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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There are limits to Harry Potter's sophistication. Since Sorcerer's Stone was published in 1998, world events have moved to the point where they threaten to ask more from the books than they have to give. By Phoenix, the fifth book in the series, Harry is embroiled in a borderless, semi-civil war with a shadowy, hidden leader whose existence the government ignored until disaster forced the issue and who is supported by a secret network of sleeper agents willing to resort to tactics of shocking cruelty. The kids who grew up on Harry Potter--you could call them Generation Hex--are the kids who grew up with the pervasive threat of terrorism, and it's inevitable that on some level they'll make a connection between the two.

Which isn't a terrible thing necessarily. But the series' major shortcoming to date is the flatness of Harry's antagonist Voldemort (whose name Rowling pronounces with a silent t). In the past few books, Voldemort has managed to assemble a body, but he still lacks any kind of realistic motivation. You get no sense of where his boundless enthusiasm for being evil comes from. "You will," Rowling says. "There is obviously a big gap there, and in six Harry finds out a lot of Voldemort's history. Though he was never that nice a guy." She laughs.

No, he wasn't. Half-Blood Prince goes a long way, finally, to working through Rowling's take on the psychology of evil, largely through a kind of Pensieve-aided documentary of Voldemort's early life. Much of Rowling's understanding of the origins of evil has to do with the role of the father in family life. "As I look back over the five published books," she says, "I realize that it's kind of a litany of bad fathers. That's where evil seems to flourish, in places where people didn't get good fathering." Some of that must surely flow from her own experiences: her relationship with her father has been uneven, and the father of her oldest daughter is no longer part of Rowling's life.

Despite her colossal success, which has run her personal fortune into the hundreds of millions, you can still feel Rowling's enormous, churning ambition for her work, which seems to be fueled at least in part by lingering feelings of insecurity and self-doubt. Maybe it's her well-known history as a onetime careerless divorced mom who spent nearly a year on public assistance, but she still constantly questions her writing, reviewing it like a boxer watching tapes of his fights. "I think Phoenix could have been shorter. I knew that, and I ran out of time and energy toward the end," she says. She is worried that Goblet was overpraised. "In every single book, there's stuff I would go back and rewrite," she says. "But I think I really planned the hell out of this one. I took three months and just sat there and went over and over and over the plan, really fine-tuned it, looked at it from every angle. I had learnt, maybe, from past mistakes."

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