Small towns are like families. They all have their own idiosyncrasies. So, when a writer writes about the workings of a picturesque town, it's only natural to speculate if the story is autobiographical, the way you always look for real-life counterparts of all of a novel's characters when a novelist writes about a dysfunctional family. This goes triple if that novelist is J.K. Rowling, one of the most famous and successful novelists working today. So, as the HBO miniseries adaptation of her novel The Casual Vacancy is set to premiere on HBO on April 29, the big question remains: Is The Casual Vacancy based on a true story?
The Casual Vacancy, Rowling's first adult novel, focuses on Pagford, a quaint little town in the Cotswolds. The town is home to the Sweetlove House (called the Fields in the book) which serves its poorer residents. One town council member, played by Michael Gambon (Dumbledore!) wants to turn the Sweetlove House into a spa, but another resists. When the Sweetlove House's defender dies — leaving a "casual vacancy" on the town board — there's a lot of wheeling and dealing over control of that seat, the fate of the Sweetlove House, and the future of the town. As The Dude says in The Big Lebowski, after that, there's a lot of ins, a lot of outs, and a lot of what-have-yous.
So, is there a real Sweetlove House rooted in real life, or is it just another Hogwarts? Let's get the obvious out of the way: Rowling's book was a novel. It's classified as fiction. It's not a documentation of a real town election — thank God.
But is there a germ of truth in there? Perhaps. In a profile in the Guardian, Rowling told an interviewer that someone felt sorry for Rowling's daughter and her friends, assuming they were the inspiration for the characters in the book. "But I haven't laid them bare, I've laid my friends bare," the paper quoted her as saying, adding that 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." So there is a little personal truth in there.
Rowling also admitted to the New Yorker that she borrowed bits of her own life for one of her characters, Andrew, who, like Rowling, had a difficult father. "Andrew’s romantic idea that he’ll go and live among the graffiti and broken windows of London — that was me,” she told the magazine. “I thought, I have to get away from this place. So all of my energies went into that.” Still, she's clear to state outright: "No one in The Casual Vacancy is a portrait of any living person.”
Like all novels, part of The Casual Vacancy comes from real life, but it's not the retelling of a true story about a real town with specific people living in it. It's not based on fact, but it's not wholly made-up, either, so don't expect to see a hippogriff running around the streets of Pagford.
Images: Steffan Hill/HBO (2); Giphy (2)