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.
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.
We 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.
Then 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.
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.
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.
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.)
Just 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.
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.
We 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.
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.