JK still leaves her read­ers spell­bound

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - R14EVIEW -

On the 20th an­niver­sary of the pub­li­ca­tion of the first Harry Pot­ter novel, Jonathan de­burca But­ler ex­am­ines JK Rowling’s in­spir­ing tale of courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion

IN the midst of the me­dia melee and fall­out from the as­tound­ing UK gen­eral elec­tion re­sult came an ar­rest­ing tweet: “Just un­fol­lowed a man whom I thought was smart and funny, be­cause he called Theresa May a whore.” The tweet was posted by JK Rowling and con­tin­ued for an­other 14 tweets. “If you can’t dis­agree with a wo­man with­out reach­ing for all those filthy old in­sults,” she con­tin­ued, “screw you and your pol­i­tics.”

This was not the first time the au­thor had caused a stir on the so­cial me­dia plat­form. Dur­ing the last gen­eral elec­tion in the UK, the leg­endary writer — who lives in Scot­land — was sub­jected to on­line abuse in which she was re­ferred to as “a traitor to Scot­land” and “Blairite scum” for her sup­port of the Labour Party. She spoke out against the abuse and did so, she ex­plained, be­cause she be­lieved in “stand­ing up to bul­lies”.

Twenty years ago to­mor­row, a be­spec­ta­cled boy wizard first ap­peared in Harry Pot­ter and the Philoso­pher’s Stone. He was coura­geous and had back­bone, much like his cre­ator. That brav­ery is prob­a­bly Rowling’s most en­dur­ing qual­ity and per­haps the rea­son she is so pop­u­lar.

In 2010, a Yougov poll of peo­ple over 16 years of age for AOL found she was the celebrity whom most women wanted to be. She polled al­most seven times as many votes as the Bri­tish Queen and 26 times more than Jor­dan (Katie Price).

Her place in global cul­ture and in­flu­ence is re­mark­able, given where she found her­self just be­fore the re­lease of her first Pot­ter novel.

Joanne Rowling was born just out­side Bris­tol on July 31, 1965. Her par­ents were rel­a­tively well-off. Her fa­ther, Peter, was a Rolls-royce engineer, her mother, Anne, was a sci­en­tist and teacher. From early on, Rowling wrote fan­tasy sto­ries which she would read to her younger sis­ter, Dianne. At sec­ondary school, an English teacher re­mem­bered her as be­ing “not ex­cep­tional” but “one of a group of girls who were bright, and quite good at English”. She clearly had some tal­ent. But as her life pro­gressed, things be­came more com­pli­cated.

Life at home was, by her own ac­count, quite dif­fi­cult, not least be­cause of her mother’s mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis. “She al­ways seemed very young,” she said of her mother in an in­ter­view with The Tele­graph. “She was very fit, she was a non-smoker, non-drinker, and I say all of this be­cause, of course, then for her to be di­ag­nosed at 35 with an ill­ness that would kill her was just the most enor­mous shock to us and every­one who knew her.”

Anne’s death in 1990 at the age of 45 marked the be­gin­ning of a pe­riod in Rowling’s life that saw her go from rock bot­tom to su­per­star­dom.

Six months be­fore her mother’s death, Rowling was trav­el­ling on a train from Manch­ester to London when it was de­layed. As she sat there, the story of a boy who goes to a school of wizardry came to her. The mo­ment she ar­rived in London, she be­gan to write about Harry Pot­ter and much of the lone­li­ness and hurt that Rowling was feel­ing at the time over her mother’s death was chan­nelled into him.

Rowling moved to Por­tu­gal in the early 1990s. She planned to teach English in the evenings and write in the af­ter­noons. She was dis­ci­plined. Not even her romance and sub­se­quent mar­riage to jour­nal­ist Jorge Arentes could stop that. The mar­riage did not last long and Rowling re­turned to the UK with three chap­ters of Harry Pot­ter com­pleted and a six-month-old baby daugh­ter, Jes­sica. Sud­denly Rowling found her­self on the bread­line, liv­ing on £70-aweek in a small flat in Ed­in­burgh. For a long time, the story went that she would go to cafes just to keep warm. She later de­bunked those sto­ries, sug­gest­ing in­stead that they were the only places where her daugh­ter would sleep and there­fore where she could write.

“I was as poor as it’s pos­si­ble to be in this coun­try,” she has said. “I was a sin­gle par­ent. The key phrase is ‘in this coun­try’, be­cause we have a wel­fare state. I knew per­fectly well that I was walk­ing into poverty, which, 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 and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the end­less lit­tle hu­mil­i­a­tions of life on ben­e­fits.”

She has given ac­counts of get­ting to check­outs and find­ing her­self pen­nies short of the price of a tin of baked beans and of dress­ing her daugh­ter Jes­sica from char­ity shops.

As if that were not com­pli­cated enough, Jorge turned up in Scot­land look­ing for his daugh­ter. The easy way out would have been to re­turn to Por­tu­gal with him. In­stead, Rowling had a re­strain­ing or­der taken out against him, and in Au­gust 1995, she filed for di­vorce.

All the while, she worked on her hero un­til she fi­nally found an agent, Christo­pher Lit­tle. Ini­tially, her manuscript was re­jected by scores of pub­lish­ing houses but, fi­nally, her luck changed. Lit­tle called at Blooms­bury Pub­lish­ing’s cramped of­fices in Soho Square in London and handed a sam­ple chap­ter to chair­man Nigel New­ton. New­ton took the short manuscript home but, in­stead of set­tling down with it him­self, he gave it to his eight-year-old daugh­ter Alice to read.

“She came down from her room an hour later glow­ing,” New­ton re­called in an in­ter­view with The Independent, “say­ing, ‘Dad, this is so much bet­ter than any­thing else’.

“She nagged and nagged me in the fol­low­ing months, want­ing to see what came next.”

New­ton de­cided to take Rowling on and wrote her a cheque for just £2,500. “It was very for­tu­nate for us,” re­called New­ton. “We’d only just started to pub­lish chil­dren’s books in June 1994 — and we hit it lucky.”

An ini­tial 1,000 copies sold slowly and even the win­ning of that year’s Smar­ties Book Prize did lit­tle to boost sales. More awards fol­lowed, how­ever, and now the in­dus­try be­gan to sit up. In the US, Scholas­tic Inc. paid $105,000 for pub­lish­ing rights across the At­lantic and this af­forded Rowling the op­por­tu­nity to move into bet­ter ac­com­mo­da­tion.

Its se­quel, Harry Pot­ter and the Cham­ber of Se­crets, was pub­lished in July 1998, and again, Rowling won the Smar­ties Prize. Rowling be­came the first per­son to win the prize three times run­ning with her third novel, Harry Pot­ter and the Pris­oner of Azk­a­ban (pub­lished in July 1999).

Some­thing of a frenzy had now be­gun to de­velop. Harry Pot­ter and the Goblet of Fire was re­leased si­mul­ta­ne­ously in the UK and the US on July 8, 2000, and broke sales records in both coun­tries.

An amaz­ing 372,775 copies of the book were sold on its first day in the UK, al­most equalling the num­ber which the Pris­oner of Azk­a­ban sold dur­ing its first year. In the US, the

Harry Pot­ter au­thor JK Rowling went from strug­gling on £70 a week to earn­ing a €680m for­tune. Be­low, with hus­band Neil

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