J. K. Rowling
by Penny Linsenmayer
Life Before the Harry Potter Series
Joanne Kathleen Rowling (rhymes with "rolling" ) was born on 31 July 1965 in Chipping Sodbury, near Bristol. Interestingly, Chipping Sodbury is just south of a town called Dursley. Her father, Peter Rowling, was an engineer for Rolls Royce in Bristol at this time. Her mother, Anne Rowling, was half-French and half-Scottish. They met on a train as it left King's Cross Station in London. Her sister Diana ("Di") is about 2 years younger than Joanne.
In 1971, Peter Rowling moved his family to the nearby town of Winterbourne (still in the Bristol vicinity). During the family's residence in Winterbourne, Jo and Di Rowling were friends with neighborhood children, Ian and Vikki Potter. In 1974, the Rowling family moved yet again, this time to Tutshill, near the Welsh border town of Chepstow (in the Forest of Dean) and across the Severn River from the greater Bristol area. Rowling admits to having been a bit of a daydreamer as a child and began writing stories at the age of six. Jo began her schooling at Wyedean Comprehensive in Tutshill in 1976. It was at Wyedean that she met one of her oldest friends, Sean Harris, who is said to a partial model for Ron Weasley's character.
Jo describes herself during this time period at Wyedean as a "pudding-faced child with glasses, a snotty, swotty little kid" who was quite insecure (she has ascribed many of her own traits from her childhood to Hermione Granger's character, including Hermione's social activism). "The character of Hermione is Rowling as a young girl: hard working, bookish, a worrywart. Rowling says she was painfully swotty, with NHS spectacles and short, short hair. She claims that she loosened up a bit later on, but I'm not so sure about this. At times during the interview she is nothing short of earnest, especially about her work. She defends Hermione pretty fiercely, too. 'My American editor says that I am mean to her because she is me. But I don't think that I am mean to her. I love her dearly.'" During these school years, Rowling became a fan of Jane Austen's work, describing Austen as her "favorite author ever." Jo became Head Girl at Wyedean during her final year of school, 1982. She got A levels in English, French and German.
In 1983, Jo enrolled at the University of Exeter to study French and Classics. In 1985, she spent one year in Paris as a teachers' assistant for her degree program. After graduating from the University of Exeter in 1987, Rowling worked a brief stint as a research assistant for Amnesty International. Her field was human rights abuses in Francophone Africa. She worked as a secretary in Manchester for several years beginning in 1988, and she professed to using most of her time typing in stories and story ideas. Her mother died of multiple sclerosis in 1990 at the age of 45, and Rowling describes it as the worst experience of her life.
In 1991, Rowling departed Britain to teach English as a foreign language in Oporto, Portugal. She was actively making notes for her Harry Potter ideas and writing drafts of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. She married Portuguese television journalist, Jorge Arantes, on 16 October 1992. Her daughter Jessica, named for Rowling's idol, activist Jessica Mitford, was born in July 1993. She left her husband in November 1993, returning to Britain with her infant daughter. She settled in Edinburgh, Scotland where her sister Di, a former nurse, was studying law. Although she rarely discusses her brief marriage at all and certainly will not divulge the reasons for its failure, the suggestion that her former husband had any input into the Harry Potter books does get a response from her. "He had about as much input into Harry Potter as I had into 'A Tale of Two Cities,' she said tartly" when asked about this subject.
In 1990, while stuck on a delayed train between London and Manchester, Rowling says that Harry Potter's character strode, "fully-formed" into her head. She began conceiving of the entire basis for the Harry Potter books while on this train journey, committing it largely to memory as she was without paper or a pen. She later said that she spent the next five years largely researching and making notes for the entire series and Harry's world (and, of course, writing Philosopher's Stone, which was completed by sometime in 1995). She has said that numerous details from her notes about Harry's world will never make it into the novels. Having decided that "one of the unifying characteristics of any given society is sport," she invented Quidditch in about 1991 after an argument with her then-boyfriend. Rowling says that she created the names for the four houses of Hogwarts on the back of an airplane sickbag.
Rowling professes that she experienced a brief bout with depression in 1994, during the time she was struggling to make ends meet for herself and her infant daughter. Her experience with depression made a lasting impact on her and inspired the Dementors that first appear in Prisoner of Azkaban. On depression, Rowling said, "It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad."
It was after settling in Edinburgh at the end of 1993 that Rowling began to write the first Harry Potter novel. She wrote in longhand on notepads in several Edinburgh cafes, most notably Nicolson's café near Edinburgh University. However, the rumor that she scribbled the manuscript on the backs of napkins, unable to afford paper, is untrue. Rowling was one of Nicolson's first regular customers (it opened in 1994), and she was well-known and well-liked by the staff. She admits that she was on the dole for six months during this time period, but denies media reports that she couldn't afford to heat her flat and escaped to cafés for a warm place to write. During 1994-1995, she went back to college to get her teaching qualification that would enable her to teach French in Scotland.
She finished the Philosopher's Stone
manuscript in 1995, typing it on an old typewriter. Unable to afford to
photocopy the manuscript for submission, she retyped it. She sent the manuscript
to two agents and one publisher, looking up likely prospects in the library.
She received a grant of £8,000 from the Scottish Arts Council in February 1997, enabling her to continue her work on Chamber of Secrets. At this point, she did buy a computer, although she still professes that her first drafts are written in longhand on notepads. In June 1997, Philosopher's Stone was published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury. United States publishers engaged in a bidding war for the U.S. publication rights to the Harry Potter series in September 1997, with Scholastic, Inc. eventually buying the rights for a record initial price of $105,000. Scholastic released HP and the Sorcerer's Stone (retitled for the American audience) in September 1998.
Bloomsbury published Chamber of Secrets in Britain in July 1998. Scholastic released it in the United States in February 1999. The Prisoner of Azkaban was released by Bloomsbury in Great Britain in July 1999, and Scholastic released it in the United States in September 1999. For a record number of consecutive weeks in 1999-2000, the New York Times Bestseller List recorded the three Harry Potter books in the top 3 slots. Commenting on the success, Children's Book Editor for the New York Times, Eden Ross Lipson, commented that it was unprecedented for "three books involving the same characters to be on the adult bestseller list at the same time."
Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to the first two Harry Potter books in 1999. Mattel, Inc. acquired the merchandising rights to the Harry Potter franchise in early 2000.
In early 2000, it was reported in Forbes' annual Celebrity 100 List that Rowling had made over $40 million in 1999, placing her 24th in the Forbes' list. She was named one of the Most Fascinating Women of the Year by Ladies Home Journal. She received the Order of the British Empire in June 2000. She also received her first honorary degree from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in June 2000.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was simultaneously released in Britain and the United States on 8 July 2000.
Of course, the character of Hermione is based largely on Rowling's own personality. Often described by interviewers as edgy & quick-witted, Rowling is by all accounts a bundle of energy. She's short (5' 4") and slim. But, all interviewers note her basic down-to-earth nature and assert that she seems largely unaffected by her sudden rise to fame and fortune. "Joanne Rowling is no good at small talk. In fact, there is a chance she is incapable of it. Within minutes of sitting down she is talking about death and fate. She is intense and animated, and really, you do have to concentrate to keep up."
Although some people have claimed that Rowling has become reclusive and media-shy (they point to her depiction of Rita Skeeter as evidence that she abhors the publicity and fame), she denies being reclusive. She has indicated that she is able to largely live her life without much intrusion. In any case, she says she won't complain too much about the media because achieving success as a writer "was my life's ambition, and I've overshot the mark so hugely." But, critics continue to say that her media-shyness may be extending to her treatment of her fans. She has not sanctioned the creation of an "official" Harry Potter fan club for example. She does seem to respond to a fair number of letters from children, replying to those who seem particularly earnest about applying to attend Hogwarts in Dumbledore's persona.
She has said she is not a Wiccan. She has said that she believes in God and attends church from time to time ("more than weddings and christenings"). She has cited involvement with the Church of Scotland, but has so far not been too much more specific about her own religious beliefs.
Rowling has said that bigotry is one of the things she detests most, and it is spotlighted in the HP series. "This world of wizards and witches, they're already ostracized, and then within themselves, they've formed a loathsome pecking order."
She chose the name Harry for the hero of her series because she says it is one of her "favorite boy's names." She says that Harry "must have a lot of me in him, although Hermione is a more faithful portrait of me when I was younger." She seems to have a soft spot for Hermione, the character who has so much of Rowling's own personality. Commenting on her first meeting with screenplay writer Steve Kloves, she says she just "melted" when Kloves told her that his favorite character was Hermione. She also seems irritated that noone begs her not to kill off Hermione, they are always concerned for Ron. "And people are going to die. When I tell children that, they always say, 'Don't kill Ron.' I say, none thought of Hermione. No one gives a damn about Hermione; everyone thinks she'll be fine."
She says she loved writing about Dumbledore, who she says is the "epitome of goodness." But, she also admits to enjoying writing about Rita Skeeter. She has said that Professor Lupin is "one of my favorite characters in all seven books."
She has done some of her own illustrations for the series, and she showed some of these illustrations when she appeared on CBS' 60 Minutes program in September 1999.
As obsessed fans of the HP series, many of us wonder if Rowling is listening to her fans. A number of questions raised in various cyberspace forums devoted to HP were seemingly answered or explained in Goblet of Fire, leading to some speculation that she or her publishers are monitoring online discussions to some extent. But, many of her fans may be wondering if she's writing the books too fast to satisfy the demands of her publishers and fans? Is she allowing plot holes and inconsistencies to creep into the books due to the rushed deadlines?
Rowling says that she cried for the first time in writing these books when she was writing the scene in Goblet of Fire when Harry's murdered parents are drawn out of Voldemort's wand. She admits that coming deaths will be characters that she and her readers have grown to love: "there's worse coming."
Rowling has said that Goblet of Fire is the turning point in the series, the critical book. "Book Four is the end of an era for Harry. He's been very protected until now." "Harry's horizons are literally and metaphorically widening as he grows older." She has also said that Goblet of Fire represents "the end of an era in the context of the whole series of books. For Harry, his innocence is gone."
She has also said Goblet of Fire was easily the hardest of the HP books that she's written so far: "I wrote what I thought was half the book, and said 'Ack!' Huge gaping hole in the middle of the plot. I missed my deadline by two months." She also says that the two books that were the most trouble to write so far are her two favorites: Chamber of Secrets and Goblet of Fire.
She says she has no intention of "toning down" the coming books in response to criticism of the darkening tone for younger readers. "I have to write the story I want to write. I never wrote them with a focus group of 8-year-olds in mind. I have to continue telling the story the way I want to tell it." Later in this interview, she emphasizes again that she "cannot write to please other people. I can't. When I finish Book 7, I want to be able to look in the mirror and think, I did it the way I meant to do it." She seems to believe that the later books in the series will not necessarily be appropriate for all young children.
Along the lines of cautioning parents against assuming that their child is definitely able to handle the later books in the series, Rowling has said that she wrote the books "for herself," and not with a target audience of young children in mind. She also didn't set out to write a fantasy series. Professing that she hasn't read much in the fantasy genre, she said she was 2/3 finished with the manuscript of Philosopher's Stone before she realized that she was writing a fantasy novel ("I suddenly thought, This has got unicorns in it. I'm writing fantasy!"). She says quite clearly that the fantasy genre did not inspire her writing in any great measure -- "it's not my favorite genre."
"There will be seven books, one for each of his years at Hogwarts, and he'll turn seventeen at the start of book seven." She does have plans to write a Harry Potter Encyclopedia (donating the royalties to charity) after the series is concluded. As for post-Hogwarts books about Harry and his world, Rowling will only say, "I try never to say never, because it seems that every time I do, I end up by doing the thing I've forsworn. So, there's a remote possibility that there will be another Harry book, but at the present time I am planning only seven." She does say that she will definitely continue to write after finishing the Harry Potter series, but she doesn't have any concrete ideas for what this might entail. "I will definitely be writing. I literally don't feel quite right if I haven't written for awhile. A week is about as long as I can go without getting extremely edgy. It's like a fix. It really is a compulsion."
Criticism of Unauthorized Biography of J.K. Rowling by Marc Shapiro
Our members have universally agreed that the unauthorized biography of Rowling by Marc Shapiro is extremely unreliable and inconsistent with other published sources.
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