The Jacana

 Great Lives Site


Back to Jacana

Great Lives index


J. K. Rowling
1965 -

Something of a publishing phenomenon, J. K. Rowling has sold more than a quarter-billion books from her series of novels about a British boy wizard named Harry Potter. With the wildly popular series, Rowling single-handedly revived the market for children's literature. The books, translated into over 600 languages, spawned a sequence of worldwide box-office movie hits, and were credited with getting an entire generation of children raised on video games, television, and the Internet interested in reading again.


Born in 1965, in Chipping Sodbury, a small town in Bristol, England located a few miles south of Dursley, hometown to her fictional protagonist Harry Potter, Joanne Rowling was the daughter of a French-Scottish mother named Anne, and a Rolls Royce engineer father named Peter Rowling, who met on a train leaving King's Cross Station in London. She also has one older sister, Diana. In 1971, the Rowlings moved to nearby Winterbourne, in Bristol, and among the children's friends were Ian and Vikki Potter. Three years later, the family moved again, to Tutshill, near the border of Wales.

Rowling says she started writing stories at age six. Her first story, Rabbit, was about a rabbit with measles. Rowling later described herself as a child to a January Online interviewer as much like Harry Potter: "short, squat," wearing thick glasses, shy, "very bossy" and "very bookish," though "terrible at school." She said she was "never happier than when reading or writing."

Rowling studied French at Exeter University and earned a bachelor's degree in 1986. After graduation she worked as a secretary at various firms, including a publisher, where part of her job was writing and sending out rejection letters to prospective authors. Her dream was still to become a writer, and she started several adult novels but never finished them. In 1990, Rowling first imagined Harry Potter while on a train that was delayed for hours between Manchester and London, and has noted that the character emerged to her "fully formed."

In 1990 Rowling moved to Portugal to teach English, and there she met and married Portuguese television journalist Jorge Arantes, with whom she had a child, Jessica. Unfortunately, the marriage ended in divorce after a stormy two years marked by frequent quarreling. Although Rowling has denied basing her arrogant, lying wizard Gilderoy Lockhart on Arantes, she had noted that the character in the Harry Potter series was modelled on a real person who was "even more objectionable than his fictional counterpart."

Achieved Breakthrough

Rowling returned to Great Britain in 1993 when Jessica was three months old, and moved to Edinburgh, where her sister Diana lived. While raising her young daughter by herself and battling fits of depression, she wrote the drafts of her book in longhand because she could not afford a used typewriter, much less a computer. With the help of a grant from the Scottish Arts Council, Rowling finished the book, then found an agent, Christopher Little, by looking through directories at the library. In 1996, while its author was working as a French teacher in Edinburgh, Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, having picked up Rowling's manuscript after several other publishers rejected it.

Rowling decided to use initials rather than her first name to disguise her gender and ward off any possible bias from her target audience of young boys; because she had no middle name of her own, she used K to stand for Kathleen, the name of her favourite grandmother. In 1998 the book was published in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and Pottermania began. No one in the publishing business had ever seen anything quite like it: hardcover sales were soon in the millions and the book was being read by children and adults alike. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone proved to be the best-selling children's book in decades. As the author was quoted by January Online, "I thought I'd written something that a handful of people might quite like. So this has been something of a shock."

Fame and Fortune

From an unemployed single mother, Rowling enjoyed a dizzying ride to celebrity status. By the time her third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was released, Harry Potter was appearing on the cover of Time magazine, and Rowling had to make her peace with being a worldwide celebrity. She changed her bright red hair to a less flamboyant dark blonde. On tours, she could do author's readings only in venues that normally hosted rock stars and sporting events. When she remarried in December of 2001, she had amassed a fortune estimated at $150 million. Her new husband was Neil Murray, an anesthesiologist, who quit his job to be with Jessica while her mother worked and traveled. The family moved into an 1865 mansion, Killiechassie House, near the Scottish town of Aberfeldy, which they had bought for a reported $2.75 million. In March 2003, their son, David, was born, and a second child was expected in 2005.

When the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, appeared there were major bookstore events at midnight on the day of publication. It sold an unheard-of three million copies in the first 48 hours, the fastest-selling book in publishing history. The novel also became the best-selling book of 2000, selling seven million copies in hardcover.

Inevitably, Potter's books became the cornerstones of a global franchise of movies, video games, toys, clothing, and collectibles, making Rowling richer than perhaps any author in history. The film versions followed each book by an interval of a couple of years, and virtually every year either a book or a film version of an early book were released, and sometimes one of each, with each release timed to maximize sales. The movie version of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, released in 2001, had a lukewarm critical reception but a huge audience. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets followed in 2002, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the most critically acclaimed film of the series, was one of the top hits of 2004. The movie adaptation of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was due out in 2004, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was slated for 2007. A film version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was projected for a 2008 release in early 2005, months before the novel it would be based on was even published.

Rowling's books and movies did not appeal just to children; many adults were big fans of them too. As Rowling explained to a January Online contributor, "When I write the books, I really do write them for me. . . . So the humor in the books is really what I find funny." She said the character of Hermoine was based on herself, but that she never considered abandoning the idea of the boy, Harry, being the hero and protagonist. Each book takes Potter and Hermoine and their schoolmates through another academic year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, an institution that is clearly a thinly disguised parody of aristocratic British boarding schools. In each book they faced incarnations of enemies and have to use magic to defeat them, while pausing for games of "quidditch," a fanciful version of soccer played on broomsticks.

A Magical Franchise

As the series progressed, Rowling's books got longer and longer. Publishers and book critics, already flabbergasted by the success of the series worldwide, shook their heads at a first U.S. printing of 8.5 million copies for the 896-page Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in June of 2003. Despite the books' increasing length, sales grew with each publication. Every one of the "Harry Potter" books made the best-seller lists, and some stayed on the charts for a year or more. Prince Charles, who professed to being a fan of the "Harry Potter" series, named Rowling as officer in the Order of the British Empire, and in 2004 she received an honorary degree from Edinburgh University.

Critics searched for reasons why ten year olds were willing to wade through such tomes, and the key was the readily understood adventures. "In contrast to the lack of power most children have in their own lives, Harry and his friends master the natural world and make it behave in ways that are most unnatural," wrote Sara Ann Beach and Elizabeth Harden Willner in World Literature Today. "In addition, they are able to use their power to frustrate those adults who do not have children's best interests at heart. Rowling opens the door for adolescent readers to share the characters' power while experiencing a connection to literature that has the potential to enrich their lives."

With adulation came the travails of celebrity. In 2002 Nancy Stouffer of Pennsylvania sued Rowling in New York for plagiarism, claiming she had stolen ideas from Stouffer's 1984 book The Legend of Rah and Muggles, whose characters include a Larry Potter. The case was dismissed when the judge ruled Stouffer had doctored evidence and lied to the court. In 2003, Rowling and publisher Time Warner successfully sued a Dutch publishing company and prevented release of a book that featured a girl wizard named Tanya Grotter that Rowling argued infringed her copyright.

Despite the popularity of the series, Rowling maintained in her January Online interview that she was still "writing from the plan I had in 1995." According to the novelist, she began the "Harry Potter" series planning for seven books and intended to be able to say "I stayed true to what I wanted to write. . . . That won't be deflected, either by adoration or by criticism."

The "Meaning" of Potter

The "Harry Potter" phenomenon understandably sparked interest far beyond the literary community. Some conservative Christian groups in the United States attacked the Potter books as bordering on sacrilegious or devil worship. However, as religion expert Michael Ostling commented before a 2001 meeting of the American Academy of Religion, "the stories are spiritually benign and indicate how thoroughly magic and witchcraft have lost their meaning in today's world," as quoted in the Christian Century. Ostling quoted Charles Colson as characterizing the magic in Rowling's books as "purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic."

In Queen's Quarterly psychologist Benoit Virole wrote: "Rowling has fashioned an ongoing narrative quest in the classical tradition, but one that is particularly suited to the way today's children mentally conjure a literary adventure." Virole noted that "all the structures of a video game are integrated into Rowling's . . . writing," including a "ready-made closed world, well-defined units of time, well-defined places with their trappings differentiated like stage settings, gains and losses of power, the construction and collapse of alliances, projective identification with the principal characters, [and] cliff-hangers pointing to the next product."

Virole's attempt to explain Harry Potter's appeal started with the premise that "To live an exceptional life and to be the child of an extraordinary, but vanished, couple is a universal fantasy linked to the Oedipus complex." He also explained that Rowling's construction of a virtual universe, "a society with its own rules and structures," appeals to children, and that her writing style, "stringing together short narrative sequences laid out in a determinate and clearly defined spatiotemporal sequence" is perfect for a generation "raised on a constant flux of images and for whom quickness of mental picture-painting and focus on action" are key. Like other myths, he noted, Potter's tale is that of "an existential journey through a symbolic world."

While critics continued to debate the books' merits and decipher their appeal, Rowling's series continued, becoming a global obsession. In Edinburgh, Scotland, city officials even debated whether to erect a statue in Rowling's honour. As far as Potter's future, according to January Online, Rowling told an audience composed mainly of young fans at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2004: "He will survive to book seven, mainly because I don't want to be strangled by you lot, but I don't want to say whether he grows any older than that." After Rowling admitted in October 2004 that another character in the series would die in the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, London bookies placed odds on fatality that ranged from scary for Hogwarts' headmaster Dumbledore (4 to 1) to unlikely for Potter himself (33 to 1).










This web page was last updated on: 15 December, 2008