Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Interview From Hell

I promised that I would discuss my reaction to the transcript of an interview Jo Rowling
gave back in 2005 to two members of the online Harry Potter fandom. I will do that, but first I’d like to put it into a broader discussion of reader expectations and authors disappointing their fans.

J.A. Konrath has a marvelous blog for writers which informs and inspires. Last December he wrote a post Reader Expectations regarding the one author who had influenced and inspired him the most. He wrote about Thomas Harris and how utterly disappointed he was with the novel Hannibal.

Konrath wrote that post as a fan and as a fellow writer. The discussion in the comment trail was fascinating for it brought out many writers, published and unpublished, who have different thoughts on the issue of what authors owe to their readership.

I also contributed to the conversation and brought up examples from the HP fandom, and specifically referenced the Interview from Hell. Interestingly enough, I had two New York Times Bestselling authors reply to my post and they gave their own perspectives as to authors interacting with their fans. (I replied to both of them via their own blogs and email because it soon became OT for Konrath’s blog. I am also now fans of their work and follow their blogs.)

One was Tess Gerritsen and she wrote a post on her blog expanding on her thoughts of fans being huge critics of whatever she wrote. It was entitled, “You Can’t Please All Readers All the Time” and I agree with her basic premise. Authors have to be true to themselves and their artistry, but they need to realize that they may not live up to the expectations of their readership.

That leads me back to discussing the interview that Jo Rowling granted to Melissa Anelli of The Leaky Cauldron and Emerson Spartz ofMugglenet at the launch of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (HBP).

Recent fans to the online Harry Potter fandom may not understand why that interview is treated with such disdain in some quarters. In fact, a few weeks ago, I pointed a friend of mine to the Leaky Cauldron so that she could view the covers of the forthcoming seventh volume. She later told me that after going to the website to see the covers she read the online interview. She sounded as if she had just discovered something new and exciting. I shook my head and interjected my opinion as it being "The Interview from Hell." She became utterly confused because she was unfamiliar with the online fandom, and had no idea how that interview needlessly insulted the intelligence of many dedicated fans.

So for those readers of my blog who are like my friend and are scratching your head in wonder, I shall go over it in painstaking detail.

Jo Rowling hand picked two people to interview her, and according to her own words on her website, she wanted people who would care about the whole online fandom:

Why Melissa and Emerson? Because I knew, from having trawled their sites, that they know their Harry Potter back to front, that they care, not only about the books, but about the community of fans on the net, and that they were clever and funny and that I was going to enjoy meeting them at least as much as they would enjoy meeting me.

…(snip)…

I must say that I was impressed and moved by how many fellow fans posted congratulations to them when they announced on their sites that they would be interviewing me. The thrust of most comments was that they deserved the interview as a reward for all their hard work; it was uplifting to see so many people express generous and fair-minded good wishes!

They were both, as I had known they would be, wonderful. Funny, bright, completely committed to getting some proper answers out of me. We were supposed to be together an hour: two had passed before any of us noticed and if I hadn't had a baby to feed, I think we could have gone on most of the night.

The transcript of the interview, plus their own individual reports on their time in Edinburgh, can be read on the-leaky-cauldron.org and on mugglenet.com. I will only say that I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as I enjoyed giving it.

---

Unfortunately I did not enjoy reading the interview as much as she enjoyed giving it.

Hardly.

The two people Jo picked were partisans in the shipping wars and were gleeful in being proven right. Now, for those wondering what the term “shipping wars” means, I shall explain. It is a slang term short for relation-ship. Those who advocate for specific romantic pairings are referred to as “shippers.” There are different kinds of shippers, such as preferential shippers who simply prefer playing matchmaker to different characters independent of whether or not they are likely to occur in the story, and then there are shippers who argue over those pairings they believe are going to happen in the storyline.

Prior to HBP, and the TLC/Mugglnet interview, there were strong arguments for either Harry/Hermione (H/Hr) or Ron/Hermione (R/Hr) as happening in the story (or canon – another fandom term.) The H/Hr shippers basically subscribed to the literary convention of The Hero Gets the Girl where the main male character becomes romantically linked with the main female character. A similar convention is also known as Best Friends Turned Lovers where two friends come to realize that their relationship has evolved from friendship into love.

The Ron/Hermione (R/Hr) shippers argued on behalf of the literary convention of Unresolved Sexual Tension or UST romantic pairings and compared them to Elizabeth Bennett/Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

H/Hr shippers didn’t care for the idea of the literary convention of The Sidekick Getting the Girl and The Hero Getting the Sidekick’s Little Sister.

Okay, for those who were blissfully unaware of the shipping wars, you should know that prior to the publication of HBP that countless hours were spent analyzing and arguing about the text of the series in regards to shipping. Passages were posted time and time again and trumpeted as being proof of whatever position the ship debater was trying to make. There was copious evidence cited which supported both sides as being possibilities. I recognized and admitted that JKR could have been writing R/Hr and H/G all along, but I thought it was H/Hr. That is because I thought of Ron/Hermione and Harry/Ginny as literary red hair-ings.

I was arguing in favor of more subtle clues.

I also wasn’t squeamish about the idea of love triangles. They work well in literature and Jo used them extensively in Goblet of Fire (GoF) and Order of the Phoenix (OotP), and I had no doubt that she would finally use the members of the trio in a love triangle.

Ron/Hermione shippers for the most part couldn’t tolerate that idea. They didn’t want Harry and Ron competing over Hermione. I welcomed the idea because I thought it would make for good drama.

The shipping wars were divisive and the most emotionally charged of all the debates, and both Melissa and Emerson knew that full well. However, rather than attempting to be ambassadors from the whole fandom, they allowed their partisan nature of being Ron/Hermione and Harry/Ginny shippers to come to the fore.

They not only insulted the intelligence and sanity of H/Hr shippers in the interview, but their insults extended to editorial comments in the transcript that wounded the feelings of their debate opponents. This editorializing reflected poorly upon their professionalism and caused unnecessary divisiveness in the fandom as a whole.

See page 2

MA: How much fun did you have with the romance in this book?

JKR: Oh, loads. Doesn't it show?

MA: Yes.

JKR: There's a theory - this applies to detective novels, and then Harry, which is not really a detective novel, but it feels like one sometimes – that you should not have romantic intrigue in a detective book. Dorothy L. Sayers, who is queen of the genre said — and then broke her own rule, but said — that there is no place for romance in a detective story except that it can be useful to camouflage other people’s motives. That's true; it is a very useful trick. I've used that on Percy and I’ve used that to a degree on Tonks in this book, as a red herring. But having said that, I disagree inasmuch as mine are very character-driven books, and it’s so important, therefore, that we see these characters fall in love, which is a necessary part of life. How did you feel about the romance?

[Melissa puts her thumbs up and grins widely while…]
ES: We were hi-fiving the whole time.
JKR: [laughs] Yes! Good. I'm so glad.
MA: We were running back and forth between rooms yelling at each other.
ES: We thought it was clearer than ever that Harry and Ginny are an item and Ron and Hermione — although we think you made it painfully obvious in the first five books —
JKR: [points to herself and whispers] So do I!
ES: What was that?
JKR: [More loudly] Well so do I! So do I!
[All laugh; Melissa doubles over, hysterical, and may have died.] (emphasis mine)

--

Honestly was there a need to include Melissa doubling over with laughter to the point of hysteria and the “may have died” comment – other than to insult those who disagreed with them?

I recognize that both Melissa and Emerson were sleep deprived due to jet lag/time change as well as reading a massive book in the span of a single night. However, they chose to write up their transcript and inserted the hurtful editorial asides, what did they expect in return?

The interview continues showing evidence of deliberate insults to those whom Melissa and Emerson disagreed.

ES: Harry/Hermione shippers - they're delusional!
JKR: Well no, I'm not going to - Emerson, I am not going to say they're delusional! They are still valued members of my readership! I am not going to use the word delusional. I am however, going to say — now I am trusting both of you to do the spoiler thing when you write this up —
[More laughter.]
JKR: I will say, that yes, I personally feel - well it's going to be clear once people have read book six. I mean, that's it. It's done, isn't it? We know. Yes, we do now know that it's Ron and Hermione. I do feel that I have dropped heavy -
[All crack up]
JKR: - hints. ANVIL-sized, actually, hints, prior to this point. I certainly think even if subtle clues hadn't been picked up by the end of "Azkaban," that by the time we hit Krum in Goblet...
But Ron — I had a lot of fun with that in this book. I really enjoyed writing the Ron/Lavender business, and the reason that was enjoyable was Ron up to this point has been quite immature compared to the other two and he kind of needed to make himself worthy of Hermione. Now, that didn't mean necessarily physical experience but he had to grow up emotionally and now he's taken a big step up. Because he's had the meaningless physical experience - let’s face it, his emotions were never deeply engaged with Lavende
r -

[Much laughter in which Melissa emits a "Won-Won"]

JKR: - and he's realized that that is ultimately not what he wants, which takes him a huge emotional step forward.

ES: So he's got a little bit more than a teaspoon, now there’s a tablespoon?

JKR: Yeah, I think. [Laughter]

MA: Watching all this, were you surprised when you first logged on and found this intense devotion to this thing that you knew was not going to happen?
JKR: Yes. Well, you see, I'm a relative newcomer to the world of shipping, because for a long time, I didn't go on the net and look up Harry Potter. A long time. Occasionally I had to, because there were weird news stories or something that I would have to go and check, because I was supposed to have said something I hadn't said. I had never gone and looked at fan sites, and then one day I did and oh - my - god. Five hours later or something, I get up from the computer shaking slightly [all laugh]. 'What is going on?' And it was during that first mammoth session that I met the shippers, and it was a most extraordinary thing. I had no idea there was this huge underworld seething beneath me.
ES: She's putting it into a positive light!
JKR: Well I am, I am, but you know. I want to make it clear that delusional is your word and not mine! [Much laughter.]
MA: You're making our lives a lot easier by laying it on the table -
JKR: Well I think anyone who is still shipping Harry/Hermione after this book -
ES: [whispered] Delusional!
JKR: Uh - no! But they need to go back and reread, I think. (emphasis mine)

--

Okay, now that was the part where I felt insulted by Jo Rowling.

I realize that she has more to do everyday than trawl internet sites and understand the myriad discussions of the fandom, but she let us know that she was aware of the shipping wars. She referred to that in an interview in 2003 with Jeremy Paxman at the launch of OotP.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/cbbcnews/hi/uk/newsid_3004000/3004878.stm

JEREMY PAXMAN: So there will be some pairing up will there in this book?
JK ROWLING: Well in the fullness of time.

JEREMY PAXMAN: Unlikely pairings? Not Hermione and Draco Malfoy or anything like that?
JK ROWLING: I don't really want to say as it will ruin all the fan sites. They have such fun with their theories ... and it is fun, it is fun.

--

I interpreted that as meaning that the romantic pairings wouldn’t become evident until the end of book 7. Once she revamped her website she mentioned the topic of shipping several times. The first and most important was in her first set of questions she chose to answer on her FAQ page:

Does Hermione love Ron or Harry?

I can't believe that some of you haven't worked this one out yet, but I'm not going to answer because that would spoil the arguments, which I enjoy.

--

She enjoyed the arguments. Or so she said. Then she decided to disregard what she had previously said to Jeremy Paxman and went out of her way to sink some ships. She sunk the Draco/Hermione ship with this quote in an online chat:

http://www.accio-quote.org/articles/2004/0304-wbd.htm

Chibimono: Do you have any future plans in particular for Draco Malfoy?
JK Rowling replies -> I've got plans for all my characters. Actually, this is a really good place to answer a question about Draco and Hermione, which a certain Ms. Radcliffe is desperate to have answered. Will they end up together in book six/seven? NO! The trouble is, of course, that girls fancy Tom Felton, but Draco is NOT Tom Felton! (My daughter likes TF very much too, because he taught her how to use a diablo)

She also used her website to sink the Neville/Luna ship

Section: Rumours

Luna and Neville will hook up in HP&THBP

The Luna/Neville shippers are much less vehement and scary than the Harry/Hermione, Ron/Hermione tribes, so I hope I won’t receive too much hate mail for quashing this rumour. I see Neville and Luna as very different kinds of people and while they share a certain isolation within Hogwarts, I don’t think that’s enough to foster true love - friendship, perhaps, although I think that Neville would always find Luna’s wilder flights of fancy alarming. (emphasis mine.)

--

Vehement and scary. So she was aware of the passion. You would think that she’d spend some time figuring out exactly how best to defuse the situation knowing that her fans really cared about these debates.

She further teased Ron/Hermione and Harry/Hermione shippers with this next post:

Section: Rumours

Dumbledore is really Ron/Harry ‘from the future’

Your inventiveness knows no bounds, and I do not mean that sarcastically; these theories open up exhilarating new vistas of possibility… but they’re wrong. Could it be that by speculating that Harry/Ron becomes Dumbledore, you are seeking reassurance that neither dies young?

I’ve also heard a whisper about Ron and Hermione’s son time-travelling, so I shall go further and tell you that NONE of the characters in the books has returned from the future. As for the idea of Ron and Hermione having a son… (chuckles as the distant roars of a million shippers reach my ears, all cursing me to an eternity of unsatisfied curiosity).

--

So when in the Interview from Hell, JKR suggested that Harry/Hermione shippers go back and re-read her books, I felt personally insulted.

I expected more from her.

I know the first five books in the HP series frontward and backward. I can generally find a passage I am looking for within about fifteen seconds. That means I not only know which book it comes from, but which chapter and what comes before and after it.

I don’t have that ability with HBP, because I have not re-read that book. That interview left a bad taste in my mouth for the series as a whole and I now consider myself as a recovering fandom addict.

I believe that I know her books in closer detail than she does. I’m not trying to boast, but that is something else she confessed to earlier in that same interview:

http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/#static:tlcinterviews/jkrhbp1

ES: This is kind of a strange question but how many times have you read your own story?

JKR: That is not a strange question, it's a very valid question because once the book is published I rarely reread. A funny thing is when I do pick up a book to check a fact which I obviously do a lot, if I start reading then I do get kind of sucked in myself and I may read several pages and then I put it away and go back to what I’m doing, but I would never, if for example I was heading to the bath, and I wanted to pick up something to read, I’d never pick up one of my own books. Therefore there are thousands of fans who know the books much better than I do. My one advantage is I know what’s going to happen, and I’ve got a lot of backstory.

--

To confirm my supposition that Emerson did not attempt to be an ambassador for the fandom-at-large is this quote from his own summary of the events of traveling to Scotland and meeting Jo Rowling:

Emerson's write up: http://www.mugglenet.com/emscotland2.shtml

Harry/Hermione shippers can expect me to be even more arrogant and cocky
thanks to my recent vindication (see interview or just the last four books). "...Anvil-sized hints..."

--

He was as good as his promise and created a special board to collate comments by H/Hr shippers and include his own running commentary.

:Sigh:

I wish things had been handled differently.

For starters, I wish that Jo Rowling had picked people who were more mature and responsible. It would have made a tremendous difference if someone like Steve Vander Ark had been asked instead of Emerson Spartz. I cannot imagine Steve openly ridiculing members of the fandom whose theories were proven wrong.

The interview would still have had questions about shipping, because every administrator of a HP fansite would be well aware that it was a “hot topic.” However, the tone of the interview would have been vastly different.

Furthermore, I wish that the discussion regarding the romantic element had veered into another direction entirely. It might have defused things in a way people wouldn’t have expected.

This idea comes from a discussion I saw on the Harry Potter for Grown Ups List Serv – Off Topic Chatter from January 2003 and a discussion about the four kinds of love:

Eros, Philos, Storge and Agape.

One of the most memorable aspects of that discussion was the pet peeve that audiences (movies, television series, or books) are trained to see friendship between males and females as only being a prelude to them hitting the sheets together. The idea that men could not be friends with women “because the sex part always gets in the way” was the underlying philosophy of Harry Burns in the movie When Harry Met Sally…

I wish that Jo had spent time waxing philosophical and saying one of the things she wanted to show in her series was the idea that boys/girls and men/women could establish and maintain friendships without eros complicating things. I would have appreciated that more than her emphasizing that she didn’t want Ginny to be the first girl that Harry ever kissed.

I also wished that Jo Rowling had said something different on her website to acknowledge the passion and dedication that many of her fans had shown to her hero and her main female character. I had hoped that she might show appreciation for all the shippers who were devoted to both sides of the shipping divide by giving a joint fansite award.

I envisioned an award given to Sugarquill and Portkey because of the prominence they earned by championing their respective ships.

Alternatively, I thought it would have been good to have given a fansite award to Fiction Alley since they are open to ships of all shapes and sizes. I wanted her to make a statement acknowledging that she appreciates having fans who are as are creative and passionate in their love of her characters and the Potterverse. That would have gone a long way to make peace in the fandom.

She didn’t do anything like that.

The Leaky Cauldron was the only fansite given an award in 2005. Then in 2006 she gave an award to a Portuguese language website from Brazil.

In other words, she chose to do nothing and hoped it would all just blow over. Another thing that JKR did to insult her fans was in her remarks about Emerson and Melissa on her website. She mentioned how she contacted Emerson by phone to invite him to interview her.

“I was worried that Emerson, who was not expecting anything at all, might simply hang up on me; as I heard his Dad walking away from the telephone to fetch him I was trying to think of way to prove it was really me and not some angry Harry/Hermione shipper trying to lure him down a dark alleyway. However, I didn't need to offer an impromptu quiz on the sub-plots of books one to five; he believed me, he could make it: we were set!” (emphasis mine)

In that same post she referred readers to her website to read the transcript. So it is likely that she had read the transcript and felt that it was safe to poke fun at H/Hr shippers. Because she probably believed Emerson and Melissa’s assertions that we were a small, but vocal minority in the fandom. As if it is socially acceptable for an author to insult the intelligence and integrity of their fans. She could have at any time simply made a statement on her website like she did with Neville/Luna.

We deserved better at the hands of Jo Rowling.

Honestly, we were creative in our theories, but that is because the series itself is extraordinarily inventive. To show how weird interpretations can get I will mention the example of a metaphorical reading of a movie that baffled the screenwriter. William Goldman was interviewed in 1994 about the phenomenon that is the legacy of the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” which he won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1969. He mentioned that the movie was such a strange hit and that it impacted people so strongly in the late 60’s and early 70’s that there was a theory floating around that the movie was about the Vietnam War. That “the Super Posse was the government and Lyndon Johnson coming to get you, and Richard Nixon.” He was “staggered” when he heard that theory, but he had heard it from many people at the time and no one seemed to know where that idea had started. Goldman however, was willing to speak out publicly against that theory. (From the DVD interview with William Goldman.)

If you would like to see one of the influential essays showing a literate and persuasive argument that there was sound textual evidence for a Harry/Hermione romantic relationship in the series, I recommend you read Penny Linsenmayer’s Partners and Friends Essay. I challenge anyone to read it and come up with the conclusion that it is “delusional.”

I wish Jo Rowling had chosen to respond with her fans in a manner different than she had.

I wrote to her, included my suggestions on how to help heal the fandom, and I included on a CD many of the detailed essays I had written in support of H/Hr so she could get an idea of some of the rationale used to defend that reading of her series. I did not hear back from her, but then again who am I except for just another fan and an unpublished author? I do not know if she ever received my correspondence.

I did not write to Emerson for I felt it would be a waste of my time and he might instead take any criticism from me as a badge of honor. I didn’t want to swell his head any further than it already was. Afterall, he prefaced his special Wall of Shame with this description of himself:

"A note from the unprofessional, arrogant, unprofessional, insensitive, unprofessional, immature, inconsiderate, unprofessional, irresponsible, unprofessional, juvenile, unprofessional, tactless and unprofessional Wall of Shame founder and caretaker, Emerson:"

Any message I would have written would have used the term unprofessional in it, and therefore it is doubtful that I would have elicited a twang of remorse or pang of conscience in him.

I did not write to Melissa for I felt that as a journalist, she should have known better. I felt that my condemnation of her unprofessional behavior probably would have been considered as merely sour grapes.

In case anyone is interested, this is a link to my acknowledgment of defeat in the shipping wars.

Overall, I do not regret having spent time in the fandom and having spun many creative theories. I do wish that Ms. Rowling acted differently in regards to what she knew was a topic of intense and passionate interest among her fans.

Elaine Cunningham had suggested in her response to my post on J.A. Konrath's blog that authors avoid internet fandoms and not insert themselves into debates. J.K. Rowling's actions show what can happen when you not only learn about fandom debates, but insert yourself in them by actively teasing fans and then insulting them.

I shall now try to follow Tess Gerritsen’s advice:

“And to all those nitpicky readers, the ones who think they’re so much smarter than the writer they’re complaining about, here’s a revolutionary idea: go write your own damn book.”

I am doing just that and I vow that once my trilogy is published, that I shall not treat my fans in the fashion that I am criticizing with this post.

Linda





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