© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2011

Potter from the Inside

Scholastic Senior Editor Cheryl Klein answers our questions about working on

Harry Potter and what made the series a phenomenon

The summer of 2011 marked the climactic end of the Harry Potter movie franchise with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. For those who loved the series, this came with a mixed bag of emotions: gratification and triumph at seeing this journey to its completion, and the inevitable sadness left in its wake. Many of us have spent the last decade looking forward to some aspect of Harry, the release of a new book, the next filmic adaptation or video game, or even a trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando. What would keep us afloat without our Potter anticipation? 

But the summer of 2011 also gave us the announcement of Pottermore, an alluring web project that promises an interactive e-reading experience of the Potter books, and even some new content. Reports from those lucky few to receive early access

to the site (the public at large will be admitted in October) have been nothing short of ecstatic. But Pottermore heralds something else as well: the reassurance that the books and characters we have so loved will live on, and more importantly, that the time has come to return to the source. As Dan Kois put it in his New York Times article, “Soon all we crazed fans will have only those dog-eared paperbacks, spines broken from mornings on the subway or afternoons at the beach, lined up on the bookshelf.” There’s something wonderful about that prospect. For all that the Potter movies and parephenalia have added to our experience of these stories, so to do they pull us away from the books themselves. But, whether in the form of an eBook or a paperback, we may now return to that place, to our living room, our favorite chair, and our imagination, the place where we first met and fell in love with The Boy Who Lived.

To help us make sense of all this, we got a hold of Cheryl Klein, the senior editor at Arthur A. Levine Books, a Scholastic imprint, who had the distinction of serving as the continuity editor on Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows. In addition to her work on the Potter books, Klein has edited numerous Scholastic titles including Absolutely Maybe by Leisa Yee, The Book of Time trilogy by Guillaume Prevost, and Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork. In her own book, Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, Klein shares the insight she’s gleaned from her years in working with children’s fiction, and her thoughts on the Potter phenomenon. Cheryl was kind enough to take time out of her busy editing schedule to share some of those thoughts with us.

The Rusty Key: When did you first read Harry Potter and what were your initial thoughts?

Cheryl Klein: I read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban right before my senior year of college in September 1999, and I loved it right from the opening pages—the matter-of-factness of the magic, the ease with which Ms. Rowling integrated her backstory and frontstory and the magical and real worlds, the perfectly charming Harry and wonderful Hogwarts . . . and the twists at the end of that one still amaze me with their brilliance. As soon as I finished it, I bought Book 1, which had just come out in paperback, and then read Chamber of Secrets over my winter break. And then I waited impatiently for Goblet of Fire to come out the following summer.

TRK: How would you describe your experience as one of the editors of Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows? Could you elaborate on your role as the continuity editor?

CK: It was pretty thrilling altogether! In general, editors must keep track of the running of all the fictional machinery within a book—how the characters develop emotionally, how readers react emotionally, whether certain words are capped or italicized, that the mental “movie” of the book unspools smoothly in readers’ minds. My boss Arthur Levine, who acquired the series, has always been its true editor, and the one who works directly with J. K. Rowling. But on these last two books, along with a wonderful trio of copyeditors and proofreaders, I took care of many of the editorial “fact” functions—that spells did what they were supposed to do according to their previous usages in the book; that details about the characters didn’t change randomly; that wands and other objects were always where they had been fictionally left last (especially important in Deathly Hallows, obviously). That left Arthur free to concentrate on the emotional experience for the readers and characters, and as I’m rather more detail-oriented and he’s rather more emotionally oriented, it was a split that worked pretty well for us as an editorial team.

TRK: By the time Half Blood Prince was in the works, Harry Potter was already a worldwide phenomenon. As you and the editorial team were working on those last books did you feel the pressure of reader expectations?  What was the environment like at Scholastic?

CK: We definitely felt the pressure of expectations. . . . Generally in children’s publishing, we feel incredibly lucky if our books get 100,000 readers; with Deathly Hallows, our first print run alone was 120 times that! So we were very aware that readers were going to find any mistakes and let us know about them (some more politely than others), as indeed they did.

But we also all loved the series and characters and Ms. Rowling’s accomplishment with them passionately, so we also wanted to do our best by them for their own sakes—to honor the books by doing our best possible work. We were always very aware of our deadlines, but we remained cheerful in the face of them, and all of us felt good about and united by being part of “Team Harry.”

TRK: What was it like to walk around knowing how the books were going to end before everyone else?

CK: Usually when people asked me to reveal some secret,  I would say, “You don’t want me to tell you; you want J. K. Rowling to tell you.” And I believe that absolutely—that even if I had been able and willing to say, “Oh, actually, [name redacted] is the Half-Blood Prince,” it would be a huge letdown compared to the pleasure of finding that out in the course of reading the book. Also, the people who’d bother to ask at all were usually strangers; my friends and family knew better than to ask, because they also knew I simply couldn’t tell!

With that said, my friend Melissa Anelli wrote a wonderful book called Harry, A History about the HP phenomenon, and she quotes me as saying something that I have to admit I teased her with on occasion:  “I know something you don’t know!”

TRK: In your new book Second Sight on the business and practice of writing for children you discuss why Harry Potter has been so successful. Care to give us an overview of those thoughts? What does Potter’s appeal boil down to?

CK: This is not precisely what I say in Second Sight, but:

1.Harry is really appealing and sympathetic as a protagonist, and he serves as an excellent pair of eyes into . . .

2.a delightful fantasy world that just keeps unfolding in greater depth and detail, where . . . 

3.we meet more characters we love (or love to hate) as well as . . .

4.a villain whose goal (Harry’s death) creates immensely high stakes, and . . .

5.the twists and turns of the plot are well-constructed, surprising, and pleasurable, all told in . . .

6.an immensely cinematic and friendly narrative voice.

TRK: What do you think has been Harry Potter’s most significant impact?

CK: It forced adult readers to take children’s and YA literature seriously—at the very least as a business that can make a ton of money.  

TKR: As an editor in the post Potter world, what are you looking for next?

CK: More well-developed characters I can love, especially when they’re acting within plots where something is at stake.

TRK: Is there one character from the series that you most identify with?

CK: Oh, goodness:  Hermione. We are both straight-A, straight-and-narrow, must-accomplish-and-remember-everything sorts of women. We are also both Virgos:  Her birthday (September 19) is three days before mine.

TRK: What would your Patronus be and why?

CK: My Patronus is a swan (same as Cho Chang’s). I know this because I’m pretty sure my Patronus would be the same as my daemon, from Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass world; and Philip Pullman once said that if people wanted to know their daemons, they should ask two of their friends to get together and choose for them. And my friends chose a swan for me—I guess because I’m fierce in defending those I love; graceful in certain contexts and extremely ungainly in others; and rather long-necked.

TRK: Finally, what house would the Sorting Hat put you into and why?

CK: I’ve been lucky enough to be part of the Pottermore beta, so I can answer this with complete confidence:  I’m a Ravenclaw! And this fits perfectly, because I like knowledge and thinking about things a lot.

For more information on Cheryl Klein, the books she’s edited, and more about her book Second Sight, visit http://cherylklein.com