Here’s a little-known fact about me: I met J.K. Rowling once. I wish it were a littler-known fact, but what can you do.
“Not blog about it” would be one answer. But since it’s out there I feel an urge to explain it. And also apologize for it. “The time I met J.K. Rowling” sounds like a great story, but it isn’t.
Here’s how it went down.
The year was 2005. We’d just about gutted out the two-year gap between Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince (my coping mechanism was to start writing The Magicians in 2004). In the weeks before the new book came out, Rowling’s American publisher, Scholastic, let it be known that she would give exactly one interview to one U.S. print publication.
Everybody put their bids in. For whatever reason, Time won. They sent me.
It wasn’t a fait accompli. You wouldn’t think it, but Time has some major-league Harry Potter fans on staff. Senior staff. They can rattle off trivia like they were Newt Scamander or some shit. But I was the books guy, and the most visibly nerdy staff member. So I went.
And there was another reason they sent me, which was that my marriage was falling apart.
I’ve never seen it written down anywhere, and nobody has ever copped to it out loud, but I think there’s a policy at Time that if you’re having some kind of major personal crisis, they’ll send you on a bigtime cushy assignment to help you deal with it. Like I said, I’ve never seen anything official, but I’ve seen guys going through divorces get posted to Samoa. News doesn’t break in Samoa.
I’ve posted about this before, so I won’t get into gory details, but suffice it to say I was deep down a hole. It was a bad time. I guess the conventional phrase would be “a rough patch.” I could see the bloody, broken fingernails of those who’d been in the hole before me. But I hadn’t yet figured out the trick with the basket to start clawing my way out. So Time put me on a plane for the U.K.
This was a straight-up boondoggle, a leftover from the great age of print. Certainly the last boondoggle I ever went on. The excuse was that I could double up on stories: V for Vendetta was shooting in London. I would hang around the set, take in the scene, then hop a flight to Edinburgh for an audience with the queen. The whole thing would take a week.
I remember looking back at my car, as I left it in long-term-parking at JFK in the blazing July heat, and literally thinking: maybe I’ll just never come back.
V for Vendetta was shooting in a decomissioned Tube station down the longest spiral staircase I’ve ever seen. It took ten minutes to climb down there, and by the time you got down there you’d gone from broiling to freezing. You felt like you’d entered the underworld.
Down in the underworld I watched Natalie Portman kiss Hugo Weaving in a wooden mask 50 times in 50 different ways. I talked to Natalie. I talked to Hugo. They were nice. He was giant, she was so tiny she looked like a special effect. You can probably see me moping around in the background in the DVD extras.
When I wasn’t doing that, I walked around and ate street food to keep expenses down, reread all the Harry books, and drank in pubs. This was my peak drinking period, and thank God those years are never coming back. That was me, the American with the shaved head and the 1000-yard stare and the yellow jacket with too many zip pockets, staggering around the National Gallery and bolting pints before closing time. In my one splurge dinner, at St. John’s, I got into a drunken conversation with a young lordling who invited me to a party and out to his estate in York.
Forever after I’ve wondered if he was bullshitting me. But I did turn up at the party. The first person I saw was David Schwimmer. I turned around and left. That was not the party for me.
When I checked out of my London hotel the bill clocked in at twice what I’d carefully budgeted in my expense-a-tron. I fled to Edinburgh.
[This is getting long so I'm going to two-part it. Really sorry for the tease. More tomorrow.]