by Jennifer Sheffield
Hi, Lorrie! Congratulations on the release of Snape: A Definitive Reading -- Looking forward to seeing you at the release party tonight (more details below)! Here is my synopsis:
How did this book come about? I know you’ve presented papers at academic Harry Potter conventions. Did you draw on that work in putting together your definitive reading?
Story Spring Publishing approached me about a nonfiction book on Snape. The original plan was to draw on my conference presentations and adapt them into a book. But I found that those shorter papers tended to be topical and to skip around the timeline of the series in making focused arguments, whereas for a sustained book, it made more sense to go chronologically through the series and look at how Rowling developed characters and revelations. I also found that many of my readings had changed. I ended up including many of the ideas from those papers, but not much of the wording.
What kinds of insights have you gained about the series from other people’s presentations?
I have such clear memories of moments when other people’s arguments inspired me. I mention a couple of them in the book. For example, in 2009, I heard psychologist Mara Tesler Stein explain that a Patronus is a mirror of one’s most loving self, and that when Harry first attempts to cast one, he can’t because he’s using the wrong kind of memories. When he uses memories of loving connection between people, the spell works. That stunned me – there are right and wrong kinds of memories for happiness spells? It opened my eyes to the way Rowling uses magical imagery to express psychological truths. It made so many readings possible to me. It helped me understand that when Rowling shows people emanating silvery magical light, it has to do with their individual selves – she might say “souls” – but when she shows golden light, it’s about the glow that comes of love between people. Which helped me understand why the dome of light between Voldemort and Harry is golden, and how that threatens Voldemort. Which made me think about wand cores connected through golden light, and how Harry and Voldemort are similar at the core. Which made me think about Hufflepuff colors of yellow and black, which gave me the notion that one trait of Hufflepuffs is that they believe we are all the same at the core.
This cascading effect of mental connections happens to me so frequently when I listen to other people’s presentations based on a text we have in common. I know I’ve had similar reactions listening to Hilary K. Justice or Mark Oshiro. It doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with that person’s readings, just that their way of seeing illuminates something for me and brings more and more understanding.
Does JKR pay attention to analyses of this sort? Have you ever interacted with her yourself?
My understanding is that Rowling knows better than to delve into the ever-growing pile of words that people write about her glorious fiction. She’s been so influential that there’s too much of it for a single author to process, anyway. I cannot begin to envision how much feedback is directed toward her, how many entreaties, whether from literary critics, politicians, non-government organizations that crave her support, teachers, the publishing industry, or individual readers. I approve fiercely of anything she does to safeguard her creative energy and sanity. It floors me that she was even able to publish the seventh Harry Potter book, considering the pressure surrounding her, the multiple international businesses that were financially dependent upon her delivering a finished manuscript, the din of the fans and detractors debating what they thought she ought to achieve with that final installment. That she has gone on to create more fiction to please herself is something that both uplifts me and gives me a growling laugh of pleasure. I have never met her and don’t expect to. She gives so much, through continued publishing in revolutionary formats, through Twitter, and through her fascinating charity work. I appreciate that abundance.
I find that a reference quote from a book I’ve read can bring the original scene powerfully to mind. In this way, reading your book has left me feeling as though I’ve just crammed the entire Harry Potter series into my head in a few days, on fast-forward! Have you had times during the process where you feel you’re living the series?
Not the series, no. But the psychological realities depicted in the stories, yes. For example, a few years ago, I had a terrible argument with someone in which I was greatly at fault, and I was so ashamed of myself that I couldn’t stand the sight of this person. I was also conscious of the things this person had done to create the fight and contribute to it. Eventually, I approached them to give a full apology, mentioning only my own part in it and my regret, but it was never easy to see that person’s face again after that. I was surprised when they apologized for their own part – I didn’t expect or require that – but it was gratifying to take that as evidence that they believed I was sincere. That whole episode helped me understand Slughorn, in his shame, altering his memory and running away from Harry. It was the only thing that helped me understand how Snape could possibly convince himself of such whole-cloth lies as Harry enjoying his fame – I couldn’t forget how ashamed and guilty I felt when I behaved badly toward someone, and how hard it was to stop thinking angry thoughts about them. I never enjoyed glimpsing this person again, even after the mutual apology. This made me understand why Rowling shows that Harry and Draco never become friends, why Rowling has said in interview that Harry gets Snape a portrait in the headmaster’s office but never feels the urge to go visit it. Not every conflict has to end in forgiveness and friendship. And if I want stories of enmity that turns into closeness, I feel as though I can find those stories more easily. I appreciate that the series gives stories of resolution without friendship.
After a discussion about Gryffindors and Slytherins generalizing and demonizing each other’s entire House, you say of Chamber of Secrets that “This entire volume is about the danger of dormant resentments that can be awakened in an atmosphere of suspicion.” Later on, you mention that “The Inquisitorial Squad may be hand-picked by Umbridge, but as individuals, they are just as expendable to her as the other students. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix provides young readers with extraordinarily precise insight into the thinking of tyrants.” Do you feel these issues have particular relevance with current events?
I’ve thought about these elements of Harry Potter so often during the ghastly news of shootings, bombings, and other large-scale crimes of hate. Rowling repeatedly poses the question in her series: What kind of monster would kill a baby? This is a war crime. How does a person become that? How do we allow it to happen? It resonates with me particularly when we hear that a mass murderer has very recently declared allegiance to a larger terrorist group. This is how Voldemort attained followers. Rowling showed, through that character, a tyrant who had his own agenda, internally inconsistent and mad, which he shared with no one. He identified the agendas and weaknesses of others and appealed to them, giving people whatever would feed their own unhealthy appetites, which would distract them from looking at him too clearly. Teen Snape fell for this, like many others who became Death Eaters while young. He was an unstable, vengeful person who was hungry for the grandiosity promised by Voldemort. Voldemort’s actual aims weren’t even compatible with Snape’s desires, but it didn’t matter. We see this in the news when we investigate claims of ties to terrorist groups. Those ties don’t always go deep.
As for current events such as the xenophobia driving Brexit or the chilling spectacle of this year’s U.S. presidential campaign…yes. When I read quotes from British citizens about what they thought it would accomplish to leave the European Union, I could only picture Uncle Vernon. When I see politicians egging on angry, resentful voters to commit acts of violence and other crimes, it’s agonizing to see how the voters are being duped – as though these politicians have any empathy at all for these people whose votes they want, as though they won’t betray these voters in an instant for their own convenience. I think the Potter series is brilliant in showing us the feelings behind such conflicts. The difference between someone using people without caring, like Umbridge using Draco but distrusting him, and someone willing to give actual help, like Dumbledore offering to put Draco’s entire family into hiding. Those things feel different. Stories reach us and help us know that.
The gift of the Harry Potter series, to me, is that it’s so widely read, such a shared text, that episodes from the series can be used to communicate about complex issues. If you sense that a politician is an Umbridge, know that nothing good can come of allying with her. If you read demonstrably false negative press about a public figure, know that it might reflect an agenda that has nothing to do with that person – that Stan Shunpike might not be a Death Eater, that Hagrid never opened the Chamber of Secrets and Fudge sent him to Azkaban anyway, for his own political gain.
In this book, you get inside more characters’ heads than just Snape. One of the things that most surprised me in reading it was your insight into Hermione, including both her thoughts about and her connections to her potions professor, throughout the series. Were you noticing this in your original reads of the books, or did it come out through working on the analysis?
The dynamic between Hermione and Snape always drew my notice. It puzzled me. I found her disavowal of “books and cleverness” at the end of the first book to be problematic; I sensed something unresolved in the author because I don’t feel satisfied that we are shown why Hermione would believe this enough to blurt it out at such a pressured moment. I found her patience with Snape, while he alternately ignored and insulted her, to be curious. I had to remind myself, a few times, to write less about their dynamic for this book. The dynamic between Snape and Harry should be the central one for writing about Snape’s story, whether or not I personally find Hermione to be a more intriguingly written character than the titular hero.
I was pleased to see the attention you gave to bullying and discrimination, and to the importance of protection and de-escalation. It’s important to recognize the ways that some teachers, even the nice ones, can be complicit in encouraging these kinds of harmful behaviors, and that some teachers, even the bullying ones, can work to limit the damage such behaviors cause.
Chapter 3, “Severus Snape and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” was by far the hardest for me to write. I thought I knew the series pretty well, but on my re-read for writing this book, I kept finding surprise after surprise when I started to delve into what Lupin and Snape were really thinking throughout that year. I think many readers resist seeing that Lupin, as well as Snape, inflicted damage in his teaching, because Snape’s harmful classroom behavior is so outrageous. It can feel as though acknowledging Lupin’s wrongdoings might mean letting go of the reader’s enjoyment of his retorts to Snape. I may be proudest of that chapter because I think perhaps, when you read it, you can sense the energy I felt from making new connections rather than writing about things I’d been considering for some time.
This continual experience of new connections, more than anything, captures why I love the Harry Potter series so much. I’m well above the target age group for the writing and I’ve written about the series for years, but every single time I re-read the books, I find new things. Rowling has created something extraordinarily complex. When the series was not yet finished and some critics argued that it was not, and would never be, good enough to become a classic, I remember the scholar Hilary K. Justice saying at a conference, “Does it reward re-reading?” For me, at least, it’s a resounding yes.
What was the writing process like for you? Did you have everything pieced out and then stitch it together like a quilt? Did you find that new connections came to you while you were writing? Did anything surprise you in creating this book?
The writing process involved thanking my husband and children repeatedly for managing without me while I wrote frantically. I created a painstaking outline that hit all the themes I wanted to cover and then ended up ditching the whole thing and just going chronologically through the series, as is, I think, appropriate for analyzing the writing of a mystery story. New connections came to me as I re-read in preparation for writing, and then I had to be disciplined about writing only what I had in my notes and not rambling further.
Probably the thing that surprised me the most this time was the realization that Snape truly believed, based on evidence, that Lupin was deliberately grooming Harry to trust him because he was planning to bite Harry while in werewolf form. I never understood that before and it’s shockingly dark. Rowling is so good at resisting the temptation to spell things out; she keeps some things subtextual or completely unspoken, granting so much respect to her young readers and their ability to read deeply. Turns out that her subtlety is often wasted on some of us middle-aged readers, too. Every re-read leaves me wondering what else I’ll find the next time I go back.
Do you have other projects that you’d like to tell us about?
I’ve been thinking about the reading of Harry Potter from the point of view of parents, transmitting this story to the next generation, reading it together as a family, participating in the transformation of the series from a publishing phenomenon into a children’s classic, embedding it into the popular culture. So my next project will be to put together a proposal and find an agent for that!
Excellent. We'll look forward to reading it!
And now for our "3 for 3" book questions:
1. What were 3 of your favorite books from childhood/teen years?
I just had fun answering this in my interview with Book Jawn Podcast!
For them, I said Jane Eyre, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Let me think of different answers for you…
D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
I was obsessed with this book when I was 6 and 7.
A Bargain for Frances, Russell Hoban
One of the most brilliant books I think I’ve read for any age group. So complex, and rewards dozens – hundreds – of re-reads, just as the Harry Potter series does.
The Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder
I nearly had it memorized. To this day, deep down, I probably still believe (incorrectly) that I know how to make cheese or plane a shingle because of those books. Their romantic depictions of cooking, sewing, knitting, and quilting definitely inspired me to learn those skills.
2. What are 3 books that you've read recently that surprised you?
I have read almost no books this year, since I was busy writing this one!
One of them, though, has been Immanence, a short story collection edited by J.L. Aldis. Full disclosure: some of the stories were written by people I’ve come to know because I’ve read and admired their fiction online, for free. What surprised me is that these profoundly well-edited short stories are even higher in quality than the stories that made me want to seek out these authors and leave them glowing reviews. That kind of stunned me, actually. And made me appreciate anew that no matter how much we enjoy the explosion of different platforms for writing these days, the fact of knowing that something will be published between physical book covers can elevate even the best writers to achieve more.
I’ve read the Hamiltome, of course. Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. I bought it from Big Blue Marble, in fact. It was another experience of being surprised at what we can give ourselves permission to achieve, how much ambition we’re allowed to indulge. The wit of the Revolutionary-era typefaces and phrasing kept delighting me. The matching of different songs to different behind-the-scenes stories about the musical or the cast felt so deep, so satisfying. Such a good matching game.
And honestly, those are the only two books I’ve read recently that surprised me. So many of my friends are writers who work in different media, such as serialized web fiction or online cultural critique, that I read almost no actual books while I was writing Snape. I did enjoy a web comic called Check, Please (omgcheckplease.tumblr.com) that surprised me with a whole new world of collegiate slang that was fun to learn. The characters play hockey, about which I know less than nothing, but I was lured into reading it because it also contains figure skating, pastry, gay love stories, and feminist food studies, all of which are very much my areas.
3. What are 3 books that influence/d your work?
I have never thought of this question in reference to my own nonfiction writing! It’s a question I associate more with novelists. Hmm.
I mentioned this to Book Jawn Podcast, too. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy by Annette Gordon-Reed taught me so much about how to construct arguments using common sense. This book was published before DNA evidence vindicated those who maintained, despite racist denial, that Jefferson did have a slave wife and children. The author’s meticulous scholarship won my respect and awe, but it was her extremely dry humor that won my heart.
The Power of Beauty by Nancy Friday. I think that book had a very mixed critical reception, and I don’t love all of it. I do, however, love the risks she takes with her leaps of intuition, delving into powerful emotions and using those as her starting points. That strategy means she will sometimes miss the mark, but when she hits, she hits deep. As a reader, those hits make her book worth it to me, and I probably learned something from her about including intuition when writing critical nonfiction.
The Bones of the Others by Hilary K. Justice. I encountered this writer through her Harry Potter work, and that led me to her work on Hemingway. I experienced so much meditative bliss when reading along with some of her analyses. Like the Hamiltome, I felt that her work gave permission to indulge in ambition, not to hold back. This writer likes to analyze word by word, and then to analyze the spaces between the words, some of which are silences and some not. I think Snape would appreciate the beauty in this approach.
Thank you so much for joining us, Lorrie!
Thanks for reading!!! If you're local to the area, please let the bookstore know if you would like to order a copy of Snape: A Definitive Reading. You can also come to Lorrie's Book Launch Party, TONIGHT, Saturday, July 30, 8:30pm, In the midst of our Harry Potter and the Cursed Child series of events! If you can't make the party, you can email orders to orders [at] bigbluemarblebooks [dot] com, call (215) 844-1870, or come see us at 551 Carpenter Lane, in the Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia.