British author J.K. Rowling spins an enchanting tale of a young wizard who goes from hags to witches
Joanne Rowling outsold Jeffrey Archer and Delia Smith when her second children's novel reached the top of the British best-seller lists a week after publication last year. This week, excitement over her third novel, the print run of which far exceeds that of Hannibal, Thomas Harris's much-hyped sequel to Silence Of The Lambs, has created a national stampede.
It was published yesterday, to the relief of anxious mothers, at precisely 3.45pm - the launch being delayed to ensure children did not play truant to get an early copy.
In fact no one is more surprised at her success than Joanne herself, who has that slightly glazed look of a lottery winner.
No wonder she began our conversation at her publishers' offices with: "It's all been rather too much. My nerves are a bit jangly. Do you mind if I have a fag?"
Her new book Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban is the third in her brilliant series about the orphaned Harry who discovers he's a wizard.
Children who have been gripped by the funny, quirky and imaginative storylines of her first two books will undoubtedly be hooked again.
Such is Rowling's talent that not only can her words spur the most reluctant nine-year-old into reading, but she has created an imaginary world loved by adults, too. While young Harry, with his magical powers, is a cult hero -- publishers Bloomsbury have already repackaged her previous novels for the adult market -- Joanne has been compared with Roald Dahl.
It is, however, only half the story. Two years ago, Joanne was a penniless divorcee with a small daughter. She had barely enough funds to buy a weekly supply of nappies and regularly skipped meals in order to feed her child.
Her only escape from her seedy, cold, one-bedroom flat was to scribble away on A4 pads in a warm cafe, sustained by all she could afford - one coffee.
Now she is a best-selling, award-winning author. Her first tale, Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, sold 80,000 copies, won the 1997 Smarties Book Prize and has been published in seven countries, while the film rights to her second adventure, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, have been secured for a six-figure sum by Warner Brothers.
Her rags-to-riches tale is so extraordinary that you wonder whether a wizard hasn't waved a wand over her, too.
Joanne, 33, has, in fact, been writing as far back as she can remember.
When she was five she wrote about a rabbit who had measles. At university she wrote about relationships. She continued to write in her lunch-break at work, when she was pregnant, and -- to stop her from going "stark, staring mad" -- when her life hit rock--bottom.
"It's always been there, like a compulsion," she explains. "I also have exactly the right writer's temperament. I am quite introverted and can spend long periods on my own."
Joanne, who is very slim and has masses of long auburn hair, was born in July 1965 and grew up near Bristol and in the Forest of Dean. She has an elder sister, Di, a former nurse now studying law. Her father, Peter, is a retired chartered engineer. Her late mother, Anne, was a laboratory technician who loved reading. Joanne, who inherited her mother's enthusiasm for books, was "a pudding-faced child with glasses and rather studious and shy".
She made friends by inventing adventures starring school pals and remembers sitting in the playground surrounded by children eager to find out more. Her imagination also provided an escape when, at 15, she learned that her mother had multiple sclerosis. "I felt stunned when my parents told me," says Joanne.
"I so regret that she didn't know I had a book published and never met my daughter."
Joanne's mother had the illness for 10 years, the last two spent in a wheelchair. She died in 1990 aged 45 and Joanne's father has re-married.
Joanne read French and Classics at Exeter University. "I wanted to do English but felt everyone would say: 'What use is that?' Although I longed to be a writer, I never thought it would be possible, so told only my closest friends," she says.
After graduating she went to London and took a job as a research assistant at Amnesty International. She shared a flat in Clapham, South London, and continued to write in spare moments.
"I would make ridiculous excuses not to join my workmates for lunch and was so cagey about where I was going, one colleague asked if I was having an affair. It was then I began writing in cafes and pubs and never found it hard to block out background noise," she says.
She thought up the idea of Harry on a train from Manchester to London, six months before her mother died, but progress was slow. It was her mother's death that made her rethink her life.
"She'd died so young, I decided I had to do something else. I wanted to travel and got a job teaching English in Oporto, Portugal," she says.
There she met a Portuguese journalist. They married in 1992 and Jessica was born the following year.
"I was over the moon to be a mother," she says. Joanne is particularly sensitive about this time in her life and didn't even want to give her ex-husband's first name. Although she continued writing Harry Potter -- this included 10 different first chapters -- overall it was a turbulent period. The marriage collapsed within three years. "Although things were hard, I don't regret the marriage because it gave me my daughter and I wouldn't want to change anything about her," she says.
Joanne decided to make a clean start and she and Jessica moved to Edinburgh, where her sister lives. She had enough funds to rent only an inadequately heated, one-bedroom flat.
"I thought it would be temporary until I found a job and a nursery for Jessica."
Instead, Joanne became locked in a poverty trap. Jessica was turned down for a State nursery place -- "they told me she was too well looked after" -- and Joanne couldn't afford private child care until she got a job and couldn't get a job until she found child care.
For six months she lived on income support of $180 a week. Some part-time clerical work then brought in an extra $35 a week. She felt mortified by her situation.
"It was a huge shock and a massive blow to my self-esteem. I became depressed but in retrospect it pushed me on. I'd always been self-conscious about writing, but thought: 'Here I am, 29 on income support. What's the worst that could happen?' I told myself: 'Being turned down by every publisher in the country.' It got me writing furiously."
She typed the finished book on an old typewriter she had bought for $80 when she worked in London.
In June 1996, she sent it out to one agent and one publisher. "The agent sent the manuscript back to my despair without the folder, which had cost me $7, saying writing 80,000 words made it much too long for a children's book." The second agent she tried, Christopher Little, wrote back immediately to say he liked it and wanted to take her on. He sent the manuscript to Bloomsbury who offered her an $5,800 advance.
"It was my happiest moment," Joanne beams. The book was published in June 1997. It marked the beginning of the rollercoaster.
An American publisher paid $235,000 for the rights: an unheard of advance for a children's book.
"By an extraordinarily circuitous route, I have ended up exactly where I always wanted to be," Joanne says.
"I feel enormous relief that my daughter and I are now financially secure, and still slightly stunned that I am being paid to do the thing I love best in the world. It doesn't get any better than that."