Magic Touch

Arthur Levine is the editor behind phenomenally successful children's books - including, wonder of all wonders, the 'Harry Potter' collection.

July 13, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

NEW YORK - Arthur Levine's particular brand of sorcery is to write as though in disappearing ink.

As the U.S. editor of the six phenomenally successful Harry Potter books, the 43-year-old Levine is a real, if seldom-quoted, partner in the creative process. He says his work is at its best when it leaves no apparent trace.

"My job is invisible," he says. "That's the way it should be. What I do for Jo Rowling and my other authors is to be the ideal reader, to react at the same time both critically and sympathetically. I tell her what makes me cheer and laugh, what makes me anxious and confused. I give her feedback, after she's done that as much as she can for herself."

In 1997, Levine, a respected publisher of literary children's books, visited an international book fair in Bologna, Italy, and picked up a manuscript by a then-unknown writer, a former British welfare mom. Levine read the draft in one sitting on the plane ride back home.

"From the first chapter, I was laughing and absorbed," he said. "By the time the plane landed, I had finished the book and was certain I wanted to publish it."

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone already was under contract in the United Kingdom to Bloomsbury Publishing Inc. Levine immediately snapped up the U.S. rights for $105,000 - surely one of the publishing bargains of the century.

With the release Saturday of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there will be about 114 million of Rowling's books in print in the United States, according to a spokeswoman for Scholastic, their U.S. publisher. Like its predecessors, this sixth offering in an anticipated seven-book series is expected to account for roughly 10 percent of Scholastic's annual, $2.2 billion in sales.

Levine resembles one of Harry Potter's hipper wizard teachers, with his bald head, sculpted beard and rectangular frames. And if you use your imagination, his office even resembles a classroom at Hogwarts. Is that a pen on his desk, or a magic wand?

Same difference.

One wall is crammed with the English-language and foreign editions of the roughly 90 children's books published by Arthur A. Levine Books, a Scholastic imprint. First editions of the Harry Potter novels receive no particular pride of place, but are rubber-banded together and shoved into a back corner. It's not that Levine isn't entranced with them - he is. But he's passionate about every book he publishes.

In a way, his career is an outgrowth of his first love, poetry.

Born in Queens, Levine majored in English and creative writing at Brown University and fell under the spell of such poets as Mary Oliver and Billy Collins. Levine is himself a poet, but versifying is notoriously unlucrative. Luckily, he discovered that the meter so important to a sonnet or sestina is equally essential to children's literature, especially in picture books. Rhythm and rhyme can help kids remember what they're hearing and, eventually, to read.

After graduating, Levine took the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures Course and joined Putnam Publishing, where he began to specialize in children's literature. In 1996, he came to Scholastic - and the following year made the discovery that catapulted him to superstar status in the publishing world.

"I believed in Jo before she was famous," he says. "The way I respond to her books has not changed; it's all about the writing and the characters."

Respect for privacy

Of course, Rowling is famous, and that limits what Levine is willing to say about her, even if that means that his own contributions remain in the shadows. Whereas a lesser-known author might profit from any publicity, even mentions of his or her endearing quirks, similar revelations would be embarrassing to a writer of Rowling's stature.

"I'm conscious of not sacrificing Jo's privacy just because she's famous," Levine says. "It might lead her to feel less safe, and nothing could influence me to do that."

That's especially true since rumors about Rowling are rife. The writer has been slammed for everything from the supposed Satanist subtext in her books to her income. In 2004, she made Forbes' list of the world's richest people, with an estimated fortune of $1 billion.

"We'll have a good laugh about how off-base all the talk is," Levine says. "That takes the sting out of it. She'll say things like, `I can't talk long because I have to muck out my sixth castle.' Even though she knows the things being said about her aren't true, it still hurts."

Levine will allow, cautiously, that unlike other authors, Rowling doesn't run ideas past him while she's immersed in a draft. Nor will she send him early chapters to gauge his response.

"Her process is to work very, very hard for a long time before she sends me the manuscript," he says. "At the point at which she's ready to send it to me, it's pretty polished. She's almost always aware of what she's doing and why. She rarely does anything unconsciously. She's a secure writer, very confident."

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