my stiff, freshly-purchased copy of crime writer Robert Galbraith’s new novel The Silkworm from my shelf. I slipped a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone atop it and placed them in the nest I’d made in the main pocket of my backpack with my pajama shorts and a V-neck. I slipped a cardigan over them, careful to tuck it around the corners.

I locked my door behind me and, with it, left my own personal Hogwarts—Oxford—for Harrogate.

Harrogate is a spa town in northern England known for a café called Betty’s and the fact that they play host to approximately a thousand and one festivals per year. (This number has not been scientifically verified, but I’m sure it’s accurate).

The current festival is the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival. And Robert Galbraith—pseudonym for the already rather pseudonymous JK Rowling—was scheduled to appear “in conversation” with Val McDermid Friday evening.IMG_4601

Tickets for the event had gone on sale back in March, two days after Hannah and I were supposed to find out if we’d been accepted to study at Oxford for the summer or not. Only our programme had gotten behind with their decisions, so we had to take a leap of faith in choosing to try to get tickets.

I got up at four AM that Monday and bundled myself in a massive fleece blanket on my futon. Fingers trembling with nerves, I called the box office number via Skype the second the tickets went on sale—only to get a busy tone and have the call hang up. Same story the second time. And the third. And the fourth.

Heart doing its best to thump its way out of my body, palms sweating and the most creative swear words known to man racing through my mind, I called endlessly until finally (FINALLY) ringing echoed through my laptop speakers.

Then I punched the air. And I purchased two tickets to see JK Rowling from a very kind English woman who seemed confused as to why an American was trying to get to an event in England. Then I freaked out alone in my room, because at that point it was still only like five thirty in the morning and Hannah (like all sane human beings that side of the Atlantic) was still asleep.

But I had two tickets. For me and one of my best friends. TO SEE JK ROWLING.

If only Oxford would get around to telling us whether or not we’d be spending the summer there.

Over the course of the next couple weeks, I spazzed almost nonstop about the fact that I’d maybe/hopefully/probably/maybe not/but maybe yes/but maybe not/but maybe YES be seeing my idol live in July. And, thank God, Oxford did eventually accept the two of us.

So Hannah and I freaked out some more, and made plans and booked train tickets, and then finally there we were: Harrogate, England. Sitting on the steps of the Royal Hall, reading The Silkworm while the author did whatever Joanne Murray does when she’s not actively being either JK Rowling or Robert Galbraith.

IMG_4603We were first in line to pick up our tickets from Will Call when the doors to the building opened at six thirty, which left us a half hour to kill (Get it? Kill? Like crime fiction? I’m so punny) before the auditorium itself opened to audience members.

We drank massive glasses of ice water and Diet Coke while giving our bladders pep talks to hold out ’til the end of the night. Under our breaths we sang “Tomorrow” from Annie and “Goin’ Back to Hogwarts” from A Very Potter Musical. We snapped awkward selfies and commented on how diverse the people streaming around us were, in both age and dress.

IMG_4606Then the doors opened and we found we weren’t just going to see JK Rowling; we were going to see her from the ground floor—towards the FRONT of the Grand Circle (comprising the back half of the seats), even.

We settled in and snapped more pictures. Hannah and I alternated between me shrieking, “Hey, Hannah. JK ROWLING IS IN THE SAME BUILDING AS US RIGHT NOW,” and her moaning, “Julia. I CAN’T BREATHE.”

They closed the doors. “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, it’s happening.” I glanced between Hannah and the stage. Hannah. The stage. “IT’S ACTUALLY HAPPENING.”

“I. CAN’T. BREATHE,” Hannah wailed.

IMG_4607

Val McDermid came out. She made the audience laugh and applaud and hold our breaths. Then, almost as if she were trying to shock us all into cardiac arrest with the suddenness of it, she proclaimed, “Please welcome to the stage: JK Rowling, or Robert Galbraith!”

A stiletto appeared from behind the curtain, followed by a long leg clothed in the most fashionable of pantsuits ever worn (Rowling’s “Robert Galbraith” attire).

And, probably to no one’s surprise but my own, I burst into tears.

I’m not a crier. I’ve met some of my favorite authors before. I’ve talked with Veronica Roth and had my picture taken with Ally Carter; I’ve emailed with Lauren Oliver and watched Rick Riordan on a panel from the first row.

But as much as I adore those authors, none have shaped my life, and the lives of those around me, as much as JK Rowling. And it just seemed so incredible in that moment that she existed, she actually existed, and she was real and alive and a human being living in the same world and time as I was. This woman who has done so much for all of us.

It was like seeing Shakespeare or Jesus. (Okay, not Jesus, but you get the point.)

“Hannah,” I whimpered, leaning towards her and pinching the bridge of my nose. “Hannah, I am literally crying.”

“Julia,” she replied, “I AM TOO.”

A glance around the audience revealed we were not the only ones. JK Rowling probably would have gotten a standing ovation just for being in the same room as all of us if it weren’t for the fact we were all too overcome with emotion to successfully balance on two feet and clap at the same time. (Even clapping was difficult with the way I kept needing to wipe my eyes.)

The conversation between Rowling and McDermid began. Rowling poured water for both of them. They bounced snarky one liners and endearing praise off one another. McDermid told the story of how her publisher had sent her The Cuckoo’s Calling in hopes of getting a review off her to feature on the cover—since they needed a way to get people to read this random debut author’s work—and Rowling laughed about how she’d had to send a thank you letter as Galbraith, which was difficult since the two of them are good friends. (She sent a second thank you letter as herself after the news of her identity broke a couple months later.)

Rowling admitted she hasn’t read widely in fantasy, but has been reading crime pretty much her entire life and she’s a big fan of the classics. She referenced the TARDIS in comparison of something (I wish I could remember what) and Hannah and I looked at each other and FLIPPED. OUT. She spoke on length about her writing process; how she must research and plan everything in excruciating detail in order to be able to get words on the page. How she’d wanted to write crime fiction for ages, but needed the proper plots and characters to come to her.

When the Cormoran Strike series did come to her, it was with the plot of the second book—The Silkworm—which she called the most complexly-plotted novel she’s ever written. The first bit she thought of was the opening of Chapter Forty Eight (which I am now dying to read).

She told us how she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling first because she wanted to introduce Strike’s world in simpler terms than would have been necessary with The Silkworm. She talked about how she’s already halfway done writing Book 3 and halfway through plotting Book Four, and while she does have a loose plan for the Cormoran Strike series, she does not know how many books she’ll write, except that she would like to keep writing them until she no longer physically can.

One of my favorite parts of the conversation was a story she told in which she was researching the café in the opening chapter of The Silkworm in London. She wanted Strike to order the Full English Breakfast but she wasn’t entirely positive what that would entail at the café, so she dragged her husband there and made him order it while she quietly took notes from across the table.

In the middle of this, a man barreled through the door and shouted, “I’ve just heard JK Rowling is writing in here!” He glanced around the café at the startled diners, grinning like a mad man. His eyes landed RIGHT. ON. HER. as he said, “But I wouldn’t recognize her if I saw her anyway.” Then he walked right out again and no one ever realized it was her (MUCH to her and her husband’s relief).

The conversation was wonderful. They told jokes about each other and talked about their inspirations and favorite books. At one point while Rowling and McDermid were talking, I became aware of the weight of the book in my lap. It was so incredibly heavy; a pleasant sort of pressure. I glanced down at The Silkworm and traced the title with my pointer finger.

JK Rowling was right there, in front of me. Maybe one hundred feet away. And I was holding her words, and so much had changed since I’d first heard of the Boy Who Lived, and it was absolute insanity.

I closed my eyes and tried to memorize every detail of that moment. The weight of the words and the way JK Rowling was laughing at something Val McDermid had said and how my cotton dress brushed soft against my legs. The heat of all the bodies around me and Hannah watching the stage so intently and the glow from the half-closed laptop of the woman sitting two to my right. The ornate decorations that made up every surface of the theatre and my heartbeat at my throat.

IMG_4611

Hannah confessed afterward that she had actually, literally forgotten to breathe at several points while Rowling was on stage.

The conversation ended with another round of crazy applause as Rowling strode off stage right, waving to the audience. Then they told us that if we stayed in our seats, we’d have the opportunity to meet her in a bit and get our books signed.

“Julia,” Hannah said, right on cue. “I CAN’T BREATHE.”

While we waited for our row to get called to join the queue for the signing, a Theakstons employee came around with little holographic stickers, placing them in each of the books opposite the page Rowling would be signing.

“What’s that for?” a woman sitting to my left asked.

“It proves this is a genuine JK Rowling signature,” the employee replied.

I ran a finger over the sticker in my own copy of The Silkworm. My heart pounded in my ears. I resisted the urge to cry AGAIN.

IMG_4616

Soon enough, it was Hannah and my turn to join the queue. I hopped from foot to foot as we waited, and attempted to get a picture with Rowling in it at the other end. (I failed at this endeavor, because I’m pretty sure there are house elves who are taller than me and we were never allowed to take pictures while we were within Sane Picture-Taking Distances of her, including during the conversation.)

(But still. Rowling is SOMEWHERE at the other end of the photo below.)

IMG_4622Just like it had seemed sudden when Val McDermid had brought Rowling on stage for the conversation, it was almost too soon when I found myself handing my book to the Theakstons employee standing at the head of the queue—then stepped in front of Queen Rowling herself.

Because I am an absolutely brilliant human being, I hadn’t been able to settle on what to say beforehand, despite the months I had to prepare. It’d just never seemed quite like it was actually, really, truly going to happen. (Plus, I figured I only had a few seconds and there was nothing I could say she hadn’t heard before.)

At the least, I figured I should be able to manage a grateful, “Harry Potter changed my life,” or, “You’re my idol.” Something cliché but meaningful.

Nope.

Out of nowhere I was standing before her and she was signing my book and my time was almost up and I couldn’t get over the fact that JK ROWLING WAS HOLDING, AND TOUCHING, AND SIGNING MY BOOK, and my mouth fell open and I had to say something—and I gasped out without thinking, “Thank you so much for writing… so many… great… books…!?”

Like it was a question. Like she was just any old writer. Like her books were just “great,” the way I also regularly describe naps and pizza.

Bless her heart: JK Rowling met my eye and smiled and said, “Thank you!” as if this was totally original (you know, in a good way) and actually a worthy way of putting what she’s done for my generation.

I grinned and nodded dumbly. I was numb to my fingertips.

Then I shuffled out of the way as Hannah moved into place before her and I let the Theakstons employees guide me from the table. But I kept glancing back, glancing back, as the woman who had shaped so much of so many people’s lives fell further away.

A moment later Hannah joined me at a small table set off to the side towards the other end of the queue, and we stared at my copy of The Silkworm. A lump hardened in my throat at the thought of touching it.

IMG_4625We cried a little, and hyperventilated a lot, then hurried out of the Royal Hall before we could make even bigger fools of ourselves.

Except, of course, that’s impossible after meeting JK Freaking Rowling, so out on the street my shock seemed to finally start to wear off—at which point I began laughing hysterically and couldn’t stop for like thirty minutes, until we were all the way on the other side of Harrogate’s town center, searching out a restaurant because we were STARVED, and the two of us had convinced everyone else in town we were lunatics.

While we scarfed our pizza, Hannah and I alternated between recounting the evening again and again, laughing and crying and generally freaking out, and sitting quietly in the fading glow of all that had occurred. We couldn’t get over how beautiful and smart and kind Rowling was. You get that a little from a distance, through interviews and on the page, but you don’t realize quite how incredible a person she is until you meet her. She is truly, fully deserving of all her success. And I am so glad she is the one who shaped so much about our generation.

When we got back to the amazing airbnb place we were staying at (seriously, check it out if you’re ever in Harrogate), we continued to freak out to anyone who would listen (primarily my mom, who had the misfortune of picking up my Facetime call), then decided to reread some Harry Potter before sleeping.

Lying there with a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone open before me, rereading Harry’s beginnings and remembering the first time my gaze had traced over those words, my eyes burned and filled with tears yet again.

To put it simply: JK Rowling broke me.

But I smiled as I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of Butterbeer and Quidditch. And that was the day I met JK Rowling.

IMG_4617

 

~Julia

PS. Crime author Sarah Hilary happened to be staying at the same airbnb place as us and we got to talk with her over breakfast, Saturday morning. She’s super nice and I can’t wait to read her debut novel! It’s called Someone Else’s Skin and sounds amazing. Check it out.

Big News Post, Take Two

I’ve been promising another Big News post for a couple weeks now, and I FINALLY CAN SHARE THINGS WITH YOU!

Drum roll please…

This is a Book Too is back!

Yup, after our unplanned hiatus (school has this annoying habit of getting in the way of projects like this, yes?), Mel and I are finally back in action with This is a Book Too. Check out new chapters on the official This is a Book Trilogy blog at: www.thisisabookthebook.wordpress.com.

I’m attending BookCon (AKA “Power Reader Day” of Book Expo America)!

I’m so excited to finally get to check out this event! (By which I mean “fangirl all over my favorite authors, likely scaring them so badly they’ll never come near me ever again.”) Plus, I’m attending with my super talented writing friends Ariel and Joan, and a couple of our parents, so that automatically makes it 110% awesomer. (Also: I love New York. Like a lot.) (Also, also: BROADWAY.)

I won the Arthur Miller Award!!!

The Arthur Miller Award is a prize here at U of M for writers. The winner receives a scholarship, an autographed copy of DEATH OF A SALESMAN (because Arthur Miller), and, you know, the right to stare in disbelief at the email and jump around a lot and maybe even cry, just a little bit. (Not that I did any of those things.)

I’m so incredibly honored to have been selected to be this year’s recipient. U of M’s got a kind of crazy number of talented writers, so the fact that they chose my entry blows my mind. A lot.

… Aaand, last but not-at-all least:

I’m studying abroad at Oxford this summer!!!!!

THAT’S RIGHT. I GOT IN TO MY DREAM STUDY ABROAD PROGRAM. AND I’M GOING. OH MY GOSH, OH MY GOSH, OH MY GOSH.

I’m studying British literature in the place it was written, and some of my friends are going to be there at the same time, and it’s basically going to be beautiful.

On top of that: While in the UK, Hannah (who’s in the same program as me!) and I are attending–wait for it–JK Rowling’s session at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival! (If you happen to feel a flutter in your chest at this news, that’s probably the heart attack I had while scrambling to purchase the tickets rubbing off on you. I apologize.)

The plan is to keep the blog up and running while I’m over there, so prepare yourself for a deluge of posts about how wonderful Europe is.

I’m off to daydream about summer (so close, yet so far away). Love you!

~Julia