Matsuda, Neil. "Everyone’s just wild about Harry." Villarum, January 2001
NOT many days ago, thousands of parents throughout the country will have contributed to the most successful publishing phenomenon that Britain has ever known in terms of children’s books. Unless, that is, they’d already taken part a few months ago when their offspring demanded the fourth and latest offering in the Harry Potter series.
There are now three more books to come from 35-year-old, single mother JK Rowling, the creator of Harry, to make up the seven-book series, charting his life through school until his coming of age at 18. The final chapter of the final book has already been written and friends’ children have teased the author they will go into her study and search it out – but it’s hidden in a very, very safe place.
As any self-respecting Harry Potter aficionado will already know, Joanne Rowling dreamed up what was to turn into a multi-million selling series while on a delayed train journey to King’s Cross. At least that’s something our woebegone rail service has provided in the last few years.
A graduate in French and Classics from Exeter University, Joanne has now sold a total of 40 million copies of the Harry Potter books in 40 different countries. But, as in all the best stories – children’s or adults’ – the path to fame has not been a simple one. Joanne’s keenness to write stories began as a child and naturally accompanied a voracious appetite as far as reading was concerned. “I was a real daydreamer,” she explains, “with a very vivid fantasy life. I was very freckly, squat, wore thick national health glasses, was a bit of a know-it-all, but underneath it all very nervous, very, very insecure. “But I was constantly reading, absolutely anything.
One of the great things my parents did was say that nothing in the house was banned, so I read a lot of adult novels when I was young, but I also read a lot of Enid Blyton, Barry Hines, and pretty much anything else.”
After her schooling and university, Joanne took a number of different jobs – working with Amnesty International, secretarial duties, and, following the death of her mother, teaching English as a foreign language. “I possibly put some of my feelings about my mother’s illness into Harry,” she says. “She had a galloping form of multiple sclerosis. Someone can have MS and have a normal lifespan and not be affected. My mother was unlucky and she died at 45, when I was 25. I started writing Harry six months before she died, so she never knew...”
Prior to teaching in Portugal, Joanne had packed a pile of paper and notes six inches deep into her suitcase [the first draft of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone]. When she returned to England – having married, had a baby girl called Jessica (“because of Jessica Mitford”), split from her husband and Spain, taking with her her five-month-old daughter – the pile of paper had grown to three times its original size.
Mother and daughter started living in rented accommodation and relied on State handouts – it was not the best of times. “There is a great deal of difference between sadness, which is a healthy emotion, I think, and depression, which is more of an absence of emotion – that’s how I remember it and I did go through a period of depression,” she remembers. “A lot had happened to me – not all of it bad – but all change is supposed to be very stressful and I’d been through bereavement, I’d had a baby – the best thing that ever happened to me – but I’d stopped working, not a good thing and suddenly I thought ‘How did I get here? This wasn’t supposed to happen.’
“It’s true that I lived entirely on benefits for nine months, and mostly on benefits for about 18 months. It’s also true that I wrote in cafes with my daughter sleeping next to me. I know it sounds very romantic, but, of course, it’s not at all romantic when you’re living through it. “It’s untrue to say my flat was unheated. I wasn’t in search of warmth, I was in search of good coffee, frankly, and not having to interrupt the flow of my writing by having to get up and make myself more coffee.
“I was 25 when I had the idea for Harry and I had been writing – if you include all the embarrassing teenage rubbish – for years and years. And I had never been so excited by an idea in my life. “I’d abandoned two novels for adults prior to that. Actually, I was still writing the second novel when I had the idea for Harry and for six months I tried to write them simultaneously – then Harry just took over completely.
“It took me five years to work out this very long plot. On that train, I came up with lots of the characters you meet at the school. Loads and loads of detail, but not really the narrative.”“It’s as though, subconciously, for years I had been preparing for writing Harry Potter because I had just been storing weird words just as you would collect useless objects.”
Daughter Jessica was three-years-old when Joanne sent off her first finished manuscript. “Into the envelope it went, off it went and back came a very prompt response, saying ‘No, thank you.’ And then I got another rejection letter. “The funny thing is they didn’t upset me because I had that back-against-the-wall mentality. By this time, I was on a teaching course. I knew I was going to have incredibly limited time to write and I just thought, ‘Well, even if what you end up with is a file full of rejection letters, you know you tried.’ “The first agent sent me a letter back saying, ‘My client list is full’ – literally! “No ‘Dear Madam’ and no ‘Yours sincerely’, and if I sound like I bear a grudge, I do because I’d sent my manuscript in this beautiful plastic folder and I was broke and I didn’t have £5 to spend on a plastic folder and she sent it back without the folder and she wrote, ‘No, thank you.’ And with a handwritten PS, ‘The folder you sent would not fit in the envelope.’ And I just felt, ‘Well, buy bigger envelopes, then.’ I was furious.
“In the end, I got an agent called Christopher Little and, after a year of trying, Bloomsbury took me. It was the best moment of my life, after the birth of Jessica. I really mean it – that was the best moment.”
The decision to use “JK Rowling” instead of Joanne’s full name was taken by her publishers Bloomsbury, who were worried that boys might not like what she had written if they found out it had been done by a woman. The publishers need not have worried.
And success soon beckoned across The Pond. “Four or five months after the book came out in Britain I was at home one evening and the phone rang,” she says. “It was Christopher, my agent. “He said, ’There’s an auction going on in America.’ For a split second, I truly thought, ‘Why are you telling me that?’ I didn't associate auction and my book and then I realised what he meant. “I said, ‘An auction?’ and he said, ‘Yes, and they’re up to a certain amount of money’. The ‘certain amount of money’ was double what he’d predicted we would get and then he phoned me up two hours later and said, ‘Right, one of the publishers has dropped out. There are two in there and they’re up to this amount.’ Finally, about 11pm, he called me and said, ‘OK, you’re with Arthur Levine Books and they’re giving you...’ and it was a six-figure sum in dollars.
“It meant security, it meant we could get out of rented accommodation, but it also sent me into an absolute panic. “Part of my brain was saying, ‘Come on, you can buy a house, we don’t have to worry anymore, everything’s much better.’ And the other part of me was saying, ’Oh my God, they’re going to find me out. The next book won’t be as good.’ I felt as though everyone was suddenly watching every word I wrote and I was very frightened. I didn’t sleep that night, I kept walking round and round and round the flat. “I sat down and thought, ‘I can afford to write and maybe teach part-time.’
And that meant everything to me because, prior to that moment, I kept thinking, ‘Is writing just your self indulgence? Do you have the right to keep your daughter poorer than maybe she should have been by continuing to make time for writing? Shouldn’t you be out there working at anything and saying goodbye to the writing?’” Joanne adds: “People have said it’s like winning the Lottery and in a sense it is because it certainly was that unexpected and yet I do know that I worked for it. I didn’t work in the expectation of getting it, but there is a direct correlation between a lot of hard work and the money. That’s not to say that I deserve that amount of money, and it can be difficult.”
But fame has not detracted Joanne from her original course. “I will be writing until I lose all my marbles – I know that,” she says. “But there have been times when being published or being in the public eye has been not an enjoyable experience, shall we say? “I’d love to have more children, but if it doesn’t happen I don’t think anyone can look at me and say, ‘What a shame’. But I think being so well known can have a distorting effect on your relationships. “I was intrigued by the comment of a friend of mine. I’ve known her for about two years now and when she first met me she didn’t have a clue about Harry Potter and we got friendly, as you do, on the school run and I told her I was a children’s writer, but she just said, ‘Really?’. “Then, one day, I met her in the playground and she was quite different and she’d realised and said to me, ‘You know, if I’d known I don’t think I’d have even spoken to you.’ “She added, ‘Well, because I would have thought you would have thought that I only wanted to speak to you because...’, which was absolute nonsense because her son and my daughter are best friends, so I wouldn’t have thought that at all.”
A small worry for Joanne, or JK, since it seems that, if anyone will, she is destined to have a story that will end happily ever after. Everyone’s just wild about Harry Neil Masuda takes a look at the one-woman publishing phenonmenon that is JK Rowling V ‘We had got a six-figure sum in dollars, but part of me was thinking, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to find me out. The next book won’t be as good.’
Source: http://www.courier-newspapers-oxford.co.uk/images/features/villPg13j.pdf (no longer available)
Thanks to Bob Euwema, who sent this in!