Thursday, August 03, 2006

An Evening with Harry - and Carrie, and Garp

J.K. Rowling Conjures A Huge Crowd
At New York Benefit, Harry Meets Scary and Meany
By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006; C01

NEW YORK -- J.K. Rowling does not resemble a traditional deity. She is blond and British, to begin with. But create a universe as detailed as Harry Potter's, then sell more than 300 million books, and you can reveal yourself in a muumuu and believers won't care.

Rowling did better than that, showing up in a tasteful black dress and ornate high heels for her first U.S. appearance in six years, at Radio City Music Hall. The Tuesday night event, a benefit called "An Evening With Harry, Carrie & Garp," co-starred Stephen King and John Irving. At a news conference earlier in the day, King joked that he and Irving were just an opening act. That might have overstated it a bit, but there was no doubt who was the star of this show.

A crowd of 6,000, about half of them kids, shrieked at the mere mention of her name in the lead-up to her appearance. (She was third in the lineup.) When she finally walked onstage, the young'uns howled so loudly that Rowling looked slightly embarrassed and mildly terrified.

"The great thing about tonight: no pressure," she said. "I do have the best shoes, though."

Rowling -- it's pronounced "rolling," by the way -- then read several pages of her most recent book, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." Then she took questions, all of them vetted beforehand by the event organizers and posed by young fans ushered to microphones.

"My question is, can Muggles brew potions if they follow the instructions exactly and they have all the ingredients?" asked a fan from Shanghai.

For the uninitiated, that question was relatively comprehensible. (A Muggle is a non-magical human, and the answer is no, Rowling said.)

What's been conjured with these books is an alternative realm with its own highly elaborate epistemology, a set of laws and particulars that verge on a separate physics. Some of the questions drew the same sort of "oohs" you'd expect to hear if God held a news conference and someone asked, "Could You create a rock so large that You Yourself could not lift it?"

There were, for instance, a lot of knowing "great question!" noises when a young lady asked, "If Hermione could look into the mirror of Erised, what would she see?"

Rowling fielded these stumpers with Alan Greenspan caution and concentration, as though she knew that every word and gesture would be parsed in chat rooms around the planet. With one final volume to go (due next year), Potterville is still technically under construction, and fans are lobbying for their ending of choice. On the big questions, such as whether Harry lives or dies in the end, Rowling was mum. On the small questions, she was expansive. Did she ever think of giving up on writing before the first Potter book was published?

"No, truthfully," she said. "Iris Murdoch once said writing a novel is a bit like getting married -- you can't commit yourself unless you can't believe your luck. And I was going till the last publisher rejected it, which at one point looked likely."

The night was a benefit for Doctors Without Borders and the Haven Foundation, which King started and which raises money for ailing and injured writers and artists. Each of the three writers read from a makeshift platform, furnished to reflect the ambience of the writer's prose. King's platform had a large, somewhat Gothic chair and a couple of items you'd expect on the back porch of a barn.

"Hopefully I won't fall over this damn wheelbarrow," he said before reading passages of a story from "Different Seasons," one of his 4,897 books. It concerned an overweight kid who takes revenge on his cruel small town by competing in a pie-eating contest and then puking on purpose, an act so revolting that it starts a chain reaction of vomiting among spectators, each more sickened than the last. The kid's upchuck, King wrote, came like "a six-ton Peterbilt shooting through a tunnel."

"Who writes this stuff?" he improvised over the audience's groans and guffaws.

Irving read from "A Prayer for Owen Meany," his seventh novel. The excerpt concerned a Christmas pageant that Owen, an undersized lad, talks the adults into rethinking and recasting, chiefly so that he can play the role of Baby Jesus. Sitting on what looked like a mobile version of the set from "Masterpiece Theatre," Irving did Owen's voice in a falsetto that convincingly turned the gray-haired author into a 4-year-old. The performance was surprisingly child-friendly and totally winning.

Once Irving was through, Jon Stewart showed up to introduce Rowling. He sounded as confused by his presence as everyone else.

"I am a television personality, and books are killing my profession," he said.

Naturally, he did some Mel Gibson jokes. "I was just talking to Mel before I came in," he deadpanned. "He hopes that tonight's meshugas puts a smile on your punim ."

(Given the laughter, many in the audience are as familiar with Yiddish as with Potter arcana.)

Then he fessed up: He was asked to introduce Rowling because he is a huge fan.

"I have two kids," he said. "The youngest is 5 months old. She's been in line for the latest Harry Potter book now for over three months. We miss her terribly. But I want that damn book."

Once Rowling had fielded a few questions, Irving and King joined her onstage and the three of them took turns getting grilled. Irving and Rowling were asked earnest, soul-searching questions. For King, the questions were better and blunter. A guy wondered how anyone could dream up such creepy plots without being deranged. ("I sold my soul to the Devil," King said.) "What scares you?" wondered another woman.

King shot a glance to the balconies. "How about sitting in front of 6,000 people?"

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