Goldwin, Clare. "J K Rowling on her Days of Poverty," The Daily Mirror, June 2002

Editor's note: The Rowling quotes in this article were taken from the foreword to the book "Magic" and not a live interview. Read the original source.

AT FIRST glance it's a rags-to-riches tale that could have come straight from the imagination of JK Rowling herself.

A penniless writer lives in a freezing flat and nurses cups of coffee for hours at a time in a warm cafe, where she sits with her baby girl and writes the books that will one day make her fame and fortune.

This is the popular version of JK's own life story but the truth of being a single parent was no romantic fairy story for the Harry Potter author.

This will become apparent when Bloomsbury publishes Magic - a collection of short stories sold to raise money for the National Council For One Parent Families' Magic Million Appeal.

The book, to be published next month, is co-edited by Chancellor Gordon Brown's wife, Sarah, who is also patron of the NCOPF, and novelist Gil McNeil.

They persuaded 18 of Britain's most acclaimed writers - including Sue Townsend, Fay Weldon, Jo Harris, Arabella Weir, Meera Syal and Ben Okri - to contribute a story for free.

Jo Rowling is the charity's ambassador and has written the foreword.

In it, Jo gives her most searingly honest account yet of the poverty and humiliation she faced bringing up her daughter alone.

Thanks to Harry Potter, Jo, 36, is now a multi-millionaire who can cater for her daughter's every need.

But the indignities she endured as a lone parent still burn strong.

"I remember reaching the supermarket checkout, counting out the money in coppers, finding out I was two pence short of a tin of baked beans and feeling I had to pretend I had mislaid a £10 note for the benefit of the bored girl at the till," says Jo.

"Similarly unappreciated acting skills were required for my forays into Mothercare, where I would pretend to be examining clothes I could not afford for my daughter.

"All the time I would be edging ever closer to the baby-changing room where they offered a small supply of free nappies.

"I hated dressing my longed-for child from charity shops.

"I hated relying on the kindness of relatives when it came to her new shoes.

"I tried furiously hard not to feel jealous of other children's beautifully decorated, well-stocked bedrooms when we went to friends' houses to play."

Jo had moved to Portugal to teach English in 1991 and met a Portuguese television journalist. They married in October 1992 but Jo left with her baby the following year.

"My story starts in 1993, when my marriage ended," Jo explains in the forward. "I was living abroad and in full-time employment when I gave birth to my daughter."

LEAVING her ex-husband meant leaving her job and returning to Britain with two suitcases full of possessions.

"I knew perfectly well that I was walking into poverty," she adds, "but I truly believed that it would be a matter of months before I was back on my feet.

"I had enough money saved to put down a deposit on a rented flat and buy a high chair, cot and other essentials.

"When my savings were gone, I settled down to life on slightly less than £70 a week.

"Poverty, as I soon found out, is a lot like childbirth - you know that it's going to hurt before it happens but you'll never know how much until you've experienced it.

"Some articles written about me have come close to romanticising the time I spent on Income Support, because the well-worn cliche of the writer starving in the garret is so much more picturesque than the bitter reality of living in poverty with a child.

"The endless little humiliations of life on benefits - and remember that six out of 10 families headed by a lone parent live in poverty - receive very little media coverage unless they are followed by what seems to be a swift and Cinderella-like reversal of fortune."

As Jo was to discover, finding work and looking after a small child at the same time was an almost impossible juggling act.

"I wanted to work part-time," she explains. "When I asked my health visitor about the possibility of a couple of afternoons' state childcare a week she explained, very kindly, that places for babies were reserved for those who were deemed 'at risk'.

"Her exact words were: 'You're coping too well'.

"I was allowed to earn a maximum of £15 a week before my Income Support and Housing Benefit was docked.

"Full-time private childcare was so exorbitant that I would need to find a full-time job paying well above the national average. I had to decide whether my baby would rather be handed over to somebody else for most of her waking hours, or be cared for by her mother in far from luxurious surroundings.

"I chose the latter option, though constantly feeling I had to justify my choice at length whenever anybody asked me that nasty question: 'So what do you do?' The honest answer to that question was that I worried continually - I devoted hours to writing a book I doubted would ever be published, I tried hard to hold on to the hope that our financial situation would improve.

"And when I was not too exhausted to feel strong emotion, I was swamped with anger at the portrayal of single mothers by certain politicians and newspapers as feckless teenagers in search of the Holy Grail - the council flat - when 97 per cent of us had long since left our teens."

Eventually, Jo was able to train as a teacher after a friend lent her the money for childcare. And she explains she believes there is no reason to be ashamed of being a single parent. "The sub-text of much of the vilification of lone parents is that couple families are intrinsically superior yet, during my time as a school teacher, I met a number of disruptive, damaged children whose home contained two parents.

"There are those who still believe head-count defines a 'real' family, who believe that marriage is the only 'right' context in which to have children. But I have never felt the remotest shame about being a single parent.

"I have the temerity to be rather proud of the period when I did three jobs single-handedly - the unpaid work of two parents and the salaried job as a teacher.

"There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that it is not single-parenthood but poverty that causes some children to do less well than others.

"When you take poverty out of the equation, children from one-parent families can do just as well as children from couple families."

Jo has not forgotten how far she has come from the time when she was unable to afford a tin of baked beans and prayed for fine weather to avoid a big gas bill.

"I am fully aware, every single day, of how lucky I am," she writes.

"I am lucky because I do not have to worry about my daughter's financial security any more, because what used to be Benefit day comes around and there's still food in the fridge and the bills are paid.

"I had a talent that I could exercise without financial outlay. But anyone thinking of using me as an example of how single parents can break out of the poverty trap might as well point at Oprah Winfrey and declare that there is no more racism in America.

"People just like me are facing the same obstacles to a full realisation of their potential every day and their children are missing opportunities alongside them.

"They are not asking for hand-outs, they are not scheming for council flats, they are simply asking for the support they need to break free of life on benefits and support their own children."

Jo became a patron for the NCOPF two years ago and has donated £500,000 to the charity.

SHE says: "The National Council For One Parent Families is neither anti-marriage nor a propagandist for 'going it alone'.

"It exists to help parents bringing up children alone, for example, in the aftermath of a relationship breakdown or the death of a partner, when children are faced with a new kind of family and one parent is left coping with the work of two - often on a considerably reduced income.

"It provides invaluable advice and practical support on a wide range of issues affecting lone parents and their children - and I am very proud to be associated with it."

As Jo explains in the foreword, her involvement came about in an appropriate way for a single mother.

"Andy Keen Downs, the charity's deputy director, came to see me and sat down in my habitually untidy kitchen, pulled a sheaf of notes from his briefcase and embarked on what I'm quite sure would have been a marvellously persuasive, well-constructed and beautifully delivered speech.

"'Andy,' I interrupted, in that harassed voice by which lone parents can often be identified, 'you'd like me to be a patron, wouldn't you?'

"'OK, I'll do it but could we please discuss the details on the way to school, because sports day starts in five minutes.'

"And so we discussed the National Council For One Parent Families while watching the egg and spoon races.

"It was a highly fitting start, I felt, for my association with a charity that is devoted to helping those parents whose lives are a constant balancing act.

"But I didn't need to hear Andy's well-rehearsed persuasive arguments on sports day. I had already made up my mind that it was time to put my money where my mouth had been ever since I experienced the reality of single-parenthood in Britain.

"I want to offer my very deepest thanks to, not only the authors of this book, but to everybody, who, through buying this book, contributes to our appeal."

The proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards the charity's Magic Million Appeal, whose funds will help maintain the broad range of services offered to lone parents who want to pull themselves out of the poverty trap while bringing up happy, well-adjusted children.

"You are offering hope to families who are too often scapegoated rather than supported," Jo concludes, "families who could do with a lot less Dursleyish stigmatism and a little more magic in their lives."

Magic, edited by Sarah Brown and Gil McNeil, is priced at £6.99. For every edition sold, £1 will go to the Magic Million Appeal, which aims to raise £1million to fund better information services for lone parents.