Nicol, Patricia. "Boy wizard frees trapped mother," Sunday Times (London), December 6, 1998
Joanne Rowling's magic words could make her a millionaire, writes Patricia Nicol.
It is impossible to stifle a snigger when Joanne Rowling refuses to reveal which area of Edinburgh she lives in. "It's just that there have been a few problems in the past," she says, sounding embarrassed.
What type of problems? Stalking? door-stepping? Is Rowling's day constantly interrupted by nine-year-old boys asking her if she fancies nipping out to the Leaky Cauldron for a sly half pint of pumpkin juice? Do groups of wayward pre-teens peer through her downstairs windows looking for flying broomsticks, pet owls called Hedwig, elves and cookbooks with titles such as Charm Your Own Cheese? The answer appears to be yes.
"You may well laugh," she says in a schoolteacher's tone. "But it is a factor. I went into a school the other day and was interrogated by this extraordinary little boy. He was a nine-year-old with the mindset of a 42-year-old. He told me off for using double negatives and when I said that I had done it for stylistic reasons, he just nodded his head and said, 'Oh, yes I see.' " For those who know no better and do not have a 10-year-old to draw their attention to required reading, Rowling is a publishing phenomenon. On Monday she won the Smarties prize, the children's equivalent of the Booker - judged by children for children - for the second year running. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which is topping the bestselling hardback titles list, has also been short-listed for this year's Whitbread prize.
Meanwhile, two different editions of her first novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - the original children's version and one with a more muted cover to target an adult audience - are also riding high in the bestseller lists. America has bought up Harry enthusiastically, with an almost unheard of Pounds 100,000 advance for a children's novel, while the French, Italians and even the Japanese are on the brink of being beguiled by Potter, the boy wizard. Warner Brothers has bought the rights to the film, which, along with spin-off merchandising, could make Rowling a millionaire.
And rightly so. For at the risk of deserting journalistic objectivity, Harry Potter is quite simply one of the best things to happen to children's fiction since a little girl called Lucy decided to hide in an old wardrobe and ended up in Narnia.
Harry Potter - an orphan, who has to wait until his 10th birthday to discover that he is a wizard - has not only introduced a generation of television and video game junkies to the magic of print, it has also charmed a generation of grown-ups.
At the back of Chamber of Secrets, where publishers usually print review extracts, Bloomsbury has put copies of fan letters. There is one from an entire family, one from a precocious 10-year-old wishing his favourite author the very best of luck in the Guardian fiction prize and one from a grateful teacher reporting that at one point her year six primary school children "whooped, cheered, punched the air and hugged each other".
The adult version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone came about because of fan-mail from childless twentysomethings and a rash of reports of City types spotted on commuter trains reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone behind copies of The Times. "It's all come as a bit of a shock," admits Rowling. A strong part of the Harry Potter hype has been Rowling herself. At the time of her first novel's publication she was a single mother juggling teaching part-time at Leith Academy with writing her second novel.
If Harry Potter is a creation worthy of Roald Dahl or CS Lewis, then Rowling 's story is one that could only have been handled by Louisa May Alcott or Noel Streatfield. The 34-year-old had moved to Edinburgh, where her sister lived, after the end of her marriage to a Portuguese television journalist.
It transpired that much of the novel had been written in Nicolsons, an Edinburgh cafe, where Rowling would escape her cold and miserable flat. Eking out coffees, she would write her story in longhand, while her baby Jessica slept in the pram at her side.
"I've found the whole thing quite shocking," she says. "It may sound disingenuous, but all I ever really wanted was for people to read the book. I never expected anyone to be interested in details of my private life, because let's face it, unless you are Roald Dahl nobody gives a damn.
"But what happened a year ago was that it was kind of taken out of my hands. I've been asked some horrible questions. I can remember once a journalist asking if I didn't feel guilty about writing a book when I could have been out looking for a job and I had to explain about the horrible catch-22 situation of being a single mother - no job, no childcare, no childcare, no job. The story that was written made me sound desperate to crack out the violins and tell my sad and tragic story.
"I'm not ashamed of having been that poor. I know how I got there and I don 't think I did anything terrible to get there but at the same time it's hard to be defined by the saddest part of your life. Except for my daughter who kept me going and Harry, who was a wonderful escape, it was a miserable, miserable time. But it was my life, when I was skipping meals and living that way, I didn't think of myself as providing fodder for a publicity department."
For author and reader Harry Potter is more than just a wonderful escape. But Rowling insists that while she is grateful for the comparisons with CS Lewis and Dahl, her work is quite different.
"CS Lewis is quite simply a genius and I'm not a genius," she says. "And while I think Dahl is a master at what he did, I do think my books are more moral than Dahl's. He also wrote very overblown comic characters, whereas I think mine are more three-dimensional."
Although Harry Potter was not born a hero, there is something messianic about him. His parents died defending him against evil, but the decision of whether he uses his magical powers for good or evil is his call. His enemy, Voldemort, is a fallen angel, a former headboy of Hogwarts, who chose to use his magic against the institution. It is a classic theme, which adults can compare to Milton or the New Testament or just enjoy it for itself.
Potter was drawn as a bespectacled hero because Rowling had worn thick glasses as a child and had been frustrated that spectacle-wearers were always the swots but never the heroes. The qualities that Rowling admires in Harry are also the ones that she has probably had to develop herself.
"I like Harry because he's not self-pitying even though he has actually had a very hard time in life. He is quite a chirpy, resilient soul. He breaks the rules quite routinely and normally learns good stuff by doing so, but he is really quite a noble character."
There will be seven Harry Potter books in all, one for each year that Harry spends at Hogwarts. This means that in 2003 a generation of readers who came to Harry early will be going up to university at about the same time as he could be graduating to a desk job at the ministry of magic.
Rowling is keen to make her characters proper teenagers, with hormones, spots and girlfriends. The novels will also become darker, she promises that there will be a death in the fourth book.
"I think that if you are discussing evil, you really need to bring home what a terrible thing it is to murder someone. But when I go into schools and tell the kids that someone is going to die they are absolutely beside themselves. They all think I'm going to do away with Ron, his best friend, which is pretty logical really, because in a film he'd be the first person to cop it."
The most significant impact of the money she has made from her books is that she and Jessica have moved into a home of their own, but Rowling says she doubts there will ever again be a time when she takes money for granted.
Harry Potter remains the most significant man in Rowling's life. Although she says she would not shut the door on Mr Perfect, she expects her ideal companion to Harry's premiere to be her daughter Jessica. "But really I'm very happy at the moment. I'm doing exactly what I've always wanted to do. I'm a writer, I'm seeing more of my daughter than I would if I were teaching, and lots of children are reading Harry. My only complaint is that I'm not getting quite enough time to write."
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is published by Bloomsbury at Pounds 6.99 (adults) and Pounds 4.99 (Childrens). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is Pounds 10.99 in hardback
Copyright 1998 Times Newspapers Limited
Original page date 2 March 2007; last updated 2 March 2007.