Martin, Sandra. "Out of adversity, Harry was born," The Globe Review (Toronto), 23 October 2000

J.K. Rowling tells SANDRA MARTIN how, as a single mother, she battled depression and poverty. Her daughter and her writing were her salvation

TORONTO -- Fast talking, funny in a smart-alecky south-of-England way, J.K. Rowling has all the trappings of celebrity, but none of the attitude.

She gets the job done, whether it is writing her phenomenally successful Harry Potter books or talking to journalists about her work, her life and Harry himself.

Rowling is scheduled to perform in the biggest reading of all time at the SkyDome on Tuesday morning as part of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. Before she can connect with her readers, if that's possible in such a cavernous facility (she admits she's terrified), there is business to accomplish. And that means, handlers, schedules, a news conference, a charity lunch and quick hits with press and television journalists.

Because she doesn't waste time on entrances, I couldn't even spot her at first, among the milling arrangers in the hotel room set aside yesterday for an exclusive interview. Partly that's because she's so tiny. She's wearing grey tweed trousers, a black pullover and jacket and high-heeled black boots. Her hair still flops over her small black-rimmed eyes, but she has changed the colour from red to blond with dark roots. She gave up smoking in May and is now addicted to nicotine-flavoured gum -- all of which she cheerfully admits in the first minute of conversation.

The facts about Joanne Kathleen Rowling are almost as well known as the miserable details of Harry Potter's upbringing with his guardians, those dreadful Muggles, the Dursleys.

Rowling, who was born 35 years ago in the bizarely named town of Chipping Sodbury near Bristol in England, is a single mother, who fled a bad marriage shortly after her daughter, Jessica, was born, and subsequently found herself very poor and very depressed.

What matters to Rowling is what happened next both to her and to Harry Potter. "I was very lucky," she says. "I didn't suffer depression for very long, but I vividly recollect what it felt like. I had no hope and I didn't believe I would ever feel lighthearted again."

Depression and death are central themes in the Harry Potter books, even though they are billed as simple adventure stories about wizards and magic potions. The goal of the evil Lord Voldemort is to conquer death, presumably by living forever. Rowling agrees that idea is very important to the story, but she won't reveal her own views about the finality of death or the possibility of everlasting life until she has finished all seven books in the series.

"I feel that I am halfway through writing an enormous book, and I am very frustrated that people are making assumptions about what I am saying when I haven't said it yet."

She won't give away too much for the "banal and obvious" reason that she doesn't want her readers to guess the outcome. What she will allow is that in the upcoming book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, readers will take "a very big step with me" in examining what death means to survivors and the bereaved.

Harry knows far more about death than most children: He is an orphan whose mother was murdered trying to protect him from Vordemort. His quest in the book is not only to fight evil, but to find out about himself and his background.

His yearning for his parents is heartfelt and mirrors Rowling's own longing for her mother, who died from multiple sclerosis when she was 45 and Rowling was 20. She definitely was thinking of her mother in the first book, when Harry looks in the mirror and sees his parents. But "it would never be enough seeing her for five minutes," Rowling says. "That is one of the things you work through."

What she loves about Harry as a hero is his vulnerability and his belief in hope. That is what makes him so susceptible to the Dementors, vile creatures that suck hope out of the mouths of their victims. Rowling created the Dementors to symbolize depression, the malaise that nearly toppled her half a dozen years ago.

"I don't mean feeling sad," she says. "That is a normal, healthy emotion. Depression is losing the ability to feel certain emotions and one of them is hope."

For her daughter's sake, she sought counselling. "She was my touchstone. If it hadn't been for her, I probably would never have had the courage to go to the doctor and say I needed to talk about things."

Another salvation was writing.

Rowling had invented Harry Potter in a flash on a train journey from Manchester to London about six months after her mother died. But she began to write much more purposefully, sitting in cafes and writing in longhand while her daughter slept. "Writing was very helpful to my sanity. It gave me something to focus on."

She admits that she was lucky to be able to write, even when she was classified as clinically depressed, and that she could find the discipline to turn off the television at night and to snatch whatever time she could when her daughter was sleeping during the day. "I couldn't afford the luxury of writer's block. I had two hours max." She says she has probably never been as productive since then, in terms of the number of words she produces every day.

"If you know that she might not nap tomorrow, you are going to seize the opportunity. So out of adversity . . .," she laughs.

That discipline has never left her -- as is obvious from her production of four books in as many years. Even so, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will probably not appear in the summer of 2001.

Rowling found the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a real slog. "I've never worked such long hours on a book and I don't want to do that again. Ten hours a day are not good when you have a child."

The problem is not the rigors of Pottermania and her celebrity, but that she wants to spend more time with her daughter, who is now 7. Who wouldn't? "Yeah," she laughs, joking that she will speed up the writing schedule again when Jessica is a teenager. "She won't want to see me then anyway, but while she does, I think it would be a good idea if we spent some time together."

Pacing and plot construction are her obsessions as a writer. Rowling disagrees with Nancy Mitford's description of plot construction as a deadly virtue. For her it is supremely important. Her all-time favourite model for pacing is Jane Austin, which is surprising considering their styles and rhythms are so different.

"I'm not saying I'm great at it," she adds quickly, "but that's what I'm aiming for. I love to read a well-paced book and to feel that the rhythm is drawing you in like music."

Her other passion is correcting misconceptions in the media.

Top of the list is the notion that she is nostalgic about the boarding-school novels she read in her own childhood.

It isn't childhood she loves, it is children in all their complexity and vulnerability. That is what draws them to her and her books.