Ambrose, Mary. "Harry Potter's mum is in the building: Publishing phenomenon J.K. Rowling emerges from the broom closet to meet the media," The Globe and Mail (Toronto), 28 March 2000

London -- Harry Potter's mother has finally come out of hiding. And although she remains tight-lipped, she has promised that her favourite son will be back soon.

Yesterday, the reclusive writer J. K. (Joanne) Rowling confirmed before a mammoth news conference at the British Library that, once again, the young orphaned wizard will escape his aunt and uncle's "normal" house at 4 Privet Drive, and find solace this summer amongst other children with a gift for magic, at Hogwart's, the school for wizards.

Ms. Rowling's astonishing ability to write fluidly and evocatively about a world where children ride broomsticks to play sports, dishes wash themselves and teachers teach the fine art transfiguration, will return in a fourth book, to be published internationally on July 8. It's an agreed-upon date to prevent, as happened in the past, publishers who have bought rights in one country losing sales through Internet ordering from another.

Britain has had superstars in the world of children's literature before. Roald Dahl, Kenneth Graeme, A. A. Milne and C. S. Lewis continue to charm children. But none of them have enjoyed the massive instant success of Ms. Rowling. Through, initially, mostly word of mouth, sales of her novels have caught on around the world like a prairie grassfire. For her, "the books are the cult, I'm not;" and if children cheer when they meet her, "they're cheering Harry."

When most authors publish a new book, they wait until it hits the bookstores before starting personal appearances. Then even big-selling authors, such as Ed McBain, or critically acclaimed ones, such as Richard Ford, are rushed around London from one interview to another.

There's none of that for J. K. Rowling. This self-possessed, quiet-spoken woman hasn't given interviews in either Britain or Canada.

Instead, three months before her new book is out, she was at the modern British Library, the centrepiece of a meet-and-greet organized by one of the top public relations firms in the country.

The library is the hip spot in London to launch a book or hold a press conference. Germaine Greer had planned to launch the sequel to The Female Eunuch here, until she found that the library workers where striking and she cancelled. There is a large statue in the courtyard based on a drawing by a great British visionary whose success came after his death, William Blake.

It's very rare for novelists to consent only to press conferences. But Ms. Rowling admitted yesterday that the biggest pressure in her life now is "saying no to the requests for interviews, charities, tours." She just wants to be alone with her child and write the three Potter books to come.

So one-on-one interviews have been denied. And earlier, the journalists assembled at the British Library were sent a list of subjects Ms. Rowling would discuss and would not: Her work and writing process, da; personal life, nyet. It appears a pitch for control, yet no journalist could break the magic. She's riding the bull in this market.

Ms. Rowling's success is as dramatic as the adventures of her young hero. Most British authors start as journalists and then, with all the perceived necessary connections, write novels which they know will at least be reviewed in the right places.

Ms. Rowling had none of those advantages. A single mother, she wrote in cafes where she took her baby, since she was too broke to keep the heat on in her apartment. ("I still write in cafes, but not the same ones, since people come and find me," she said.)

When her first novel, Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone,was published in 1997, it seemed to come out of nowhere and redraw the literary landscape.

That book was published in the United Kingdom as juvenile fiction. (It became Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for North America, a decision forced upon her that she now regrets. She agreed to it because she "was so phenomenally grateful to be published.")

Surprisingly, it shot up the adult fiction bestseller list. The same thing happened in the U.S. It's been there for more than a year, currently sitting in fifth place in The New York Times paperback bestseller list.

And it's not been a one-off: as with Frank McCourt, her subsequent books are on bestseller lists around the world. In fact, when they occupied the top three spots in the New York Times bestseller list, it broke new ground as well as a few publishers' hearts. They talked of restricting the list so that other authors could get a look in.

The Potter books are now available in 28 languages. The first one will "reappear" in Britain later this year as a live-action film. It was initially optioned by Steven Spielberg. But although Ms. Rowling described him as "a very nice man, who was very familiar with the books," he was already busy with a film starring Tom Cruise. The current producer, David Heyman, has said that since the film is not star-driven, the budget will be spent on special effects. Ms. Rowling said she has script approval, the director "will be named imminently" and the film will be out by the summer of 2001.

Where children's films go, toys follow.

"When you sell film rights," Ms. Rowling confessed, "you sell merchandising rights." Hasbro has the licence for the trading cards, role-playing cards, electronic games and candy. Mattel is hoping to reverse its' recent decline by selling Potter figures and board games. No wonder the British book industry recently named her Author of the Year.

The concern of a few Christian groups in the U.S. that Ms. Rowling's books celebrate and promote witchcraft hasn't been raised at all in Britain, and they were dismissed outright by the author.

Of the thousands of fans she's met, Ms. Rowling said she's never heard one say that having read her book, "she would like to become a witch." She says they know "it's a fantasy world and children understand that completely." The web sites filled with praise for the books by American Christians suggests her detractors are small in numbers.

More serious is the lawsuit pending against Ms. Rowling, the owner of the film rights Time Warner, Hasbro and Mattel.

A writer named Nancy Stouffer is claiming that terms used in Ms. Rowling's books have been lifted from her own book, The Legend of Rah and Muggles, published in 1984. "Muggles" is what Ms. Rowling calls people without magical abilities. Stouffer's book includes a character named Larry Potter. In November, Ms. Rowling's U.S. publisher, Scholastic Corp., described the claim as "completely meritless." Dismissing Stouffer's attempt to negotiate an out-of-court settlement, they filed a suit against her in a Manhattan federal court. It asked the court to make a declaratory judgment that Harry Potter books don't infringe on Stouffer's copyright or trademark. A couple of weeks ago Stouffer carried out an earlier threat to sue. She says she believes that Ms. Rowling may have come across her book when she was in Baltimore in 1987 and 1988.

Ms. Rowling was asked by her agent not to comment. But a statement issued by Scholastic yesterday said that Ms. Rowling visited the U.S. for the first time in 1998. Further, they maintain that the word "muggles" was in common use in the 18th century. For British readers, it's also clear that "muggles" is a play on the English slang, "mug," meaning a fool.

These obstacles can't undermine one of the more remarkable achievements of the Potter books.

At a time when children's leisure appears to be dominated by technology, Harry Potter's magic is getting children, especially a notoriously difficult market -- boys -- to read. Many mothers have told her this and Ms. Rowling says that if this is true, "it is the one thing of which I would be most proud."

The new book will certainly test their commitment: it's more than 600 pages long.