Schulman, Sandra. "Wizards and Ogres and Monsters - OH MY!" Dish Magazine, December 2001.

Dish Magazine cover for December, 2001.It's a puzzle only a wizard could solve. 

How does a poor single mum living on the dole - with a serious bout of depression - write a simple fantasy story about a young wizard coming of age and become a worldwide sensation? With Harry Potter, and a simple wave of a magic pen, of course! 

We all know the story by now! Joanne Kathleen Rowling, a slight, 36-year-old writer from Britain's university-educated middle-class, a onetime single mother on welfare, is now proclaimed to be the second highest-earning woman in Britain, surpassed only by Madonna. She has sold 116 million books in 200 countries, in 47 languages that include Albanian and Zulu, and has been ranked as the 15th most influential person in show business today. "I never dreamed this would happen," she says. " My realistic side had allowed me to think I might get one good review in a national newspaper. That was my idea of a peak." 

Peak, shmeak. In case you've been on Mars of late, the Harry Potter series is about an 11-year-old boy who suddenly discovers he is, in fact, a wizard. He goes off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and there his adventures begin. The Harry Potter books were originally written using Rowlings first two initials- so young boys wouldn't know the book was by a woman! Just released is the fourth book of the seven-book saga, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", which at 640 pages is one of the biggest children's books of all time. It is also, arguably, the most ambitious. For the first time she touches on themes like political involvement, jealousy, fame, romance and the death of a Potter ally, all rites of passage. "It's the end of an era in the context of the whole series of books," she says. "For Harry, his innocence is gone." 

In 1993 she was indeed a poor single mum after she left her new husband, Jorge Arantes, a journalist whom she met in Portugal while she was teaching English. "I married on October 16, 1992. I left on November 17, 1993. So that was the duration of what I considered to be the marriage," she states. So what happened exactly? "I never talk about that. But obviously you do not leave a marriage after that very short period of time unless there are serious problems. I'm not the kind of person who bales out without there being serious problems. My relationship before that lasted seven years. I'm a long-term girl. And I had a baby (daughter Jessica) with this man. But it didn't work. And it was clear to me that it was time to go and so I went. I never regretted it." 

Crookshanks, Fluffy, and Gringotts

She did write much of Harry Potter at an Edinburgh café while she nursed an espresso for two hours (minimum) as baby Jessica slept in her pushchair. She did send it off to an agent who magically said, yes, thank you very much. "People do want life to be neat." she says "That is undoubtedly true. But you know the four great truths of Buddha: the first one is 'Life is Suffering'. I love that. I LOVE THAT. Because I think YES. Life is not supposed to be neat. And it's a comfort. It's a comfort to all of us who have messed up. And then you find your way back, bizarrely. And I'm sure to mess up again at some point - though, I hope, not on such a grand scale." 

But this amount of success is staggering to any writer, much less one in her mid-30s who worried about survival every day for years. Can she believe what has happened to her? Does she ever wake up and say I cannot believe it? "Pretty much every morning," she admits. 

Joanne Rowling was born in Chipping Sodbury General Hospital in July, 1965. Her father was an apprentice engineer at Rolls-Royce who worked on aircraft engines. Her mother was part French and part Scottish. Her parents met at the age of 19 on a train as it left King's Cross - Rowling claims it is the most romantic station in the world -and they married at 20. Rowling was born nine months later and then came her sister Di. 

The young family lived in Yate, outside Bristol and then Winterbourne. It was here, on a street of semi-detached houses, that she lived four doors away from a family called the Potters. She borrowed their name, as she has borrowed so many others, because she is a word magpie. She especially loves strange names.


It is impossible to talk to Rowling about her childhood without also talking about Harry Potter and his life at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Part of this is because she has ransacked bits of her past and given them to Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron. But part of this also is that Rowling spends a lot of time inside Harry's world, and it is real to her. Every character has a family tree, a psyche, even dietary requirements. She's in charge, so she knows their futures, but doesn't let much slip. She likes secrets. She came up with the idea for Harry Potter on a delayed train and knew from the beginning there would be seven books - one for every year he is at boarding school - and she wrote the final chapter of the book years ago. It was hanging around her house for a long time before she realized it should be put somewhere safe. 

Finding a director for the first film produced from the book series, Warner Brothers' "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" didn't take very long. Having achieved a writer's greatest wish come true, artistic control of the film version of her work, Rowling was adamant about filming in the UK with an all British cast. She liked Chris Columbus, who had previously directed "Home Alone" and "Mrs. Doubtfire". 

"My daughter Eleanor was reading the book at the time and insisted that I read it as well," Columbus remembers. "I started reading it, finished it in one day and couldn't stop thinking about turning it into a film. But, at that point, the film was already in the hands of another director. Nevertheless, I wasn't intimidated by this. I felt that if I could articulate my passion and obsession with the material, if I could clearly specify how I would make the film, the Studio would realize that I was the man for the job." 

The next step was meeting with the author, J.K. Rowling. "At first I was nervous, being such a big fan of the books," Columbus says. "But I immediately felt comfortable with Jo. I explained that I would protect the integrity of the book. I told her how I wanted to keep the darkness and the edge of the material intact. I also think Jo was excited by the fact that I wanted her to be involved in the creative process. And she was an invaluable collaborator. Her inspiration and ideas were absolutely wonderful." 

"It was not easy to find a boy who embodied the many qualities of Harry Potter," producer David Heyman explains. "We wanted someone who could combine a sense of wonder and curiosity, the sense of having lived a life, having experienced pain; an old soul in a child's body. He needed to be open and generous to those around him and have good judgment. Harry is not great at academics; he has flaws. But that's what makes him so compelling. He makes us all believe that magic is possible." 

Sitting on a shelf in Heyman's production office was a video copy of "David Copperfield", starring Daniel Radcliffe. "I picked up the video box, pointed to Dan's face and said "This is who I want! This is Harry Potter!" The casting director said, "I've told you before, he is unavailable and his parents aren't interested in him doing this film." 

"To the Radcliffes credit, they were totally aware of the enormity of the project and for the sake of their child, were not going to make this decision lightly," says Columbus. "We made it very clear to the them that we would protect their son. We knew from the start that Dan was Harry Potter. He has the magic, the inner depth and darkness that is very rare in an eleven year-old. He also has a sense of wisdom and intelligence that I haven't seen in many other kids his age. We knew we had made the right choice after sending Jo [Rowling] a copy of Daniel's screen test." 

Eleven year-old Daniel Radcliffe had first been tipped off about the auditions for the much sought-after role some months earlier by a school friend, but had dismissed his chances. "I thought, there are millions of boys auditioning for that part and I know I won't get it!" Radcliffe remembers fondly. After completing several auditions and that fateful screen test, Daniel's life-changing phone call finally came. 

"I was in the bath and talking to my Mum when the phone rang and Dad came in and told me I'd got the part," Radcliffe recalls with wonder. "I was so happy, I cried a lot! That night I woke up at two in the morning and woke up Mum and Dad and I asked them, 'Is it real? Am I dreaming?' I was so excited!" 

As for the character of Hermione, some see in her Rowling as a young girl, hard working, bookish, a worrywort. Rowling says she was painfully swotty (British slang for studious), with spectacles and short, short hair. She claims that she loosened up a bit later on and defends Hermione pretty fiercely. 

"My American editor says that I am mean to Hermione because she is me. But I don't think that I am mean to her. I love her dearly. I understand where she is coming from. It comes from believing yourself to be plain and feeling yourself to be no good at anything else so you've got to achieve something. I completely understand Hermione and I really love her and I don't want to depict her as a feisty little thing. Isn't Hermione strong enough? She is the most brilliant of the three and they need her. Harry needs her badly." 

From approving the script for the movie to the spinoffs it produces, Ms. Rowling seems to be ready to defend her vision of Harry Potter to the last. "I would do anything to prevent Harry from turning up in fast-food boxes everywhere," she said. "I would do my utmost. That would be my worst nightmare." And on the commercialization of the fourth book, she said, "I'm quite clear in my mind what I would like to be out there and what I wouldn't." 

Muggles Meddling

Ms. Rowling has sought to maintain similar control over public access to her personal life, but that has not always been possible. Much as she sought in the earlier years of her success to pretend to herself that acclaim would not change her life, it has anyway; interviews, TV appearances and promotional tours for the books and the film, as well as a well-publicized premiere in London are just part of it. Finding herself a celebrity, with the constant glare of the press and public attention, has been tough on the naturally shy woman. 

"But then I go home, and life will resume its normal pattern. It's not particularly interesting -- seeing friends, working, raising a daughter -- is the most important thing in my life, Harry included," she says. 

Rowling has a current beau and rumor has it that she may soon wed the handsome 30-year-old Dr. Neil Murray, her boyfriend of a year. Before the two can tie the knot however, Dr. Murray must first finalise his divorce from university sweetheart and fellow doctor Fiona Duncan. Those close to the couple believe that will soon be resolved. 

What's up next in the magical world of Harry Potter? The manuscript for the fifth book was due to be delivered to Bloomsbury Publishers earlier this year, but Rowling is late and is taking more time to work on it. A spokeswoman for the publishing house added, "A decision on the publication date will not be made until we have got a manuscript. We are in a situation where we expect it when we see it, there is not a deadline." When Bloomsbury announced in March that the fifth book would not be out in time, shares in the company dipped by five points. 

Whomping Willow!

The delay in publication of the fifth book has caused frustration among Harry Potter fans around the world, with its release date the source of massive speculation on the 100-plus Harry Potter fan-based internet websites. Could Rowling be depressed with writer's block again, or is she just enjoying fame too much to be able to write? Meanwhile, announced last month the book would not be released until July 2002 and has set up a facility on its website for fans who wish to be the first to order a copy. And on the film front, casting has already begun for the next Potter sequel, due out next year.

But for the moment, and in the life of J.K. Rowling and all the rest of us muggles, it looks like it's definitely going to be a very Happy Harry Holiday season this year!


Original page date 13 March 2007; last updated 13 March 2007.