Hulbert, Dan. "Just wild about Harry: Dedicated fans of a young wizard have Scottish scribe J.K. Rowling to thank," The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 22, 1999

Let the owls go forth!

And let them spread the news --- as they do so well in the tales of "Harry Potter," the all-around regular nice kid who happens to be a wizard --- that Harry's fabulously hot Scottish creator, J.K. Rowling, is now among us.

Or will be shortly: Her flight was delayed. There's more ominous news this cool, clear fall evening that her book-signing wrist is sore and numb. But no matter! Hundreds of kids are covering what used to be the front lawn of Hobbit Hall Children's Bookstore in Roswell --- many with Harry's trademark lightning bolt painted on their foreheads --- crowding between TV satellite- dish vans and hoping for a glimpse of the shy, slender author as she slips in to her book signing.

"She's not here yet!" a preteen girl shouts hoarsely to her friends across the yard.

The real action is in the back yard. Here are the 400 kids, with parents, who started lining up early enough (six hours ago) to get passes to the signing by the woman they simply call "She" or "Her" (few seem to know even that the J in J.K. stands for Joanne). The scene is somewhere between a carnival and a Hollywood premiere that skews young (8 to 12, on average). Security guards mutter wearily into walkie-talkies. A guy in a kilt plays the bagpipes. Still Elvis, so to speak, has not yet entered the building.

"She will not come in unless the deck is cleared!" cries a harried store employee.

Weird, in this day and age, to see such mass excitement for wit, narrative, character and wholesome moral values (along with a few troll boogers, just for flavor). All conveyed in that form of communication that is supposedly so over: the printed page.

"I love Harry because he's funny and has guts and he's my age," says Jonathan Davis of Woodstock, 11. "Nobody notices him in the real world, then he goes to wizard school and --- look out!"

Look out, indeed: Suddenly there She is, standing on the elevated deck as if she magically apparated there. Rowling (rhymes with bowling) waves and a cheer goes up from the crowd. The hottest author on the planet (her "Potter" books command the top three slots on The New York Times Bestseller List) then ducks inside to begin signing fresh copies of her newest book as fast as her Ace-bandaged wrist will allow. The kids look a bit dazed, hustled through the stuffy little room crammed with TV cameramen. Then, a local boy walks in dressed in a scarlet wizard robe and Rowling cries with relief, "Harry! I've been waiting for you! You can help me sign these."

Anything but mundane

The next day, following a professional wrist massage, looking around the hotel suite where her publisher, Scholastic Press, has booked her interviews, the 34-year-old Rowling sounds like a sightseer visiting someone else's amazing life.

"Cool!" she says, surveying the posh surroundings and royal view. "Wish I had time to actually look around this place."

Taking a seat, she describes her own household: Rowling has a daughter, Jessica, 6, "and a rabbit named Jemimah and a guinea pig named Jasmine, and anybody who'd like to take them off my hands, you're welcome." Not Jessica, of course. "My house is quite mundane," she goes on, and though she was photographed with a stone gargoyle in Time magazine, "That belonged to the photographer, and he's the weird one, not me." As to significant others, the divorced author says, "I love reading about other people's love lives, not mine. So, no comment."

Rowling has a face you can't stop watching, with the offbeat beauty of a brainy romantic lead in an art film. Someone whose flashes of delighted mischief filter through an air of gentle melancholy. Someone who might start writing her first novel on the backs of envelopes in a cafe in a cloudy, classy old burg like Edinburgh --- which happens to be the case.

If Harry travels a long way --- from a miserable orphaned childhood in the Muggle World (where you and I live) to his true calling as celebrity wizard in a parallel universe --- Rowling had an equally remarkable journey. Just a few years ago she was unpublished and between teaching jobs, raising her infant daughter on a welfare check (she was only briefly on the dole, but the British press seized upon that phase to build a Rowling legend).

After three British publishers passed on the book, one finally accepted it but advised Rowling to use her initials on the theory that boys wouldn't read her if they knew she was a woman.

"Then I went on the telly, boys kept reading like mad, and that theory was pretty well blown out of the water," Rowling says with a husky laugh.

"I was six months into creating Harry (in 1990) before I asked myself why I wasn't making him a heroine, since I obviously am female," she continues. " But by then I was so fond of Harry, and believed in him so strongly, that I wasn't about to send him out in a dress. It's funny, when I was teaching (French), I was placed in charge of all-boy classes because it was considered my forte. Just recently, someone asked me why I don't have stronger female characters and I was offended, because I consider Hermione (Harry's goody- goody, but fearless, sidekick) quite strong. Hermione's a kind of caricature of me at 11, but then, there's a lot of me in Harry, too."

The third member of Harry's intrepid crew, fighting hidden evils at the Hogwarts school of wizardry, is Ron Weasley. "He's modeled on my old friend, Sean, a schoolmate, still a kind of surrogate brother today," Rowling says softly. "For some reason I've spent most of my life in very close groups of three. I think there's great fear in a child's life --- even the happiest child's life --- and the books show how children can overcome those fears. But I myself, as a young outsider, was lucky to have two wonderful male chums. I have the happiest, happiest memories of us together."

Fantastically literate

If Harry is becoming a household word today, translated into 28 languages, with 8.2 million copies of the books in print in the United States alone, he's headed for even bigger fame onscreen. Rowling has an author's dream clause --- final script approval! --- for the Warner Bros. film in the making of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." With its flying cars, terrifying beasts, heart-stopping games of Quidditch (a mad variation of polo on broomsticks) and magical transformations, this first 1997 Potter book has all the makings of a Spielbergian blockbuster.

And yet the most miraculous feature of the books is that they are so unmistakably books --- good, literate books, no goosebumpish pandering. The imaginative range is vast. The wit is dry (wizard gardens must be forcibly " de-gnomed"), the satire sharp. There's sheer Jabberwockian joy in language as character is proclaimed through such names as Snape, Filch, Voldemort and Peeves (the annoying poltergeist). Like "The Wind in the Willows" --- one of the few familiar children's classics that Rowling loves --- Potter makes wonderful reading for adults for the same reason it's catnip to kids: It gives them credit for having minds.

And running under all the colorful action is a clear spiritual message, exemplified in the fearless sacrifice Harry's mother made for her son before the first book begins.

So it's not surprising that a wince of pain flickers across the author's face when she's asked about the school boards --- in four states, including South Carolina --- that have not accepted the Potter series on account of its alleged sympathy with witchcraft and the occult.

"They don't get it," Rowling, a member of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), says wearily. "They have a perfect right to control what their own children read but not what other people's children read --- that's a basic censorship issue. Look: I don't believe in witchcraft. Many of the terms for spells and charms and so on, I invented. Witchcraft is just a metaphor for this other world of possibilities, beyond convention, that the mind can reach."

Rowling, who has planned four more Potter books and will release another next summer, is being described in news accounts as one of the wealthiest women in the world. The first flush of success rattled her life.

"The publicity hit as I was finishing the second book --- suddenly, for the first time in my entire life, I was in a panic, unable to write. Mentally constipated. Typical of me, really: Something wonderful happens and I'm the last to really believe it.

"It's odd," Rowling continues, "how, as more people love the books, they feel entitled to interfere. One adult told me, 'You mustn't kill off this character.' Finally I told myself, 'It's no good thinking what anyone else wants, just follow your unconscious and write what you want.' And the writing flowed again."

And will there be a sea change in lifestyle?

"We're moving to a new apartment, 10 minutes up the street in Edinburgh," Rowling says with her --- some might say mysterious --- smile. "Jessica only has a tiny garden to play in and she needs a bigger one."