'There would be so much to tell her...'
Interviewer: Geordie Greig.
Publication: Tatler Magazine.
Date: January 10, 2006.
Context: Multiple Sclerosis awareness & fundraising.
Note: Transcript courtesy of Mugglenet.
For all her incredible riches and fame, JK Rowling is not one to splash it about. She talks to Geordie Greig about love, loss ... and that missing Harry notebook.
A tear slowly trickles down JK Rowling's cheek. She is sitting in her large and comfortable drawing room in the Morningside area of Edinburgh. It is early afternoon; sandwiches and chocolate cakes are left untouched on the coffee table as she painfully recalls the most traumatising moment of her life. It was the day her mother, Anne, died aged 45 after a 10-year battle against multiple sclerosis. A small part of her agony is that her mother never knew she was writing Harry Potter, let alone that she would become the most successful author on earth. "The night she died I had been staying with my boyfriend's family, the first time I had ever spent Christmas away from home. I had gone to bed early, ostensibly to watch The Man Who Would Be King, but instead I started writing. So I know I was writing Harry Potter at the moment my mother died. I had never told her about Harry Potter."
"Dad called me at seven o'clock the next morning and I just knew what had happened before he spoke. I just knew. There was no way my father would call me at 7am for any reason other than that. As I ran downstairs I had that kind of white-noise panic in my head but could not grasp the enormity of my mother having died." It was New Year's Day 1991 and Joanne Rowling, then 25, and her boyfriend piled into his car and drove to her parents' home in Wales. "I was alternately a wreck and then in total denial. At some point on the car journey I can remember thinking, 'Let's pretend it hasn't happened,' because that was a way to get through the next 10 minutes."
Joanne Rowling is startled by her tears. She is naturally reserved and very private. She is also very ordered and in control. Her long blonde hair is protective as well as pretty. All seven Harry Potter books were mapped out before she started writing. She dabs a proffered napkin to her eyes and pauses before continuing: "Barely a day goes by when I do not think of her. There would be so much to tell her, impossibly much." A priority in her life is now to raise funds for research into MS, which confined her mother to a wheelchair in her final days. "She was so young and so fit. To have your body in rebellion against you is a dreadful thing to witness, let alone suffer," says Rowling, now patron of the MS Society Scotland. On 17 March she will hosted a fundraising masked ball at Stirling Castle; one of the many attractions will be a treasure hunt with clues set by her.
Her mother's condition forged her own psychological strengths and vulnerabilities, as well as leading to make Harry Potter suffer the death of his parents. Her orphaned schoolboy with his trademark specs became one of the most successful characters in children's literature, selling 300 million books in 63 countries; some of the Harry Potter books have sold three million copies within 48 hours of going on sale.
Death is the key to understanding JK Rowling. Her greatest fear - and she is completely unhesitant about this - is of someone she loves dying. "My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of it." In the seventh and final Harry Potter book there will be deaths of both goodies and baddies. She was talking to her husband, Neil, the other day, after she had just written the death of one particular character. "He shuddered. 'Oh, don't do that,' he said to me, but of course I did." And with one swirl of her pen, millions of children will weep or rejoice. Countless Harry Potter websites try to predict what will happen in the final book. "Neil is the only person I can talk to about what happens because he instantly forgets," she says, laughing.
All unpublished Potter information is gold dust. Rowling's dustbins have gone over; her letters have been stolen; printers have been offered bribes; friends have had cheque books waved at them by tabloid reporters. She is a little worried because one Harry Potter notebook has gone missing and it contains plot details on the final book. "I am sure it will turn up. I just hope I didn't leave it anywhere. I have been looking everywhere. What I don't want is someone to find it and take it to The Sun." Anything not filed and locked away in her office is shredded. And because of global marketing she has to train herself not to talk about what she is currently writing. "I so nearly told you the title, it almost popped out," she says at one point. On eBay, large sums are paid for Harry Potter books signed by her, many of them fakes. "I can identify fake ones pretty well," she says. But she tries not to get too involved in Pottermania. She once caused the share price of her publisher, Bloomsbury, to fall by changing a word on her website.
Nothing about her life after Harry has ever been the same. She has met the Queen twice: "My mother would have loved for me to have phoned to say I was getting the OBE but you mustn't tell the neighbors. Can you imagine! That would have been so hard for her." Nelson Mandela invited her to South Africa: "Sadly I had to say no because I was pregnant." Sigourney Weaver invited her round: "I was in America but it was all so strange. I had never met her so I didn't go." Bill Clinton declared he was a fan: "Telling my mother would have been the best bit about meeting the President." More money than she can spend rolls in - estimates have topped £500 million, with The Sunday Times Rich List valuing her at £435 million in 2004; she has frequently denied the figures.
This modest, gentle woman, born in Chipping Sodbury, cannot really believe she is as famous as Walt Disney was in his day. "I cannot really emphasise how unconnected I was when all this happened to me. I was totally obscure and no one I knew knew anyone famous. So this was very alien to me and I was scared rigid." But you know that your PA could arrange a meeting for you with anyone in the world? "When you say that to me I just find it freakish. I'm not being disingenuous. I'm not trying to be modest but it still puzzles me, and I'm very wary of it." Between 800 and 1,000 letters arrive every week; all are answered.
Harry Potter has been translated in Latin and Mandarin. The Pope allegedly condemned the books for their heretical magic: "I can remember reading about it and thinking surely there are more important things for him to worry about than my books - world peace, war in the Middle East..." She has endured death threats, stalkers, begging letters and prying paparazzi. On Mauritius she was "long-lensed" in her bikini.
Having her daughter Jessica in the papers is what really freaked her out; she had always tried to keep her out of the press. Privacy, she realised, was something for which she would have to pay, hence the occasional private jet to remote places where anonymity is more likely. Tswalu, the stunning South African safari camp owned by the Oppenheimer family in Kalahari, was one fabulous recent holiday. Hawaii was another. Last year she hired Hopetoun, the magnificent 18th-century seat (well, 1699) of the Marquess of Linlithgow outside Edinburgh, for her 40th birthday. She had tried to hire the royal yacht Britannia but turned it down because no dancing is allowed. She booked Hopetoun under her married name of Mrs. Murray and arranged every detail, down to the last-minute splurge down Bond Street where she spotted a fairytale set of diamond earrings. She hesitated, asked the price, gulped and said: "I'll have them."
It's all a long way from her single-parent days surviving on £70 a week, when she worried if she had enough for herself and her daughter to eat. 'Richer Than the Queen' was the most indelible headline after she went from unknown with no money to famous with oodles of it. She laughs. "Well I'm certainly not going to complain about having the money. Not for a second. Of course it makes everything easier. If you've literally been worrying, 'Will the money last till the end of the week?' you will never, ever complain about having money. It enables you, sets you free from worry. It allows you to travel, to help people. There is no way I am ever going to complain about having the money. I'm grateful for it every single day."
With three houses - in Edinburgh, Perth and London - and a tight team of advertisers, a to-die-for PA and two secretaries, she has kept her world small and manageable. There are flurries of mild extravagance. "I love a handbag and I love shoes." But the sensible gene also kicks in. This is never going to be a woman with leopardskin on the walls or Rembrandts stacked up the hallway. "I've got a mental amount that I can't spend beyond. I just couldn't. I still have a limit to what I think I would be justified in spending on frivolity." And when she bought her Bond Street earrings, mild guilt set in and she wrote out a cheque for the same amount to a charity. There are very few luxuries in her life. A Jane Austen first edition is on her shelf but it jostles for space with paperbacks.
She knew money brings complications, and like all very rich people wondered if people might be interested in her just for her income. That is until she met Neil Murray. Bearded, rock-star handsome, unpretentious and easy-going. Murray is a hardworking GP with long hours. Very hands-on as a father, he is not interested in the limelight or the shiny baubles that money can bring. "Money just wasn't an issue with him. In fact, Neil doesn't really spend money. That's not what he wants." Two children later (David, two, and Mackenzie, nine months), they could not look happier. How tricky was it dating as a woman who was so famous and so rich? "I had thought before I met Neil that it would be a factor in my remaining single forever. Certainly before I met Neil I hadn't met anyone that I could conceive of marrying. I thought, 'I'm not going to meet anyone.' I did believe that. I cannot emphasise that enough. I thought, 'I've been lucky. I've got my work. I had my child." I couldn't complain. I'm not someone who will take just anyone. I know I can survive on my own. I have been on my own for long stretches, which is not to say that at times I wasn't very lonely. I was, but I am a coper. I can do the being-on-my-own thing."
She can now admit that the pressure of her fame was almost head-splitting at times. "I've never said this before, but when I was repeatedly asked, 'How are you coping?' I would say, 'Fine.' I was lying to myself at the time. Denial was my friend. The truth is that I could easily have said, 'Well now you mention it, it's all quite difficult to deal with. I will go home on my own this evening to look after my daughter, and I will feel enormous pressure.' I was isolated before I got famous, and having fame on top of an already isolating situation didn't help. "I was hypersensitive because I had a daughter from my first marriage. It was as though I'd lived under a rock for a long time and suddenly someone had lifted it off and was shining a torch onto me. And it's not that life under the rock was awful but actually I was petrified and didn't know how to handle it."
So this beautiful, gentle, guileless woman, who needs security guards if she goes into a bookshop, has remained remarkably normal. She still, for instance, writes her books in cafes in Edinburgh. 'For the first time I have a proper study, but you know what: I still prefer doing it in cafes. Occasionally I might look up and find a table of people staring at me. I get very embarrassed and go.' When she was writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone she couldn't afford child care, so she would walk and walk with her daughter in a pram until she fell asleep and then rush to a cafe to start scribbling. 'My power of concentration is battle-hardened. It's just the way I've always had to write.'
This year she will finish writing the Harry Potter series. The final chapter sits, already written, in her safe. A new children's book is also complete. It is about a monster and is what Rowling calls a 'political fairy story'. It is aimed at children younger than those who read Harry Potter: 'I haven't even told my publisher about this.' There are also some short stories already written.
She is disarmingly normal. Her favourite drink is gin and tonic, her least favourite food tripe. Her heroine is Jessica Mitford and her favourite author Jane Austen. She can't drive, having failed her test at 17 and left it at that - 'I have a distinct fear of cars, that something awful is going to happen.' She gave up smoking five years ago and has spent most of the past three years pregnant or caring for a small baby. She is a Christian (Episcopalian) and, 'like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes about if my faith will return. It's important to me.'
Life is always changing for her. She is involved in a new project to help impoverished orphans in Eastern Europe. She saw an article in The Sunday Times and thought it was too upsetting to read after seeing photographs of young children literally caged: 'I then thought it is wrong to avoid it, so I thought, "Why don't I try to do something to help."' She wrote to the president of the Czech Republic, to her MP, to everyone she could think of - and it worked. She is now part of an EU group that is planning to visit similar orphans in Romania. Again, the Potter theme of overcoming the loss of a parent returns.
But in the meantime Cinderella has to get ready for her own ball - for the MS cause. She has her Amanda Wakeley dress bought and ready and a mask will be made. She will raise hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, for MS. She wants to make a difference. She does not want her mother's death to have been in vain.
She scatters scary MS facts as quick as a wizard in a game of Quidditch. The strangest is that the most likely people in the world to get MS are Scots - for some yet unknown reason Scotland is the MS capital of the world. The goals of her fundraising are to enable better treatments - and ultimately a cure - for MS to be found. She is heading a campaign to ensure people with MS get the care they need now. Currently some are left to come to terms with their devastating diagnosis on their own. Later, if the disease gets worse, they may be denied basics such as an electric wheelchair. Her mission is to change the way people with MS are treated and to unlock the mysteries of the disease. 'Not a day goes by when I don't think of my mother. Her death depth-charged me. It changed my life.' Now she wants it to change other lives for the better.
•For MS Society Scotland, call 0131 3354050 or see
MS society Scotland; for the Stirling Castle Masquerade Ball, call 0131 5588851
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2006.