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The Wizardly Editor Who Caught the Golden Snitch

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

NEW YORK -- There are a lot of great things about being the Man Who Brought Harry Potter to America: You don't have to care about the latest Potter movie (which opened last night at midnight), for example, or the bazillion-copy print run for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (on sale July 21) or the Harry Potter theme park scheduled to go into competition with Disney World as early as 2009.

"The fact that there's a theme park has no effect on my life," Arthur Levine says.

Don't get him wrong: The veteran children's book editor -- who has his own imprint at Scholastic and who, in 1997, famously took a flyer on the first book by a British unknown named Joanne Rowling -- is far from ungrateful for the ridiculously pervasive cultural phenomenon Harry Potter has become. "That's what you want for every great book," he says. "To have an audience and have people talking about it."

Still, when Pottermania threatened to overwhelm the work that sparked it, Levine did what he had to do.

As an editor, he defines his job as finding writers whose work he loves, helping them write the best books they can and publishing them well.

"At some point I needed to pay a little bit less attention to the phenomenon," he says. "I'm not responsible for the phenomenon.

"I'm responsible for the books."

* * *

Walk into Scholastic's Soho offices and you get a dose of Harry the Phenomenon right away. Above the first-floor security desk, a video loop trumpets the seventh and last Potter book with a series of heavy-breathing questions:

"WILL HOGWARTS REOPEN?"

"IS SNAPE GOOD OR EVIL?"

"WHO WILL LIVE, WHO WILL DIE?"

Upstairs, in the spacious room where the interview takes place, the atmosphere is calmer. Illustrations from classic children's books cover the walls: "Where the Wild Things Are," "Make Way for Ducklings," "Goodnight Moon."

Levine is 45, with short, graying hair and a ready smile that contains just a hint of the cat who got the cream.

He can't talk about what's in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," of course, but he's dying to. Tell him that some Potter-savvy teens have urged you to brush up on the nuances of Horcruxes before plunging in and he laughs infectiously.

"You'd better!" he says.

Levine's life story should be an inspiration to English majors everywhere.

He grew up in Elmont, Long Island, right on the edge of Queens, with a doctor father and a mother who was a teacher and an artist. "I always was an English kind of guy," he says, and he read "really broadly" from an early age. Among many beloved books he mentions are Russell Hoban's Frances stories, Michael Bond's Paddington series and fantasies by Edgar Rice Burroughs, J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin.

At Brown he majored in English and creative writing, with an emphasis on poetry. After graduation, he signed up for the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course, a well-known first step toward entry-level publishing jobs. When he completed it, the director asked what part of publishing he'd like to be in.

"I said, 'I want to be a children's book editor,' " Levine recalls. "And he said, 'Don't do that. You will never get a job.' " There weren't enough of them, it seemed, and their occupants seemed never to leave.

Here comes that smile again: "I'm glad I didn't listen to that one particular piece of advice." G.P. Putnam's Sons hired him as an editorial assistant a few months later.

For the first decade or so of Levine's career -- during which he also worked at Knopf and Dial -- he mostly did heed another bit of conventional wisdom. The word then was that fiction for children, especially in hardcover, didn't sell.

On one level, this was fine with Levine. He had his mother's love for art and he'd chosen children's books in the first place because "for me, it was poetry and art together." So he made his reputation with picture books.

"I was known for 'Mirette on the High Wire' and 'Officer Buckle and Gloria,' " he says.

Yet he also displayed, from the beginning, an instinct for fiction that would sell.

In that initial Putnam job, he happened to be the first to read "Redwall," by Brian Jacques. "I was over the moon," he says about the opening volume of what would become an immensely popular series. When his boss wouldn't go for it, he asked permission to take it down the hall to Philomel, a Putnam imprint. Much later, when he was heading the children's division at Knopf, he enhanced his reputation by acquiring Philip Pullman's celebrated "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

This track record gave him some credibility when -- in the spring of 1997 -- he flew off to the Bologna Children's Book Fair and fell in love with a pre-adolescent wizard.

* * *

Barry Cunningham is one of the only people in the world who know what Levine was feeling when he read J.K. Rowling for the first time. Cunningham is the Man Who Bought Harry Potter in the First Place -- for Bloomsbury Children's Books, a then-tiny British outfit, in 1996. He really liked Rowling's manuscript, especially the relationships among the characters and the way they showed "the power of friendship" -- but that didn't mean he thought it would sell much.

After haggling with her agent for what he says "must have been fully five minutes," he bought the manuscript for a sum in the low four figures. Then, worried about his impecunious new author, he advised Rowling to get "a proper day job."

It wasn't Bloomsbury's responsibility to sell the U.S. rights to Harry. The company didn't even own them. But when Levine showed up in Bologna seeking future classics for his new Scholastic imprint, Bloomsbury's rights director gave him a set of Potter galleys. He read them on the plane home. When the book came up for auction, he kept bidding until, at $105,000, his last competitor dropped out.

"I would have been willing to go further than that if I had to," he says.

Levine must have told this story a thousand times by now. But there's still excitement in his voice as he describes how he got instantly hooked -- "first chapter, first pages" -- on Harry.

"I remember I loved this story of a boy who is treated very badly and really made to feel insignificant and powerless," he says. "And then, out of the blue, comes this invitation out." Not only does the invitation promise escape from a life of constant abuse by the "family" that wishes you were invisible, but in your new, magic world, you are already a legend and destined to become "a person of great stature."

There's also this fantastic sport called quidditch, which you turn out to be better at than anyone in your whole school. Who couldn't relate to that?

"I wasn't neglected. I didn't sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. My family loves me," Levine says with a laugh. "That doesn't mean I didn't feel invisible and I didn't feel powerless and I didn't have the fantasy that I would be recognized someday. This is something we all share."

And it was just the beginning of Rowling's appeal.

"I remember loving the humor, thinking she is so funny," Levine continues, "and thinking that here's a rare range of talents in a writer: somebody who can engage me emotionally and yet who can make me laugh. And whose plot is really driving me forward."

Levine makes the point that it was a tremendous advantage for Rowling to have lived with her characters for so long between the time she conceived of Harry (1990) and the time the first book was published in England (June 1997).

"She was building the rest of the story, figuring out the whole arc of Harry's experience," he says. It was only after Levine himself finished the final book that he fully understood "how carefully and deliberately and subtly all the clues and pieces of information have been placed and built from one book to the next."

Rowling's characters, too, benefited from the extra-long development time.

"She didn't just meet these people," Levine says. And all of them -- minor characters as well as major -- get steadily more complex as they mature.

Harry, Ron and Hermione, for example, reach the disorienting peak of adolescence in different books and experience it in distinctive ways. Harry hits it in the fifth book, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," morphing into an angry, self-centered teen prone to lashing out at the unfair hand life has dealt him.

"I loved that!" Levine exclaims, clasping both hands to his heart, when the subject comes up.

He was as surprised as any ordinary fan, he says, by plot and character developments as they arose. Which is exactly how he and Rowling wanted it.

"I'm not her collaborator. I'm just the stand-in for the reader," he explains. She doesn't need him to shape her story. His job -- along with Rowling's British editor, Bloomsbury's Emma Matthewson -- is to say, "This is how I reacted."

Sometimes, he would say, "I do not know what's going on here," and Rowling would say, "I didn't want you to have that reaction at this point, so I think I'm going to move some information."

At other times, when he asked about something in one of the earlier volumes, she would say, "That's a good question. I'm okay with your wondering that here. I will answer that in Book 5."

* * *

Long before Book 5 came out, of course, Harry the Phenomenon had turned into the wand-waving equivalent of Godzilla. No one -- perhaps least of all Potter's creator -- had ever thought he could get so big.

Scholastic publicity director Kris Moran remembers accompanying Rowling to Worcester, Mass., for the first bookstore signing of her 1999 American tour, shortly after her third book was published here. "What's going on?" Rowling asked as they approached the store, where they could see that a crowd had formed. "Is there some sort of sale?"

Then came the screaming and the chanting of her name.

A year later, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" became the first Potter book to have its release coordinated worldwide, causing midnight Potter parties to spring up everywhere. Rowling gave up touring. Meanwhile, the initial Potter movie, scheduled for release the following year, threatened to drown her sensitive young wizard in marketing hype.

It was around this time that Levine decided he'd better not let Potter the Phenomenon go to his head.

For a while, he'd felt as though he were living his own version of the Harry Potter story: Mild-mannered editor becomes publishing wizard. "I can still remember thinking: 'Wow -- even more people have discovered Harry Potter,' " he says. But eventually he decided "to be happy whenever something great happened" and then to bring "my focus back to where it needed to be."

On the books.

Which, he maintains, are what's driving the phenomenon in the first place.

Ask Levine what made Harry Potter a hit and he'll talk about Rowling's appealing personal story (Single Mom on Dole Pens Fantasy, Changes Life), which helped get her the kind of media exposure most unknown authors of children's novels can only dream of. He'll also mention that Harry appeared around the time kids were beginning to communicate their enthusiasms, not just on the playground, but online at sites like Amazon.com.

Yet these things are just reasons for people to pick up the books, he says. It's what happens when they read them that counts.

So what's it like to be Arthur Levine at this climactic Harry moment, with the last book in the series so close to publication and his job finally done?

"I feel very, very proud of J.K. Rowling and what she's accomplished," Levine says. "I feel really proud to be associated with a group of such strong books that have brought so many people pleasure."

He hopes and expects to edit Rowling again.

And yet: His days without Harry make him smile, too.

He and his partner have a 3 1/2 -year-old son and, "like, 4,000 picture books" to share with him. They've just gotten into "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel."

He's got other authors to be really, really excited about. One is Australian graphic novelist Shaun Tan, whose wordless narrative of immigration, "The Arrival," he calls "an unbelievable book."

Another is Irish writer Roddy Doyle, whose latest, "Wilderness," is on Levine's fall list.

"Roddy Doyle! Well let me tell you about Roddy Doyle. I can't believe I'm so lucky as to be Roddy Doyle's editor," he says, sounding like a man whose life would be totally charmed even if Harry Potter had never walked into it.

"I just pinch myself, it's so cool."

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