Monday 31 July 2017

Harry Potter and the Escape from Reality

Harry Potter turns 20 this year and 37 today.

That is, July 31 is the birthday of the character and, in the book's chronology, he turns 37 in 2017.  It's the year of the "19 years later" epilogue, when his middle child, Albus Severus, goes to Hogwarts for the first time.

The first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was released by Bloomsbury in the UK 20 years ago, in 1997.  The Americanized version, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, was released the following year.  I was living in Edinburgh in 1997, spending the chilly days writing in a local café that I later learned was the same one where JK Rowling had gone to write.  I don't remember hearing about the book's release at the time, nor do I recall much of the fanfare around the series when I moved back to NYC in mid-2000.

The first movie was released in the autumn of 2001, and that is when my own journey from platform 9 ¾ begins.  My best friend (let's call her IKEA Girl, because she is Swedish and it will annoy her) had urged me to read Harry Potter, insisting that it would appeal to me.  But I'm neither a joiner nor a bandwagon jumper-on, and certainly not a fan girl in any sphere.  I maintained stubbornly that if anything was really popular, it must cater to the lowest common denominator, that it was self-evidently simplistic, low-brow, and beneath my attention.  I gravitated more to art house films than blockbusters, to classical music rather than top 40 hits, and to Booker Prize-winning literary novels rather than airport pulp fiction.  In other words, I just couldn't imagine that Harry Potter could be so popular and be any good.

Needless to say, that was about as accurate as Fudge insisting that Voldemort wasn't back.

When IKEA Girl came to NYC for a visit in late 2001, we went to see the first film, which had recently been released.  I had no problem with that—I was intrigued enough by her insistence that I would like it to be curious.  Country Boy was less than enthusiastic about seeing a children's fantasy film but he came along as well.  He didn't emerge with any desire to delve into the Potterverse, and IKEA Girl was disappointed, going on about how the film wasn't as good as the book.  Me, well, I was smitten.  I remember the exact moment it happened:  It was the scene when the first year students are crossing the lake and they (we) get their (our) first glimpse of Hogwarts castle.  My heart was aching; I've rarely been so moved by a scene in a film.  My mind was racing:  This was me; I belonged in that world.  Aesthetically, it was a perfect fit.  How quickly could I get the books?

By that point, the first four books had been released, and I immediately ordered them as a boxed set from Amazon UK.  I couldn't just run out and buy them locally because I insisted on reading the British versions.  On Xmas Day, Country Boy, my partner for over seven years, left me.  I had to deal with the holidays, as well as the emotional fallout, and the abrupt doubling of my living expenses.  It was rough, to say the least.  But then the books arrived.

I dove in and haven't come up for air since.  I was enchanted (no pun intended) to discover all of the things in the first book that had been left out or changed in the film but I was disappointed that I didn't get to experience reading it without knowing what was going to happen—my own fault, of course.  I had been attending a weekly Irish trad seisiún at a pub downtown and, since I could not put down the books, I brought them with me.  I sat in the pub with my pint of cider and read in the dim light.  I got a lot of strange looks but didn't care.  I did nothing else until I had read all four books.  I realise I must have gone to work, but I have no recollection of doing anything but reading non-stop.

Then I had to wait two years for the fifth book.  That period was probably the closest to a hiatus that I have taken from the Potterverse.  I didn't know when the next book was going to come out, and I also moved and started both graduate school and a new relationship with City Boy.  Those major life changes provided distractions that got me through the waiting period.  I did search for Potter information online and found The Leaky Cauldron.  As the Potter fandom proliferated on the web, Leaky emerged from the crowd as the go-to site for news, commentary, and discussion.  It developed quasi-official status when, in recognition of its quality and global popularity, both the UK and U.S. publishers, and Warner Bros., began to give the site's editors exclusive info, tickets to premieres, and merchandise for giveaways.  The senior editors created a podcast, PotterCast, in 2005, that featured news, discussion, speculation, contests, and interviews with the publishers of the books, actors from the films, and even JK Rowling herself.  Rowling recorded the podcast's intro, and even invited the editors to her house where she, uh, baked them cookies.  I am not even kidding.  Rowling also wrote the introduction to the 2008 NYT bestseller Harry: A History, a book about the Harry Potter fandom written by Leaky's webmistress, Melissa Anelli.

Leaky, and PotterCast, kept me going between book and movie releases, providing a Harry Potter fix (Harry is my heroin?).  Before the release of each new book or film, I had a ritual of re-reading the previous books.  When the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, came out in 2003, I pre-ordered my copy from Amazon UK.  But there was a catch: The book would be shipped from the UK on the release date, which was, beginning with the fourth book, simultaneous in the U.S. and UK.  So, I had to endure everyone around me lining up for the midnight release parties and getting their book a week ahead of me.  The next day, going to work in NYC, I was surrounded on the subway by people with their heads buried in the new book.  I made sure to time my re-reading so that I was still immersed in the previous books right up until my British version arrived.

I repeated this ritual in 2005 for the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but my system collapsed in 2007 when the seventh and final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was released.  I doubt it is going to surprise anyone that I simply could not wait.  So, I stood in line at the Barnes & Noble on the UWS and got my American copy at midnight.  By the time the British version arrived, all was well.

1997-2007: Ten years, seven books. A generation of children grew up with Harry.  But I wasn't a child, nor was I a swoony fan girl.  To me, the Potterverse was escapism.  It was a place I could visit, through the books, movies, websites, theories, speculation, dissection, and fan fiction, whenever I needed comfort.  My favourite books are the odd-numbered ones—1, 3, 5, 7.  I re-read the whole series occasionally but I often pick up those favourites and skim passages.  My main comfort food is the first book.  I love Harry's discovery of the magical world; it plays into every girl's fantasy of finding out that she is really a princess.  Having magical powers would be much better than being a princess, and going to Hogwarts is literally being whisked away to live in a castle.  I've re-read the first four-book set I bought initially, the only paperbacks as the subsequent new releases were all hardcovers, so many times the pages are falling out.

I appreciate the didactic aspect of the books, the humour, the classical references, and, naturally, the political allegory (the anti-fascism of Phoenix is perennially relevant) but most of all I just want to immerse myself in the Potterverse as a form of escapism.  I curl up with the books in the same way I curl up with a bowl of mac'n'cheese or ice cream or a bubble bath with a glass of wine.  They are literary comfort food.

After the final midnight book release in 2007, the films enabled us to stretch the party out until 2011, when Deathly Hallows, Part 2 came out.  Splitting the final book into two films was the right choice as there was already too much cut from previous books when they were stuffed into movie format much like Harry was stuffed into Dudley's old jumper.  The final book, although it ostensibly resolved everything, had left fans with plenty to discuss.  But after the final film was released, the fandom began to fizzle.  Some Harry Potter devotees put the Potterverse behind them, some felt like they had outgrown it, others moved on to other fandoms.  In addition to PotterCast, Leaky had spawned an annual Harry Potter convention, known as LeakyCon, (which is in Dublin this year for a special "19 years later" celebration that I would attend if I could afford it), and a news site called LeakyNews.  The con began to branch out into other fandoms, and the news site spun off from Leaky as a general entertainment news and pop culture website.  PotterCast never formally ceased but the intervals between podcasts grew longer, until they became almost an annual reunion.  Leaky disabled its discussion forum and news shifted to items only tangentially related to the Potterverse, such as what the films' cast members were working on now. 
But then Anelli was tapped to advise on a new official interactive site for the books called Pottermore.  At last, more Potter!  On Pottermore, you felt like you were really heading to Hogwarts, shopping in Diagon Alley for your set books and potion ingredients, and even an owl, cat, or toad if you wanted one, getting chosen by a wand, and getting sorted into houses, which then competed for points to win the House Cup.  Each chapter featured interactive scenes, and new nuggets of information provided by Rowling herself.  Waiting for the release of each book's material on Pottermore may not have been quite as compelling as waiting for the books themselves, but it was engaging and aesthetically pleasing.  I loved it, and was sorry to see it change, wiping all of the scenes, houses, etc., and replacing them with a news and opinion format.  It would have been ideal if they could have done both—combining the opportunity to explore the chapters interactively scene by scene with the commentary that they have since added.

Gryffindor scarf on lamppost outside cinema, finished whilst
waiting for midnight screening of Deathly Hallows, Part 2
My most particular Pottermore thrill was getting sorted into my house of choice, Gryffindor.  My natural house would be Ravenclaw but I badly wanted to be in Gryffindor.  The sorting hat supposedly takes your preferences into account but how would that be captured in a computer algorithm?  The houses had to be evenly populated, and more people would likely want to be in Gryffindor than the other three houses combined.  What Pottermore chose to do was set a multiple choice test.  Your house would be based on your answers, although presumably it would have to override them at times to keep the houses balanced.  It was easy to suss which answer applied to which house.  For most questions, my gut answer would have been the Ravenclaw choice but I deliberately selected the Gryffindor answer.  My relief when I got in was out of proportion, revealing how seriously I took my desire to be in Gryffindor.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park and the Leavesden Studio tour were—and remain—real places to go immerse yourself in the Potterverse.  It is my heart's desire to visit both of them, if ever I can afford it.  There was also a traveling exhibit of costumes and props from the films, which I devoured when it came to NYC, taking City Girl along as her birthday present, whether she liked it or not (she did).

But then things quieted down.  Rowling went on to write some adult fiction, which I dutifully read, but there didn't seem to be anything new in the Potterverse.  One day in 2013 I was listening to one of the knitting podcasts to which I subscribe and heard an interview with the editor of a major knitting magazine, to which I also subscribe.  I froze when, at the tail end of the interview, she casually mentioned that she was working on a special issue devoted to Harry Potter.  I found her email address and wrote her an email begging to be involved in any way with this project.  I would have cheerfully offered my first-born, if necessary.  I didn't dare hope for a response but, to my surprise and delight, she invited me on-board the project.  I recruited City Girl, who is also a freelance writer and editor, and we both thought it was one of  the most wonderful projects we have ever worked on.  It was also the beginning of a long and fruitful freelance relationship with this knitting publisher­—I went on to work on other special issues, such as Downton Abbey and Jane Austen, doing writing, editing, proofreading, and tech editing of patterns, until the company was sold.  I still keep in touch with that former editor, though, and she still loves Harry Potter.

With the advent of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play, and the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie franchise, the Potter fandom has risen from its shallow grave like hungry zombies.  PotterCast, LeakyCon, and The Leaky Cauldron itself, were given oxygen and revived.  In January, Leaky advertised for new editors.  I responded and was immediately chosen, I assume because I am an editor and writer by profession.  I can't describe the thrill of pulling up the site and seeing my name as a byline for posts.  Seven months later, I still feel the same awe and excitement when I log into the site's back end to compose a new post.  I have many ideas and just need to organise my time to write them—the editor position is voluntary, so I need to squeeze it in around paying freelance work.

I did have a fear that I might be twice the age of the site's other editors, let alone the target audience.  Turns out there is a mix—some of them, yeah, I am old enough to be their biological mother, others are older than me.  Years ago, I got a bit frustrated with the "family friendly" nature of the fan outlets.  I wanted something a little more grown-up, for fans who were adults when the books came out, who don't necessarily have children, or even like children, where we can swear and talk about sex.  It would not contain news, but rather analysis, fan fiction, and discussion from an adult perspective.  I realised if I wanted such a site, I would have to make it.  I registered a nifty domain name (if I do say so myself) and wrote reams of content.  There was just one catch: I don't have the technical skills to make a pretty site, and I didn't want to use the blog format that free services such as Wordpress or Blogger box you into.  So, the site has never launched.  It's on a backburner, for when I can either afford to hire someone to develop the look and feel, or have the time to learn the necessary skills myself.

So, 20 years later, the Potterverse is thriving, and there are more movies and, if not more books per se, at least more information about the wizarding world to look forward to in years to come.

I've yet to absorb the central lesson of the books, which is to welcome death as a natural part of life.  I'm a pretty hardcore atheist, and I don't want to ever die; I don't want my consciousness to cease.  I understand why Rowling wrote with that perspective, why it's an existential goal for humans to make peace with death, but, unlike Dumbledore, I don't expect to achieve that myself even when I am 150.  But other themes in the books resonate with me.  On my living room wall, above my desk, is Dumbledore's line, "It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities."  This is the key to success in my life.  This post is already too long to go into the details, so I'll elaborate in another post, but suffice to say I have always rested on the laurels of my abilities, my potential—"books and cleverness".  I've never made an effort at anything.  But in the real world, just like in the magical one, it's grit, self-discipline, a work ethic—in other words, things we do by choice, not innate talent—that determine our success.  I've watched far less gifted students get much better grades because they worked hard and I made no effort, scraping by on my wits.  My teachers used to lament that I wouldn't have to make as much effort as most other students to do well, that it was baffling how I never even tried.  So, this quote reminds me daily that my abilities count for little on their own, that I should make the choice, every day, to try.

I am currently re-reading the series, in honour of the 20th anniversary, and I find it just as spellbinding (sorry) as ever.  After all this time?  Always. 

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