May 5, 2002 -- The New York Times
Harry Potter and the Quest for the Unfinished Volume
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
Each time Rachel Ruskin, 11, enters a bookstore in her New York City
neighborhood, she walks straight to the information desk to ask a question
pressing on the minds of millions of children around the country: When will
the next Harry Potter book appear?
No one knows, not even J. K. Rowling, the British author who invented Harry
Potter and the famous Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. After
turning out four Harry Potter books at a rate of one a year through July
2000, Ms. Rowling is already months late in completing the fifth book in
time for its planned publication in July. She has explained to her agent
and publishers that writing this next book is proving to be more involved
than she initially expected. Scholastic, the United States publisher for
Ms. Rowling's previous books, has told its watchful shareholders only that
the company expects to publish Ms. Rowling's next Harry Potter book some
time before June 2003.
Although writers missing deadlines may be nothing new, with a phenomenon
like Harry Potter even the failure to publish can be a momentous event. As
a second summer reading season arrives without a new Harry Potter book,
questions about the timing of the next book's appearance are deepening into
urgent mysteries in the minds of Ms. Rowling's legion of fans. Already the
unfinished fifth book has become the subject of heated debates about issues
like what effect the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had on Ms. Rowling's story
outline or which girl stands the best chance of winning Harry's adolescent
Bored, perhaps, with rereading the first four books, many of Ms. Rowling's
youngest fans now congregate online. In the last year, thousands of Web
sites have sprung up where swelling ranks of visitors eagerly swap their
own theories and "facts" about the progress and contents of the forthcoming
"There are, like, millions of Web sites," said Ms. Ruskin, the 11-year-old
fan. "One person told me that J. K. Rowling got mad at people for pushing
her so she decided to start over."
Not so, said Judy Corman, a spokeswoman for Scholastic. Ms. Rowling is hard
at work and her publishers are patient, she said. "Clearly we understand
that her readers are eagerly waiting for it but you can't hurry the
creative juices and we understand that," Ms. Corman said. "She is writing.
She is working hard on the book. We will be happy when we get it."
Scholastic never announced a date, she said. Once the manuscript is
completed, releasing it will take four or five months.
Scholastic is not the only company with much riding on Ms. Rowling's next
opus. Ms. Rowling now sits at the center of a sprawling network of
companies capitalizing on the fruits of her imagination. Scholastic alone
has sold more than 67 million copies of her first four books, and the
appearance of her last book, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,"
bolstered sales at Barnes & Noble and Borders enough to merit special
discussion in their quarterly reports.
For a time, Amazon.com, the online retailer, accepted preorders for the
expected fifth book, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." Amazon is
no longer taking orders because of the delay. More than 320,000 people have
asked for e-mail notification when the book arrives.
In the weekend it opened last fall, a film of Ms. Rowling's first book,
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," took in a record $90.3 million for
the Warner Brothers division of AOL Time Warner. A sequel, "Harry Potter
and the Chamber of Secrets," planned to open this fall, was previously
expected to dovetail with the publicity from the new book's release this
summer. Toy companies, video-game makers and other companies also now sell
a host of related merchandise, counting on new books and films to renew
Success has changed Ms. Rowling's life too. She devoted her attention to
the making of the film and the licensing of her characters. Ms. Rowling was
also dating Dr. Neil Murray, an anesthesiologist. They married on Dec. 26
in her recently acquired 19th century Scottish mansion. But their honeymoon
was brief so that both newlyweds could get back to work.
Ms. Rowling herself has acknowledged feeling "an edge of external
pressure," as she told the magazine Entertainment Weekly two years ago,
because of her books' soaring popularity. In her last book, she ended up
deviating for the first time from her preconceived outline for the plot and
missed her deadline by two months, she said.
Ms. Rowling has also pledged to take on even more delicate subjects in her
next book. "There are deaths, more deaths coming," she said in an interview
with the British Broadcasting Corporation in December, adding that one
character's end will be "horrible to write."
And she plans to introduce some of life's other complexities, too. "They
are 15 now, hormones working overtime," she told the BBC.
For some young fans, the delay is accomplishing what once seemed
impossible: dulling their fascination. "Since the fifth book hasn't been
coming out for a long time I have gotten absorbed in a lot of other books,"
said Raphael Helfand, 7, of New York, whose father waited outside a
bookstore at midnight two years ago to buy the fourth book the day it
appeared. "A year ago I was more eager. Now, I can wait."
Others expressed some annoyance. "Now that you mention it, I am getting
sort of impatient," said Jacob Bradford, 11, of Brattleboro, Vt., "The
books are getting dusty on my shelf. I am not sure if I am going to
Laura Aragon, 11, of Bethesda, Md., concurred: "I hope she hurries up and
finds something to write about."
Absent a new book to digest, many of Ms. Rowling's fans have turned their
attention to dissecting her cryptic comments — and each other's gossip —
for clues about Harry's future.
"I think he will have a girlfriend but not a character" from the previous
books, Ms. Ruskin opined. One prominent female character already seemed
destined for another boy, and the other candidate for Harry's affection was
"a little annoying," she said. Others hold to the "bachelor theory," that
Harry will become the object of several girls' attentions.
Steve Vander Ark, a school librarian in western Michigan who operates a
popular Web site for students, www.i2k.com/~svderark/lexicon, said he had
"a pretty good idea what is taking so long." Hasty work, he said, had led
to some internal inconsistencies in the fourth book, including one
involving the chronology of the deaths of Harry's parents. Fans first
debated the hidden meaning of the discrepancies but then realized that they
were simply mistakes. "Now she realizes how closely people will be looking
at the details of her work," he said.
Heidi Tandy, a lawyer in Miami who administers another Harry Potter Web
site, said she believes the events of Sept. 11 played a role. In the fourth
book, a set of characters called Death Eaters "resemble terrorists more
than anything else," Ms. Tandy said. She guessed Ms. Rowling felt obliged
to take recent events into account.
Thousands of teenagers and adults have attempted to fill the gap left by
the delay in the fifth book with Harry Potter stories of their own, usually
posted on Web sites and sometimes running to hundreds of pages. It took
decades of "Star Trek" reruns to inspire a genre of "fan fiction," but just
two years without a Harry Potter book.
Ms. Tandy helped start a Harry Potter "fan fiction" Web site,
www.FictionAlley.org, and said its number of registered users had grown
from zero to 4,000 in the last 10 months. In one popular story, Harry
Potter and his schoolboy nemesis, Draco Malfoy, grow up to be gangsters and
gay lovers in London. Ms. Tandy said her site tries to exclude children
under 13 and avoids posting "X-rated" material. Other Harry Potter "fan
fiction" sites are less strict.
Frustration with the delay among teenage and older Harry Potter fans online
has often spilled out in feuds. Hard-core fans debate which characters will
end up romantically linked. They call their rival camps "ships," short for
relationships, and some partisan Web sites denounce or ban advocates of
Barraged with questions, bookstore clerks have done their best. "There are
some disappointed people," said Virginia Mulholland, children's events
coordinator at the Joseph-Beth bookstore in Cinncinnati. Her explanation to
customers: "I found out from my sources that it is already done and they
just pushed it back to go along with the movie."
Ms. Mulholland was stunned to learn that the book was not finished. "`Oh!
Oh my God!" she said, "I'll have some angry people. Are you serious? Stop
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company |