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This is one remarkable fairy tale that came spectacularly true for the author J.K. Rowling, who, only as recently as 1996, was an impoverished single mother, living with her daughter in a mouse-infested Edinburgh apartment with barely enough money to cover the bills. Five years later, her stories have sold an unprecedented 110 million copies and made her a multi-millionaire many times over.
The secret of her success, of course, is a lovable, bespectacled boy wizard named Harry Potter who undergoes dramatic otherworldly adventures, and is possessed of unruly black hair and a trademark lightning scar down his forehead - a legacy of his run-in as a newborn with the evil, dark Lord Voldemort.
As the Potter publicity machine goes into high gear for the Canadian movie launch on Nov. 16 (it opens in Britain today), Rowling sat down with a British news agency on condition that a percentage from the fees for the interview would go to Comic Relief, her favourite charity of the moment.
QUESTION: Is J.K. Rowling your real name or is it your 'writer's' name?
J.K. ROWLING: My real name is Joanne Rowling. My publishers wanted another initial, so I gave myself my favourite grandmother's name as a middle name, which was Kathleen.
QUESTION: Were you encouraged to write as a child?
ROWLING: I didn't need to be encouraged. I was always writing. I think my parents thought of it as a hobby. I never told them it was all I wanted to do with my life. They wouldn't have approved - no pension scheme, you see.
QUESTION: When did you first get the idea for the Harry Potter stories?
ROWLING: I can remember the day in 1990 as though it is tattooed on my mind forever. The idea for the stories came to me whilst I was on one of those long train journeys travelling from the North of England to London. The amazing and magical thing is that the character of Harry just popped into my head, fully formed. Looking back, it was all quite spooky.
I remember being so excited that, as soon as the train reached London's King's Cross station, I rushed home to jot down this narrative concept on paper before I could forget anything.
QUESTION: Why did you choose the name Harry Potter? Did you base the character on someone you know? And, finally, has Harry got a middle name and if so, what is it?
ROWLING: Harry is completely imaginary. I took his surname from a family I lived near when I was a child, just because I liked the sound of Potter; and `Harry' has always been one of my favourite Christian names. Finally, he has most definitely got a middle name. It's James.
QUESTION: Is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone your first novel?
ROWLING: In one word, no. I actually started conceptualizing stories when I was very young. I remember enjoying telling made-up stories to my younger sister Diana. And the first fully fledged novel I ever wrote was a story about a rabbit called Rabbit. However, it was just a precocious child's literary ramblings, and I was far too shy to show it to many people.
QUESTION: If you could be any Harry Potter character, who would it be and why?
ROWLING: By nature I am most like Hermione, who is one of Harry's best friends - or at least I was when I was younger, so I would probably have to be her. However, ideally speaking, I would most like to be Professor Dumbledore (the Headmaster of Hogwarts). I'd like his wisdom.
QUESTION: How long did it take you before the first Harry Potter story was finished?
ROWLING: It took me a long, hard five years to complete The Philosopher's Stone. The reason so much time slipped by was because, from that very first idea, I envisaged a series of seven books - each one charting a year of Harry's life whilst he is a student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And I wanted to fully sketch the plots of all the stories and get the essential characteristics of my principal characters before I actually started writing the books in detail.
QUESTION: Please tell me if you had any rejections when you began writing for publication and how you coped with them.
ROWLING: Oh yes. I had lots of rejections. But I expected everyone to reject me, so I was already braced for failure. However, I loved Harry so much that I just wanted to get him into print whatever the cost in emotional energy. Fortunately, I found an agent who believed in me and was prepared to get publishers to sit up and take notice, and finally, in 1996, Bloomsbury Publishing, bless them, took their fate in their hands and signed me up after much bigger publishers had said no - citing such reasons as my first story was too long and complex for the children's market. Look who's had the last laugh!
QUESTION: How many hours each week do you spend writing Harry Potter, and what is your best time for writing in the day?
ROWLING: It depends. Sometimes I do 10-hour days. Sometimes (like today), I don't get to do anything. I like the 10-hour days best.
Not being a very good morning person, my best time in the day for being really creative is later in the day. In fact, I'm a real night owl and my very best ideas often come at midnight.
QUESTION: How many rough copies or rewrites of a chapter do you do before you get it right?
ROWLING: Loads and loads and loads. The worst ever was 13 different versions of one chapter (Chapter 9 in The Goblet of Fire). I hated that chapter so much; at one point, I thought of missing it out altogether and just putting in a page saying `Chapter 9 was too difficult' and going straight to Chapter 10.
QUESTION: What do you think makes them appealing to both young and older people in seemingly all languages and cultures from, as I read recently, Albanian to Zulu?
ROWLING: I think - but I don't really know, because I'm not good at being objective about my own work - that as I write primarily for myself, that probably shows in the books. The quirky sense of humour is most definitely mine.
Apart from the adventures, trials and tribulations of Harry himself, my books are, of course, essentially about magic. And magic appeals to kids all over the world. As for myself, I don't believe in magic in the way that I describe in my books, but still being a bit of a kid at heart, I would love, of course, to have magical powers. My Harry Potter books start from the premise: What if magic were real? And I work from there.
QUESTION: Harry's sheer courage is, in my view, something which also appeals to many readers. Would you agree?
ROWLING: I would. Despite his very young age, Harry has tremendous courage. I think Harry's bravery impresses both young and old(er) readers alike, because, although he is full of anxieties, he never gives up and gets by on a combination of intuition, sheer nerve and a fair bit of luck.
QUESTION: How do you cope with the aggravation from strongly religious people who have reacted against the Harry Potter stories, accusing them of witchcraft?
ROWLING: Well, mostly I laugh about it and ignore it. Very occasionally I get annoyed, because these extremist religious folk have missed the point so spectacularly. I think the Harry books are actually very moral, but some people just object to witchcraft being mentioned in a children's book. Unfortunately, if such extremist views were to prevail, we would have to lose a lot of classic children's fiction.
QUESTION: Does your daughter Jessica read the books before anyone else?
ROWLING: No, though she's pretty annoyed about that. She's only 7 and I think it would be a horrible burden on her if I told her plot secrets. She already gets surrounded in the playground and interrogated.
QUESTION: Did you have a real school in mind when you invented Hogwarts, the school for wizards and witches that Harry attends?
ROWLING: No, I've never been anywhere like Hogwarts. If only! I went to a very ordinary British comprehensive school.
QUESTION: So why did you set most of the Harry Potter stories in an exclusive British boarding school - albeit an unusual one for wizards and witches - when you yourself went to a non-fee-paying comprehensive school?
ROWLING: People often ask me that question, and they usually add the further query that with my books' public school dormitories and quaint traditions, isn't it all just too British for international tastes? But you know what? Wherever I go in the world, children and their parents seem to like the Britishness of the stories, even if they are probably getting an idyllic and rather surreal view of the British public school system.
QUESTION: The second page of your books always features the Hogwarts school crest. Contained within the crest is a motto written in Latin. What does it stand for?
ROWLING, laughing: It means `never tickle a sleeping dragon.' Good sound, practical advice.
QUESTION: When your readers are asked to talk about some of their favourite aspects of your books, the curious wizard sport of Quidditch often comes high on their list. Some of the readers of this interview may still not be quite sure what Quidditch is all about. Can you help?
ROWLING: Quidditch started in the 11th century, at a place called Queerditch Marsh, which you probably won't find marked on maps. Originally it was quite a crude game played by wizards on broomsticks, and over the subsequent two centuries they added more balls until it became the game we know now.
QUESTION: Why are there no less than four balls whizzing around in Quidditch?
ROWLING: When Quidditch was first invented, teams started off with only one ball - the Quaffle, which is the ball you use for goal scoring. Then there was the addition of the two Bludgers to make things a bit more dangerous and interesting, and finally you've got the most important ball of all - the tiny golden ball with wings called the Golden Snitch. The story about the Golden Snitch is so long and convoluted that readers should buy my Harry Potter companion book called Quidditch Through The Ages, or there is a pretty detailed description of Quidditch in the first half of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
QUESTION: Does it bother you that in America, they changed the names of your books? Consequently, American audiences will be going to their cinemas to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, whereas in Europe the first book and its film version is, of course, being released as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Why the difference?
ROWLING: This change came about at the request of my American publishers. They only changed the title of the first book, but, to be honest, with my full consent. I wish I hadn't agreed now, but it was my first book and I was so grateful that anyone was publishing me, I wanted to keep them happy.
THE HARRY POTTER FILM ...
QUESTION: Do you feel that the forthcoming film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, will take away the imagination and magic from the books?
ROWLING: Well, obviously, I hope not. I'm excited about seeing the film, but then no film could ever ruin my favourite books for me.
QUESTION: The great thing about having a Harry Potter feature film is that your fans will, at last, be able to see a game of Quidditch, not to mention some of those beasts, for real - albeit on the big screen. Are you happy with how your story has been translated for the cinema?
ROWLING: I wouldn't be truthful if I didn't say that I had some concerns to begin with.
As I recently said to my biographer, when I first started to get offers from film companies, I initially said no to all of them. I am not against cinema - I actually love good movies. However, the vital thing for me was that the studio which eventually got the production contract, Warners, promised to be true to the book, and I have great faith in their commitment to that.
Obviously there are some things that won't work onscreen, but I didn't want the plot to change very much at all. The crucial thing is that the integrity of the characters isn't messed about with.
QUESTION: Nevertheless, did you not feel at all concerned that you were letting Harry Potter fall into the hands of a major Hollywood studio, with the very real risk that they might be tempted to Americanize things too much for your tastes?
ROWLING: When I first met the screenwriter Steve Kloves, the fact that he was American did indeed make me wary, as I felt that he could very well be careless and insensitive with my creative baby. But as soon as he said his favourite character was Hermione, he completely won me over because, as I said earlier in this interview, she is the character who is closest to me. Steve also won my confidence by saying how protective both he and the production team were about my book, and that they were determined to avoid that usual Hollywood gaucheness.
QUESTION: I believe some of the cast came to you for advice as to how to interpret their roles. Which cast member did you particularly enjoy helping?
ROWLING: One of my most enjoyable experiences involved assisting the big Scottish actor Robbie Coltrane. When Robbie approached me as to how to find the heart and soul of his onscreen character, the gamekeeper Hagrid, I said to imagine Hagrid as being one of those large Hells Angels minus his motorbike. The sort of guy who, when his fierce friends are not around, is quite happy to talk about gardening or child-rearing.
QUESTION: If the film is as successful as it is anticipated, you will make even more money that you have done already. Will that kind of success spoil you?
ROWLING: Gosh, I sincerely hope not. Apart from being able to buy a house in one of the more fashionable parts of London, my tastes are still pretty modest. However, it's great to be able to buy my daughter Jessica all the toys I once couldn't afford to get her. Because for many years when my marriage broke up, I was a single mom, and money was very scarce.
However, I can't pretend that this new-found financial success hasn't made our lives much more comfortable. The best thing about having money is that it stops me worrying about paying the bills, and for that I am truly grateful. And we now have a nice house to live in rather than the two-bedroom mouse-infested flat that Jessica and I used to inhabit.
QUESTION: Moving away from the financial rewards, what other parts of the success of Harry Potter have you most enjoyed?
ROWLING: Being by nature creative, I would have to say that the actual process of writing is my favourite part. And even though there are difficult days when very little comes out on paper, that's the part I love above all else. But part of being famous is that you have to go out and meet your readers, and that is incredibly satisfying.
The first time I ever had to do a Harry Potter reading was to about four people. In fact, so few people turned up at this bookshop that the staff felt really sorry for me and came and stood around and listened as well. I remember I was shaking so badly that I kept missing my line. I was terrified.
But since then, I have found readings to be the most fantastic experience. I think part of that satisfaction comes from the fact that I was writing the books in secret for so long that I never talked to anyone about them. For five years I was the only person who had read a word of Harry Potter, and the only person who knew all these things about Harry's world and his friends. So the novelty of sitting in front of all these hundreds of people in bookshops all over the world and hearing them laugh, answering their questions and discussing my characters still hasn't worn off.
QUESTION: Conversely, what have you least enjoyed about Harry Potter's success?
ROWLING: Journalists banging on my front door. I don't like that at all.
QUESTION: If you could travel anywhere by `floo powder' (the magical powder in your stories that transports people anywhere they want to travel), where would you go and with who?
ROWLING: I'd take a few of my best friends to Hawaii. I was there for last New Year's and it was wonderful.
QUESTION: Can you tell me anything about the next Harry Potter novel, which will be No. 5?
ROWLING: Well, it will be a papery object with pages inside. Harry, of course, will appear in it. The title is going to be Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and I am afraid, for the time being at least, that that's as far as I am prepared to go at the moment. After all, I don't want to spoil the fun by giving anything away.
QUESTION: And finally, what do you hope your book and these film adaptations will achieve?
ROWLING: To inspire people both young and old(er) to use their imagination. And to drive children back to reading books. If I can credit myself with anything, it has been to make it cool for young people to start reading again. And in this day and age when books have to fight it out with such diversions as Gameboy and Pokmon, that alone gives me more pleasure than anything.
This interview was given by J.K. Rowling in order to help the charity Comic Relief, which provides money for starving children in Africa and other disadvantaged countries of the world. However, as she has an aversion to over-inquisitive journalists, she would only consent to doing this interview if the questions were from children or ordinary readers of her books. In her view, children and ordinary folk have no hidden "media" agenda. So what you have read is, unusually, a truly democratic interview in which the best part of 12 people, from 8 to 35 years old, were able to ask her some searching questions.
J.K. (a.k.a. Joanne Kathleen) Rowling was born in the summer of 1965. Her parents were avid bibliophiles who stocked their house with books. At Exeter University, she earned a French and classics degree.
As a post-graduate, she moved to London to work at Amnesty International doing research into human rights abuses in francophone Africa.
Once she had made a serious start with The Philosopher's Stone, Jo then moved to north Portugal to teach English as a foreign language. She married a Portuguese journalist in October, 1992, and gave birth to her daughter Jessica in 1993.
J.K. Rowling has had her share of suffering and intense sadness. Apart from her marriage ending, on another sad note her beloved half-French, half-Scottish mother died of multiple sclerosis at the age of only 45.
In 1995, the Scottish Arts Council gave her a substantial grant to finish Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - the largest literary award offered by the organization to a children's author.
Joanne Rowling's fortune is estimated at about £30,000,000 ($70 million Canadian) and rising fast.