Storytimes to fan conventions, Triangle writer turns love of Harry Potter into career
Posted July 24
Updated July 25
It's a big week for Harry Potter fans. "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," a two-part stage play, is set for release Sunday, setting in motion plans for midnight Potter parties, all-night reading sessions and probably a few impromptu games of Quidditch.
This eighth installment of the wildly popular book series is not a novel, but a stage play written by J.K. Rowling, along with Jack Thorne and John Tiffany. The play will officially premiere in London's West End theater district this weekend and follows Potter and his younger son, Albus.
Susan Sipal, like many, fell in love with the series as she read the books to her child. But her interest went deeper than that, turning those reading sessions into a career. Today, the Pittsboro-based writer and editor is an expert of the series, known around the world for her analysis and popular workshops.
On Tuesday, she releases a new edition of her book, "A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter." Each chapter of the guide covers a different aspect of fiction writing, including characterization, world building, mystery plotting, and adding a layer of subtext through myths and archetypes. Sipal will be presenting and signing her book at the Harry Potter Countdown to Midnight Magic Party, 8 p.m. to midnight, Saturday, at the New Hope Commons Barnes and Noble in Durham.
Why have the books been so popular? “Three things top the list," Sipal says, "characterization, world building, and the layers of mysteries and clues hidden beneath her text. Seeking out those hidden Easter eggs truly engaged her readers.”
Sipal also works as an editor for writers and independent publishers and teaches a class based on her book at Central Carolina Community College. She and her husband have two kids, a 20-year-old college student and a 17-year-old, who is headed to college. They live on a small farm in the country with chickens, cats, dogs and lots of frogs. And, as she studies the world of wizards, she can be found stirring her own bubbling pots. She makes her own sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir and her own special coffee called bucha.
I checked in with Sipal to learn more about her work and her love of the series. Here's our email conversation:
Go Ask Mom: Your biography says you are always writing. When did you develop a love of writing and who helped you foster it?
Susan Sipal: I’m not one of these writers who has always wanted to be a writer. I hated writing in school. But I was always drawn to exploring complex issues and commonalities that divide and unite people, especially spiritual. It wasn’t until a best friend sent me the first line of a story and said, now you write the next, that I discovered the freedom of writing for pleasure, not assignment. By the time my friend and I had actually learned how to create a publishable novel, I’d discovered that I could convey these questions of human nature that had filled my head for years more effectively through storytelling.
GAM: When did you first fall in love with the Harry Potter series? Why do you think it has been so popular? Do your husband and kids love it too?
SS: I first met Harry when a local bookstore owner recommended the series to me as I was looking for yet another book to read to my young son. The Harry Potter series became a bonding experience for us. Even after he was old enough to read to himself, he still wanted me to read the next Potter book aloud to him, and then speculate on what would come next. To me, this engagement of the reader is the ultimate secret to Rowling’s success. She gave the reader more in every way – inviting them into her world to play with her characters and fully explore her mysteries. While both my kids have loved the books, my husband, whose native language is Turkish, never latched on to the English versions in our home. Though he did enjoy the movies.
GAM: You are an internationally known expert on the Harry Potter series. How did that all happen? Where has it taken you?
SS: I was fortunate enough to work as an editor with a small press that published a popular clue book to the Harry Potter series during the height of its popularity. A lot of the techniques I learned from working on these books helped me analyze my writing better, so I put together workshop to share with other writers. Participants loved it, as it was a mix of both fandom and learning, and I was asked to present at national conferences for writers, a Harry Potter fan conference in Salem in October (the month when Salem is absolutely bewitching), to London a couple of times, the last during the release of Deathly Hallows – which was a dream come true – and at fan conferences in Universal during the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. In between, I’ve taught at schools, colleges, and writers groups, online and off, and met lovely, enthusiastic, Potter fans, each with their own impassioned point of contact with Rowling’s vibrant world. These fans have often shown me specific details I’ve missed.
GAM: You've spoken a lot about the mythological underpinnings of the series at fan-based and academic conferences in the United States and England. Why does that aspect of the series interest you so much?
SS: Religious Studies was one of my majors in college, which I followed up with a semester at Duke Divinity School before going to work with Habitat for Humanity. As I mentioned earlier about questioning complex issues, I’ve always been fascinated with spiritual and mythical beliefs, the more ancient, the better. When a writer dips into the deep well of myth and folklore to inspire their own story, they draw out analogies to other stories that have referenced those ancient stories as well … all with the price of one dip. While a lot of fans really latched onto the alchemy that seeps through every part of the Potter series, I was far more fascinated with Rowling’s Egyptian mythology allusions. When I was in London for the release of "Deathly Hallows," I spent a whole day at the British Museum in their ancient Egypt exhibit and was fascinated by how much Rowling had at hand to inspire her.
GAM: You have a new book coming out this week, "A Writer's Guide to Harry Potter." What's the book about? Who did you write it for?
SS: "A Writer’s Guide to Harry Potter" grew out of the workshop I had been presenting to writing and fan conferences for years. I was always overwhelmed with the enthusiastic response I received from both fans and writers alike and wanted to make the workshop more widely available for writers who couldn’t attend a workshop, plus fans who enjoyed learning how the series was put together. In the guide, we explore the techniques Rowling utilized to engage her audience, from characterization to world building to the Hero’s Journey, complete with examples, charts, and easy-to-understand analysis. The book that releases this week is completely updated and expanded to include both "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" and "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them."
GAM: What are your plans for the future? Will you be fully analyzing "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," when it comes out later this week?
SS: I will be purchasing my copy of "Cursed Child" at the midnight release party I will be speaking at. I am sure that at 12:02 I will be completely engrossed in the book, and, assuming I have a ride home, by 12:07, will already be analyzing possible clues. However, as the "Cursed Child" is not intended as a series, I expect that Rowling’s famous trail of clues will be more engaging when the first of the film trilogy "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" comes out in November. Sometime in December, my publisher and I will be releasing a clue book to the film for all Wizarding World fans.
Sipal will officially launch her book Aug. 6 at Starlight Mead in Pittsboro during the Renaissance Style Mead Party where there also will be food trucks, sword fighting, cosplay and more. She also is scheduled for an event and book signing at 1 p.m., Sept. 10, at the Barnes and Noble at The Streets at Southpoint in Durham.
Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.