Joanna Rowling's success is even more of a fairytale than the children's books she produces. She's gone from living on income support and writing in cafes to a six-figure American deal and a place at the top of the bestseller list. SYRIE JOHNSON hears her amazing story.
ONE thing is for certain about Delia Smith and Jeffrey Archer. They sell. So does Joanne Rowlings. In fact, last week her latest hardback outsold Delia's and Jeffrey's. Yet Joanne's book is a tale peopled with ghosts with names like Nearly Headless Nick.
Rowlings writes for children (her new book is entitled Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) and she's on the verge of signing an estimated six-figure Hollywood deal. Her own story - the tale of a former penniless single mother who had to go without food in order to provide for her baby daughter - is as improbable as those she writes.
You'd think Rowlings would have settled for an autobiography: a poor, young woman arrives alone in a strange city, Edinburgh, fighting with depression after the death of her mother, with her three-month-old baby daughter in tow. She survives on income support, pacing the streets till baby Jessica falls asleep.
Or, as Rowling pitches it: "Eccentric woman dashes into cafes every day, one arm on the buggy, hair everywhere, slings a pile of A4 papers down, orders espresso after espresso and writes madly. At night, back in her grotty bedsit after Jessica falls asleep, she writes a bit more. Without writing, she'd go stark, raving mad."
Yet, from these beginnings, she wrote her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which sold 70,000 copies, earned her £100,000 from the American rights, and was sold to eight other countries.
Writing, for her, has other rewards, less pecuniary.
"This woman came sprinting up to me," she recalls, "and said: 'My son's nine, he's very severely dyslexic, we've taken him to every specialist and he's never read a book in his life. But I read him three chapters of Harry Potter, went into his bedroom next morning and found him curled up with it. It's the first book he's ever read'."
Though she may appear an amazing overnight success, Rowling's recognition has been a long time coming. She's been writing in secret since she was five, when as "a swotty little git with National Health spectacles" she wrote for five years about a rabbit called Rabbit who got measles.
After graduating from Exeter with a degree in French and Classics, she went to work in Amnesty International - still writing secretly. "Then I temped for years - I've left a trail of undeleted stories on word processors across England."
Rowling continued with her writing when she decided to teach English in Portugal, falling in love with, and marrying, a Portuguese TV journalist - the marriage lasted three years.
She moved to Edinburgh, but this time, couldn't find job. "I had no desire to remain on benefits but I couldn't get any child care for Jessica in order to work," she explains. "It's the most soul destroying thing. There were nights when, though Jessica ate, I didn't. Everything had gone wrong - with the exception of my daughter. But while I was still writing I didn't feel like I had completely lost my identity. It's a very weird feeling to suddenly have no answer to the question, 'What do you do?' I was completely devalued - complete loss of self-esteem."
THE idea for Harry Potter came to Rowling on a delayed train from Manchester to London seven years ago. Unusually, she was without pen and paper, so was stuck for four hours with the big idea and nothing to write it on. "I'd never thought of writing for children before," she explains, "But then I didn't write this thinking of children, I wrote it for me."
In her story, an orphan called Harry lives with his sadistic and suburban uncle and aunt until he's 11, when he's rescued by owls and taken to a wizardry school peopled by ghosts and a drunken gamekeeper called Habrid [sic]. (Rowling's only preference when the film is made is that Habrid be played by Robbie Coltrane. "He should be flattered," she says.) The hard work was not over when she'd finished the manuscript. "I didn't have enough money to photocopy it, or buy a word processor, so I had to type out the 80,000 words twice. My ex-neighbours will remember me fondly as the woman who made loud banging noises at one in the morning, which was me slamming the typewriter on the table trying to get it to work again.
"Then, in 1995, I went to the library and looked up some names of agents," she continues. "The second one I wrote to said yes. It was the best letter of my life. I read it eight times. He said there was an auction going on and someone was going to ring me with a six-figure deal. And now, by a very convoluted route, I 've ended up with the life I've always wanted - making a living out of writing. It's such a relief, it's almost like coming out."
Rowling has five more books plotted already. "I could write a guide of Edinburgh cafes for very poor people," she laughs. "A cafe called Nicolson's became my favourite place and often gave me free coffees and let me use their telephone. I've been back to a couple of cafes and they've said, 'Oh we know what you do now. We just thought you were very strange'."
The cafes who tolerated her now have their rewards.
These days, not only does Rowling give them constant publicity, but she can also now afford to order food.
And she's begun to bring in a tourist trade. Yesterday a waiter informed her that a child had forced his parents to eat at Nicolson's. Why? Because "that lady wrote Harry Potter here".