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Contains some strong language
JK Rowling is our most successful living author.
The Harry Potter series sold 450 million copies.
Since it finished five years ago,
her fans have been desperate to know what she would do next.
The answer is this.
"She knocked again, sooner than she would have done
"if she had not wanted to distract herself from her own thoughts
"and this time the distant voice said, 'I'm fucking coming'.
"The door swung open to reveal a woman who appeared simultaneously
"childlike and ancient, dressed in a dirty pale blue T-shirt
"and a pair of men's pyjama bottoms.
"She was the same height as Kay, but shrunken.
"The bones of her face and sternum showed sharply
"through the thin, white skin.
"Her hair, which was home-dyed, coarse and very red,
"looked like a wig on top of a skull.
"Her pupils were miniscule and her chest virtually breastless.
" 'Hello, are you Terri? I'm Kay Borden from Social Services.
" 'I'm covering for Matthew Knox."
"There were silvery pock-marks all over
"the woman's fragile, grey-white arms
"and an angry, red open sore on the inside of one forearm.
"A wide area of scar tissue on her right arm
"and lower neck gave the skin a shiny, plastic appearance.
"Kay had known an addict in London who had accidentally set fire
"to her house and realised too late what was happening.
" 'Yeah, right', said Terri, after an overlong pause."
Jo, when I started reading this novel,
I was, I have to say, incredibly shocked.
It's full of sex, violence, swearing, drug addiction.
What's going on?
Were you really shocked?
I was shocked because I thought you couldn't be further
-from Harry Potter. Were you trying to prove something here?
I wasn't trying to shock anyone.
I'm a very lucky person.
You know, Harry Potter's success brought me freedom.
You know, I feel I don't have to publish again, we can pay our bills.
This is what I wanted to write.
Yes, it's different, it's contemporary, it's realistic
and I don't have the constraints of fantasy.
By which, I mean that there are places you just wouldn't go in fantasy.
The genre imposes those limits,
and sex would obviously be one of those limits.
For two years, writing The Casual Vacancy,
I kept saying to myself it was a lovely position to be in. I kept thinking,
"No-one knows what I'm doing. No-one knows these characters.
"They're just in my head. This is a fantastic place to be."
It had been so long since I'd had that private world
and I would think, "I don't have to publish this if I don't want to."
The Casual Vacancy is set in an idyllic fictional town
in the south-west of England.
With its town square, cobbled streets and rolling river,
seems to be middle-class heaven apart from one thing -
the Fields - a grim neighbouring council estate
complete with drug dealers, prostitutes and troubled teenagers.
I'm interested in that kind of deprivation
and the idea of what happens in this idyllic - on the surface - place.
What happens beneath the surface
and how many ugly attitudes are... running beneath the surface?
And how the disadvantaged can live so close to the advantaged.
One of the disadvantaged is 16-year-old Krystal Weedon,
the daughter of a heroin addict.
"Her memories of St Thomas' included in the muttered comments
"made about by little girls in her class,
"one or two of whom she had slapped.
"'When Social Services had allowed her to go back to her mother,
"her uniform became so tight, short and grubby
"that letters were sent from school
"and Nana Cath and Terri had a big row.
"The other girls at school had not wanted her
"in their groups except for their rounders teams.
"She could still remember
"Lexi Mollison handing everyone in the class a little pink envelope
"containing a party invitation and walking past Krystal with,
"as Krystal remembered it, her nose in the air.
"Only a couple of people had asked her to parties.
"She wondered whether Fats or his mother remembered that she had
"once attended a birthday party at their house.
"Her whole class had been invited
"and Nana Cath had bought Krystal a party dress
"so she knew that Fats' huge back garden
"had a pond and swing and an apple tree.
"They had eaten jelly and had sack races.
"Tessa had told Krystal off because,
"trying desperately hard to win a plastic medal,
"she had pushed other children out of the way.
"One of them had had a nosebleed."
If you were to distil the book into one line it would be,
"What do we do about Krystal?"
Krystal is the kind of girl that, I think,
a huge number of people would simply walk past and think, "Lout."
She's a 16-year-old girl who is ignorant, promiscuous,
and the man who dies in the first two pages of the novel
has managed to kindle a little bit of ambition and self-respect in her.
The dead man is Barry Fairbrother,
a warm-hearted, socially progressive parish councillor.
With his demise, the Fields lose their most vocal
and influential champion.
Barry was born there and Barry got out.
Barry, through his own intelligence and a bit of luck,
he managed to make his way out and there is just something
inspirational, I think, for Krystal, in having contact with this man
who is the living personification of an escape through education.
So, he leaves the casual vacancy,
he leaves a vacuum into which a number of people swarm.
So, then, the idea came to me of a council election
and that was a perfect way into a small community.
It was a perfect way into the ideas that I really wanted to explore.
The Conservative councillors of Pagford are desperate
to replace Barry with one of their own.
If they succeed, they'll be able to change the town's boundary
and reassign the troublesome council estate to the neighbouring city.
It's not just an election - it's an opportunity.
"There was nothing, as far as Howard could see, to stop the fielders
"growing fresh vegetables.
"Nothing to stop them disciplining their sinister, hooded,
"Nothing to stop them pulling themselves together as a community and tackling the dirt and shabbiness.
"Nothing to stop them cleaning themselves up and taking jobs. Nothing at all.
"So Howard was forced to draw the conclusion that they were
"choosing, of their own free will, to live the way they lived and that
"the estate's air of slightly threatening degradation
"was nothing more than a physical manifestation of ignorance and indolence."
People in that condition tend to be treated as though they're like mould.
It just happened, they just sprung up there. Well, something did happen.
Something, somewhere went wrong in that family. What was it?
Sometimes that gives you clues.
-But the answers are often more complex than...
..politicians and social workers...
Oh, no, absolutely. Of course they are. I mean, I think that...
Yes, and I think the novel shows that. This isn't...
There is no simple answer to the question,
"What do we do about Krystal?"
And that, I think, is sometimes why people lose patience and would rather
see things in a very black and white way, and it's easier to stigmatise
and, sort of, shunt these people out of sight and not engage.
Because it is complex, and that can sometimes feel very hopeless.
How much do you think
you're going into some kind of heart of social darkness here?
Heart of social darkness...
I think that, well, to me, personally,
I think it's a place we should go.
And I think it's a little...
Is cowardly too strong?
I don't know. To me, it seems the obvious place to go, you know?
Where people are...desperate.
Yes, I'm attracted to that as a subject. Certainly.
How do you know about it all?
Well, I've known people like Krystal and, indeed, like Terri.
I mean, I've had a very peculiar life experience
when it comes to social mobility, I suppose.
I was born into a very ordinary, middle-class family
where there wasn't a great deal of money
but we weren't deprived in any way.
I worked as a teacher, I worked for charities,
I didn't make a great deal.
You don't make a great deal of money in that situation.
Then I was, for a few years, very, very poor.
I was living solely on benefits as a single mother.
I have been...
as poor as it's possible to go without being homeless.
And as we all know, I've become very rich.
That was certainly an unexpected turn of events. But I've... Yeah.
I mean, I've known life at real extremes.
How much did that early experience make you sympathetic
to the outsider, the ignored, the downtrodden?
I find it hard to say it strongly enough.
The most powerful experience I had of being the outsider,
or of being the other,
was definitely of being very poor.
We talk about the poor as this homogenous, faceless mass.
That's how they are discussed.
It's sometimes with the best intentions of the world,
but one of the first things to go is often your individuality.
That you are seen so differently.
And I think if you've been there, you never forget that experience.
I will never forget that experience.
"A weight was pressing on Krystal's lungs and her ears were ringing.
"Obo must have given her mother not a single bag, but a bundle.
"The social worker had seen her blasted.
"Terri would test positive at Bell Chapel next time
"and they would chuck her out again.
"And without methadone,
"they would return to that nightmare place where Terri became feral.
"When she would again start opening her broken-toothed mouth
"for strangers' dicks so she could feed her veins.
"And Robbie would be taken away again.
"And this time, he might not come back."
One central location in the novel is a drug-rehabilitation clinic
which is in danger of being closed down.
And that is actually one of the battlegrounds of the novel.
Whether people think the undeserving poor are worth saving or not.
My husband worked for a while at an addiction clinic.
My husband's a doctor.
And I would say the thing that struck me most about him working there,
um...was how precarious its existence constantly was.
It got funding from a number of different places. And...
there was always a sense of knife edge about it.
About whether it would be able to limp on
and how many people they would be able to employ and so on.
And, um...I'd never really understood
how precarious that set-up could be until he worked there.
I'm looking at quite a lot of addictions in this novel.
You have the middleclass heavy drinker.
You have a woman who's sinking a bottle of wine
every time she uncorks a bottle, or more.
That's winked at. Everyone does that.
No-one thinks twice about her.
We have a couple of people who are using food
in a way that an addict uses an illicit substance,
um...to anaesthetise and to comfort.
I'm interested in the moral weight, if you like,
that we give to different kinds of addiction.
I'm very interested in how much
various addictions cost society in all kinds of ways.
You make a big parallel in the novel between the expense of that
and the expensive of a middleclass man's heart condition, for example.
For a long time, the novel, in my head, was called Responsible.
That was my working title.
Um...because a central theme, possibly the central theme,
How much each of us, individually,
is responsible for where we find ourselves in life.
And then how responsible are we for other people's happiness.
From your partner or your child,
all the way up to society's ills, if you like.
I think it's a novel about hypocrisy as much as responsibility.
So that the middleclass characters expect standards of behaviour
that they don't necessarily display themselves.
Particularly towards their children.
They have an incredibly old-fashioned attitude to their adolescent children,
while shagging all over the place themselves.
Not EVERYONE is shagging all over the place themselves.
Um...you're absolutely right about hypocrisy.
A lot of people sit in judgement of the Weedon family.
And, um...it is right that the Weedon family is looked at.
There are issues galore within that family that need to be looked at.
But some of the people doing the looking,
their own family lives might not bear too much examination.
"I wouldn't trust Krystal to look after a boiling egg," said Miles, and Samantha laughed again.
"Oh, look. It's to her credit she loves her brother, but he isn't a cuddly toy."
"Yes, I know that," snapped Kay,
remembering Robbie's shitty crusted bottom.
"But he's still loved."
"Krystal bullied our daughter Lexi," said Samantha.
"So we've seen a different side of her
"to the one I'm sure she shows you."
"Look, we all know Krystal's had a rough deal," said Miles.
"Nobody's denying that. It's the drug-addled mother I've got an issue with."
"As a matter of fact, she's doing very well on the Bell Chapel programme at the moment."
"But with her history," said Miles, "it isn't rocket science, is it,
"to guess that she'll relapse."
"If you apply that rule across the board, you ought not to have a driving licence.
"Because with your history, you're bound to drink and drive again."
In many ways, although this is very, very dark,
it starts as a comedy, doesn't it?
I mean, it is a kind of satire about contemporary Britain.
I don't know... I wouldn't call it satire. Honestly.
It is comic in places, but I don't really think it's a black comedy.
I think it's a comic tragedy.
-And is that how you...?
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely!
I don't think I know an unusual cross-section of people,
and I think people's lives generally are more absurd,
sadder, funnier, stranger...
than your average soap opera would make it appear, actually.
Or many books would make it appear.
-But then, if you depict that, you're called a satirist.
But I don't think I'm writing satire.
In one way, the disadvantaged Krystal Weedon and her family
are described with great social realism, I think.
And the middleclass people
are described in quite a comic way sometimes.
And I wonder whether that's entirely...
Well, clearly, I'm middleclass. I mean, I'm not, um...
I'm not...I don't in the slightest believe
that this is all the middleclass' fault.
Um...having said that, there are people like Howard
who espouse exactly those attitudes, and, um...who talk in that way.
I mean, I don't think that's satire.
In fact, if anything, I think I've toned him down a bit.
Obviously, you have a left-of-centre position on this.
I can totally understand the attitude that says,
"Oh, God, don't let Krystal be in my child's class."
But...I do get angry
when I hear people talk and I think,
"Can you not engage your imagination to the tiniest degree
"so that you understand what it might be like not to be you?"
And I don't just mean imagining what it would be like to be homeless
or imagining what it would be like to, um...have to live on benefits,
though some people would benefit from knowing what that felt like.
But, er...even to the small degree
that they... Some people fail to appreciate
that not everyone has their life experience.
Just, just try and imagine.
I find that frustrating.
There are few people who are truly capable
of thinking outside their own personal experience.
Which is the novelist's job.
It is. And if the novelist is worth their salt,
they'll be able to think themselves into
all sorts of people's experience.
It doesn't necessarily make them a better person, but that is the job.
Shirley's eyes were fixed respectfully on her knees
and her hands were clasped, apparently in prayer.
But she was really mulling over
Howard and Parminder's little exchange about the sari.
Shirley belonged to a section of Pagford
that quietly lamented the fact that the old vicarage,
which had been built long ago
to house a High-Church vicar with mutton-chop whiskers
and a starched-apron staff,
was now home to a family of Hindus.
Shirley had never quite grasped what religion the Jawandas were.
She thought that if she and Howard went to the temple or the mosque
or wherever it was the Jawandas worshipped,
they would doubtless be required to cover their heads
and remove their shoes, and who knew what else.
Otherwise, there would be outcry.
Yet it was acceptable for Parminder to flaunt her sari in church.
It was not as though Parminder did not have normal clothes,
for she wore them to work every day.
The double standard of it all was what rankled.
Not a thought for the disrespect it showed to their religion.
And, by extension, to Barry Fairbrother himself,
of whom she was supposed to have been so fond.
There's a wonderful irony in the book.
There's lots of scenes set around and in the church.
And no-one ever goes there.
Yeah. I like that, too.
The dominant religion of the book is Sikhism.
Why? Why? What attracts you to Sikhism?
All its egalitarianism. And it's an amazing religion.
My interest was sparked years and years and years ago when I was in my 20s.
And a girl I worked with briefly who was from a Sikh family.
And we only ever had one serious conversation on the subject,
but it stuck with me. It's always stuck with me.
She told me about the fact that men and women
are explicitly described as equal in the holy book.
And that women are not excluded
from any part of religious rites or observance.
I thought, "My God! Really?"
I wanted to have a family of colour in Pagford.
The Jawandas are a very archetypal middleclass family.
A two-doctor family. Three, three attractive children.
And they bring out a lot of feelings in the people around them.
Pagford is a very white place. I grew up in a very white place.
Um...and that was an interesting way to examine, um...
well, certain attitudes within Pagford.
And clearly, in a novel that's about exclusion and prejudice
and outsider status and division,
well, they had to be Sikhs, didn't they? They had to be Sikhs.
"Slowly, very slowly,
"her family seemed to be putting themselves to bed at last.
"Jas spent a long time in the bathroom, clinking and crashing around.
"Sukhvinder waited until Jas had finished primping herself,
"until her parents had stopped talking in their room,
"for the house to fall silent.
"Then, at last, it was safe.
"She sat up and pulled the razorblade out from a hole
"in the ear of her old cuddly rabbit.
"She stole the blade from Vikram's store in the bathroom cabinet.
"She got off the bed and groped for the torch on her shelf
"and a handful of tissues.
"Then moved into the furthest part of her room,
"into the little round turret in the corner.
"Here, she knew the torch's light would be confined
"and would not show around the edges of the door.
"She sat down with her back against the wall,
"pushed up the sleeve of her nightshirt
"and examined by torchlight the marks left by her last session.
"Still visible, crisscrossed and dark on her arm, but healing.
"With a slight shiver of fear
"that was a blessed relief in its narrow, immediate focus,
"she placed the blade halfway up her forearm
"and sliced into her own flesh."
The daughter in the Sikh family
does something that I think every parent of a teenage girl
-is terrified of, which is self-harm.
The Casual Vacancy for me...
means lots of different things.
One of the things it means is the emptiness
that nearly everyone carries in them.
And very single character in this book
is seeking to fill an emptiness, a lack in their life.
Sukhvinder is trying to...
It's an act of expiation.
It's a way of releasing pain.
What attracts you to writing about adolescents?
Teenagers can be incredibly fragile.
Are almost always very fragile, actually.
But I don't think I sentimentalise teenagers.
A couple of them are real little bastards, as well, in this book.
And some of their behaviour is atrocious.
But they also occasionally light on real profundities and truths
that some of the adults aren't that interested in getting out,
or would prefer to ignore.
So they are this... as I think teenagers are,
this curious mixture of truth teller and seeker,
and obtuse and sometimes very destructive force.
Years ago, I knew a boy
who made all the wrong choices.
-Please let me help you.
-I don't want your help!
Don't you understand?
I have to do this!
I have to kill you.
Or he's going to kill me.
This is a radically different book,
but there are some echoes of the themes from Harry Potter.
I think that's fair. I think that's true.
It's like your DNA. You can't...
Well, I don't think a writer can...
er...disguise their DNA, if you will.
So probably everything I write will ultimately be about death
I'll probably never be able to...
Because that's what I think about. That's what consumes and obsesses me.
Those are the things I think about all the time.
Why are you so obsessed with those themes?
Mortality, I suppose, I was very young when my mother
was diagnosed with an illness that was...
she was unlucky enough to get in a very severe form.
It's not always that severe, but with my mother, it was.
So I suppose from a relatively early age,
I was very conscious of mortality.
Um...it wasn't just my mother.
My sister and I were born into quite an old family.
Not in the sense of noble, but in the sense of aged.
We were the only people in our generation.
And funerals happened quite a lot in our youth.
So I suppose probably the death thing comes from there.
If I'm honest, morality, I don't really understand
why everyone isn't completely obsessed with morality.
But, um...they're not. I know that for a fact.
But I am.
But do you see yourself as a moral writer?
Well, I think I am, but, um, I've...
My books have been burned and I've had death threats.
So, apparently, some people don't.
I think...yeah, I think I'm a pretty moral writer.
Can you remember when you first became aware
that society wasn't perhaps as just as it should be?
Oh, I was really young. I mean...
I was really young.
Well, I went to a comprehensive school where I was, um...
I can remember...yeah.
I can remember all kinds of things going on.
And people were clearly from families who were very different from mine.
And, um...coping with things at home that...
Er...not many of us have had to cope with.
Did it make you want to change things?
But this wasn't written as a political polemic.
This is, this is, I think, a very character-driven novel.
Although you say this isn't a political novel, it is political...
It's political in the broadest sense, isn't it? I mean...
in the final analysis, virtually everything is political.
So, um...what I mean is
that I do not think there are black-and-white answers here
and I don't think that any single political party
has the monopoly on the solution to these problems.
Barry Fairbrother got out of his council estate upbringing in the Fields.
He had social mobility, as it were.
Do you think there's less social mobility
for people who are Barry's teenage age now?
I really... I mean,
I fear for teenagers now in that situation, definitely.
Statistics show that social mobility
has slowed a lot in the last decade or so,
which is incredibly depressing.
Um...yeah, it's incredibly depressing.
And I shudder to think what would happen, what will happen
to teenagers born into that kind of situation right...
or living in that kind of situation now, what their future will hold.
Because it does seem that the poverty trap
is shut just as tightly as ever it was.
Would you say this is a novel more about broken people than broken Britain?
Definitely. Definitely. I hate the phrase "broken Britain".
I think it's trite, simplistic,
and it's, it's about, um...
you know, political point scoring and talking points.
And it's the kind of thing I loathe. And I think it's...
That kind of sloganeering is the antithesis,
I think, of what needs to happen.
We need to acknowledge the complexity of these situations,
but unfortunately, democracy being the beauty parade it is,
everything gets reduced to very black and white, um...
Yeah, I suppose, slogans, often.
Broken Britain, I feel, was one of those.
In this book, it seems that there are people,
some of whom have more choices than others.
Well, that's where it gets interesting.
How much do we blame Krystal for how she behaves?
And people will...I know quite a few people have now read the book
and people have very different views on that, which is good.
Which is what I want. But, um...
I think I would go so far as to say
I don't think I've got anything to say to a person
who doesn't want to save Krystal Weedon. Put it that way.
So if someone reads the book
and just can't really see the point in that,
then I literally don't think I have anything to say to that person,
and they probably would have nothing to say to me.
How will you react if people hate it?
Well, if people hate it, then I will suck that up,
as my teenage daughter would say.
Any writer would rather people liked it
or enjoyed it or got something...worthwhile from it.
Any... You know, I'd absolutely be lying if I said,
"Oh, no, no, no, I don't care." Of course I care!
..I had the most amazing experience with Harry Potter.
It was very, very popular and people loved the books.
And, you know, that will stay with me forever. It was wonderful.
I think some people will like it and some people won't, I'm sure of that.
-It's published tomorrow.
I think that you may be in for a very bumpy ride.
Well, if I am, I am. I mean...
Hindsight's a funny thing.
You know what, there were bumpy times with Harry, too. And, um...
..I'm a very fortunate woman. And if I am in for a bumpy ride,
that's not the worst thing that can happen to me.
-Thank you, Jo.
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