Friday, August 24, 2012

Close Encounters with Famous Authors: J. K. Rowling (1999)

In 1999, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, came to our small town for a book signing, and the event was as much like a normal book signing as, say, a hot dog eating contest or a prison riot.

Rowling was then on the front-end of her seven-part set of fantasy novels. She had written three of the books, with a fourth due out soon. But, among literary sensations, she was a bit of an oddity. Her audience consisted largely of adolescents, who were not typically responsible for bestsellers. And her books sold in quantities never before encountered. (A news report at the time calculated that her books had sold more copies than any book except the Christian bible—which actually seemed an unfair competition since the latter had something like a two-thousand-year head-start and, well, quotes from God.)

When the book signing was announced in Santa Rosa, families were already battle-hardened veterans of waking at midnight and waiting in line to buy the first three books. Advance tickets for the signing, available in limited groups of four per family, sold out in hours.

The event took place on a Saturday afternoon in a local high school gymnasium. I arrived early, with my daughter, Chelsea, and two classmates, David and John. The gym was the usual high-ceilinged, cavernous space with hardwood floors and wooden bleachers. In a short time, 2500 other ticketholders, nearly all under the age of eleven and each clutching a copy of a Harry Potter book, filled the seats.

The air in the gym that day was alive with excitement and a little tension. We were going to see J.K. ROWLING! who was going to sign MY BOOK!

The tension came from recent rumors that one of the characters was going to die in the next book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Speculation was in high gear. Was it going to be the oafish Hagrid? Or, the side-kick Ron? Or, irritatingly smart Hermione? Each possibility seemed worse than the last. This reading cohort was unused to literary death. In most adolescent literature, deaths involved stray animals or occurred off-stage. By now, with the three books under their belts, these readers thought of the Harry Potter characters like close friends—and to be perfectly honest, in some cases, really better than their actual friends.

The worst part, several young readers told me, was waiting to see who it would be. The idea was thus born that J.K. ROWLING! would tell us today who was to die and relieve the suspense.

The event got under way with speeches by the organizers and an amateur drama about a wizard, but the audience quickly lost patience with delay of the main act. So they did what book-signing audiences have done throughout literary history. They began stamping their feet on the bleachers, clapping their hands, and rhythmically chanting: HAR-RY! HAR-RY! The sound of the chanting bounced off the concrete walls and hardwood floor and created a deafening din.

At some point during the chanting, the question occurred to me, as it does to all parents sometime in their life: Is there a level of noise that can actually cause the human head to explode?

If you think I’m taking liberties with reality, allow me to quote from a biography called J. K. Rowling: The Wizard Behind Harry Potter by Marc Shapiro, St. Martin’s Press, 2000, page 12: “During a reading in a high school gymnasium in Santa Rosa, California, Joanne was shocked when she looked out and saw 2,500 Harry Potter fans jumping up and down on the bleachers and shouting Harry! Harry! at the top of their lungs.”

As an eyewitness, I actually remember it more like HAR-RY! HAR-RY! But you get the point.

Rowling was eventually introduced and appeared on stage. She began by acknowledging the enthusiastic welcome. “I feel like one of the Spice Girls,” she said with a laugh.

She looked wan and tired, and her hair was a little mussed from travel. But she spoke in a lovely rural English accent, which surprised and charmed the young audience, many of whom had never heard “American words” spoken in such a pretty way. They giggled at her first few remarks, and repeated words to each other in her accent.

She told stories of meeting her American fans. She had recently discovered that the name Hermione was unfamiliar to American children. One young girl at another stop had told Rowling that her favorite character was “Hermie-One.” She talked about writing her books. But as to the top-of-the-mind topic for the audience, she spoke only glancingly about the character-dying controversy. She acknowledged the anxiety of her young readers, but said they would need to wait for the next book. She finished to thunderous applause and more chanting.

Then one of the organizers instructed us on the book-signing procedure. We would be taken in groups from the bleachers to a corridor outside the gym, where we would wait in line for the signing. We were required to abide by a number of rules stemming from the fact that Rowling was suffering from that bane of all international bestsellers: carpal tunnel syndrome.

We were not to ask Rowling to sign more than one book. We were not to request a personalized inscription. And most important of all, we were not to speak to Rowling. Printed copies of these rules were handed out. On the printed copy, the rule about not speaking was underlined and boldfaced in case any doubt existed on the point.

Our group was in the middle of the pack. When we were shown to the corridor, the line was so long that we could not see its end or Rowling herself. Once as we waited, a message was chain-linked back to us from the front of the line: Ms. Rowling’s wrist was sore, and she was taking a 10-minute break.

Periodically spaced on either side of the line were shirt-coordinated event-minders, who reiterated the rules as we waited.  The corridor was quieter than the gym, but my ears were still ringing, so their words seemed to be coming out of a tube.

After another 15 minutes or so, we finally approached the author’s table. As we grew near Rowling, the minders’ rules became more specific: Open book to title page. Turn book toward Ms. Rowling. And we were reminded of the most important rule: DO NOT SPEAK TO MS ROWLING!

The four of us robotically opened our books and turned them to face Rowling. Chelsea and I went first, then John, and finally David. It should be said here that David was an unusual child. Today, a dozen years later, he’s a modern artist, working in Berlin. But, on that day, as an adolescent, he was a rule-challenging, color-outside-the-line kind of kid.

So, when it came David’s turn, and he laid his book in front of Rowling, it should have come as no surprise that he spoke to her. “Please don’t kill Nelly,” he burst out. (Neville Longbottom was a shy, clumsy character in the Harry Potter series, known for losing things or causing accidents, and a comic hero for misfit readers such as David.)
It happened quickly, and for me, with the ringing in my ears, it was hard at first to tell if it happened at all. But I knew something was up, because the crowd around us froze. The corridor fell silent, and the minders looked about to pounce.

As the adult in charge of this transgressing child, I was concerned less about the minders than about Ms. Rowling herself. Of course, she was really just a writer and a single mother from Gloucestershire. Wasn’t she? She didn’t actually have magical powers (other than, of course, to sell millions of books worldwide). Or, did she? What actual proof did I have of her ordinariness?

Hadn’t we already been told hundreds of times, verbally and in writing, not to attempt to speak to Rowling? Wasn’t this exactly the dilemma of characters in her novels, who were warned numerous times not to say something, or touch something, or go somewhere, and then when they did it anyway, awful things happened? Wasn’t this what the Muggles did just before they were swollen or transformed into grotesque creatures?

What’s more, I was a surrogate parent. David’s mother had entrusted her son to me. How would I explain his return in the form of, say, a flying monkey or some half-turtle/half-badger thing?

For a terrible few seconds, Rowling’s head stayed bent over the book as she finished her signature on David’s book. Then she looked up at him and smiled. “OK. I won’t,” she said softly.

The crowd around us exhaled. The minders unclenched. David grinned back at Rowling and gathered his book in his arms. J.K. ROWLING!  had spoken to him and told him her secret: Neville Longbottom would survive!

As we headed toward the exit, I thought that, all in all, it had been a good literary experience. My daughter and her friends had attended their first book signing, or at least something that called itself one, where they had witnessed up close the down-to-earth person behind the most wondrous children’s book author of our time. As a bonus, I had avoided one of my group being transmogrified. And I was certain that over time, in a day or two at most, I would regain my ability to hear.

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