Interpretation

Laptop Keyboard

I’m back to work full time next week which is great (I think). Until recently I had a lot of time to kill where I was either:

A) Exhausted or
B) Busy trying to help my poor long suffering wife around the house (and probably getting in the way)

As a result of all this free time I’ve been listening to the radio a lot – including a great interview with Harry Potter author J.K Rowling on the BBC programme Desert Island Disks recorded in November 2000. If you’re a UK resident you can find it here : http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/dida/dida_20001105-1115a.mp3 (I’m guessing BBC license rules will stop the rest of the world but you can give it a try).

In this interview Rowling discusses the character of Rita Skeeter, who those of you who have worked your way through the Potter series will know, is a fairly vile journalist. Apparently Rita’s first planned appearance was in book one but by the time Rowling had reached the final draft she decided that the characters entrance was best saved for book 4 ‘The Goblet of Fire’ when the pressure of the fame would be most trying for Harry. Of course in the interim Potter became a phenomena and Rowling was being hounded by the press for the simple mistake of being a successful author (how very dare she). Now the character of Rita Skeeter is pretty vile, not as bad as some in the real media I’m sure, but a fairly nasty piece of work in anyone’s world (be it real or imagined) and now Rowling faced a quandary. If she wrote Rita as intended all those years ago would people, including the press, see this character as her response to the way the media had treated her?
In the end Rowling’s response was ‘just bung her in and enjoy it’ and then she ended up enjoying writing one of arguably the most memorable characters of the series.

Ok so what can we struggling mortal writers learn from Rowling’s decision? Well it’s simple – don’t worry about interpretation.

There’s an urban legend and I really hope there’s a grain of truth in it, about an author who visits a school to talk about their book which the students have all diligently studied, dissected and essayed. The author talks for a while about their work and then invites questions from the students. They of course have prepared their questions in advance under the guidance of their teacher and the teacher in turn will be teaching in line with the current curriculum supported by the available reference notes for the material. So when the students ask the author about the interpretation of the text they are somewhat surprised to find that the author didn’t intend any of it. The author was simply writing a story. Some of what the students have assumed or deducted might have found its way into the text subconsciously but the themes and meanings they have identified were never placed there directly.

Now let me prove a point. Let’s take that well know children’s classic ‘The Tiger Who Came To Tea.’
Ok it’s a tale about a tiger who comes into a small girls house. The tiger sits down to tea with the child and her mother then proceeds to eat all the food, drink all the tea from the tea pot and drink all the water in the tap etc etc. At the end of the story when the tiger has departed and the father comes home there is nothing left in the house for dinner so they go out for a meal. Later they buy some special food in case the tiger ever visits again.

So as an adult (perhaps as a child) you kind of know its not a tiger it’s a cat. That’s the little joke we’re all in on as readers… But….

What if it’s not a cat. Maybe the child has mental trauma and is simply blocking out the reality with this story of a tiger. It could be a mob boss come to collect on daddy’s debts, a dodgy landlord after his rent “No rent? I’m shutting your water off”, or maybe it’s mummies lover who pops round when daddy is at work and calls the young girl “Tiger”?

That’s all nonsense of course I’m sure Judith Kerr didn’t mean any of that. BUT… Judith does have something in her past that might be leaking onto the page, consciously or not. She spent the first few years of her life in Berlin. Her father was allegedly on a Nazi death list because of his opposition to the party. Did they ever have an unwelcome visitor? All forced joviality masking an underlying threat? Fellow writer Michael Rosen has wondered as much:

“So I don’t know whether Judith did it consciously or not – I wouldn’t want to go there – but the point is he’s a jokey tiger, but he is a tiger.”

Or perhaps it could just be a story about a cat.

My point is that you can twist new meanings into everything. It’s doesn’t mean that those interpretations can’t teach us valuable lessons or shine a light on our subconscious. But as a writer why worry about it? Very few of us will ever reach the levels of fame that ends with academics and media critics scouring over our work. Concentrate on the story and the themes you want to explore. Let others read into it what they will.

You can read more about Judith Kerr’s fascinating story here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25027090

Keep creating folks, remember it’s supposed to be fun 😉