Norman-Culp, Sheila. "British author rides up the charts on a wizard's tale," Associated Press Newswires, 23 November 1998

NEW YORK (AP) - In a pinch, could you name the 12 uses of dragon's blood? Whip up a draught of Living Death? Handle an overpowered Nimbus 2000 broom in a rip-roaring game of Quidditch?

Of course not - even if you are a skinny, bespeckled 11-year-old prodigy like Harry Potter. That's why, as Joanne Rowling tells us, it takes seven years to graduate from the Hogswarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Rowling, the 33-year-old author of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," has ridden to the top of best-seller lists in Britain and the United States with one of the most engaging characters since those Roald Dahl created in "Matilda" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

The book, the first of what Rowling sees as a seven-part series, has swept up publishing awards in Britain, dominating both the children's and the adult best-seller lists there and earning Rowling a six-figure movie option from Warner Bros.

"I have a very visual imagination. I see it, then I try to describe what is in my mind's eye," Rowling said recently on her first visit to the United States, a five-city book tour.

Scholastic Inc., her American publisher, has gone back to print three times since September to produce 100,000 hardcover copies of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" - a rare achievement for a children's book. In its first month of release, the plucky adventure tale also hit No. 2 on the Publishers Weekly children's best-seller list for October.

Rowling also has won her second Smarties Prize in a row for its sequel, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." The award is the British equivalent of the Newbery Medal for children's literature, and will be awarded Monday.

The honor was not unexpected. When "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" was published in Britain last summer, it debuted at No. 1 on the adult hardcover best-seller list, beating out the likes of Jeffrey Archer and John Grisham.

While the British tabloids have focused on Rowling's rags-to-riches personal history - she was an unemployed, divorced single mother on welfare when she finished the book - the hundreds of little details that make up the universe of wizards had been percolating in her imagination for years.

"I have boxes and boxes of stuff on Harry - wizard laws, notebooks, bits of ideas," Rowling said as she signed books for schoolchildren in Glen Rock, N.J. "There is great depth to this world."

But she does admit that the pressure of having to care for an infant alone - her daughter Jessica is now 5 - focused years of daydreams and scribbled notes into a plot.

"Being in that situation, feeling so isolated, it gave me courage. What did I have to lose?" she said.

Rowling was raised in the Chepstow, in the Forest of Dean that lies on the border of England and Wales. As a girl, she loved reading -"Little White Hare" [this should read "Horse"] by Elizabeth Goudge and "Manx Mouse," by Paul Gallico, to name two - and would pour out her own wild stories to her younger sister, Di. Those stories continued as she majored in French at the University of Exeter.

"My parents hoped I could become a secretary," Rowling said, laughing about the years she spent as a "very mediocre" one at Amnesty International before heading off to Portugal to teach English.

There she met her husband, had her daughter, got divorced and ended up back in England trying to make sense of her life.

Rowling has an unerring sense of what it means to be 11, and her arresting, brick-by-brick construction of Harry's world has turned a rather traditional plot into a delight.

Harry Potter - a goodhearted orphan boy - is mistreated by ignorant relatives, finds out the real reason for his parents' deaths and heads off to wizard school to battle both the bullies in his classes and the malevolent forces that threaten to unleash pure evil on the world.

Think Luke Skywalker. Then add a broom, a bunch of oddball buddies like the Goonies, and an athletic contest where wizards great and small desperately try to fix the outcome. Toss in a pet fire-breathing dragon - forbidden - and a mysterious third floor - absolutely verboten. Don't forget to hunt down who is killing defenseless unicorns and figure out why the killer needs to drink their blood.

Each book can be read as a separate adventure, but the subplots woven through them unite into an orchestral crescendo in the seventh book. Rowling handed in the third book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," to her British publisher before coming to the United States. And the final chapter of the seventh book is already written, but Rowling is not sure how she - or Harry - is going to get there from here.

Right now, the author is simply enjoying the financial freedom of hitting several literary home runs - and knows just how she is going to spend some of the big bucks rolling in. "I'm coming back to New York, a big trip," she vowed. "It's more beautiful than I thought!"

(c) 1998. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

Original page date 24 February 2007; last updated 24 February, 2007.