After months of hype and anticipation, J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults has appeared, swept into the arms of hopeful booksellers and an army of grown-up Harry Potter fans eager to find out what his creator has done next.
A gritty and darkly humorous tale of ugly realities in a pretty English village, The Casual Vacancy seems a long way from the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and reviewers gave it a mixed reception. But, Rowling said last Thursday that she was not worried about the response.
“I have had my books burnt,” said the author, whose magical stories were condemned as Satanist by some Christian groups. “I have got quite a way to go to upset people that much with A Casual Vacancy.” A story of ambition, envy and rivalry, the novel recounts the civic warfare sparked in the fictional Pagford when the unexpected death of a town official leaves a vacancy on the governing body. Characters set on a collision course range from the affluent lawyer Miles Mollison to the Weedons, a ramshackle clan living in The Fields, the run-down housing project on the edge of town.
Rowling told a 1,000-strong audience at London’s Southbank Centre that the idea for the book — “Local election sabotaged by teenagers, basically” — came to her on a plane several years ago.
Writing for a more adult readership, she said, had been “freeing” — though “in other senses it is a challenging book,” told from multiple viewpoints.
Rowling said the book’s focus on teenagers, the heart of Pagford and of the novel, was not a million miles from her previous work — although these troubled and profane youngsters are “not Harry, Ron and Hermione.” “They are very different teenagers,” Rowling said. “They are contemporary teenagers.” The book’s sex and swearing have drawn the most comment so far — some audience members were startled to hear the “f-word” pass Rowling’s lips during the reading last Thursday. But the presence of death is perhaps the book’s most adult element, and one that loomed over Harry Potter’s world, too.
“Death obsesses me,” Rowling said. “I cannot understand why it does not obsess everyone. Think it does. I am just a little more ‘out.’” Five years after the last Potter book appeared, Rowling remains the world’s most successful living writer. The lines were shorter and the wizard costumes missing, but The Casual Vacancy appeared to some of the same fanfare that greeted each Potter tome, with stores wheeling out crates of the books precisely at 8 am as part of a finely honed marketing strategy.
And Rowling retains the intense loyalty of Potter fans. In contrast to the tight security that preceded the book’s release, the atmosphere at the reading last Thursday was warm; it felt like a reunion. Several audience members asked Potter-related questions, which Rowling answered at length. One young man, wearing a “Rowling is our Queen” T-shirt, asked if he could give her a present. Rowling accepted it graciously.
Many in the crowd were young adults who had grown up on Harry Potter and are keen to follow her wherever she wanted to go.
“She has been such an inspiration to everyone,” said 18-year-old university student Milly Anderson. “She has not just influenced people’s childhoods — she has molded them.” Anderson said she was loving The Casual Vacancy — once she had got over the change from stories of the boy wizard and his Hogwarts chums.
“There is swearing and sex,” she said. “It is a bit of a shock.” The Casual Vacancy is already at No. 1 on Amazon’s US chart, and bookmaker William Hill put 2-1 odds on it outselling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which sold 2.6 million copies in Britain on its first day.