In the spring, nearly five years after the appearance of the seventh, and final, Harry Potter novel, Little, Brown, Rowling’s publisher, announced “The Casual Vacancy,” and offered a glimpse of the plot: an idyllic English town named Pagford; the death of a man named Barry; a parish-council election. In response, a British publisher announced “The Vacant Casualty,” billed as a parody, if one can parody something whose contents are unknown. Commenters on the Guardian’s Web site guessed at Rowling’s likely models, with reference to Robertson Davies and “Desperate Housewives.” One reader, playing on Rowling’s word for non-wizard society, suggested an alternate title: “Mugglemarch.”
“I have drawn a map of Pagford,” Rowling told me when we met, in late August. “It’s one of the first things I did.” We were not speaking in her Edinburgh house, or at her country place—which stands in grassland, overlooking a fast-running river in a valley north of the city—or in her home in an expensive part of west London. We were at her office, which occupies an unmarked Georgian building on a handsome street in central Edinburgh, not too far from a café that, in mockery of competitors, has hung a sign that reads “J. K. ROWLING NEVER WROTE HERE.” The office has high ceilings, Turkish rugs over wooden floors, figurative oil paintings by modern Scottish artists, and the air of a small but very well-funded embassy. According to the London Sunday Times, Rowling is worth nine hundred million dollars.
Her writing life was oddly self-contained, even if, by the end of the Potter series, she was receiving between one and two thousand pieces of mail a week. Rowling does not widely distribute her unpublished manuscripts, and her publishers seem to have processed them with little intervention. (Neil Blair, her agent, told me, “She takes a lot of time getting it right and then hands in a book that doesn’t need much editing.”) A few years ago, in a conversation with Melissa Anelli, the podcast host, Rowling criticized herself for not quite finishing “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” “I didn’t do the final edit that I normally do before I hand it to the editors, and it definitely shows,” she said, sounding almost like a self-published author. In 2007, more than twenty-five million copies of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” were printed, in the first edition, and Rowling estimated that only seven people in the world, including her British agent and her editors in New York and London, had read the novel before stores began selling it.
I asked her if publishing the new book made her feel exposed. “I thought I’d feel frightened at this point,” she said. “Not just because it’s been five years, and anything I wrote after Potter—anything—was going to receive a certain degree of attention that is not entirely welcome, if I’m honest. It’s not the place I’m happiest or most comfortable, shall we say. So, for the first few years of writing ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ I kept saying to myself, ‘You’re very lucky. You can pay your bills, you don’t have to publish it.’ And that was a very freeing thought, even though I knew bloody well, in my heart of hearts, that I was going to publish it. I knew that a writer generally writes to be read, unless you’re Salinger.” After all the fretting—“Christ, you’re going to have to go out there again”—she discovered that she was calm. “I think I’ve spent so long with the book—it is what I want it to be,” she said. “You think, Well, I did the best I could where I was with what I had.” She laughed. “Which is a terrible paraphrase of a Theodore Roosevelt quote.”
I read “The Casual Vacancy,” which is five hundred and twelve pages long, in the New York offices of Little, Brown, after signing a non-disclosure agreement whose first draft—later revised—had prohibited me from taking notes. (With this book, Rowling was hoping for a “more run-of-the-mill publishing experience,” but that hope goes only so far.) Within a few pages, it was clear that the novel had not been written for children: “The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed.” A little later, a lustful boy sits on a school bus “with an ache in his heart and in his balls.” But reviewers looking for echoes of the Harry Potter series will find them. “The Casual Vacancy” describes young people coming of age in a place divided by warring factions, and the deceased council member, Barry Fairbrother—who dies in the first chapter but remains the story’s moral center—had the same virtues, in his world, that Harry had in his: tolerance, constancy, a willingness to act.
“I think there is a through-line,” Rowling said. “Mortality, morality, the two things that I obsess about.” “The Casual Vacancy” is not a whodunnit but, rather, a rural comedy of manners that, having taken on state-of-the-nation social themes, builds into black melodrama. Its attention rotates among several Pagford households, in the Southwest of England: a gourmet-grocery owner and his wife; two doctors; a nurse married to a printer; a social worker. Most of the families include troubled teens.
Barry’s civic influence is revealed by his departure, rather as George Bailey’s is in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The story is driven by the long-standing frustration that some of Barry’s disagreeable and right-wing neighbors have about the town’s administrative connection to the Fields, an area of public housing and poverty on the edge of a larger, nearby town. Historically, children from the Fields have had the right to attend primary school in Pagford, a place of flower baskets and other middle-class comforts, and the town has also supported a drug-treatment clinic that serves the neighborhood. In the absence of Barry’s righteous influence, the anti-Fields faction sees an opportunity to rid Pagford of this burden. This is a story of class warfare set amid semi-rural poverty, heroin addiction, and teen-age perplexity and sexuality. It may be a while before we’re accustomed to reading phrases like “that miraculously unguarded vagina” in a Rowling book, and public response to “The Casual Vacancy” will doubtless include scandalized objections to the idea of young Harry Potter readers being drawn into such material. “There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher,” Rowling said. “I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write.”
She was ready for a change of genre. “I had a lot of real-world material in me, believe you me,” Rowling said. “The thing about fantasy—there are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy. You don’t have sex near unicorns. It’s an ironclad rule. It’s tacky.” She then added, carefully, “It’s not that I just wanted to write about people having sex.” Rather, she began with the idea of writing about a local election, which gave her a “rush of adrenaline.” The Harry Potter series had an alluring creation story, known to all fans: in 1990, on a delayed train between Manchester and London, Rowling was overwhelmed by the thought of a boy who learns, at the age of eleven, that he is a wizard. The idea for “The Casual Vacancy” also came to Rowling while she was travelling, but this time she was on a private plane, touring America to promote “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”
“It’s been billed, slightly, as a black comedy, but to me it’s more of a comic tragedy,” she said. If the novel had precedents, “it would be sort of nineteenth-century: the anatomy and the analysis of a very small and closed society.” A local election was “a perfect way in,” she said. “It’s the smallest possible building block of democracy—this tiny atom on which everything rests.” One could say that national politics does not rest upon local politics, and that no modern British town is a closed society; some of Rowling’s characters may seem eccentric for the earnestness with which they regard a local election. She acknowledged that the scale of parish-council decision-making is “easy to laugh at” but said that “part of the point is that those decisions that are being made do dramatically affect people’s lives, up to life and death sometimes.”
She said, “In my head, the working title for a long time was ‘Responsible,’ because for me this is a book about responsibility. In the minor sense—how responsible we are for our own personal happiness, and where we find ourselves in life—but in the macro sense also, of course: how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.” Two years in, she picked up the standard British handbook for local administrators. “I needed it to check certain abstruse points. And in there I came across the phrase ‘a casual vacancy.’ Meaning, when a seat falls vacant through death or scandal. And immediately I knew that that was the title… . I was dealing not only with responsibility but with a bunch of characters who all have these little vacancies in their lives, these emptinesses in their lives, that they’re all filling in various ways.”
She added, with some passion, “And it’s death! The casual vacancy, the casualness with which death comes down. You expect a fanfare, you expect some sort of pathos or grandeur to it. And, you know, the first big death I ever suffered was my mother’s, and it was that that was so shocking: just gone.”
Several of the key characters in “The Casual Vacancy” are in their mid-teens, and the novel seems most comfortable when it’s with them. This is partly a question of grouping and movement; these are the novel’s tracking shots, when it can follow children on bus rides, on bicycles, and along school corridors; their parents, understandably, are less dynamic. But Rowling also seems profoundly connected to her own teen-age self. (“What does that say about my arrested development, I wonder?” she asked.) One well-observed and recurring motif is the teen-age instinct to adopt, and find comfort in, the families of others—just as Harry Potter adopted the Weasleys. Rowling referred to Jessica, her daughter from her first marriage, who is now a college student but who, until recently, was in a group of friends who moved “from house to house, all of them being charming to everyone else’s parents.”
One of the more interesting characters in “The Casual Vacancy” is Andrew, a restless teen-ager with an abusive, belittling father. “Andrew’s romantic idea that he’ll go and live among the graffiti and broken windows of London—that was me,” Rowling said. “I thought, I have to get away from this place. So all of my energies went into that.” She has previously said that her father frightened her. When I asked her about him, Rowling said, “I did not have an easy relationship with my father, but no one in ‘The Casual Vacancy’ is a portrait of any living person.” I asked if she was writing from experience when Andrew, having done harm to his father, then seeks to make peace with him.
“To a degree,” she said. “If you’ve ever been there, if you’ve ever been in a difficult and complex family situation, you will understand. I suppose, to an extent, it’s like Stockholm syndrome, isn’t it? You have to make friends with the warders—this is a matter of survival. And Andrew, having dealt his father this body blow, then turns around and feels it’s time to make an alliance. I think that’s psychologically accurate. Some won’t.”
In “The Casual Vacancy,” Krystal Wheedon is a teen-ager from the Fields, the housing project near Pagford, and she is the effective head of a household that includes a younger brother and their mother, a heroin addict. Rowling’s descriptions of the family are almost ostentatiously unremitting: drugs, prostitution, the stink of diapers. A visitor notices, in the front yard, “a used condom glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub.” There’s little sense that anyone ever made a life in the Fields, or cracked a joke, or hoped for anything but the salvation of Pagford and the middle class; Rowling’s empathy can feel like condescension. But there’s no doubt that she has an understanding of the extremes of British poverty, from sources that include her husband’s experience as a general practitioner in an Edinburgh drug-addiction clinic. (He now practices elsewhere.)
She once had the idea of publishing “The Casual Vacancy” anonymously but realized that her anonymity would be short-lived. “In the final analysis, I thought, Get over yourself, just do it.” She is working on two books “for slightly younger children” than her Harry Potter readers, and she has begun her next adult novel—although she has written only “a couple of chapters,” the story “is pretty well plotted.”
“The Casual Vacancy” will certainly sell, and it may also be liked. There are many nice touches, including Rowling’s portrait of the social worker’s gutless boyfriend, who relishes how, in an argument with a lover, you can “obscure an emotional issue by appearing to seek precision.” The book’s political philosophy is generous, even if its analysis of class antagonisms is perhaps no more elaborate than that of “Caddyshack.” And, as the novel turns darker, toward a kind of Thomas Hardy finale, it hurtles along impressively. But whereas Rowling’s shepherding of readers was, in the Harry Potter series, an essential asset, in “The Casual Vacancy” her firm hand can feel constraining. She leaves little space for the peripheral or the ambiguous; hidden secrets are labelled as hidden secrets, and events are easy to predict. We seem to watch people move around Pagford as if they were on Harry’s magical parchment map of Hogwarts.
And a powerful and protected writer risks getting things wrong. One teen-ager bullies another on Facebook, anonymously and repeatedly, which could happen only if the victim refused to make use of the network’s privacy settings. Some sentences cause you to picture a Little, Brown editor starting to dial Rowling’s number, then slowly putting down the handset: “There, in his poky office, Simon Price gazed covetously on a vacancy among the ranks of insiders to a place where cash was now trickling down onto an empty chair with no lap waiting to catch it.” And, in a tellingly odd turn, three characters read unwelcome, but essentially accurate, judgments about themselves on a tiny local Web site, and all three disintegrate into fear and fury. The novel seems to treat extreme touchiness as a default psychological setting.
It’s a long but fantastic piece with some cool nuggets of insight into J.K. Rowling’s personality and intriguing details of her personal life. If you’re a Potterhead, like me, it’s worth the read.