HOGWARTS EXPRESS: It took J.K. Rowling five years to outline and write “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (which would be renamed for the American marketplace) and that long paper chase began when she was at the mercy of the British rail system. She recounted the tale for the BBC in 1990: “I was going by train from Manchester to London, sitting there, thinking of nothing to do with writing and the idea came out of nowhere and I could see Harry very clearly; this scrawny little boy, and it was the most physical rush of excitement. I’ve never felt that excited about anything to do with writing. I’ve never had an idea that gave me such a physical response. So I’m rummaging through this bag to try and find a pen or a pencil or anything. I didn’t even have an eyeliner on me. So I just had to sit and think. And for four hours, because the train was delayed, I had all these ideas bubbling up through my head.”
SPECIAL K: Her full name is Joanne Rowling, and she has no middle name. Everyone who knows her well calls her “Jo.” So where’s that “K” from? Early on in the “Potter” run, her publisher, Bloomsbury, fretted that the target audience of young boys might be less inclined to read a book by a woman, so they suggested a pen-name switch to initials. Without a middle-name letter of her own, she plucked a “K” from the family tree — it’s a reference to her paternal grandmother, Kathleen.
HEADMASTER HERITAGE: Rowling attended St. Michael’s Primary Schoolin Winterbourne, South Gloucestershire, a school founded in 1813 by education reformers Hannah More and William Wilberforce. How much of the stone-walled Hogwarts traces back to Rowling’s time at St. Michael’s? One key creation is a descendant of that schooling: When Rowling attended the school, there was an elderly headmaster with a twinkle in his eye. His name was Alfred Dunn, and the author has said that he inspired the character ofAlbus Dumbledore.
FAMILY TIME:Rowling’s first child, Jessica, was born in 1993. In 2001, the author married Dr. Neil Scott Murray, who, with his dark hair, limited height and round spectacles, resembles a grown-up Harry Potter to some observers. The couple married the day after Christmas in the library of their 19th century home, which sits near the banks of the River Tay in Perthshire, Scotland. It was a small, 20-minute, private ceremony. Jessica got a sibling, David, in 2003 and another, Mackenzie, in 2005.
TALL TALES AND OLD FLAMES?:Rowling said of all the characters in the “Potter” universe, only one is a calculated, printed-word version of a real-life person. It’s Gilderoy Lockhart, the puffed-up teller of tall tales who takes credit for the accomplishments of others. Here’s how Rowling once describedthe genesis of the fabulist wizard: “The only character who is deliberately based on a real person is Gilderoy Lockhart. Maybe he is not the one that you would think of, but I have to say that the living model was worse. He was a shocker! The lies that he told about adventures that he’d had, things he’d done and impressive acts that he had committed, … he was a shocking man. I can say this quite freely because he will never in a million years dream that he is Gilderoy Lockhart. Other people have contributed the odd characteristic, such as a nose, to a character, but the only character who I sat down and thought that I would base on someone is Gilderoy Lockhart. It made up for having to endure him for two solid years.” Could Lockhart be based on Portuguese television journalist Jorge Arantes, who was married to Rowling for nine months in the early 1990s? Consider the fact that Rowling fumed when Arantes planted (or played along with) media reports that he was a concept contributor to the “Potter” saga. “He had about as much input into ‘Harry Potter’ as I had into ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’” Rowling tartly told the New York Times in 2000. (UPDATE 7/31/2010, 4:15 p.m.: Rowling has previously stated that despite suspicions, Arantes is NOT the mystery man behind the Lockhart character. Thanks to reader Siv for posting the pertinent link in the comments section.)
A TOPICAL DEPRESSION:Rowling had plenty of personal challenges in her life — there are many stories about the single mom’s lean-money days before the “Potter” phenomenon — but some of her darkest days were due to clinical depression. She said the chilling shadows of depression inspired the Dementors, the soul-sucking wraiths of the “Potter” books. “The absence of hope,” she once said of depression. “That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad.”
THE “IT” GIRL:Rowling is a role model to many aspiring writers and a hero to millions of readers, but whom did she admire during her own life journey? Rowling named her first daughter after her own idol, Jessica Mitford, the author and journalist who was born in England in 1917 and died in California in 1994. Rowling once wrote of Mitford: “Jessica Mitford has been my heroine since I was 14 years old, when I overheard my formidable great-aunt discussing how Mitford had run away at the age of 19 to fight with the Reds in the Spanish Civil War: ‘And she charged a camera to her poor father’s account to take with her!’ It was the camera that captivated me, and I asked for further details.”
KING’S DECREE:Rowling’s writing approach has become a template – Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” books, for instance, are a painfully obvious imitator — and her success leads to a lot of comparison. The commercial victories of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” books, for example, conjured up plenty of “Potter” analogies, but Stephen King (who knows a bit about bookshelf sensations) made it clear that Rowling is writing for the ages, not just the season. “Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people. The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”
POOR MEMORY: Rowling is one of the richest women in Britain (her net worth is north of $1 billion), but her days of struggle still have strong impact on her memory and political compass. Earlier this year, she wrote an essay entitled “The single mother’s manifesto” for the Times of London in which she railed against the Conservative Party. Here’s an excerpt: “Nobody who has ever experienced the reality of poverty could say ‘it’s not the money, it’s the message.’ When your flat has been broken into, and you cannot afford a locksmith, it is the money. When you are two pence short of a tin of baked beans, and your child is hungry, it is the money. When you find yourself contemplating shoplifting to get nappies, it is the money.”
– Geoff Boucher
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Upper photo: J.K. Rowling in July 2007. Credit: Ian West / Associated Press. Lower photo: Rowling at the 2009 premiere of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” in London. Credit: Rune Hellsted / Associated Press.
UPDATED: Joanne Rowling’s first name was spelled incorrectly in one reference in an earlier version of this post.
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