Carrell, Severin. "Media: Harry Potter and the Horrible Hackette; Which Interviewer Inspired the Venomous Portrait in J.K. Rowling's Latest Bestseller? Severin Carrell Rounds up the Likely suspects," The Independent (London), September 5, 2000

AT LAST week's Edinburgh Book Festival, a child asked the Western world's most popular children's author about a new character in her latest book. It was someone particularly devious, cunning, untrustworthy and, at times, malevolent. Someone who uses their professional position to settle personal scores. Someone who makes up quotes.

That child is unlikely to be the only person who would like to ask Joanne Rowling about the genesis of that character, a journalist who glories in the byline Rita Skeeter. Those people would have one question: what prompted Rowling to devise arguably her most obnoxious caricature so far? It seems that the creator of Harry Potter was taking revenge.

For the uninitiated, Rita Skeeter appears in JK Rowling's fourth and most successful book so far, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And Skeeter is written in Technicolor, straight from the wardrobe room at Central Casting.

She is a "special correspondent" for the tabloid-esque "Daily Prophet", the biggest-selling paper in JK Rowling's world. She is described as a witch in magenta robes; "her hair was set in elaborate and curiously rigid curls that contrasted oddly with her heavy-jawed face. She wore jewelled spectacles. The thick fingers clutching her crocodile-skin handbag ended in two-inch nails, painted crimson."

After steering Harry with her "surprisingly strong grip" into the privacy of a broom cupboard, Skeeter produces a magical device: the Quick-Quotes Quill.

"She put the tip of the green quill into her mouth, sucked it for a moment with apparent relish, then placed it upright on the parchment, where it stood balanced on its point, quivering slightly." As a quick test run, it writes: "Attractive blonde Rita Skeeter, forty-three, whose savage quill has punctured many savage reputations."

So who was the inspiration? It does not necessarily all come from women. Last November, Paul Henderson at The Mail on Sunday unearthed Rowling's Portuguese ex-husband, Jorge Arantes, the father of her daughter. The story dredged up allegations of his physical abuse. Arantes, a penniless former journalist, also disputed the reported version that Rowling began writing the Potter series in Edinburgh. He said that she started writing the first volume, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, at their home in Oporto and already knew how the seven-volume series would end. He also claimed to have helped to edit the manuscript.

Very soon after The Mail on Sunday's interview with Jorge came another, un -bylined story that Rowling insists was "totally fabricated". Those two events, she claims, plunged her into depression and left her unable to write, reinforcing her reaction to the press.

She cites a feature in the Daily Record earlier this year, which described her as "irascible, irritable, paranoid", rather like JD Salinger or Howard Hughes. It claimed that a young boy and his mother who went to her flat for an autograph were "lambasted loudly" for disturbing her. It quoted neighbours and friends claiming she had become "increasingly reclusive, nervous and irascible" and it suggested that Rowling found little to enjoy from her celebrity.

 The piece was published in March this year, after The Goblet of Fire was finished, so Annie Brown, its author, can rest easy. She is not the model for Rita Skeeter. Brown also insists that her piece, while unflattering, was properly sourced. "Perhaps she was angry because it was so realistic," Brown said.

There are some clues in this search for Anonymous. The next most unpleasant character in the books, Harry's uncle Vernon Dursley, a small-minded and vicious non-wizard who fostered Harry after his parents died, is revealed as a Daily Mail reader. Perhaps, then, the finger may point at Angela Levin, the Mail's senior interviewer, who ran two interviews with Rowling in 1998 and 1999, which played up the rags-to-riches theme.

But Rosamund de la Hey, Rowling's publisher at Bloomsbury, is quick to deny that. She says the character "definitely, definitely isn't" based on anyone in particular. "There is no one person that she names, ever."

Skeeter was always intended to appear in book four in Rowling's rough plot for the seven-book series. However, "She does admit writing her up because it was fun." So, then, has Rowling taken revenge? "She would never have done that as a sole reason. I think she takes amusement from writing the character."

There is, though, a "certain frisson" bestowed by her experiences, Ms De la Hey admitted. "Undeniably, she took added pleasure in writing the character from her experiences in the last three years... She's actually fond of her."

Copyright 2000 Newspaper Publishing PLC

Original page date 2 March 2007; last updated 27 March 2007.