19 Fascinating Behind-the-Scenes Facts About the Harry Potter Books

Bloomsbury (A Bibliography) // Table (iStock)
Bloomsbury (A Bibliography) // Table (iStock)

In Philip W. Errington’s J.K. Rowling: A Bibliography 1997-2013, the author herself writes that the 514-page book is “slavishly thorough and somewhat mind-boggling.” That it is: A Bibliography includes everything from original interviews and snippets of emails to errors and corrections from one edition of the Harry Potter books to the next, shedding light on the editorial process of this beloved series. Here are a few fascinating things we learned from Errington’s book about Harry Potter’s road from manuscript to sensation.

1. ONE BLOOMSBURY EMPLOYEE CHAMPIONED THE BOOK IN AN UNUSUAL WAY.

Rowling’s former agent, Christopher Little, brought three chapters of what would become Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Bloomsbury’s Barry Cunningham, who distributed the chapters among the staff. The marketing manager on the publishing team, Rosamund de la Hey, loved it, and wanted to show the editorial team that the book was something special. So, according to Nigel Newton, the founder and chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing plc, she made 10 copies for the staff, rolled them into scrolls, “sellotaped one end, filled it with Smarties, sellotaped the other end and put a red ribbon around the scroll. That was their way of saying to us that they thought the book would win the [Smarties Book Prize] … which funnily enough it did.”

2. THE FIRST EDITIONS FEATURED A RANDOM WIZARD ON THE BACK COVER.

The cover of Philosopher’s Stone was created by Thomas Taylor in just two days; it was his very first professional commission. Bloomsbury also asked him to “provide ‘a wizard to decorate the back cover.’ So I did,” Taylor wrote in a blog post on his website, which Errington quotes in A Bibliography. “The books are full of magical characters and sorcerers, so it wasn’t difficult to conjure up one of my own.”

Readers frequently asked Bloomsbury who the wizard was, though, so they asked Taylor to come up with a replacement. “The original picture was quickly replaced by a clearly recognizable illustration of Dumbledore, probably appearing first on the eighteenth impression,” Errington writes. Taylor said that, until the publisher asked, it had “never even crossed my mind to depict Dumbledore.”

3. THE ADULT EDITIONS WERE INSPIRED BY A BLOOMSBURY EMPLOYEES COMMUTE.

The staff member reported that he’d seen someone on his commute reading the book behind a copy of The Economist. “One of us—it might even have been me—repeated this to a journalist … who made a thing of it,” Newton told Errington. “And then we thought, well why don’t we produce an adult edition? It was quite clear that this book was being read just as much by adults.”

The adult editions featured understated photographs instead of illustrations; the first—which had a photo of an American steam locomotive from the Norfolk & Western Railway Train on the cover—was published in September 1998.

4. THE AMERICAN VERSION OF THE FIRST BOOK COULD HAVE HAD A MUCH DIFFERENT TITLE.

Publisher Arthur A. Levine had just launched his imprint at Scholastic when he heard about Philosopher’s Stone. When he acquired the rights for the book, he knew he’d have to change the title: It needed to have a little more magic in it for American readers. “I certainly did not mind Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but I can see … why a book that is titled Philosopher’s Stone might seem more arcane or something,” Levine told Errington. Harry Potter and the School of Magic was suggested as a new title; when Levine brought the idea to Rowling, she “very thoughtfully said, ‘No—that doesn’t feel right to me … there are objects that I would like. What if we called it the Sorcerer’s Stone?’ And that completely does it.”

5. LEVINE CAME UNDER FIRE FOR CHANGES MADE TO THE ORIGINAL PHILOSOPHER’S STONE MANUSCRIPT.

According to Errington, “There were around 80 word changes and some significant alteration in the placing of commas.” Levine told him, “I did not do anything to the text. Every change was something I discussed with Jo.”

6. NEARLY HEADLESS NICK ALSO NEARLY HAD A SONG.

When the manuscript for Chamber of Secrets came in, Bloomsbury editor Emma Matthewson wrote to Rowling that the book was “going to be absolutely brilliant! … [N]o danger of the sequel not coming up to the expectations of the first.” But the manuscript was “over-long,” so some things had to go—including a song for Nearly Headless Nick, which began “It was a mistake any wizard could make …” Rowling noted during edits that “this was ‘a wrench’ but admitted it was ‘superfluous to requirements,’” Errington writes. She later posted the lyrics to “The Ballad of Nearly Headless Nick” on her website; it’s no longer there, but you can read it here.

7. A GLOSSARY WAS SUGGESTED, BUT IT NEVER HAPPENED.

Early in the editorial process of Chamber of Secrets, someone at Bloomsbury suggested “an ‘information/glossary/history’ at the end of the book for those who hadn’t read Philosopher’s Stone,” Errington writes. “This idea, evidently, was abandoned.”

8. THE SCHOLASTIC VERSION OF CHAMBER OF SECRETS MESSED UP A PREVIEW FOR THE NEXT BOOK.

The publisher’s blurb said it was Aunt Petunia would be inflated in the next book, but that was a gaffe: It was Aunt Marge, Uncle Vernon’s sister, who Harry accidentally inflates.

9. PRISONER OF AZKABAN REQUIRED A LOT OF EDITING.

With its complicated time travel plot, it’s probably not surprising that the third entry in the Harry Potter series needed a closer eye than the two books that preceded it. The process took at least three months, and at one point, Rowling wrote to Matthewson, “I’ve read this book so much that I’m sick of it, I never read either of the others over and over again when editing them, but I really had to this time …” Later, she noted that “I’ll be hard put to smile when it comes to doing public readings from it.” Among the edits included bumping up the presence of the dementors.

10. GOBLET OF FIRE HAD A NUMBER OF POTENTIAL TITLES ...

They included Harry Potter and the Death Eaters, Harry Potter and the Fire Goblet, and Harry Potter and the Three Champions.

11. … AND THE TRIWIZARD TOURNAMENT WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED SOMETHING ELSE.

The Doomspell Tournament, to be exact. Matthewson suggested the change in a letter to Rowling dated March 8, 2000. (This letter also included the alternate titles.)

12. THE BOOK ALSO MARKED SOME OTHER FIRSTS.

Goblet of Fire was the first Harry Potter book released at midnight, and the first where Levine and Scholastic weighed in on edits during Bloomsbury’s editorial process.

13. NEWTON RECEIVED ORDER OF THE PHOENIX IN A “DEAD DROP” …

Newton had a clue that he would be receiving Rowling’s next manuscript when Little called him and suggested they meet for a drink at The Pelican—the same place the agent had delivered the manuscript for Goblet of Fire. Newton told Errington that he went to The Pelican “in a state of high alert. And I went in and there was a massive Sainsbury’s plastic carrier bag at his feet … he said nothing about that and I said nothing … we stood at the bar and drank our pints and said nothing about Harry Potter. But when we left I walked out with the carrier bag. It was a classic dead letter drop.”

14. … AND HE WAS TERRIFIED TO HAVE IT.

The series was so huge at that point that Newton said he was “almost frightened to be in physical possession” of its next book. He couldn’t tell anyone—not even his wife and kids—that he had the manuscript, so he hid it under his bed. Then, Newton stayed up all night reading it, disguising it by putting four pages of another author’s manuscript on top. (He did eventually tell his wife what was going on.) He stashed portions in the safe as he went; the next morning, he delivered it to Matthewson. “I was so relieved to hand it over,” he told Errington. Matthewson, meanwhile, had to edit the manuscript on a computer that wasn’t connected to the internet.

15. BLOOMSBURY COMMISSIONED A “HARRY POTTER BIBLE.”

In September 2004—not long before Rowling would deliver the manuscript for Half-Blood Prince—Bloomsbury began putting together a file, called the “HP Bible,” enlisting people outside of the company to help. The file, Errington writes, “was to assist with consistency across the series.” 

16. THE DEATHLY HALLOWS MANUSCRIPT HAD SOME GREAT CODE NAMES.

To keep the highly anticipated book under wraps, a file of an early set of proofs was titled Edinburgh Potmakers. “This was not the only spurious title given to the novel,” Errington writes. “Another print-out of the text in the editorial files at Bloomsbury is entitled The Life and Times of Clara Rose Lovett with the thrilling sub-title, ‘An epic novel covering many generations.’”

17. THERE WERE QUESTIONS ABOUT CONSISTENCY JUST BEFORE THE BOOK WAS FINALIZED.

In an April 23, 2007 email, Matthewson made several queries including one about Harry’s healing abilities. Writes Errington, “within paragraph four of page 11 Rowling had written ‘He had never learned how to repair wounds’ and pointed out that Harry had used ‘Episkey’ on Demelza’s lip on page 267 of Half-Blood Prince. The question was therefore asked ‘But this is ok as it is not really learning properly to repair wounds?” (It seems it was OK: The sentence stayed, unaltered.) Proofs were finalized on May 4, 2007.

18. LEVINE HAD 71 QUESTIONS FOR BLOOMSBURY DURING THE COPYEDITING PHASE.

“I truly hope it won’t be stressful for Jo,” Levine wrote to Matthewson in the email, noting that the queries “are merely a result of the absolutely PHENOMENAL level of detail in Harry’s saga, and the extraordinary depth of her imagination.”

There was also discussion of Britishisms versus Americanisms. “If you mean underpants and not trousers here,” one note from Scholastic read, “can we spell out ‘underpants’ for the U.S., so readers understand fully how embarrassing this is for Ron?” The request was granted.

19. BEEDLE THE BARD GOT AMERICANIZED.

In 2001, Rowling wrote Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages for charity; those books, which were supposed to be Harry’s textbooks, went out with the Britishisms intact. But for Beedle the Bard, written by Rowling as Dumbledore, the publisher wrote in a note that “we’ve decided that this book seems more like the U.S. edition of a wizarding classic, and therefore we’re using American spellings.” The American edition also included a footnote from Dumbledore explaining Christmas pantomime.

This list focused on Harry Potter, but there's so much more in A Bibliography—including details on Rowling's books written under pseudonyms and things she's written for various periodicals—making it a must-have for any Rowling fan. You can buy it here.

12 Surprising Facts About Evelyn Waugh

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Evelyn Waugh was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century. From his early satires, like Decline and Fall, to his more serious works, like Brideshead Revisited, Waugh is beloved by both literary critics and readers. But many readers don’t know much about Evelyn Waugh, the man, who was born in London in 1903. Here are 12 facts about his colorful life and work.

1. Evelyn Waugh's first name caused confusion.

Waugh was often mistaken in print for a woman, thanks to his first name. In 2016, a TIME poll even named him the 97th "most read female author in college classes," a mistake that inevitably went viral.

This wasn’t even the strangest incident. When Waugh arrived in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia and Eritrea) in the 1930s, on assignment from the Daily Mail, he found that the Italian military's occupation of the city of Asmara had resulted in a population of seven white women and 60,000 men. Waugh's Italian host was ecstatic to hear about the arrival of the female-sounding Evelyn Waugh, and raced to the airport with a bouquet of flowers—and was sorely disappointed. Ironically, Waugh's given first name was Arthur (Evelyn was one of his middle names).

2. Evelyn Waugh’s first wife was also named Evelyn.

Waugh married Evelyn Gardner, an aristocratic socialite, in June 1928 despite the objections of her family; they thought Waugh lacked ambition and direction. Their friends called them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn. The marriage broke down a year later, however, when Gardner had an affair with their mutual friend, John Heygate, and eventually left Waugh for him. In 1936, Waugh had his first marriage annulled and married Gardner’s cousin, Laura Herbert, in 1937. They had seven children.

3. Evelyn Waugh was incredibly old-fashioned.

According to NBC producer Edwin Newman, who filmed a TV interview with Waugh in 1956, the novelist wished he had been born 200 or 300 years earlier. He loathed the modern world and its technology; he refused to fly in a plane or learn to how to drive a car. He resisted using the telephone in favor of writing letters, which he did with an old-fashioned pen dipped in ink. His quirky eccentricity informed his conservative political leanings and his opposition to reforms in the Catholic Church, of which he was a devout convert.

4. Evelyn Waugh's brother wrote a bestselling novel at age 17.

Alec Waugh, Evelyn's older brother, wrote the semi-autobiographical novel The Loom of Youth based on his time at the elite Sherborne School, a boarding school in Dorset. The novel was incredibly controversial for its time—it depicted homosexual relationships between students as well as hypocrisies and prejudices in the school system—and it was also an immediate success when it was published in 1917. Alec was then fighting as part of the British army in World War I.

The Loom of Youth hit close enough to the truth that Sherborne's headmaster wrote to Alec and accused him of libel. He also told Alec that he was being expelled from the Old Shirburnian Society, a private organization for former Sherborne students; he remains the only student to have ever been booted from it.

5. Evelyn Waugh based his novel Scoop on his career as a journalist.

In 1935, Waugh and approximately 100 other journalists arrived in Abyssinia to cover the invasion of Benito Mussolini’s fascist military. Waugh didn't think much of being a journalist. According to The Guardian, he described journalists as "lousy competitive hysterical [and] lying." Waugh didn't even know how to use a typewriter and regularly predicted breaking news that never materialized. His distaste for journalism and the people who practice it inspired his satirical, semi-autobiographical novel Scoop.

6. Evelyn Waugh failed to deliver his one real scoop.

Portrait of Evelyn Waugh by Carl Van Vechten

While in Abyssinia, Waugh befriended some Italians, who gave him a heads-up when their leader was preparing to leave Addis—a move that meant the fascist invasion was imminent. It was the moment they had all been waiting for, and Waugh didn't want the tip to find its way into another journalist's hands. Waugh sent a telegram alerting his Daily Mail editors to this development, but wrote it in Latin. The attempt at subterfuge backfired: The editors thought it was nonsense and threw it away.

7. The Daily Beast is named as an homage to Evelyn Waugh.

The paper at the center of Scoop is the brazen tabloid The Daily Beast. In 2008, editor Tina Brown chose that name for her news website to honor Waugh's novel. But critics picked up on the fact that, just like its fictional counterpart, Brown’s project was owned and financed by a media baron. In her case, it was film and television executive Barry Diller; in Scoop it's the unscrupulous Lord Copper, which invited unwanted comparisons when The Daily Beast website launched.

8. Winston Churchill procured a military commission for Evelyn Waugh.

At the start of World War II, Waugh solicited his friend Randolph Churchill, the son of future prime minister Winston Churchill, to help him obtain a military commission. Waugh finally got a position in the Royal Marines because of the elder Churchill’s admiration for his dogged determination. While one of his subordinates said that he was "everything you'd expect an officer to be,” nothing in his plummy upbringing prepared him to lead rank-and-file soldiers.

9. Evelyn Waugh stole his children’s bananas.

After World War II ended, a shipment of bananas arrived in England for the first time in years. Laura Herbert Waugh managed to procure three bananas for her three oldest children. As son Auberon recounted in his 1991 autobiography, Evelyn snatched the fruit for himself, peeled each one, doused them in cream and sugar, and ate them as his children watched. "He was permanently marked down in my estimation from that moment," Auberon wrote.

10. Evelyn Waugh killed a Hollywood film of Brideshead Revisited.

MGM proposed a film version of Waugh's epic novel Brideshead Revisited in 1946, and offered a significant sum for the rights. When Waugh met the screenwriter in 1947, he realized that Hollywood saw Brideshead only as a love story with a happy ending—not a family and class saga interwoven with Catholic themes, as Waugh had written it. He sent the studio a condescending letter that effectively guaranteed the project would fall through.

11. Evelyn Waugh got his friend to change his will to avoid lawsuits.

While he was in Hollywood for the Brideshead discussions, Waugh visited the famed cemetery Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where numerous movie stars are interred. Forest Lawn aimed to erase signs of mourning by replacing headstones with brass plaques, giving corpses extensive cosmetic treatment and elaborate embalming, and naming sections of the cemetery Babyland, Graceland, and Eventide.

The visit inspired his 1948 novel The Loved One, which satirizes the funeral business and the movie industry. His publishers were concerned that he could get sued, since "Whispering Glades" in The Loved One could easily be recognized as Forest Lawn. So he got his aristocratic friend, Lord Stanley of Alderley, to vouch for the legitimacy of his prose by adding a codicil to his will stating that he wanted to be buried at Forest Lawn because it resembled the beautiful place described in The Loved One. The endorsement of a lord evidently carried weight: After 10 years without a lawsuit, Stanley removed the codicil.

12. Sunset Boulevard owes a debt to The Loved One.

When he couldn't secure film rights to The Loved One, director Billy Wilder used elements of the story in his masterpiece Sunset Boulevard. Wilder's main character, Joe Gillis, is a washed-up screenwriter like Waugh’s Dennis Barlow. Both men live with a faded Hollywood talent in a dilapidated mansion with an empty swimming pool: Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond was a silent film star and Waugh’s Sir Francis Hinsley is a former scriptwriter. And Waugh’s protagonist works in a pet cemetery, while Wilder's Norma mistakenly thinks that Joe has come to bury her pet monkey.

Can You Match the Classic Book to Its Not-So-Classic Sequel?

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