Behind the Magic
Emma Matthewson was JK Rowling’s editor when the Harry Potter books stormed the world. She remembers life inside a phenomenon...
What was your initial reaction when you read your first JK Rowling book?
I loved it right from the start – not only did it make me laugh, but it also had drama, action, magic, thrilling danger. The writing was so fluent, and in no way patronising. The bestselling series for children at the time was RL Stine’s Goosebumps series; horror stories, very short, so very different! Our thoughts were how to break out this debut, brilliant writer when the bestselling books were so different.
Did you see her grow in confidence as a writer?
From the very beginning it struck me how confident and deft Jo always was in handling the world of Harry Potter, and marshalling her characters. Jo had such a wealth of information about the characters, of which only a small portion would appear in the books, with the rest gradually coming out in our conversations. Much to the delight of Jo’s fans everywhere of course, this information has had opportunities to appear in so many different ways now, from Pottermore, to the films, to the play Harry Potter And
The Cursed Child! This confidence would allow us to have brilliant conversations as Jo would always have a good reason for why she had included something as she had the narratives for the seven books firmly in her mind. Or she would take up an editorial suggestion and weave it seamlessly into the narrative with consummate skill.
Was she very protective of her characters and world?
Only in a good way. Jo had such a strong vision; it’s her story, her characters, after all. And working with an author who has a vision like that – it’s wonderful.
How much of the story was mapped out, and how much conceived on a book by book basis?
Jo had a strong vision for all seven books, with a clear idea of the main storyline for each book. But she was confident enough to be able to change detail within that overarching structure, as the story developed. It’s common knowledge now that details that might seem unimportant in one book would prove to have great significance later on. A true sign of a writer completely in command of their material.
What was behind the decision to package the books for adults as well as children?
It was anecdotal stories that we started hearing, about adults being a little embarrassed about reading a book nominally for children, but clearly enjoying it and unable to stop – so reading it behind their newspaper on the morning commute. So we thought: why not make it easy for the adults? It was a true indication of how rich Jo’s stories are, with their wide appeal for adults and children.
What was it like, riding that rollercoaster?
Such fun. Such an experience. I learned so much and felt very, very lucky.
How did you deal with the security issues when each new book came out?
If I told you about them I would have to kill you! I can say it did involve safes, security vans, subterfuge, midnight photocopying amongst other things. Not your average publishing process.
How have you seen the children’s publishing industry change since Harry Potter?
Children’s publishing has always been vibrant and strong. But I think perhaps not always given the respect or the acknowledgement that it deserved. I think Jo and Harry Potter – along with the other brilliant authors writing today – opened the world’s eyes to the brilliance of children’s books. For example, I am no longer asked: “When are you going to ‘move on’ to books for adults?” No disrespect to my wonderful adult editor colleagues!
Have any children given you feedback about how it’s changed their life?
I heard so very many stories from children about how Harry Potter helped them fall in love with reading – to have been a part of that makes me feel enormously proud. A love of reading opens so very many doors.