On J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling. One of the biggest literary success stories of the past 25 years if not of all time. I don’t think it is much of a surprise that she has been a big influence in my life since she has influenced hundreds of millions of people around the globe with her immensely popular series Harry Potter, but she is an inspiration beyond her writing as well. Before I get into the details of why and how she inspires me, let me herd an elephant out of the room.

I think there is a cliche response associated with aspiring writers that has been based on J.K. Rowling’s success. When someone says they are a writer, or want to be a writer, the response sometimes given is “So you want to become the next J.K. Rowling, huh?” I think this has become too common and is actually detrimental to many of these writers for several reasons. One, they probably don’t want to be the next J.K. Rowling because what they write is completely different and they want to carve their own path and be recognized for their own merits. Two, the question itself is often asked in a snarky way which shuts down any chance of the writer sharing their dreams, goals, and stories with those who ask it. They feel like that initial response tells them that they aren’t good enough because it is a direct comparison with one of the masters of the craft. If you have experienced this response before, I hope you read the rest of this post because I think it will enlighten some things about J.K. herself, help you no longer consider that question an apathetic response to your dreams, and possibly provide the perfect response to such questions.

The question above does give credence to J.K.’s success (J.K. Rowling’s full name is Joanne Rowling. She uses the “pen name” J.K. Rowling where the K is an honorific for her grandmother’s name Kathleen). I think her story of rags to riches has become fairly well known, but I’ll give a brief summary here just because it is insightful. J.K. was a single mother on welfare when she began writing Harry Potter. The book was rejected by 12 publishers before getting picked up and published. These books, along with the movies, made J.K. Rowling a billionaire. That’s right, with a B. She is also one of the few people, perhaps the only person, who has gone from billionaire status to millionaire status by charitable giving. Her recent “net worth” is just shy of one billion dollars. I remember hearing her story about how she started her charity, Lumos, to assist orphaned children. She was reading a paper and saw a story about orphaned children and thought, as many of us surely have, that someone should be helping these children. Where most of us would have left it at that and continued on with our lives, she had a second thought which was a realization that she was in a place that would let her personally offer help because she had the funds to make a big difference and help address the issue. This led to the creation of Lumos. I haven’t followed the charity too closely but I hear great things from time to time about what they are doing. I did buy a pair of shirts for myself and my wife for a Lumos fundraising event (I haven’t written my international bestseller yet, but every little bit helps). I just think it is fantastic that she has taken her success and used it to assist others. I think this shows more about her character than her writing ever could.

I read a brief biography on J.K. when I was maybe twelve years old and the only thing I really remember from it was that she was on a train headed somewhere and was looking out the window (maybe at some cows?) and the name Harry Potter simply popped into her head and she knew she had the character for her book. She had known a family with the last name of Potter earlier in her life but the name that has become infamous simply came out of the ether, as most ideas do, and simply struck her and inspired her to start writing his story. She wrote the name on a napkin if I remember correctly to make sure she remembered it.

I grew up with Harry Potter. Literally…okay not in the actual literal sense as I didn’t go to Hogwarts with him, but I grew up alongside him in a way that made if feel like I went to Hogwarts with him. I’ll date myself here, but I was six years old when the first book came out in 1997. One of the only memories I have of being read aloud to as a kid was my mom reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to me and my siblings. I think my mom had won the book at a raffle or something because it was the first book in the series we had. I eventually got the first book and began reading through the series myself. I also had to wait for each book to come out because she was still working on them. The third book may have been out at that time because I remember waiting for the fourth. I ended up reading the first four books four times before the fifth book came out. I remember going to get the book when it came out too. We ended up getting it from Costco of all places and I remember there just being a pallet of books, a literal pallet full of just copies of the new Harry Potter book, sitting near the entrance for people to pick up and it seemed like everyone coming in was taking one. Then I waited for the sixth, which I read in three days, and then I waited for the seventh. Both of which were picked up from another pallet-full of copies. I remember I didn’t read the seventh right away for some reason, but I did read it not too long after it came out. Nearly ten years after the final book came out, they came out with a print edition of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play that had become a big success. So, in 2016, almost 20 years after the first book, I found myself going to a Barnes & Noble for a midnight release party of a Harry Potter book. I went by myself but ran into some friends. We bought copies and went home. I went to bed, but I woke up the next day and read the play straight through (plays are often much quicker reads than books) in a handful of hours. I met up with the same friends I ran into later that day and we talked about the book/play since they also read it straight through. We liked and didn’t like various things, but we mainly just happy to have more of the story we grew up with.

I remember waiting in line for the first Harry Potter movie. I was nine or ten years old. They would rope off an area and you could wait in line to get into the theater. This was before theaters had assigned seating or the ability to buy tickets online. We got there early and were one of the first in line for the opening night and it was a magical experience seeing it for the first time. They had started making the movies before the books were all released, but the movies did get released not long after the books were released. The last book came out in 2007 and the last movie came out in 2011.

I remember seeing the sixth movie when I was at college getting my undergraduate degree. I went to a decent sized university in a smaller town and they had a fairly new theater built which held a total of ten screens. Of course, me and some friends bought tickets for opening night. The theater was running the movie on all ten screens. I worked at a movie theater back home when I wasn’t at school so I knew a bit about how things worked, and I think I remember this theater saying they only had one copy of the film. This was when they had actual film, everything wasn’t all digital yet (do I sound old yet? haha), so they rigged it up, which they were actually outfitted to do so it wasn’t a questionable type of rigging, where the film would start on one projector and then go along pulleys to the next projector and so on and so forth until it went through all of them. The result being that one theater would start the movie and the tenth would start the movie only a mere few minutes later. It was crazy. So they had the film in all ten auditoriums so when you went in, they tore your ticket, and you could go to any of the auditoriums you wanted. It was a one night show of only Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Many of my friends had re-read the book prior to seeing the movie. I had not. They ended up not liking the movie much, because they had the book fresh in mind, but I enjoyed it quite a bit since I had decided to keep a little distance between the adaptation and original content.

I was actually working, physically, at a movie theater when the last movie came out. I had recently won an “employee of the month” award or something similar and one of my rewards was to pick my schedule for two weeks. Luckily for me, the last day I was able to pick my schedule was the opening night of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. I would have felt bad taking the whole day off since it was going to be insanely busy, so I set myself to work from 12pm to 8pm. I had bought my tickets for the midnight show, the earliest it was shown back then (I can hear my bones cracking in my old age). I came into work and there were people already lined up since 9am. They were seeing the special double feature of the sixth and seventh movies that would then show the new movie at midnight, but I was surprised to see people waiting in line that early. Anyway, I’ll avoid the hellish work day I had and just say that I made enough popcorn to feed a pod of whales for a year. I got of work at 8pm, ran home and showered in an attempt to remove the smell of popcorn from myself, and then went right back up to get in line and watch the final, amazing experience of a generation. I still remember hearing that line “Always” in the theater and feeling the entire audience’s reaction. It was simply incredible. Movies are somewhat heightened when in a packed theater full of dedicated fans. I was really into films back then and I do recall that J.K. had let Alan Rickman know about Snape’s relationship with Lily very early on in the film series. He was the only one who knew until that final scene so he could have a driving motivation for his character. He wrote a letter about it when the films were completed and you can find it online. It is quite touching and hints at J.K. fully understanding of the story even though only three books had been completed when she told him the little secret that would become a huge moment.

A few final things about Harry Potter before I move on to the real focus of this post, the one behind the stories. A study was done titled “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice” which showed that reading Harry Potter actually makes people more empathetic. This is fantastic and shows how stories can influence people. Think of a few stories that have really gripped you. Can you imagine yourself without ever having experienced them?

There are theme parks entirely dedicated to bringing the world of Harry Potter to life. I still need to go to the bigger, more in-depth park in Florida, but I went to the one in Los Angeles a few years ago and had a blast. I bought a replica of Sirius Black’s wand since he is my favorite character in the series. I also bought a set of wizard robes. Ravenclaw robes since that is my “house.” A lot of people put a lot of emphasis on their sorted house. J.K. herself is a Hufflepuff.

Harry Potter was so successful that J.K. thought that anything she wrote afterwards would be impacted by simply having her name on the cover, that an expectation would be placed on the story before people even knew what it was, so she adopted an actual pen name of Robert Galbraith. She did publish a handful of books under J.K. Rowling, but she has a few successful series under her newer pen name, specifically the Cormoran Strike novels which are also now a TV series. I think the Robert Galbraith pen name was quickly found out to be J.K. Rowling, but she still uses the name today for some of her series. I think she has broken out of the shadow of her first success and continues to write new and interesting stories to find newer successes. She loves what she does and continues to find new audiences. She didn’t let herself get stuck in the expectations of others. She has always paved her own way. This is why I think she is a great role model.

I think her influence on me was not just the story that gripped the world, but the fact that it came into my life at the right time and has had a lasting impression. This is another aspiration I have with my own writing. To become a positive influence to a younger generation. To help kids experience stories that awe them and hopefully encourage them to become better people and believe in themselves. I’m not limiting that to those younger than me actually. I would love for everyone to have these reactions. I haven’t had the “so you want to be the next J.K. Rowling” response in a long time. I think I got it more when I was younger and the Harry Potter movies were still being released, but I’ve finally found an answer besides shutting down and thinking I could never be that successful, which then turns into believing I’ll never be successful with that comparison. My answer now is “No. I could never be J.K. Rowling. I don’t want to be. I’m going to be the first Ryan Yarber.”

As You Wish

Inego Montoya

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes and Joe Layden is the endearing memoir about the making of the beloved movie. I listened to the audiobook version as read by Cary Elwes with guest voices by costars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Mandy Patinkin, Norman Lear (producer), Rob Reiner (director), and author/screenwriter William Goldman. To put things simply, if you like the movie The Princess Bride, then you will enjoy this book. It is filled with fun stories about the making of the movie as well as anecdotes about the cast and crew. The production seemed to be a blast, though of course there were a few hiccups (and memories are often gilded with fondness).

I would recommend the audiobook specifically (I borrowed it from my local library), since it is read by Cary himself and everyone listed above chimes in to discuss their own little stories or point of view about a specific event. Cary does great voices when quoting his friends in the production (my favorites being Andre and Rob Reiner), and it is just an all-around great way to take in these stories. I learned a lot about different actors in the film, especially Andre the Giant who seemed like such a fun guy with an amazing take on life. I had no idea Robin Wright was so young while on the set (the mere age of 20), as well as Cary Elwes (who turned 24 while filming).

To show my age here, I wasn’t even alive when this movie was first released in 1987. So I don’t feel in the wrong here for not knowing much about the movie or its production. I was surprised to hear that it did not do well in theaters upon initial release. This is probably because by the time I watched it for the first time, it was already an internationally beloved film. How could it not be? With so many incredible moments and memorable lines, who wouldn’t love this quirky film? It’s…Inconceivable

Right? Well, it seems the marketing departments didn’t know quite how to tell the world about this satirical fairy tale that pokes fun while being its own kind of serious with sword fights and giants and the Pit of Despair and the rodents of unusual size. After all, it is all read from a grandfather to his grandson. How could they not adequately tell the world of a movie that doesn’t fit into any one genre or aimed at any particular demographic? Well, they struggled to say the least and the movies theatrical release suffered for it. But the world came to love it for what it was and it has become one of the best-known films on the planet. I was surprised to hear that the movie was considered impossible for the longest time in Hollywood. Either no one knew how to do it or it built a bad reputation of attempted productions that failed before they started. Rob Reiner took it up and just did it. From this book, he made it seem easy too. I’m sure much was glanced over or missed since this text takes place from primarily Cary’s point of view, but it turned out better than I think anyone could have hoped.

I must admit at this point that I have not read the book The Princess Bride by William Goldman. It remains in my to-be-read pile and I know I’ll get around to it eventually. I’ve heard people say not to bother since the movie is so good and considered better than the book. Goldman wrote the screenplay so of course I wouldn’t feel any guilt if I never got around to reading the book, but I enjoy seeing the differences between the books and the films. It is very rare for a film adaptation to be better than the book, but it does happen, and I think I’ll make my own opinion in this case.

I think anyone who has never seen the film would like this book, but of course knowing the film first makes it that much more enjoyable. I had a strong urge to watch the movie again upon finishing this book. I think I may have a deeper appreciation for the film now knowing what I have learned. I can better enjoy each character and actor performance. I can look at certain scenes differently such as the epic sword fighting scene, which takes place after the climb up the Cliffs of Insanity (actually filmed at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland where I visited last year). I know exactly which scenes were filmed after Cary broke his big toe. There is so much more I can enjoy while watching the film now. So many little tidbits of information I can revel in knowing, but of course it is just as fun to sit back and enjoy the film for the masterpiece it is. As for this book, it is a glimpse behind the curtain. A glimpse filled with so many heartwarming tales it could even compare to the film it details, but let’s not get into the chicken or the egg argument.

Happy Reading.

How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World

I was fortunate to see a pre-screening of How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World this weekend. The movie officially releases later this month. I know this blog is mainly about books and my own writing, but it really is about all types of stories. Besides, this movie series is based on a book series by Cressida Cowell so it still fits. I also only wanted to talk about it because of my chance to see it early.

Fun Fact: I didn’t actually see the first movie in theaters (I can’t tell you why because I of course like dragons and it was something I was sure to be interested in). The second movie I did make sure to see opening weekend, and now I’ve seen the third and final installment before its opening weekend. Easy to say I’m a fan. This series is probably my favorite Dreamworks animated series. That being said, I was able to go into this movie with little expectations. I always try to do this so I’m never disappointed. Easy to say that I was definitely not disappointed. I enjoyed this movie greatly and I think part of it was the fact it is the final chapter of a journey that started eight years ago when the first movie was released in 2010.

How To Train Your Dragon

This movie wraps up the series extremely well and the thematic undertones were strategically placed. This movie’s overall takeaway, from my opinion, is that growing up means being strong enough to let some things go. I almost never tear up during movies, but I have to admit that there were two moments I had to hold back.  To keep this post spoiler free, I’ll let you take that as you will. Of course, certain things can be expected since it is the third movie in a trilogy, but I think the personal growth of Hiccup and his ability to learn, with the help of his friends, that he is stronger than he thinks of himself is the main story arc. It’s something that we all need reminding of from time-to-time.

There are many things I can say about the main villain Grimmel, but again, I want to keep this spoiler free and the things I would talk about would contain spoilers. What I will say is that his character is hypocritical and believes in a world-view that unfortunately I think many people today may align with. Please don’t believe that there are any political undertones to this movie. What I’m vaguely talking about is humanity in general. People believe different things and that is okay. Stories have to have villains and heroes and they almost always have opposing views. The villain is usually believes in things that are grossly evil, but not always. In this case I don’t think he is evil. I think he believes in something that we, the audience, will agree is unjust.

The story picks up after the second movie nicely and ties all three movies together as a final installment should do. Overall, I think this movie will be enjoyed by all current fans of the series. Especially you, reader who found their way here just to get more information about the upcoming release. When you watch this movie, allow yourself the chance to watch it with a child’s eyes, and I hope you grow alongside our beloved characters. As I have.

Getting Lost in a Story

I think many of us can agree that being drawn into a story is one of the greatest experiences we can have, and we have all had this experience at least once. I’m not talking about the “can you believe what Jan did this time?” kind of gossip story. I mean the stories that change us. The ones that last. That we connect with and cherish, oftentimes, for the rest of our lives. I’m also not just talking about books. I’m talking about stories in whatever form they may come. A movie, a TV series, a videogame, a podcast, etc. I’m talking about a story that grips you so tight you can’t even remember that the rest of the world exists. A story that you may develop a somewhat unhealthy obsession for (it’s the rest of the world that doesn’t understand). I want you to think about one of your favorite stories and consider why you like it as much as you do.

I’ll be talking about several of my own favorite stories, but before I jump in, I also want to touch on the phenomenon known as over-hype. You probably have experienced this as well. When your friends (and probably the internet as well) think that this one story is so good that everyone should experience it and all they do is talk about it and hound you about why you haven’t watched/read it yet and that you are missing out on a life-changing experience, so then one of two things happen; you watch it and think it is just “meh” because it was talked-up so much that it could never have lived up to the expectations your friends created, or you decide never to watch it on principle because apparently the entire world is obsessed with this story and you want to be one of the few that has never seen it just so you can shock people with your lack of social assimilation, but you then wait the appropriate amount of time where people stop raving about it so you eventually watch it because it’s supposed to blow your socks off but your expectations are still way too high from all the hype and you have self-imposed ideals about how this story should be the best ever written or you will only talk how you don’t understand why everyone liked it just to squeeze the remaining shock value about how you are unique for going against the grain.

Okay, rant aside, I think we all have been on both sides of these conversations at some point. The reason I bring this up is because stories have power we can’t explain, and that power mostly comes from us. Some stories get world-wide acclaim while others a “cult” following and probably a great many more are lost in the sea of available stories out there, waiting to be discovered as the treasure they are. I am currently reading a book that I think may have been over-hyped for me. I understand its appeal and do not dislike it, but I am not going to jabber about it with everyone who loves it as I often do about the stories I greatly enjoy.

Some of the best stories, or those that affect us the most, are those we happen upon ourselves without knowing anything about them. My most recent experience of this was in March of 2017. I was new to Twitter and was scrolling through things and found this video of an author being interviewed about her new book. She was being interviewed by another author and they were simply talking about books so of course I was interested. I remember they both seemed like great people. The interviewing author was Patrick Rothfuss. I had heard his name before, but knew nothing about his books. I continued to know nothing about them but I eventually picked up his first novel The Name of the Wind, and I absolutely loved it, and the sequel, and the related novella. I am patiently waiting for the next book. I read all of his works within a month (which is quick for me considering their size) because I could not put them down. I enjoyed the story so much it was all I could and wanted to think about. I later came to find out that thousands of others had the same reaction. Many have read his works several times over. I will definitely read them again and they will remain on my bookshelf all my life for myself and others to enjoy. I’ve also gone beyond recommending this book and given a copy or two away to friends. I try to think I showed great restraint by not over-hyping this book to them so they could enjoy it in their own way. Most of them have and being able to share the experience of the story makes us better people.

Not only does enjoying the same story make it easier to start a conversation, it also opens up our understanding of other people. After all, friendships are often built on common interests. Studies were conducted that showed evidence that reading Harry Potter instills empathy. The article “Why Everyone Should Read Harry Potter” discusses these studies and their relation to empathy.

Vezzali [stated] that fantasy may be especially effective in assuaging negative attitudes because the genre typically doesn’t feature actual populations and thus avoids potential defensiveness and sensitivities around political correctness.

I think that getting lost in stories, not just Harry Potter, does make us more connected and increases our ability to understand others. Stories can be an entirely new experiences that show us things we’ve never seen and makes us see, feel, or think about things we never had before. They takes us to far away places and on grand adventures.

These types of stories are not limited to any one medium. I am a gamer as well as a book fiend. I often say I play too many videogames because I need to write more to create my own stories, but I grew up playing videogames and have formed bonds through them. One of my all-time favorites is the Legend of Zelda series. These games often follow the same outline, but they are all fun to play and have interesting characters. They often tackle serious themes about life. The series entry Majora’s Mask tackles the theme of death and loss. Connor Worley wrote and excellent article about this titled “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – A Story About Loss.” A recent YouTube video by Good Blood titled “Ocarina of Time – A Masterclass in Subtext” argues that the Ocarina of Time entry is the saddest of entry in the franchise (I promise not all of these games are sad, but stories must have conflict to entertain us). Ocarina of Time has its own history in the world of videogames and has fallen victim to over-hype over the years, but it stands as one of the best games of all time not only because of the story, but how it changed the world of videogames as a medium. It was innovative for its time and remains on a pedestal in many gamer’s hearts. Each entry in this series holds new surprises and more things to love. I’ve read many supplemental materials just to get more information about this world that was founded back in 1986 and the characters that have been introduced through its long history.

The Mass Effect series is another videogame franchise I greatly enjoyed. I first played it well after it became a huge hit and the third installment was set to release. I love science fiction and loved these games. Getting to explore an entire galaxy and defend it from invading, sentient robots bent on mass genocide was a blast. The characters were interesting and well-developed, your choices impacted the story-line, there were consequences for your actions. The time invested was a personal journey through the landscape of a fictional world. I was changed from that experience because I learned things about myself and I was able to use the experience to see this world differently. Most art has something to say about the world we live in. The Bioshock series is another story that I often remember and go back to.

Another aspect of falling in love with a story and its characters is the attachment we grow toward it. Many avid readers have their favorite books and authors, and I believe most of us bibliophiles have multiple copies of the same book in different formats, editions, or simply get new copies because the current one is falling apart from use. The same goes for movies and videogames. I have a few HD remakes of videogames and extended or director’s cut versions of films I return watch again and again. I also admit I have different editions of a few series simply because I am both a collector and love the story so much I like different copies. I have several editions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and two editions of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

We grow attached to these stories and cherish them. They are a part of us. They have changed our lives to a point where we can’t remember what we were like before experiencing them. Stories make us better people. They make us experience the entire range of human emotion, and they make it easier for us to understand each other. What are some of your favorite stories? Why do you think you like them so much? Think about how those stories impacted your life beyond the page or the screen. Have you made friends from them? Argued about them?

What stories have changed you? What stories will you tell? When you are gone, what stories will you leave behind? After all, in the end, we are each of us only stories.

The Little Prince

About a month ago I wrote a book recommendation for The Little Prince. Last night, I watched Netflix’s film adaptation of this story with my wife, and all I can say is that it was fantastic. First, I was unaware of how many big-name celebrities were cast. The only one I knew before watching was Jeff Bridges, but there is also Rachel McAdams, Paul Rudd, Marion Cotillard, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Paul Giamatti, James Franco, and Albert Brooks. Second, this adaptation did not just turn the book into film. It created a story around the book while leaving the original story unblemished. The book and even the drawings are included. This movie uses the original story as a central them within a new story, and this new story works as a modern translator that I believe amplifies the importance of the original (or at least relates it to modern audiences). After all, the book was first published over 70 years ago when technology was just the first sprinkles of rain that would become the ocean it is today.

For those who read my original book recommendation, I stated I first discovered the book from watching the trailer for this specific film adaptation. I was intrigued by the story, so I went and read the book first. Then I eventually got around to watching the movie. I love them both equally. The movie follows the original text and uses the narrator as an actual character. Then, to my surprise, the movie goes beyond the end of the original story. Continuing it in a way that is both unexpected and touching. The film, overall, does exactly what the book does and maybe even better. It makes us remember things we used to know as a child. It makes us remember a very important part of life that we adults tend to forget while worrying about the many responsibilities we have.

Though the film is an animated feature that kids would enjoy. I think the story is really meant for adults. After all, there are no age restrictions when it comes to stories. Recommended maturity levels? Maybe. Some stories should be reserved until a child gets older, but you can never be too old to enjoy a story meant for younger generations. If you’ve never experienced this story, I highly recommend it in either medium.

I hope you find a few moments today (and every day) to stop and appreciate the world we live in. To forget the many demands on your time and breathe. Take in the world around you. There is so many places to find joy.