Author J. K. Rowling explains the magic of the strange young boy who has cast a spell over publishing-and her life
"I can't wait! I can't wait," cries ten-year-old Alula Greenberg-White,
hugging herself in expectation. It's 9am outside a large bookshop in north
London and Alula is at the head of a queue of 100 excited children and
parents. They peer through the windows at stacks of a 640-page novel,
eyes searching for the small strawberry- blonde Pied Piper who has brought
them here-and to bookshops round the globe-and who is somewhere inside
nursing a coffee.
"I'm really not a morning person," admits J. K. Rowling as she flexes her fingers in preparation for another marathon signing of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth volume of a publishing phenomenon.
Children in more than 30 countries are just wild about Harry, their bespectacled hero who discovers on his eleventh birthday that he is a wizard. For the few who don't know: Harry inherited his magical powers from his parents who have been slaughtered by the evil wizard Lord Voldemort. Harry, who bears a lightning scar on his forehead, also the handiwork of Voldemort, then has a series of white-knuckle adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is housed in a remote Scottish castle, where mail is delivered to pupils by their owls.
Rowling has so enchanted children with her imagination and a vivid cast-redoubtable Hermione Granger and plucky Ron Weasley, Harry's sidekicks, sinister Professor Snape and Hagrid, the endearing gamekeeper who likes a drink and has a passion for hatching dragons-that the first four stories in the series have taken up permanent residence at the top of the best-seller lists. To date, they have sold an astonishing 41 million copies.
On July 8, UK publication day of Goblet of Fire, an astonishing 372,775 hardback copies were sold. In the US-where Rowling is believed to be the first author ever to occupy the top three slots on The New York Times best-seller list at the same time-a nation of bleary-eyed children stayed up for the midnight launch to snaffle 3.8 million volumes.
In this digital age when it is said kids don't give a fig for the printed word, Joanne Kathleen Rowling has turned more children on to reading than any living author. And with a film of the first book in production and a range of Harry merchandise ready to ride into the shops on its back, she has one of the highest profiles on the planet. Yet the reality is a softly spoken, bird-like 35-year-old, who shifts on the sofa as she considers the question: what is it about Harry that captivates in all languages and cultures? "Magic has a universal appeal. I don't believe in it in the way that I describe in my books, but I'd love it to be real," she says, picking up speed like the Hogwarts Express, which at the beginning of every term takes the children to school from platform nine and three-quarters at London's King's Cross station.
"The starting point for the whole of Harry's world is 'What if it were real?' And I work from there." She has never had a market in mind. "I started writing these books for me, but I really like my readers. They are very likeable people." She glances at the queue outside, which must now be 300 strong. "Children are a writer's dream. They are not interested in sales figures. They want to know why the plot works a certain way. They know the books back to front and talk about the characters as though they are living, mutual friends of ours." They mirror Rowling's own feelings perfectly.
But with its public school dorms and house points, isn't it all just too British? "Wherever I go, children seem to like the Britishness of the stories, even if they are probably getting a very rosy picture of what school in Britain is like!"
J.K. Rowling: The Wizard Behind Harry Potter 2 Tim Bouquet
And they all know the Rowling story. She was born in 1965 in Chipping
Sodbury, South Gloucestershire-an appropriate birthplace for someone who
loves strange, but believable, names. Writing from the age of six and
with two unpublished novels in the drawer, she was stuck on a train in
1990 when Harry walked into her mind, fully formed. She spent the next
five years constructing the plots of seven books, one for every year of
his secondary school life.
Rowling says she started writing the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in Portugal, where she was teaching English and had married journalist Jorge Arantes. The marriage lasted just over a year, but produced baby Jessica.
Leaving Portugal, she arrived in Edinburgh in 1993 to stay with her younger sister Di, a lawyer, with just enough money for a deposit on a flat and some baby equipment. "I was depressed and angry. Angry that I had messed up my life and let my daughter down." She went to visit a friend of her sister's who had a baby boy. "His room was full of toys. Jessica's toys fitted into a shoebox. I came home and cried my eyes out."
The tears did not last. Harry's bravery strikes a chord with children because he is full of anxieties but gets by on luck and nerve. Rowling agrees she is much the same. "It's not pure luck," she explains. "He has the will to get through and I never lost that. When you are really on your uppers, you don't sit there and cry, you try and get out of it." However, stories of an impoverished single mother living in a rat-infested bedsit and scribbling her way to wealth in an Edinburgh coffee shop are journalistic inventions. "I am a single mum, I did, and still do, write in cafes and I was broke," says Rowling, who recently gave £500,000 to the National Council for One Parent Families and became the charity's first-ever ambassador. "Those early stories neglected to mention that I come from a middle-class background, I have a degree in French and Classics and that working as a supply teacher was my intended bridge out of poverty." And the bedsit? It was a mouse-infested two-bedroom flat. At first nobody wanted to publish Harry Potter. "The fact that it was set in a boarding school was very un-PC as far as most publishers were concerned," Joanne explains. She was told that the plot, like her sentence construction, was too complex and too long. "That unnerved me because I knew it was going to be the shortest book of the series!" Refusing to compromise, she at last found a publisher, Bloomsbury, and, armed with an £8,000 grant from the Scottish Arts Council, ploughed into book two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
In 1997 she received her first royalty cheque for Philosopher's Stone. Until then Rowling was "a happily obscure person". By book three the world, fuelled by word of mouth and some astute marketing, went crazy for Harry, slapping a row of noughts on Rowling's bank balance and turning her life upside down. Day and night she had journalists knocking on the unanswered door of her flat. Success, it was reported, had turned J. K. Rowling into a paranoid recluse. As ever, the truth is prosaic. Joanne does get out, but writing four books back to back has been totally time-consuming, especially when a massive flaw in the plot of Goblet of Fire took three months to fix, delaying delivery of the manuscript. "I am not an editor's dream!" she laughs.
J.K. Rowling: The Wizard Behind Harry Potter 3 Tim Bouquet
She claims never to read what is written about her and is fiercely protective
of Jessica, now seven. On her first day at primary school, excited 10
and 11-year-olds surrounded Jessica, clamouring to know about Harry and
his creator. "At first Jessica liked it-she's a feisty little thing."
But when the attention didn't ease off, Rowling went into school and asked
the older children: "Could you lay off a bit? She's very young and
she can't answer your questions because she hasn't read the books."
In return, she did a reading and a question-and-answer session with the
two top classes. "It was fun and solved the problem." Jessica
is now a fully-fledged Potter fan, but like every other child she has
to wait for publication day to find out what Harry does next. A broomstick's
hop away from the bookshop, Annie Williams, deputy head of Christ Church
Primary School in down-at-heel Camden, swears by Harry. "When I read
the Philosopher's Stone to a class of 11-year-olds, ten of whom have special
they were so inspired that I prepared worksheets based on the book to help them with grammar." Soon they were writing newspaper articles about the story, and postcards from Hogwarts. "Their written work has improved dramatically."
So what has Rowling got that other writers haven't? "Potions, intrigue, magic and 'what happens next'," says Williams. "The same formula Shakespeare used." Rowling may write about wizards, ghosts, elves and the hippogriff, which is half-horse, half-eagle, but her books are driven with all the suspense and twists of detective novels. Perhaps that's why Harry is also hugely popular with adults. Stories of parents muscling in to read each new volume ahead of their children are common.
"I love a good whodunnit and my passion is plot construction. Readers loved to be tricked, but not conned," Rowling says, warming to her theme. "The best twist ever in literature is in Jane Austen's Emma. To me she is the target of perfection at which we shoot in vain."
J.K. Rowling: The Wizard Behind Harry Potter 4 Tim Bouquet
The Harry Potter film is being directed by Chris Columbus, who worked
on Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire, and has a predominantly British cast,
much to Rowling's relief.
"When I first met screenwriter Steve Kloves (who wrote and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys) the fact that he was American made me spiky and I felt he was going to mutilate my baby. But as soon as he said his favourite character was Hermione I melted, because she is very close to me. I was very like her at that age." Kloves loves Rowling's characters just the way they are. "From the first page she had me. There's a genuine edge and darkness to her books. One reason they're so popular with children is that there's no pandering whatsoever." While the death of a well-loved character in book four is upsetting, Rowling believes that it is only by letting children experience the real consequences of evil actions that they can understand Harry's moral choices. The actor to play Harry was not cast for months. More than 40,000 young hopefuls put their names into the hat to star as the world's most famous wizard. But when Rowling saw young British actor Daniel Radcliffe's screen test, she knew the 11-year-old was perfect for the part. Rowling's quality control is legendary, as is her obsession with accuracy. She's thrilled with Stephen Fry's taped version of the books, outraged that an Italian dust jacket shows Harry minus his glasses. "Don't they understand that they are the clue to his vulnerability?" One person who is not there to see and share her success is her half-Scottish, half-French mother who died of multiple sclerosis in 1990, aged just 45. She had no idea that Joanne had started writing about Harry Potter.
In a moving scene in Philosopher's Stone, Harry stares into a magic mirror that can let him see what he most craves in life. In it he sees his dead parents seemingly alive. It is a rare autobiographical insight into Rowling's feelings about her own loss. "I miss her daily," she says. "I still hear her voice. It's very painful..." For the first time she stutters to a halt and stares at the floor as though searching for a lost thread.
"My father, a retired aircraft engineer, is immensely proud," she says. "He would have been proud whatever I'd succeeded at. But books were my mother's big passion. Having a daughter who was a writer would have been a very big deal, even if I'd only sold three copies." She's sold a few more than that, but this unpretentious woman with the loud percussive laugh has only recently learned to admit that she enjoys being rich-she is rumoured to be worth around £20 million. "I bought a house in London; that's pretty extravagant! The biggest luxury is that it stops you worrying. Not a day goes by when I'm not thankful for that."
J.K. Rowling: The Wizard Behind Harry Potter 5 Tim Bouquet
Back in the London bookshop the doors burst open. Camera flashguns blaze. Faster than a game of Quidditch, the aerobatic broomstick-basketball at which Harry excels, the roped-off route to the signing table is twitching with small trainers. How does Rowling view life after Harry? "I never forget A. A. Milne," she says, pen in hand. "When he wrote for adults every review he ever got referred to Pooh, Tigger and Piglet. What appeals to me is sending in manuscripts for other books under a pseudonym. Anonymity was a nice place to be." But when she sees ten-year-old Alula's smiling face she relaxes visibly, happy to be popular children's author J. K. Rowling. "Hi, how are you?" she asks, as though greeting a long-lost friend. In seconds the two of them are huddled, in cahoots about the latest adventures of the boy wizard. Afterwards, as her mother joins other parents at the till, Alula says her heroine has surpassed her expectations. "She's so friendly and she answered all my questions!" For Alula, a Harry Potter book can never be too long. While others try to fathom Rowling's success, this ten-year-old knows why the magic works. "Because it's exciting." Spills and spells. It really is that simple.