She has been compared to Voldemort, the murderous villain of her own novels, and has described being sent “enough death threats to paper my house”. So you might reasonably expect that J.K. Rowling would be cautious of unsolicited letters plopping onto her doormat.
What’s more, with the author having only spoken a handful of times since posting a series of tweets that have led her to become a lightning rod in the row over issues affecting trans people, the chances that she would reply to an interview request from a stranger over the Atlantic must have seemed even more remote.
But Megan Phelps-Roper isn’t your average interviewer, not least because she had never actually interviewed anyone before. The 37-year-old, who lives in rural South Dakota, is best known for escaping the extremist Westboro Baptist Church, led by her grandfather Fred Phelps and mostly made up of relatives. The group, founded in Topeka, Kansas, is notorious for picketing military funerals (sample placard: “Pray for more dead soldiers”) and those of Aids victims (“God hates fags”). A Louis Theroux documentary about the church in 2007 called them “the most hated family in America”.
Phelps-Roper walked away in 2012, in large part thanks to Twitter, which she had joined three years earlier to promote the church’s message. Instead, she says in her book Unfollow and a Ted Talk watched almost seven million times, she found herself having conversations with the very people her family had taught her to hate, and she began to question the orthodoxy she had grown up with. After breaking away, she has spent the past decade working as a speaker and activist, and has two children, a four-year-old daughter and a four-month-old son, with her lawyer husband, Chad.
She is, then, no stranger to controversy, criticism and tough questions. It’s a good job, because her latest project has been at the receiving end of all three. The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling is a seven-part podcast that, its blurb says, “examines some of the most contentious conflicts of our time through the life and career of the world’s most successful author” and makes a point of saying that it includes interviews “with Rowling’s supporters and critics”, including members of the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s quite the prospect: Rowling, 57, has spoken only a handful of times since December 2019, when she tweeted in support of the tax expert Maya Forstater, whose contract of employment was not renewed after claiming that people cannot change biological sex. “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?” Rowling wrote to her 14 million followers.
That, and subsequent tweets (“‘People who menstruate’. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people … ”) have had her accused by some of being transphobic, with staff at her publishing house, Harry Potter actors, fans and Quidditch players — the sport has been renamed Quadball — distancing themselves from her.
“This was never a defense of J.K. Rowling. It was never intended to vindicate her,” Phelps-Roper tells me, when we speak via video call, the Midwestern sun streaming through her office window. “It’s an attempt to understand what’s happening, and to do that you need the perspectives of many other people — on all sides — because these issues are so complex. She knew from the beginning that that was part of it and I think that appealed to her. She didn’t feel like she needed a champion at all.”
She found herself having conversations with the very people her family had taught her to hate.
It was 18 months ago that she put pen to paper and wrote to Rowling. The letter, she explains, began with the fact that she is a huge fan. Her dad, one of the church elders, gave her the first book to read as a child — although her family also told her that Rowling was going to Hell for supporting gay rights.
“I’m the third of 11 kids and we would pass the books around. I used to take them to pickets and balance them on top of my signs,” she says. “I told her I was very worried about what social media is doing to public discourse, by incentivizing extremes. I quoted the writer Marilynne Robinson, who said, ‘The language of public life has lost the character of generosity.’ I told her — as someone who has benefited profoundly from that generosity and the fact that people have allowed me to move on — that I knew something very valuable had been lost.”
Phelps-Roper also referenced the fact that Rowling — whom she frequently calls “Jo” — is one of the few people to have been on the receiving end of backlashes from those at opposing ends of the political spectrum: as well as Rowling’s transformation from hero to villain of the left, Harry Potter has long been the target of right-wing Christian fundamentalists in the US, who have made the series’s books some of the most banned of all time. Both sides have burned copies of the novels.
“I finished the letter, but I didn’t send it for a while because it seemed kind of insane,” Phelps-Roper continues. “Like, I’m sitting here in my house in a tiny town in rural America. Who the hell am I? But then I felt like things were so bad that I couldn’t really make it worse.”
Two months passed and hope dwindled. Then she received a one-line email from Rowling’s team: the author would like to talk. The pair met over Zoom in March 2022.
“I was really nervous. But she said that even before getting my letter she knew all about me, because she had read my book,” Phelps-Roper says, shaking her head in disbelief.
By May, Phelps-Roper, then four months pregnant, found herself flying to interview Rowling in her Edinburgh home — something the author had never before allowed. For six days, across May and August, the pair sat down for a series of intimate one-to-one chats in the drawing room of the 17th-century stone house where Rowling lives with her husband, Neil Murray, their teenage son and daughter, aged 19 and 18, and two dogs (she also has a daughter, Jessica, 29, from her first marriage).
“It was, as you can imagine, extremely nerve-racking,” she says. “Her house is technically a castle and it’s beautiful, but it’s not the image that people have in their minds,” says Phelps-Roper, who describes it as “more hobbits in the Shire than princess in a tower”.
It all sounds a bit like Dumbledore’s study, with books lining the walls, the spines arranged by color in a rainbow — Rowling’s lockdown activity — and an Edmund Spenser quote painted in shimmering gold: “It is the mynd, that maketh good or ill,/ That maketh wretch or happie.” During one recording, a pigeon even flew down the chimney, causing mild pandemonium.
“It is exactly the kind of place that you would imagine her living — warm and cozy,” Phelps-Roper says. “I was sitting very, very close to her because the room was so small.”
Judging by the first two episodes — the first of which focuses on Rowling’s rise to fame, the second of which places the Potter phenomenon in the wider context of the Nineties and Noughties — it’s clear that Rowling has taken the opportunity to speak more candidly than ever before, including about her own domestic abuse.
“I was shocked because I had heard all her past interviews and how she has very carefully protected those experiences,” Phelps-Roper says. “I can’t account for why she would be vulnerable in that way with me. I think it’s way more to do with her and where she is in life. It was incredibly moving.
“There was a moment relatively early on in our conversations where I realized, ‘Oh, this is actually far easier than I anticipated because she is so ready for this.’ ”
Indeed, in the first episode Rowling sounds more determined than nervous. Right at the start, when the producer starts the tape rolling and says “deep breaths”, she replies: “Yoga move. Let’s do this.”
In her introductory essay Phelps-Roper described Rowling as saying, “I never set out to upset anyone. However, I was not uncomfortable with getting off my pedestal,” and that fans who accused her of “ruining her legacy”, “could not have misunderstood [her] more profoundly”.
It all raises the question — one I feel more than a little rude asking — why would arguably our most famous living author, a woman at the sharp end of a generation-defining culture war, speak to you?
“Right? Seriously, I have asked myself that question many times because I don’t fully understand,” Phelps-Roper says. “Towards the end of the interviews I asked her and she talked about how she thought we could have a conversation, because it’s so much bigger than just the current issues on sex and gender. Ultimately, it’s about human nature.”
Why Phelps-Roper herself wants to wade into the debate is perhaps clearer. In the introduction, she writes: “Like Rowling, I knew what it was like to be an object of intense hatred. But I also knew the value of good-faith conversation, and the role it can play in bridging even the deepest divides.”
Then she received a one-line email from Rowling’s team: the author would like to talk.
“The pushback is often, ‘You are wealthy. You can afford security. You haven’t been silenced.’ All true,” Rowling says in one of the interviews. “But I think that misses the point. The attempt to intimidate and silence me is meant to serve as a warning to other women. And I say that because I have seen it used that way.” She has heard from other women, she adds, who have been warned off from expressing their views: “Look what happened to J.K. Rowling. Watch yourself,” she adds.
Yet Phelps-Roper is wary of dismissing the concerns of “people who are upset with Rowling”.
“I understand why and I’m not trying to say [putting on a deep voice], ‘Oh, you should just look past her transphobia.’ That is not it. It is very hard to feel empathy for someone who you feel is putting you in danger, or putting someone you love in danger. I believe that it’s real and valid. It’s just trying to help people recognize that those on the other side feel it too, and that if you want to reach them you have to listen to them.
“People were willing to do that for me when I was a member of Westboro, celebrating death and suffering. If me, then why not this woman who has done so much with her life to try to alleviate suffering? She is the same person who wrote those books and I think people will hear that — even if they end up disagreeing with where she’s coming from.”
The series, she thinks, will be received differently in the UK and the US — not least because it’s being published by the Free Press, set up by the former New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss, a polarizing figure in the American press who left the paper accusing it of bowing to censorious forces on social media.
“Here we also have the Christian right and that profoundly changes things,” Phelps-Roper says. “But I do think that there are a lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic that really want this and are ready for it.”
In the podcast Rowling spells out the threats she is subjected to: “I have had direct threats of violence, and I have had people coming to my house where my kids live, and I’ve had my address posted online. I’ve had what the police, anyway, would regard as credible threats,” she says.
Is Phelps-Roper worried for herself? “The risk is real and especially for somebody with my history,” she replies. “I knew what the accusations would be — that I’m just a less extreme bigot now. I left one cult and joined another. At the end of my letter to Jo, I wrote, ‘I am not a contrarian by nature.’ I was trying to say that I’m not doing this because I enjoy being at the center of controversy. I was trying to convey that I was terrified that I was going to ruin my life, but in spite of that risk, I believe that people don’t want things to go on as they are.
“I feel like even if I do ruin my life, it’s worth the attempt. Why else spend a decade demonstrating that I am not the bigot that I was when I was at Westboro? What is the purpose? I love my life, I have a wonderful husband and children, so I could have just done that and been happy. But I really hope that some good will come from this.”
When I ask what she means by “ruin her life”, she starts apologizing as tears roll down her cheeks.
“It’s the threats. People feel very strongly about this. It’s funny, part of the reason you don’t hear as much about Westboro anymore is that the tactics that made us infamous are now used by so many people on all sides. There are these perverse incentives and dynamics on social media that amplify the strongest feelings; the outrage and indignation. I think there is a lot missing from the conversation that’s happening on social media. Are there people on the Internet who think that trans people should not exist? Of course there are, but I don’t think J.K. Rowling is one of them.”
Claire Cohen is a London-based freelance journalist and the author of BFF?: The Truth About Female Friendship