J.K. Rowling Hogwarts And All

As the much awaited Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince arrives in stores, J.K. Rowling talks frankly to Lev Grossman about fantasy, fathers and how the magic is almost over

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Here is a J.K. Rowling who lives in the hearts and minds of children everywhere. She has a fairy wand and hair of spun gold, and when she laughs her tinkly laugh, tiny silver bubbles come out of her mouth.

That J.K. Rowling, however, doesn't exist. Here's a look at the real Jo Rowling (rhymes with bowling, by the way, not howling) at work five years ago on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: "Goblet--oh, my God. That was the period where I was chewing Nicorette. And then I started smoking again, but I didn't stop the Nicorette. And I swear on my children's lives, I was going to bed at night and having palpitations and having to get up and drink some wine to put myself into a sufficient stupor."

Little children everywhere should be grateful for the real Jo Rowling. Because if the imaginary one had written the Harry Potter books, just think how incredibly boring they'd be.

The real Rowling's hair is sort of gold, although at the moment it has about an inch of dark roots. Which is understandable, since in the past six months she has given birth to her third child--daughter Mackenzie--and completed the sixth book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which was released promptly at midnight on Friday. At 39, Rowling is a tall handsome woman with a long face, a slightly crooked nose and interestingly hooded eyes. Sitting at a conference table in a bungalow adjoining her stately Edinburgh home (neither her only nor her stateliest home), she talks rapidly, even a little nervously. She uses the word obviously way more often than the average person does, and she likes to say outrageous things, then break out into fits of throaty alto laughter to show you she's just joking. Rowling wears all black--a floppy black sweater, black pants. A glance under the table reveals shiny black leather boots with steel spike heels that are, at the very least, three inches long.

Fans send Rowling wands and quills by the bushel, but she admits, a bit shamefacedly, that she never actually uses them and that the wands go straight to her oldest daughter, Jessica. The most popular living fantasy writer in the world doesn't even especially like fantasy novels. It wasn't until after Sorcerer's Stone was published that it even occurred to her that she had written one. "That's the honest truth," she says. "You know, the unicorns were in there. There was the castle, God knows. But I really had not thought that that's what I was doing. And I think maybe the reason that it didn't occur to me is that I'm not a huge fan of fantasy." Rowling has never finished The Lord of the Rings. She hasn't even read all of C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels, which her books get compared to a lot. There's something about Lewis' sentimentality about children that gets on her nerves. "There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex," Rowling says. "I have a big problem with that."

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