Meeting JK Rowling on Week Eight

On Friday night, I met my hero and I’ll never be the same again.

Before I start, I should say two things:

  • This post is going to be entirely about JK Rowling because I’m not even kidding when I say literally nothing else mattered this week
  • Andrew Tatis is the most incredible and perfect best friend I could ever have in the entire world and I can never thank him enough for giving me this opportunity even though he couldn’t come with me and I love him forever and ever amen

Okay. Here we go.

On Friday, March 8th, I woke up early and went to class for four hours. Sitting in that abysmally boring class did nothing to calm my nerves about what was to come that night. In just a few hours, I would be on a train to Bath to see JK Rowling speak at the Bath Literary Festival. Wait what? Yes. This was happening. This was not a dream. Even in my anxious state, there was a part of me that honestly didn’t believe it. In my denial, I had waited until the last possible minute to buy my train tickets and get the event tickets from Andrew. Which is why it wasn’t until near midnight on Thursday that Andrew and I realized that the friend he had bought the ticket off for me had actually reserved two tickets to the event. Which meant that I didn’t have to go alone anymore as long as I found someone to.. well you know, cancel all their plans and pay for (a rather expensive) train ticket to go see JK Rowling.

It turns out that wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be on such short notice. Which is why I found myself eating a quick lunch, packing a bag, and walking to the tube station by myself at 2:30 in the afternoon. As usual, my anxiety started acting up as it always does when I’m doing something alone and I start thinking ahead of everything that needs to happen that can and will go wrong and oh my god the tube is delayed and it’s 2:45 and I have to catch my train at 3:30 and I haven’t printed out my tickets yet what if there’s a problem with the machine and the train leaves and…. Oh, okay there’s the tube. Oh right it only takes seven minutes to get to the station. Oh look at that I was at Paddington with my tickets in hand and my train didn’t even have a platform yet because it was only 3:05. I really need to get my anxiety under control.

At 3:30 on the dot, I was sitting comfortably by the window, my legs spread out on the empty seat next to me, listening to my music, and thinking about what lay ahead. Even then, I didn’t really believe what I was doing. It was like I was just going through the motions of any ordinary trip to any ordinary place.

The train pulled into Bath a little before 5pm. It was a tiny station, only two platforms. I made my way outside and stopped. I had no idea where to go. I had looked at directions before leaving my room but they didn’t really make sense. Had I gone out the wrong way? Where did I even need to go? I needed to pick up my tickets. That was first on the list. So I took a deep breath, swallowed the panic, and turned left. One thing I’ve learned from all my travels is that I have an incredible sense of direction. I get these gut feelings when I’m in a new place and they’ve haven’t let me down yet. It was that innate instinct that led me to finding the venue within two minutes. It was surprisingly close to the train station, like literally around the corner. I stood in front of it for a few minutes, looking at the poster. Yeah, that’s when it started to hit me a little. But not quite. Not until I had the physical ticket in my hand could I breathe easily. The doors were locked and there was no ticket or information booth as far as I could see. I took another look at the confirmation email Andrew had forwarded me from his friend. It said I had to pick up the tickets at the Bath Visitor Information Center. Well. I gotta tell you one of the things I hate most about being abroad is not being able to use my phone for directions.

I needed wifi. There was a McDonald’s across the street so I walked over and mooched off theirs while I searched for the Visitor Center. It was a few minutes walk. Bath is a pretty small place. Very picturesque and rural England-y. But small. At least the touristy area where I was. Anyway, I walked over and found it easily, only to find out that all tickets had been moved to the venue and I could pick it up at 7pm when doors opened. Womp. All that had only taken a half hour so I had quite a bit of time to kill. I wandered around but it wasn’t very pleasant weather. I ducked into a cafe and sandwich place and had an early dinner. I wasn’t hungry but I wasn’t really sure how the night was going to go or when I would be able to eat again. When I finished, it was barely 6pm. I was too antsy to sit there for an hour, and it was getting darker so I left and aimlessly wandered back to the venue. There were two girls standing in front of the door. I approached them and within a few minutes, we were having an easy conversation, introducing ourselves and wondering what the night would be like. As the hour went on, more people started arriving and before I knew it, I was part of a whole little group at the very front of the line. It was quite an international bunch. Brazil, Ireland, Hong Kong, London, Ecuador, LA, Wales. And then there was me, never really knowing what to say. Oh yes I’m living in London but I go to university in Boston. But well I’m really from Miami. Well no I’m originally from Venezuela. Man do I need to settle down.

But then the craziest thing happened. Another girl had joined our group and we were going through introductions again. I began to say the usual spiel. “I’m living in London but I’m originally from Miami and–” Before I could finish, the girl had cut me off. “Wait I’m from Miami!” Well that’s a coincidence, where exactly? I’m more from the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale. Wait you’re kidding? You’re from Coral Springs?! Wait, you went to Cardinal Gibbons?!

Guys. How on earth did I manage to stumble upon the one person who not only lives near my hometown but went to a rival high school that I used to play against in high school? Everyone around us was laughing at our incredulous looks. I mean, I’m in Bath. Like what are the chances? Slim to none, I’m willing to bet.

Oh but if only it ended there. The conversation went on and the Florida girl, her name was Claudia, asked one of the girls that I had first approached where she was from. When she answered Brazil, Claudia immediately said, “Oh cool I’m actually from–” Wait no. Don’t say it. “–Venezuela.” I stared at her. The girls who had heard me say where I was from earlier started cracking up. I looked at her and said in disbelief, “I was born in Caracas.” Stop. We burst out laughing. Guys I don’t know but I’m pretty sure I met like a long lost cousin or something.

Well that definitely made the wait in the line infinitely more interesting. Everyone was incredibly nice and we passed the time by talking about Harry Potter, the Casual Vacancy, Doctor Who, and other assorted fandoms while intermittently freaking out about what we were actually there for. As it got closer to 7, I moved to stand in front of the door that was for ticket collections and waited there with Yen-Yen, one of the two girls I had first met. But 7 came and went and they still weren’t opening. At 7:20, I started to get worried. JKR was supposed to speak for an hour from 8-9pm and do a book signing after. My train back to London was leaving at 10:47pm. It was the latest train I could take and I hoped I wouldn’t miss it. But I sure as hell wasn’t leaving here without my book signed. It turned out Claudia and Yen-Yen were on the same train and we all agreed that no matter what, we were staying until the end and figure out how to get back later. Finally a little past 7:30 they opened the doors. I was the first at the ticket table, gave them Andrew’s friend’s name and picked up her two tickets. I waited for Yen-Yen and Claudia and we all ran upstairs to our seats. I was in Row R but it turned out Claudia also had two extra tickets from friends who hadn’t been able to make it. She was way closer up in Row F so the three of us were all able to sit next to each other. We couldn’t believe how close we were. We were on the balcony but it wasn’t a bad view. If she sat in the chair facing us, we would see her perfectly. A few minutes later, another girl came and took the seat next to me. She was by herself too, from Oregon and studying in London. The four of us quickly bonded over mutual freaking outs. As you can imagine they got progressively worse as the night got closer to 8pm. The girl, Amy, was on the 10:02pm train back and we all agreed again that no matter what happened we would not leave Bath without getting our books signed. We weren’t sure how long it would take. We were already speculating and throwing around options: sleeping at the train station, checking out a hostel, paying a long-distance cab… It was past 8 and people were still trickling in. I really hoped it didn’t start too late.

No sooner had I thought it than a woman walked out on stage and called everyone’s attention. I looked at my watch. 8:17pm. Okay not bad. She went over a few details. No phones or cameras during the talk. The usual etc. And then she mentioned the book signing. “Ms. Rowling will speak for an hour and then do a book signing. Any one who wishes to have their book signed will get it signed.” We all breathed a sigh of relief. There had been rumors that not everyone would get a chance. “She will only be signing a copy of The Casual Vacancy. Only one book per person. No dedications.” Womp. Well there went my plans to get a book signed for my sister. I promised myself to make it up to her somehow.

The woman finished speaking and introduced James Runcie, the artistic director. Okay now we were getting somewhere. The lights were still on. I figured this guy would speak for a little, walk out, wait a few more minutes, someone would come out to do an introduction. I glanced at my watch again. 8:25. I was lost in my thoughts while he was speaking which is why I was caught completely by surprise when I heard him say “So without further ado, the woman who needs no introduction, the one and only, Ms. JK Rowling!”

I bolted straight up and froze, my body leaning forward, my hands gripping the arms of Amy and Yen-Yen. And there she was. She had taken barely three steps on the stage and my eyes were already swimming with tears. Oh my god what was happening. The tears were spilling over and I could not take my eyes off of her. She smiled and waved and sat down and the audience was screaming and clapping and the lights were still on and she sat in the chair facing us and we had a perfect view and holy shit JK Rowling was sitting a few yards away from me what was going on how was this real. I looked over at my companions and saw their red eyes and tear trails on their cheeks and I knew, after everything, I hadn’t come here alone.

It occurred to me only halfway through the talk to jot down notes on my phone of the everything she said. I wish I could have recorded the entire thing. But I could never put it into words. So here’s a (you guessed it!) a list:

Little nuggets I remember from JK Rowling:

  • She is writing a children’s book. She said it’s for a completely different audience but who is she kidding. You bet your ass I’ll be the 25 year old pre-ordering and buying it at midnight.
  • “You write when you can’t get the idea out of your mind and there’s nothing else you can do but grab a pen and just let it flow.”
  • “When I write, I feel free. It’s the only place I feel free in. I’m liberated in my fiction.”
  • “I’ll never be able to top Harry Potter. But the way I see it, now that means I can write whatever I want, whatever my heart and pen desires, without worrying about where my next meal is coming from or how I’m paying the next bill. You have to look at the bright side. I feel very lucky.” The lessons never end from this woman. What an inspiration.
  • Do you miss Harry? “I dreamt about Harry the other day actually. About Harry and Ron. And it was just me and them, talking. And before you ask, no it wasn’t Dan and Rupert. It was.. my Harry. My Harry and my Ron.” And the waterfalls are back.
  • On Hermione: “Her insecurities are my insecurities.” She identifies heavily with Hermione. She’s not the only one.
  • On writing: “It’s compulsive. A click in the head. Something just goes… oop! And I have to, I have to drop whatever I’m doing and pick up a pen and just write it down.” Her husband, Neil, is an immense help when this happens because the only way she can slip so easily from mom to author is by knowing that there is an adult around who can handle the real world while she’s in her world.
  • She has a recurring dream of working in an office. “It’s like in the real world I play with dragons! So my subconscious just has to be like okay no just relax and go to work…” I was laughing so hard. Can you imagine this woman in an office, 9-5 job? In the dream, she pretty much comes to the same conclusion and it then turns into Okay how can I get myself fired?
  • On Grindelwald and Dumbledore, she talked about how Grindelwald was very manipulative, that he knew exactly how Dumbledore felt and used it to his advantage. It’s an interesting topic she doesn’t get to talk about much.
  • “The night I said for the first time that Dumbledore was gay, I was doing a book signing afterwards and this gentleman walked up to the table and spread his arms wide and just looked at me and said ‘I came out today!'” Everyone was laughing. “I just looked at him and I didn’t really know what to say and I had another woman come up later who had been standing next to him and she told me how when I had said Dumbledore is gay, he had turned to her and said ‘So am I!'” I was cracking up. She’s a brilliant storyteller even in person.
  • It is unlikely she will write a Marauders prequel. “Generally prequels don’t tend to do well.” But… “Never say never…” I’ll keep my fingers crossed. I just really need to know the James and Lily story. Desperately.
  • “For me, life is writing.” Tears. Yeah. Everywhere.
  • The talk ended with this quote: “My kids, feeling a little neglected I suspect, once sternly asked me ‘Mum. If you had to choose. Us or books?’ And I looked at them and said, ‘Well you. But I would be very grumpy.'” Cue laughter and tears and applause and emotions.

By that time she walked off stage, it was only a little past 9 and we were all hopeful that we might end up making our train after all. I’ll skip over all the details except to say a huge thank you to the wonderful stewardess who listend to our worries and asked management for time estimates and helped us get first in line when our row was called and ensured that we make our train.

IMG_3812A few minutes before our row was called for the book signing, someone had the idea to write her a letter. Yen-Yen had some pen and paper and I immediately began writing down everything I could ever wish to say to her. I knew I would be paralyzed when I got up there. Finally it was time. We were on the stage. I had the book open to the title page, the hologram sticker for proof of authenticity shimmering, the note clutched in my shaking hands. And then before I could process it, there she was. Sitting right in front of me. Holding my book. Touching my book. She smiled at me and looked right into my eyes. Blue. That’s all I remember. Just clear blue eyes. I slipped the note to her and said breathlessly, “Hi I wrote you a note because I’m pretty sure I’m gonna start crying and yeah I am okay.” Sure enough my eyes were filled with tears. She looked at me again with those eyes, earnestly said “Oh no no don’t cry.” And I said “Right yeah just thank you so much for everything you can’t even imagine what you’ve done for me.” She had the note in one hand and I took the book from her other. She smiled again and said “Thank you. Thank you so much.” And I just smiled and whispered “No no thank you” and turned away before the tears spilled over, clutching my book in my hands.

IMG_3814The four of us met at the bottom of the stage and just laughed, out of sheer nerves and exhilaration and disbelief. We took our respective cameras back and started talking at the same time about what she had said and what we had said and hadn’t said and oh my god had that just happened. It was barely 10pm when we walked back outside. We would make our train no problem. Amy would change her ticket to ours and we would all head back to London together. When we got to the station, we realized that Amy’s train was actually ten minutes delayed. We all ran up to the platform and managed to get on the earlier train, back in London Paddington before 12:30.

There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other. And meeting JK Rowling is one of them.

Friday was one of the most incredible nights of my life. Meeting the woman who has literally shaped my life, my values, my beliefs. I would not be the person I am without JK Rowling, without her inspiration, her influence, and her writing. I always hear about people meeting their heroes after placing them on such a pedestal and being let down. My experience was the complete opposite. I feel like I haven’t placed her high enough. I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity. JK Rowling is an incredible woman and deserves everything she has and more. I know her books and her legacy and her spirit will live forever through her writing and that makes this world that much easier to live in.

Thank you for everything, Jo. Thank you for my childhood.

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