Thursday, July 30, 2020

Interview with Author Tison Pugh (Harry Potter and Beyond: On J. K. Rowling’s Fantasies and Other Fictions)

J.K. Rowling is one of the most prolific writers of the literary world. Her work first cast spell with generations of readers with Harry Potter - a fantastical setting where wizards and witches navigate their wizarding world alongside the human world. From the initial publication when "Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone" invited children and adults journey alongside a boy who discovers he's a wizard to Rowling's post-Potter career, her work has inspired bookworms, writers, and scholars alike to study her themes, messages, and world-building. One such professor is Tison Pugh, a Pegasus Professor at University of Central Florida.

By using contemporary and popular novels to inspire discussion and analysis with his students, Pugh's gradually made a name in the collegiate arena for his popular course on Harry Potter. With an essay novel of his own published, Harry Potter and Beyond: On J. K. Rowling’s Fantasies and Other Fictions, Pugh examines the worlds within Rowling's work.

From her massive success with Harry Potter and subsequent transition into adult novels such as The Casual Vacancy and the Comoran Strike series, Pugh explores her work with a critical eye exploring the literary tools Rowling uses at her discretion to become the influential author she is today. Pugh doesn't shy away from the complex nature of the series, providing readers with a deep yet brisk study - how readers are compelled to conjure their own canon from the series, the themes she commonly infuses in her world-building, and the influence of her writing for readers. The book itself is a fascinating take on her work and a complementary resource for aspiring writers and bookworms.

I had the opportunity to interview the author Tison Pugh about how he approached researching the book, the blurred line of fan discourse, controversial and creative aspects of Rowling's influence.


Can you share with Potter Talk’s readers about your background as a Pegasus Professor at the University of Central Florida? How did you initially begin incorporating Harry Potter into your lessons and later spark inspiration for this book?

I began teaching the Harry Potter Studies course in the spring 2015 semester; my book, Harry Potter and Beyond: On J. K. Rowling’s Fantasies and Other Fictions, evolved from the course lectures.

Harry Potter and Beyond covers the trajectory of Rowling's career as well as her Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy and the Cormoran Strike series.

Where did you start in your research and mapping out her career? Was it a challenge to find a balance between focusing on her as a person as well as an influential author?

I found it very interesting, and a bit disappointing, that Rowling disclosed Dumbledore’s homosexuality in an interview rather than in the pages of her books. Given that divergence, I started looking very carefully at depictions of gender and sexuality in the Harry Potter novels and considered the ways in which regressive elements counterbalance some of her progressive themes. For the most, I do not focus on Rowling either as a person or as an author when examining her literature; I focus on the words on the page.

Even though you must know Harry Potter forwards and backwards as a professor, were there elements of Rowling's process or use of themes that surprised you during your research?

Rowling in many ways invigorated the tradition of the mythic hero for a new generation, particularly in her depiction of Harry as a passive hero who relies almost exclusively on defensive magic. At the same time, she retained some of the problematic aspects of these legendary figures, particularly in her treatment of race, gender, and sexuality.

What do you find are the most common allegories or themes that run through Rowling's work? 

Throughout the series, but especially in the first and seventh novels, Rowling interweaves an allegory of World War II and a thought-provoking examination of the philosophical school of utilitarianism, in which Harry must determine what he is willing to sacrifice in his fight for the greater good of the Wizarding and Muggle worlds.

You explore the idea of canon within Harry Potter, which is a vital element of the fandom for fans to analyze symbolism, character arcs, etc. These discussions largely spark fanfiction and 'headcanon' that take on a new life apart of an author's work. 

Do you think fan communities, social media, etc. can be as influential as Rowling's work? Do you think these fan-related areas alter the way that we view her work?

Fan communities shift the reception of Rowling’s work in profound ways, highlighting other ways of imagining her characters and their interactions. Rowling’s work may serve as the canon, but she cannot fully control their afterlives.

Rowling has recently made controversial comments regarding the transgender community, which has had a deep impact on LGBTQ+ fans. Both the entity Harry Potter and the public figure J.K. Rowling are so tightly woven together, it's difficult to not talk about one without the other. 

Do you think it's important for readers to view writers as independent from their work?

When you’re reading the Harry Potter novels, does it really matter whether they were written by J. K. Rowling or by someone else? Most of her queer and queer-friendly fans find her anti-trans viewpoints offensive, but these outmoded perceptions on human gender, sex, and biology do not change the words on the page. In a real sense, J. K. Rowling can be irrelevant to fans’ enjoyment of the Harry Potter world, though, of course, all readers should determine for themselves whether their perceptions of Rowling’s politics influence their enjoyment of her novels.

Given that Rowling's work contains progressive and regressive attributes with her characters regarding race, gender, and class, how did you approach examining these themes in your book and even your classes?*

It's important to approach literary criticism from an initial stance of neutrality--to see what the text says, to listen to the words on the page. Then by reading more deeply, you begin to see patterns of presentation, characterization, and perhaps even stereotyping, particularly as they relate to issues of race, gender, sexuality, and social class. I try to teach this skill to my students and to practice it in my own writing

Following the publication of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," Rowling announced that Dumbledore is gay, and has subsequently used social media to confirm or deny theories, apologize for character deaths, etc. 

Even though it's an outlet for her to connect with readers, do you think an author's post-publication comments can negatively or positively influence the reading of her books between what is published canon and 'after-the-fact' canon?

Yes, an author’s post-publications could certainly influence how readers view their works, but readers don’t need to let them do so. In the Harry Potter Studies class, we discuss whether the personal lives and viewpoints of authors affect a reader’s enjoyment of—or distaste for—their writing. As much as J. K. Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series and continues to reap generous royalties, readers can develop their independent interpretations of her writings.

What do you think the lasting impact of Harry Potter will be as a literary influence for readers and future fantasy series in general?

All writers need to strike out on their unique, individual paths, but at the same time, all writers cannot help but to be influenced by the books they love—or even the books they hate. Whether new authors build from Harry Potter or run away from Harry Potter, its influence on fantasy fiction will be equal to that of Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Leguin, Nnedi Okorafor and other great writers of fantasy.

What do you hope readers and aspiring authors take away from Harry Potter and Beyond: On J. K. Rowling’s Fantasies and Other Fictions as well as from Rowling's work?

From my book, I hope that readers develop an enriched sense of how Harry Potter and Rowling’s other works connect to a deep and rich literary tradition, which she both draws from and invigorates. Her books are indebted to such a disparate range of genres and authors—from mystery novels to fairy tales, from Jane Austen to C. S. Lewis—that readers can learn much about literary history from reading her fiction.

*this interview has been updated to include more info*

Harry Potter and Beyond: On J. K. Rowling’s Fantasies and Other Fictions is available for purchase now at The University of South Carolina PressAmazon, and Barnes and Noble

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