Woods, Audrey. "Harry Potter and the Magic Key of J.K. Rowling," Associated Press, 6 July 2000

EDINBURGH, Scotland (AP) - J.K. Rowling, creator of the boy wizard Harry Potter, is running a few minutes late for an interview - not quite five, in fact.

A slight figure in black trousers and a trim red-suede jacket, she slowly descends the hotel staircase, scanning the lounge for a reporter and photographer.

"Are you looking for me?" she asks, apologetic, a little flustered and far too polite to consider the obvious - that most reporters would happily wait much more than five minutes to talk with a literary phenomenon like Joanne Kathleen Rowling who up to now has revealed so little about herself.

After a quick trip upstairs, she drops her handbag onto the floor outside her suite and crouches to rummage in it for the key.

"I know I have it here!"

And so she does - to the door, and to the hearts and minds of millions of children, their teachers, their parents and a lot of other adults who like her books simply because they're fun to read.

As the steadily growing band of fans knows, Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and shares desperately dangerous adventures with his friends, Ron and Hermione, and a troupe of the most imaginative characters to find their way onto the printed page in years.

Rowling's transformation from struggling single mother to best-selling author is well-known, and the 34-year-old's star is still ascending.

Her fourth Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," to be released at midnight Friday by Scholastic, isn't just flying off the bookshelves, it's whizzing directly into millions of hot little hands courtesy of mail order.

Did the creator of this magic world have the slightest inkling that so many people would take Harry to their hearts - and in 40 languages?

"Never in a million years," she says, still a bit stunned by it all and a little edgy in the days before publication of book four. She is intense and serious about her work, but down-to-earth and quick to laugh.

"Certainly, according to all the publishers that turned Harry Potter down, I was quite right in thinking that if ever it got published it was highly unlikely it would sell very many copies," she says.

"One of them felt that anything in a boarding school wouldn't sell these days," she adds with a smile. "But the one thing all of them said was it was much too long, which is kind of scary when you think that book four is over 600 pages. It even surprised me, how long it was."

Each book is longer than the previous one. And three volumes of the saga are yet to be written.

The whole series - which has sold 35 million copies worldwide - has been plotted out since 1995, when Rowling finished book one, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," writing in Edinburgh cafes while keeping body and soul just barely together after the failure of her marriage.

"I was incredibly skint (broke)," she says. During a Christmas visit to her sister in Edinburgh in 1993, she figured that the city was small enough so she could walk anywhere with her daughter's stroller and save the bus fare.

She had been a storyteller as a child in western England and never really stopped, even while studying French at Exeter University and working as a bilingual secretary. She eventually went to Portugal to teach English as a second language and used her free time to work on a story about a boy wizard. Transplanted in Edinburgh, she settled into the cafes and began bringing Harry and his friends to life.

Much of the Potter appeal lies with the cast of characters, from the lovable giant Hagrid and his baby dragon Norbert to the faceless guards of Azkaban Prison, who suck the souls out of their victims with the "Dementors' Kiss" and chill the very air in which they move.

These magic characters - and the ordinary Muggles who dwell in the parallel universe of life as we know it - were not thought up in any methodical way, Rowling explains.

"They normally come fully formed. Harry came very fully formed. I knew he was a wizard and he didn't know he was a wizard. And then it was a process of working backwards to find out how that could be, and forwards to find out what happened next."

The writing is still fun, but the latest adventure was "an absolute killer," she says, especially toward the end of the year it took to write.

"I had to be sure that that book was right because it's the central book of the seven and it's very important in plot terms. ... But it was an awful lot of work," she says. "Now that I've finished, it's my favorite. It won't be to some."

Her works are not without controversy. Some parents have objected to frightening passages in previous books and to the subject of witchcraft.

Rowling says she had no wish at all to upset children but she does want to write the story her way. "I have good reason for doing it. There are certain things I want to explore and if it's the last thing I do, I will not be knocked off course."

It's a safe bet most readers like the course she's on. Initial U.S. and British print runs of the new book total 5.3 million copies.

This level of success has changed her life, but she manages to live normally. "I see my friends, I look after my daughter - we do completely ordinary stuff," she says.

She plans to stay in Edinburgh, although the millions of dollars her books have brought could take her anywhere. And she considers one of the major pluses of her success the chance to meet young readers.

"Meeting kids who've read the books is pure, unadulterated pleasure," she says.

Rowling's respect and affection for children is almost tangible, and there is no mystery to her connection with them. But the adult readership might be harder to explain.

"I've always felt that a good book is a good book. ... I never felt there was a big gulf between children's and adults' literature," she says.

Nor did she write with any plan to teach moral lessons.

"I write for myself. I did not write for imaginary children: 'What would they need to learn now?"'

That goes, too, for the humor - one of the joys of the books.

"It is what I find funny," she says, "not what I think children find funny. I think it also operates on an 8-year-old level. They can read it and not get every joke and still can find most of it funny."

Humor, of course, does not always travel well between cultures. And as her American readership of the books is huge, that was a worry.

"The first time I did a reading to American children ... I was terrified," Rowling says. "The passage I was reading I had read countless times before and I always knew where the first laugh came."

She knew she had no guarantee the American kids were going to get that part of the humor. "But the roar of laughter came ... and it has been exactly the same every other place," she says. "It's universal in children."

Then what's this about changing some of the words in the U.S. edition so American children could understand them?

Rowling pretended to bang her head against the sofa in mock frustration. "SO much has been made of that," she groans, noting that it was only done where words had been used that really meant something very different to Americans.

Her American editor pointed out that the word "jumper" - British for pullover sweater - means a kind of dress in American. She had had no idea.

"He asked, 'Can we change it to sweater?' which is just as British." That was fine with Rowling.

Rowling is less happy with reports that the upcoming movie of the first book was to have been set in the United States with an American cast until Steven Spielberg dropped out of the planning. There's been criticism, too, of the choice of "Home Alone" director Chris Columbus to make the movie, and much concern that it will be "Hollywoodized."

"Chris is as keen as I am to keep this thing as British as possible," she says. "I obviously would like the film true to the book ... and the books are extremely British.

"And as American children have proved in their droves, they're not remotely fazed. They can cope really very well. You see, it's patronizing to assume that they wouldn't cope well with being able to understand that things are different in Britain. Of course, they understand."

The film will be made in Britain, she says.

Rowling also feels strongly about the witchcraft controversy that led to some schools banning her books from class.

"I truly am bemused that anyone who has read the books could think that I am a proponent of the occult in any serious way," she says. "I don't believe in witchcraft, in the sense that they're talking about, at all.

"I'm certainly not a witch myself," she says with a laugh, "and you would be surprised how many otherwise intelligent people have asked me that question."

She disagrees that witchcraft is off-limits in children's books.

"I think it's a source of great fun, drama. Magic is going to be a theme of children's literature as long as the human race exists," she says.

What bothered her most was not that parents disapproved of their own children reading the books, "but that they tried to censor them ... and I am vehemently opposed to that."

Rowling says that if she should ever write an adult novel, it will not be because she thinks she has to do so to be taken seriously. "I've never seen writing for children as second-best," she says.

"I am always going to be the Harry Potter author. I actually have no problem with that. I can't imagine myself ever being ashamed of these books."