In the 15 years since she published her first Harry Potter, JK Rowling has become both universally known and almost unrecognisable.
The scruffy redhead who used to write in the cafes of Edinburgh has slowly transformed into a glossy couture blonde, unknowable behind an impregnable sheen of wealth and control. Once a penniless single mother, she became the first person on earth to make US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) by writing books, but her rare public appearances suggested a faint ice-maiden quality.
But when we meet in the lobby of a hotel around the corner from her Edinburgh office, I find her warm and animated, quick to laugh. She chatters so freely that her publicist tells her to lower her voice. "Am I speaking too loud?" She doesn't look a bit concerned. "Well, I can't get passionate and whisper!"
When I tell her I loved her new book, The Causal Vacancy, her arms shoot up in celebration. "Oh my God! I'm so happy! That's so amazing to hear. Thank you so much! You've made me incredibly happy. Oh my God!" Anyone listening would take her for a debut author, meeting her first-ever fan.
In a way, that's what she is. Rowling has written seven Harry Potter books, and sold more than 450 million copies, but her first novel for adults is unlike them in every respect. "I was on a plane," she says. "And I thought: local election! And I just knew. I had that totally physical response you get to an idea that you know will work. It's a rush of adrenalin, it's chemical. I had it with Harry Potter and I had it with this. So that's how I know."
The story opens with the death of a parish councillor in the pretty West Country village of Pagford. Barry had grown up on a nearby council estate, the Fields, a squalid rural ghetto with which the more pious middle classes of Pagford have long lost patience. If they can fill his seat with one more councillor sympathetic to their disgust, they'll secure a majority vote to reassign responsibility for the Fields to a neighbouring council, and be rid of the wretched place for good.
The Fields' most notorious family is the Weedons. Terri Weedon is a lifelong casualty of chilling abuse, struggling to stay off drugs to stop social services taking her three-year-old son, Robbie. But most of what passes for mothering falls to her teenage daughter, Krystal. Spirited and volatile, Krystal has known only one adult ally in her life - Barry - and his sudden death casts her dangerously adrift.
Written from multiple perspectives, the novel invites the reader into the characters' heads. But Rowling waits a long time before leading us inside the Weedons' minds, to reveal unspeakable traumas. The delay serves to amplify the shock, but runs the risk of showing only their dysfunction for so long that the reader might start to laugh at them. "I was aware that a reader might think I was laughing at Krystal. And I'm not. At all. Not for a second." Suddenly she is intently serious. "One person who has read it said he found it very funny when Krystal told Robbie to eat his crisps before his Rolos. Well, I wasn't making a joke. At all. To me, that was quite a bleak moment. To me, it's heartbreaking. To me, that makes me want to cry."
Rowling grew up near the Forest of Dean in a community not unlike Pagford. "And this was very much me vividly remembering what it was like to be a teenager and it wasn't a particularly happy time in my life. In fact, you couldn't give me anything to make me go back to being a teenager. Never. No, I hated it."
Her mother, a school lab technician, was diagnosed with MS when Rowling was 15. "But it wasn't just that - although that did colour it a lot. I just don't think I was very good at being young." She and her younger sister, Dianne, had a difficult relationship with their father, and Rowling "couldn't wait to get out of there": she studied French and classics at Exeter University, went to work for Amnesty in London, lost her mother at 25 and moved abroad to teach English, returning at 28 with a six-month-old daughter, Jessica, following a short and catastrophic marriage to a Portuguese journalist. Broke, clinically depressed and suicidal, she moved to Edinburgh to be near her sister and survived on benefits while writing the first Harry Potter. After many rejections, the manuscript was bought by Bloomsbury for £2,500. Her editor advised Rowling to get a teaching job, the likelihood of her earning a living from children's books being, in his view, decidedly remote.
A 2007 documentary shows her 10 years later, soaring into a stratosphere of unimaginable wealth and fame. Watching it now, what's striking is the discrepancy between the happily-ever-after finale of her rags-to-riches miracle and the unhappiness etched upon her face. There is a hunted expression in her eyes, a wary tension in her features and a slightly brittle chippiness in her comments. None of this is discernible today, so I ask if it took time for the emotional DNA of unhappy early years to mutate and catch up with her new life.
"Well, it has now. But there was a definite lag. For a few years I did feel I was on a psychic treadmill, trying to keep up with where I was. Everything changed so rapidly, so strangely. I knew no one who'd ever been in the public eye. I didn't know anyone - anyone - to whom I could turn and say: 'What do you do?' So it was incredibly disorienting."
She'd had therapy when at "rock bottom" while writing the first Potter. "And I had to do it again when my life was changing so suddenly - and it really helped. I'm a big fan of it, it helped me a lot." Her other salvation came with her second husband, Neil Murray, a doctor she married in 2001 and with whom she has a son of nine and a daughter aged seven. "When I met Neil, it felt as if he stepped inside everything with me. He changed my life. But, prior to that, to be alone with it all, with a small child, was…" She searches for the word, and opts for understatement. "Difficult."
Her emotional world is now, she thinks, finally reconciled to her external reality. "In the end you reach a very healthy point, I think, where you disconnect. You really do. And I am there. And it's been glorious for five years, it's been thrilling, the sheer freedom. I am the freest author in the world. I can do whatever the hell I like. My bills are paid - we all know I can pay my bills - I was under contract to no one, and the feeling of having all of these characters in my head and knowing that no one else knew a damned thing about them was amazing. It was just blissful. Pagford was mine, just mine, for five years. I loved that. I wrote this novel as exactly what I wanted to write. And I loved it."
I quote to her from a 2005 interview: "The first thing I write post-Harry could be absolutely dreadful and, you know, people will buy it. So you're left with this real insecurity." Rowling nods vigorously. "But it's true, isn't it? Absolutely, that was my worst nightmare. The moment I said I'd finished a book, I knew what would happen. There would be a bidding war and I would end up with someone who'd got the fattest wallet, who had bought it because I'd written Harry Potter. That would have been why.
"But I was really lucky on this, because I had a meeting with David Shelley, who's now my editor, without him knowing there was a book. So we just had a conversation, and I could tell he was really on my wavelength. So then I sort of vaguely mentioned what I might have, without saying it's virtually finished. There was no auction. It was just a great way to find an editor."
She swears she doesn't care how well the book sells. "I'm not being snotty about that, but I feel quite disconnected from that sort of expectation." There may be no commercial ambition left, but still perhaps an artistic point to prove? Some critics were always sniffy about Potter's literary merit - "In an arbitrarily chosen single page of the first Harry Potter book," despaired the American literary critic Harold Bloom, "I count seven clichés" - and I wonder if Rowling wrote The Casual Vacancy with those critics in mind.
"No, I truly didn't sit down and think, right, now it's time to prove I can…" She breaks off and sighs. "I don't think I physically could write a novel for that reason."
To write such an ambitious book without ambition was neither a contradiction for Rowling, nor even a choice. "I just needed to write this book. I like it a lot, I'm proud of it, and that counts for me." She did consider publishing under a pseudonym. "But in some ways, I think it's braver to do it like this. And, to an extent, you know what? The worst that can happen is that everyone says: 'Well, that was dreadful, she should have stuck to writing for kids,' and I can take that. So, yeah, I'll put it out there, and if everyone says: 'Well, that's shockingly bad - back to wizards with you,' then obviously I won't be throwing a party. But I will live. I will live."
I don't doubt her, but her certainty has the faint zeal of a convert, so I ask how she can be sure. "Because I'm not the person I was a few years ago. I'm not. I'm happier."
The Casual Vacancy is published on Thursday by Little, Brown, Dh118
Reprinted courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd