[Joanne Rowling, creator of the fictional schoolboy wizard, is being talked of as the next C. S. Lewis. Her tales for children, like Lewis's, have a dark, adult streak to them. Where does it come from?]
PERHAPS Joanne Rowling has become too immersed in her own fantasy world. In her Harry Potter children's books, there is a wonderful substance called Floo powder, a pinch of which will transport her characters around the country in seconds. But in real life, things do not run so smoothly.
We have agreed to meet at ten at her publishers, Bloomsbury, in Soho Square. At eleven, a thin young woman with long flame-red hair bursts through the door, distraught and dishevelled. "I'm so sorry. I'm just really really sorry," she keeps saying, shaking like a leaf and looking as though she might cry.
With a strong coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, she slowly calms down but cannot stop apologising. "It did cross my mind in the taxi that some Floo powder would have been hugely handy," she says, half-laughing through her agitation.
A long and complicated explanation tumbles out: the hotel refused to let her check out, having lost her name in the computer, and then, having found her name, insisted that her prepaid bill had not been settled. "I was halfway here in the taxi and I was so upset by being so late for you, and then I realised I didn't have my purse. So I just burst into tears."
Her profuse apologies show that there is no risk of her becoming a prima donna. Yet in the past year, her life has changed immeasurably. From being a single mother struggling on benefit in a poky flat in Edinburgh, she has become a bestselling novelist. Her latest book, [Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets], published this month, has gone straight to the top of the general bestseller list, outselling Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham.
When her first novel, [Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone], was published last year, Rowling became a literary sensation. The novel won the Smarties Prize - the children's equivalent of the Booker - and sold 70,000 copies in Britain. It was sold to eight other countries, netting a $100,000 advance for the American edition, a huge sum for a first novel, almost unheard-of for a children's novel.
But what is most unusual is that her books are enjoyed by adults, too. When I express scepticism to her publisher, saying that it is no wonder it is top of the adult list as adults would buy it for children, I am handed a batch of letters that make it clear that this is not the case. Mary Dickson from Glasgow has written to Bloomsbury asking to join the Harry Potter Fan Club adding, "P.S. I am 60 years young", while John Roberts from Bristol, who describes himself as "a child at heart - an adult in body" wants to know if a film is in the pipeline.
The answer is yes. The word is that she is about to sign a six-figure Hollywood deal. Rowling concedes that there is some basis to the rumours, but says she cannot confirm anything because she has yet to sign the papers.
Such is the excitement about Joanne Rowling that she is being compared to C. S. Lewis and Roald Dahl, who also achieved the rare trick of delighting both children and adults. The secret seems to be that her target audience consists of one person: herself. "People have said the humour is very adult, but I do think they underestimate children. Certainly, some of the kids I've met have got every joke and even if they haven't, it doesn't actually matter. It annoys me that people think you have to dumb down for children."
Rowling, who is 32, says that she is very flattered to think that adults enjoy the books as much as children. A friend of hers recently told her of a man on a train, furtively reading a copy behind his newspaper. "I've had letters from entire families saying there have been squabbles at bedtime because the mother wanted to finish reading the chapter and then took it away and read the whole thing herself."
The stories centre on Harry, an orphan who lives with his cruel uncle and aunt before discovering that he is a wizard and enrolling at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Here, equipped with his broom and magic wand, he receives lessons in Potions, Herbology and Quidditch, an airborne form of football. Meanwhile, with his friends Ron and Hermione, he has to combat the forces of evil by fighting snakes, three-headed dogs and the school bully Draco Malfoy.
If all this sounds too childish for words, it should be added that the books are marked by an inventive wit and vivid characterisation. And there are undercurrents to the adventures, a sense of morality that is subtle and emotions that run deep. After reading the first in the series, it is no surprise to hear Rowling say that when her mother died, aged 45, of multiple sclerosis, she changed the book to reflect her own grief.
In one chapter Harry looks into a magic mirror which allows the viewer to see what their heart most desires, and finds his dead parents waving at him. "He had a powerful kind of ache inside him, half joy, half terrible sadness," writes Rowling.
"I was conscious that when I looked in the mirror, I would see exactly what Harry saw. But it was only when I'd written it that I fully realised where it had all come from. It is an enormous regret to me that my mother never knew about any of this, second only to the fact that she never met my daughter."
The moral point becomes clear towards the end of each book. "It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities," says Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster, in the denouement of the second book. Rowling admits that the moral drive is important to her, but stresses that it is not contrived. "The morals tend to come quite naturally, often as I approach the end I realise what I've been writing about. But I don't think my books are preachy - Harry breaks rules quite routinely."
For those who cannot wait for the sequels (to be published at the rate of one a year for the next five years - until Harry leaves school), a fan club web site has just been set up with additional snippets of information and stories. The fan receives a certificate proclaiming him or her "an honorary pupil of Hogwarts, a personal friend of Harry Potter's, a fierce opponent of the dark side and a thoroughly good egg". The school's motto Drago Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus - Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon - appears under the official crest.
When we leave the office to find a nearby café, Rowling is nearly bowled over by two young children. "Jo, Jo!" they cry, running up to her to hug her legs. "Come shopping with us," they plead. They are the daughters of one of the Bloomsbury editors and she promises to accompany them to Hamley's in the afternoon.
As a child herself, growing up in Chepstow, Joanne and her younger sister, Di, read avidly. "My most vivid memory of childhood is my father sitting and reading [Wind in the Willows ]to me. I had measles at the time, very badly, but I don't remember that; I just remember the book."
She loved C. S. Lewis and E. Nesbit, but was not such a fan of Roald Dahl. As for the Enid Blyton books, Rowling says she read them all, but was never tempted to go back to them, whereas she would read and re-read Lewis. "Even now, if I was in a room with one of the Narnia books I would pick it up like a shot and re-read it."
Rowling went to her local comprehensive, where she was "a snotty, swotty little kid and very insecure". Hermione, a character in her books, is closely modelled on herself. "She is a caricature of me: I was neither as bright nor as annoying as Hermione. At least, I hope I wasn't, because I would have deserved drowning at birth. But she, like me, lightens up. As I went through my teens, things actually got better. I began to realise that there was more to me than just someone who got everything right."
Apart from a couple of blips in her life, she says the upward curve has continued ever since. "I'm someone who's definitely got happier as they've got older. I feel more and more comfortable with myself and I've always had this feeling that in my forties, I will finally hit serenity. I really hope it's true because I could do with a bit of serenity. I definitely wouldn't go back and do childhood again. I don't look back on it as a phase of blissful happiness at all."
So it is ironic that she should end up writing primarily for children. She says she did not plan it that way, it just happened. After leaving Exeter University, where she read French and Classics, she started work as a teacher but daydreamed about becoming a writer.
One day, stuck on a delayed train for four hours between Manchester and London, she dreamt up a boy called Harry Potter. That was in 1990. It took her six years to write the book. In the meantime she went to teach in Portugal, married a Portuguese TV journalist, had her daughter, Jessica, divorced her husband and returned to Britain when Jessica was just three months old.
She went to live in Edinburgh to be near her sister, Di. "I was at rock bottom. I arrived back in Britain about a month before John Major made his infamous 'single parents are the root of society's ills' speech. I was fighting very hard to keep my head above the water and I thought it was a despicable thing to say, victimising people who are already incredibly vulnerable. Most of them have no escape route. I was very lucky, I was a graduate and I had some very sellable skills so it didn't last for long."
Rowling's sudden penury made her realise that it was "back-against-the-wall time" and she decided to finish her Harry Potter book. She could not face her cold and miserable flat, so she would walk the streets of Edinburgh, pushing Jessica in a buggy until she fell asleep, and would then rush into a café and write for two hours, the baby sleeping next to her. "I reached a point where diffidence was a luxury I couldn't afford any more. I thought, 'What is the worst that could happen?' Every publishing company in Britain could turn me down: big deal."
She typed out two manuscripts - she could not afford to photocopy it - and sent them to two agents in London whom she had picked out of a yearbook in the local library. Christopher Little wrote back immediately, accepting the manuscript. "I could not believe it. I read the letter eight times."
Now Joanne and Jessica, who is nearly five, live in a house in the centre of Edinburgh. "The main thing is this profound feeling of relief. I no longer have the constant worry of whether she will outgrow a pair of shoes before I've got the money for the next pair. Until you've actually been there, you've no idea how soul-destroying it is to have no money. It is a complete loss of self-esteem."
She has a few close friends, who stuck by her during the hard times. "I really know who my friends are because there was a period when there was absolutely no kudos in being my friend. People really helped me - I'm not talking about money, I'm talking about just being there when I was miserable."
Since her success, a couple of fairweather friends have crawled back out of the woodwork. "I didn't pick up the phone. I just thought, 'Don't now decide that I was a fantastically interesting person all along, when for a year I wasn't interesting at all.'"
Nowadays, she says, she could not be happier. "I have what I always wanted and amazingly it completely lives up to my expectations. All I wanted to do was to write and to make some money out of it. And I have a dream child in Jessica. My life is very fulfilled: I don't look around and think, 'Now let's get Mr Perfect in.' If Mr Perfect came along no one would be happier than me, but it's not the top priority."
Although she says it will feel like a "bereavement" when she finishes the Harry Potter series, she is determined that once he leaves school that will be the end. "There will be no Harry Potter's midlife crisis or Harry Potter as an old wizard."
She might even turn her hand to "adult" novels but is adamant that she does not see that as a pinnacle of achievement. "I think it's wrong to think of adult books as 'real literature'. Real literature can be for people of nine and that's what I'm trying to write."