The Book that Changed her Life
Even without a working pen at the start, Jo’s imagination went further than she ever dreamt it could. Much of what she thought about in that four-hour delay was lost when she finally got home to write about the scarred boy. But, it would take ten more years before we’d receive the awesome privilege to get to know Harry Potter and see his enchanted world.
Harry Potter is a saga. What’s baffling, however, is that most readers of the Harry Potter books do not consider reading among their hobbies. Rather, they are forced to read in order to get to know Harry. Prior to the story of the “Boy Who Lived,” reading was not as much fun for most kids, who would rather play video games or watch TV in their free time. The adventures of Harry, Ron and Hermione changed the attitudes of children, and even adults, towards reading.
Returning to the question about what’s in it for adults to get to know the magical account of a boy whose scar made him famous and imperiled his life, to read Harry Potter is to come to terms with our own sense of humanity – our desire to love and be loved back. More than his magical exploits, it is each of Harry’s relationships with the people around him we most eagerly want to explore. How could his Uncle Vernon treat him like a slave? And why did his Aunt Petunia, his own mother’s sister, not only tolerate such maltreatment but occasionally initiate it? Why is Dumbledore so protective of Harry? If Lily and James Potter survived Voldemort’s attack, would Harry’s life have been the same? And why was Voldemort so intent on killing Harry? Those and many more intriguing questions left people anxiously anticipating the next book after finishing the one they had just read.
Book after book, Jo answered all of them and allowed Harry’s story to unfold. Authors can try, but the Harry Potter phenomena – one that was sustained from beginning to end and beyond – will forever remain difficult to outdo.
The Harry Potter film series was equally successful. Jo always made sure the scripts stayed faithful to her story, a notion which was respected almost unanimously among those involved in the films. It was not easy, but they certainly did their best.
If not Harry, there are several other characters in the book with which we can identify. Consider the bossy Hermione Granger, faithful Ron Weasley, loyal Rubeus Hagrid, wise Albus Dumbledore, callous Severus Snape, or antagonistic Draco Malfoy; and the list goes on and on. Each character has his/her own story to tell, a past that must be uncovered and explored to understand what led them to become the people they are in the series. The beauty of the Harry Potter books lies primarily in the characters.
Jo painstakingly made her characters alive enough for readers to easily laugh or cry with them. Harry is not just a fictional character; he was a brother, a friend, a hero, and all of the above in some cases.
With tremendous talent and an imagination unfettered by misery, Jo Rowling continued writing without any hope of getting her story published. The book nobody wanted, however, soon broke records and made its author one of the wealthiest in the world.
When “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (the first book) was finally published in 1997, Jo was grateful enough for the 2,500-pound royalty she received. To a single, unemployed mother who was dependent on social welfare, it meant a lot. The prospect of earning a living by doing what she did best was already a fulfillment of Jo’s dreams. She was not delusional to think that her first book would achieve what it eventually would.
Two years later, J.K. Rowling found herself in book-signing engagements with endless queues. Who would have thought Harry Potter would turn her not only into a full-time writer, but an instant celebrity? No contemporary author has ever been catapulted into fame as quickly as she; it was far beyond her expectations.
Looking back, J.K. Rowling never intended to have a life under the spotlight; her life was already complicated enough. All she needed was food on her table and a regular income. Writing was something that favored her circumstances following her separation from her husband, which left her the sole responsibility of raising her daughter.
The imaginary “Platform 9 and Three-Quarters” was inspired by London King’s Cross, the station where Jo’s parents, Anne Volant and Peter James Rowling, first met in 1964. The two married the following year on March 14th, 1965. Peter James worked for Rolls-Royce as an aircraft engineer. Anne was half-Scottish and half-French, which explains her foreign-sounding last name.
Joanne, or “Jo,” was born on July 31st, 1965 [one year after her parents married] in Yate, Gloucestershire, England. Her sister Dianne, or “Di,” was born two years later. The Rowlings left their Gloucestershire home and moved to Winterbourne in 1969, where St. Michael’s Primary School would be Jo’s first school.
Falling in Love with Books
Unlike other kids her age, Jo was a voracious reader. Having been influenced by her mom, who was a bibliophile herself, Jo was introduced to Elizabeth Goudge, Paul Gallico, and C.S. Lewis at a young age. Reading developed the young girl’s imagination.
After reading Elizabeth Goudge’s “The Little White Horse,” Jo worked on her first book at the age of six. She completed her first children’s book, entitled “Rabbit,” which told the story of a rabbit named Rabbit. Like her eventual Harry Potter creation, Rabbit was also a series, only shorter and exclusively available to her sister, who loved listening to her stories.
When Jo was nine, the family returned to Gloucestershire and lived in Church Cottage, where she would spend most of her remaining family life. As she grew into a teenager, she developed interest in current events and social matters.
Her great-aunt, like her mother, shared her interest in reading. Seeing her great-niece’s love for books, she gave her an autobiography of Jessica Mitford, a renowned English author and journalist who was also known for political activism. Jessica Mitford, or Jessica Lucy Freeman-Mitford, died in 1996. For the young Jo, Jessica became her personal hero; among Jessica’s many achievements, it was her bravery that inspired Jo the most. She considers Jessica her kind of heroine: a strong woman through and through.
Jo had reached an age when she started to become curious about religion. Her family members were not regular churchgoers, but on rare occasions her mother would attend the Church of England. Jo was intrigued by what the preachers had said about God’s identity. For a time, she attended church regularly because she “believed” in what was preached at the pulpit.
By the time Jo reached high school, her mother was employed at Wyedean School and College as the school’s technician in the science department, and Jo attended the school. Soon, however, Anne’s multiple sclerosis worsened; she had suffered from it since she was 36 years old.
While her mother’s multiple sclerosis did not improve, Peter James grew more distant from his daughters. Because of their many differences, Jo gradually became closer to her mother.
At Wyedean, Jo met her best friend and soul-mate, Sean Harris. She would later dedicate “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” to Sean, who also partially inspired the character of Ron Weasley.
Moments spent with her best friend were among her fondest memories of high school. Her teachers were also impressed with her aptitude for the English language. Although not “exceptional,” Jo was bright enough to be noticed by her high school teachers.
One of the things changed by Jo’s university life was her faith, as she grew disillusioned by the perceived arrogance of religious people. She lost interest in attending church regularly and even began questioning her faith.
Jo intended to pursue tertiary education at Oxford University and took its entrance exams in 1982; unfortunately, she was not accepted, so she instead attended the University of Exeter. She majored in French and Classics, and graduated in 1986. Her first job was working as a researcher and bilingual secretary for Amnesty International, or “A.I,” a non-government organization which upholds human rights.
How Harry Potter Came to Be
While on a train going from London to Manchester, Jo had the whole seat to herself. Without having much to do, she let her imagination entertain her. That was when she began to see, quite vividly, a thin boy of about 10 years old walking along the train corridor. It was her first “meeting” with Harry Potter.
As her mind began concocting stories, and did so for the next few hours, she was certain that something huge was about to be created. She searched her bag for a pen and paper, but discovered that none of her pens were working. Too shy to ask anyone for a working pen, she resorted to holding everything within her mind. She consoled herself, thinking she would just do her best to recall details later when she returned home.
What She says about Conjuring Harry Potter
News of the train’s delay did not bother her at all. For the next four hours, Jo was far from bored. First she saw Harry Potter, followed by images of Ron, Hermione and a barrage of other characters flooding her imagination. As soon as she got to her apartment, she began writing as many details as she could remember. In her A&E biography, Jo recalled the feeling of conjuring Harry Potter for the first time:
"I can’t describe the excitement to someone who doesn’t write books, except to say that it’s that incredibly elated feeling you get when you’ve just [met] someone with whom you might fall in love. That was the kind of thing that had happened. Like I had just met someone wonderful, and we were about to embark on this wonderful affair. That kind of relation, that kind of light-headedness, that excitement."
Six months later, Jo had drafted a few chapters of her book. However, Anne’s multiple sclerosis took her life at the age of 49, and her death was too much for Jo to bear. She was inconsolable, but knew that in order to move on, she needed to get away from the place which reminded her so much about Anne. She had many regrets; one of them was not telling her mother about the book she was writing. Jo knew in her heart that her mother would’ve been more impressed than anyone if she had known about Harry Potter.
Tight money with a Child to Feed
She left their home for Porto, Portugal, where she secured a job as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. She taught English to Portuguese students and earned decent money. She then met Jorge Arantes while hanging out at a bar; he was well-known in that part of Portugal as a journalist for national television. Jo was attracted to Jorge because they shared a common interest: reading. Coincidentally, Jorge also liked Jane Austen, one of Jo’s favorite authors.
The two began dating, and got married on October 16th, 1992. She gave birth to her first daughter, Jessica Isabel Rowling Arantes, on July 27th, 1993. Her daughter’s first name was taken from her heroine, Jessica Mitford. Jorge and Jo’s marriage, however, was short-lived, and Jo left him in November 1993. When Oprah asked her about the failed marriage, Jo boldly told her she did not mind enduring it because:
"Well, I’d think the first and most important thing to say about that marriage is I would do it all again, step for step to have Jessica, who is incredible and the world’s a better place for having her in it. So, you know, don’t regret a thing."
With an infant to feed and nowhere to go, Jo made it back to her home country in 1993, just in time to celebrate Christmas Eve. She rented a place near her sister in Edinburgh, and this was considered the lowest point in Jo’s life; she had no money and no job, and had to provide for her daughter. At 28 years old, Jo found herself in a demented situation. Depression was just around the corner, and Jo wanted to immerse herself in the world of fantasy to escape from it all – only her daughter kept her sane.
They managed to get through that dark phase with the 70-pound weekly allowance. It was not enough, but it was better than having nothing at all.
To make matters worse, Jorge came all the way from Portugal in search for her and Jessica; Jo mustered enough courage to file for a restraining order to keep him away. Jorge, unable to do anything, decided to leave them alone for good and head back to Portugal. Jo was able to file for divorce in August 1994.
She continued working on her Harry Potter stories. Death and sorrow were evident themes in “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” because those things plagued Jo around the time she wrote the first few chapters; the Dementors and the “mirror of erised” were manifestations of the inner turmoil going on in her life. The Dementors encapsulated Jo’s feeling of misery and hollowness, while the “mirror of erised” was her inadvertent way of holding onto memories of her deceased mother.
Along with Jessica, it was writing that kept her mind off of the sad reality she faced. Most of the chapters of the first Harry Potter book were written in cafes which Jo frequently visited, such as Nicolson’s Café and “The Elephant House.” The latter café was owned by Di’s husband, who promised to connect Jo with a publisher when she finally finished her book.
In 1995, Jo started to pull herself back together by enrolling in the Moray House School of Education at Edinburgh University, hoping that a Degree in Education was what she needed to get a teaching job and take Jessica and herself off of social welfare.
J.K.’s List of Books
With the help of her old but upright typewriter, Jo finished the first of the Harry Potter series in 1995. Without the promise of a publisher, Jo had to send her manuscripts to literary agents for endorsement. Her thirteenth prospect was the “Christopher Little Literary Agents.” After reading the first three chapters, Bryony Evens, a paid reader who was asked to review the book, asked for the rest of the chapters of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”
Alice Newton, the eight-year-old daughter of the Bloomsbury Publishing Chairman, was also given the first few chapters to read. Like Bryony, she asked for the rest of the book after quickly finishing the initial chapters.
Jo was warned not to keep her hopes up, since children generally do not comprise a viable market for which to write. On the contrary, Jo felt that her book only needed to be published to get the attention it deserved.
The time of reckoning came, and “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” hit the bookstores and libraries in 1997 with “Joanne Rowling” as the author. Jo was able to continue writing after receiving a grant of 8,000 pounds from the Scottish Arts Council. Five months later, her book won the “Nestlé Smarties Book Prize” and later won the British Book Award for “Children's Book of the Year” in February 1998.
It was also in that year when Scholastic Publishing won the auction to publish “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in the United States. “Joanne Rowling” was changed to “J.K. Rowling,” allegedly to attract male readers. Since Jo did not have a middle name, she used “K” for Kathleen, which was her paternal grandmother’s first name.
That commenced the international craze surrounding Harry Potter. The second book, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” was published in 1998 and also won the “Nestlé Smarties Book Prize.” The following year, the third installment “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” not only won the same Book Prize, but also took home the Whitbread Children's “Book of the Year” award.
Warner Bros. purchased the rights to make the first two Harry Potter books into films. The first Harry Potter film debuted on the big screen in 2001, and the second in 2002.
After winning the “Nestlé Smarties Book Prize” three times in a row, the fourth book, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” was not included in the contention. It mattered little, however, as the book sold three million copies in the U.S. alone in the two days following its release. In 2000, Jo was hailed as “Author of the Year” by the British Book Awards.
“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was released in December 2003, and two years later the sixth book, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” was released. “Half-Blood Prince” broke the record set by “The Goblet of Fire” when it sold nine million copies in the U.S. in the two days following its release.
In 2004, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” hit theaters, followed by “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” in 2005. It took another two years before the fifth book, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” was released in 2007.
The final book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” was completed and made available to the public in July 2007.
Two years after the Harry Potter book series concluded, the sixth installment was released in theaters. The film for the final book was released in two parts, in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
Harry Potter is now more than just a figment of Jo’s imagination; he became a franchise, a global brand valued at 15 billion dollars. Jo does not need magic to create the life she now shares with her new love, Neil Michael Murray, whom she married in 2001. She then welcomed the additions of David Gordon Rowling Murray in 2003 and Mackenzie Jean Rowling Murray in 2005 to their family.
Jo will be remembered as the only children’s book author who made billions, and the woman who reignited the power of imagination in kids and adults alike. We can’t help but agree with Oprah’s quote: “I think the greatest gift the Harry Potter series has given to the world is the freedom to use our imaginations.”
Organizations and Campaigns Supported
- Comic Relief, Gingerbread (One Parent Families)
- Multiple Sclerosis Society of Great Britain
- Reading is Fundamental
- Volant Charitable Trust
- Fund for Children and Young People in Crisis
- Light a Birthday Candle for Lumos
- Centre for Regenerative Medicine (now known as the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic)
- Haven Foundation
- Médecins Sans Frontières
- News of the World
- Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory
- The Shannon Trust
- Toe by Toe Reading Plan
- Shannon Reading Plan
- Labour Party
- 1997: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone” won the “Nestlé Smarties Book Prize”
- 1998: An article she wrote – “What was the Name of that Nymph Again? Or Greek and Roman Studies Recalled” – was published in “Pegasus,” the journal of the University of Exeter
- 1998: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone” won the “British Book Award for Children's Book of the Year”
- 1998: Scholastic Publishing published “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone” (U.S. Title)
- 1998: “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” won the “Nestlé Smarties Book Prize”
- 1999: “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” won the “Nestlé Smarties Book Prize”
- 1999: Became the first author to win the “Nestlé Smarties Book Prize” three consecutive times
- 2000: Given the title Order of the British Empire
- 2000: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” broke sales records in the U.K. and U.S.
- 2000: British Book Awards named her “Author of the Year”
- 2000: Founded the “Volant Charitable Trust”
- 2000: Became first Ambassador of One Parent Families (now “Gingerbread”)
- 2000: “Prisoner of Azkaban” won the “Locus Award”
- 2001: The film “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” was released
- 2001: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” won the “Hugo Award for Best Novel”
- 2002: The film “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” was released
- 2003: Awarded the “Premio Príncipe de Asturias” by Concord
- 2003: “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” won the “Bram Stoker Award for Best Work for Young Readers”
- 2004: The film “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was released
- 2004: Became the first U.S.-dollar billionaire author, according to Forbes
- 2004: Named the “2nd Richest Female Entertainer” by Forbes
- 2004: Ranked “1,062nd Richest Person in the World” by Forbes
- 2005: The film “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” was released
- 2005: “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” sold nine million copies within 24 hours of its release
- 2005: Co-founded “Children's High Level Group” (now known as Lumos)
- 2006: Donated funds to the Centre for Regenerative Medicine
- 2006: “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” was named “Book of the Year”
- 2007: Received the “Gold Blue Peter Badge”
- 2007: The film “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” was released
- 2007: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” sold eleven million copies within 24 hours of its release
- 2007: Runner-up as TIME Magazine's “Person of the Year”
- 2007: Ranked 48th on Forbes's “Most Powerful Celebrity” list
- 2007: Her book “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” was considered the most expensive modern book auctioned
- 2008: Ranked “144th Richest Person in Britain” according to the Sunday Times Rich List
- 2008: Her fortune was estimated by Sunday Times Rich List at 798 million dollars
- 2008: Considered the “12th Richest Woman in the United Kingdom”
- 2008: Received an Honorary Degree from Harvard University
- 2009: The film “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” was released
- 2009: Awarded by French President Nicolas Sarkozy the “Légion d'honneur”
- 2010: Won the “Hans Christian Andersen Literature Award”
- 2010: Magazine editors named her the “Most Influential Woman in Britain”
- 2010: The film “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” was released
- 2011: The film “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” was released
- 2012: Featured at the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony
- 2012: Awarded “Freedom of the City of London”
- 2013: Named “13th Most Powerful Woman in the United Kingdom” by Woman's Hour
- Hailed as United Kingdom's best-selling author
- Harry Potter series has been translated into 65 languages
- Received honorary degrees from St Andrews University, the University of Edinburgh, Napier University, the University of Exeter and the University of Aberdeen