The music swells, the stage is empty. Then, through a door on the right, a slight blonde woman strides into view. The crowd rises in thunderous applause. From my perch in the Dress Circle of Carnegie Hall, I can see J.K. Rowling.
The author was in the U.S. this week for a book tour, mainly for schoolchildren, but I had been lucky enough to win a ticket in a sweepstakes for the only evening event in New York City. So there I sat, gazing down in awe as she read from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, answered questions from the audience, and then signed two thousand books, including mine. As Rowling settled down, the crowd did not. On the edge of their seats, they clung on to every word coming from the woman on the velvet-covered throne, often bursting into applause or laughter. As she started to read a passage from the book, the last in the Harry Potter series, it was clear that she was just as excited as the audience. She read with obvious delight, putting on brilliant voices that rang true to every character, and even bursting into a fit of giggles when Ron, holding up the magical Deluminator gadget, said he heard Hermione "coming out of my pocket."
But when the questions began they had been submitted by audience members before the event she came into her own. Finally able to talk freely about the end of a series that had been so long-anticipated, she left nothing out. The big revelation of the night came when she was asked if Dumbledore had ever found love. With a sigh, she seemed on the verge of saying no, but then revealed, "my truthful answer to you... I always thought of Dumbledore as gay." After a collective gasp, the audience roared with applause. Rowling was clearly astonished by the positive reaction and exclaimed, "if I'd known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!" She went on to say that she thought Dumbledore had fallen in love with Grindelwald, a Dark Wizard he defeated in battle in 1945, which possibly made it forgivable that he had not seen Grindelwald's true nature, because "falling in love can blind us to an extent."
As the questions went on, she opened up even more, having conversations with the audience and making jokes about herself in a very British, self-deprecating way. When a voice resonated through the theater from an unseen source, she exclaimed "God...And they say I don't believe in you," alluding to the many people who claim her books are anti-Christian. It was clear that no matter how "bereaved" she felt when she finished writing Deathly Hallows, she loved talking freely about it to so many dedicated fans. After being careful and secretive for so long, she now went above and beyond what anyone had expected.
And the fans were just as delighted to be hearing the answers to their long-pondered questions. Those who asked questions often prefaced them with a heartfelt thank you, and though most people were in muggle clothes, there were quite a few young Harry Potters running around. As those of us upstairs waited to line up for the signing, watching others hug and high-five the author down below, there was an air of satisfaction and conviviality.
This, and the whole evening, reaffirmed my belief that the Harry Potter phenomenon was not over, and would never be over. Sitting next to me during the reading was a seven-year old girl and her mother. She was just starting the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and clutched it tightly all night. Here was living proof that the next generation of fans will discover the books when our copies are falling to pieces. And then, of course, Rowling reminded us that there will always be something new to discover about the series. The beauty of the Harry Potter books is that she has it all worked out she knows everything there is to know about the world she has created, so no question will stump her. Reaction to the Dumbledore-is-gay revelation has already proven that each new announcement will be greeted by a flurry of Internet postings and theories, just like in the days before Deathly Hallows was released in July.
Last night's event was much better than the first time I saw Rowling, last summer at Radio City Music Hall for a reading. Back then, in between the sixth and seventh books, she found it very hard to say anything (though her big declaration was also about Dumbledore that he was definitely dead). The half-answers and stalling were frustrating, albeit necessary, and she clearly felt confined by it. Her new freedom to talk about whatever she liked added an entirely different dimension to the evening, and to the series. As fans spilled out into the night, taking pictures with their newly signed books, I realized that this was not the end of Harry Potter, it was just the beginning of a new phase of the phenomenon.