RAGS TO RICHES
The real life rise of author J.K. Rowling from the breadline to stardom and unimaginable wealth is almost as incredible a story as that of Harry Potter, her most famous creation, finds
The real life fairy story of Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling
Thanks to the magic of Harry Potter, the rags-toriches story of J.K. Rowling OBE has been treated as something of a fairytale. Once upon a time, she was a girl with nothing but a baby and a headful of ideas for a saga about a young boy wizard, writing in cafes and living in a draughty one-bedroom flat. Now, Joanne Rowling – Jo to her friends – is richer than the Queen, dividing her time between palatial homes in Edinburgh, Perthshire and London, hidden from prying eyes behind high walls and protected by CCTV cameras. Most of the 53-year-old writer’s £900m wealth has come from the wild success of her Harry Potter books, but film rights (plus the spin-off franchise Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, licensing and Potter theme parks) have also been lucrative. The BBC has also filmed two of her crime novels, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Scottish billionaires are almost as rare as pandas, and just as secretive. Even when she has a new book to promote – Lethal White, the fourth in her Galbraith series of crime novels, was published on 18 September – she rarely gives interviews, and makes few public appearances. For a while, she favoured scripted events. In 2008 she gave the commencement speech to Harvard, and in 2012 she appeared as part of the opening ceremony at the London Olympics, where she read an extract from JM Barry’s Peter Pan. After watching fellow writer Ian Rankin hold court to an adult audience at the free-wheeling, spontaneous Edinburgh Book Festival Q&A, she shuddered, ‘I don’t think I could do that.’ Surprisingly, today she is a famously enthusiastic Tweeter. At first, she was slow to embrace the 140 character format, and only joined the platform after discovering that a host of fake J.K. Rowlings were using Twitter. ‘I am told that people have been twittering on my behalf, so I thought a brief visit was in order just to prevent any more confusion,’ she wrote. ‘However, I should flag up now that although I could twitter endlessly, I’m afraid you won’t be hearing from me very often.’ For the first three years, she tweeted only ten times. Then something changed.
‘Jo rarely gives interviews or writes articles, preferring to express herself on Twitter,’ understates her official website in the press inquiries section. The writer regularly posts to her 14 million followers about books, beloved characters and future projects, but also to back Susan Calman as she waltzed her way through Strictly Come Dancing last year, post savage put-downs of Donald Trump, offer comforting words to a struggling fan and throw out wry insights to the Twittersphere. ‘Today’s been a lousy writing day,’ she posted in 2016. ‘This chapter doesn’t work, I’m going to have to rewrite from scratch AND THERE’S NO CAKE IN THE HOUSE.’ Born in Bristol, Rowling was raised in rural Chepstow on the Welsh border with younger sister Dianne. Her father, Peter, was a manager at the Rolls-Royce aero-engine plant in Bristol, and her mother, Anne, worked as a laboratory assistant at a local school. A sensitive. bookish child, Rowling was a keen writer from an early age. She completed her first book – a story about a rabbit, called Rabbit – aged six. At just 11, she wrote her first novel, about seven cursed diamonds and the people who owned them. One of her greatest sadnesses is that her mother, a ‘passionate reader’, never knew that her daughter went on to surpass her favourite author Jane Austen in wealth and fame. Rowling was in her early teens when Anne was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The condition steadily worsened, and her death, on 30 December 1990, at the age of 45, left Rowling devastated, coupled with the revelation that her father had started a new relationship while her mother was dying. It is little wonder that, despite being a high-achiever and head girl who went to Exeter University, Rowling has described her teenage years as ‘unhappy.’ The loss of her mother drove her abroad to teach English in Portugal, where she met and impulsively married aspiring journalist Jorge Arantes. When the marriage failed after a year, Rowling scooped up their infant daughter Jessica and returned to the UK, but not to her father’s home near Chepstow because by then he had married his mistress. When Rowling arrived in Edinburgh in early 1994, she planned to stay for a few weeks with her sister Di, until she found her feet. Instead, she never left. ‘Edinburgh is beautiful,’ she explains. ‘It has good public transport and did have, then, free museums, and I thought, “I’ll have a much better life here on a low income with my daughter.” I could just see that broke single-parenthood here would be easier.’
Rowling arrived with very little baggage, but she did have notebooks sketching out the story of a boy wizard living between magical and real worlds. She’d had the idea four years earlier, just before her mother died, on a long train journey. ‘To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a functioning pen with me, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one,’ she recalled. ‘I think, now, that this was probably a good thing, because I simply sat and thought for four hours (the train was delayed), and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.’ Although she arrived in Edinburgh with three chapters of the book already written, it took her five years to plan the books down to the last detail, and the first few draft chapters have a sprightly tone. However, when her mother died six months later, the subtext of parental loss and the pain of grief entered the narrative, fundamentally changing Harry’s journey. The sinister Dementors, who suck the happiness out of people while stealing their souls, also offer convincing metaphors for the depression Rowling suffered as a single mother caught in the poverty trap. Although she always had food and clothes, heat and light, Rowling did endure a deep depression brought about by circumstance and frustration. Only the thought of her daughter Jessica – named after Rowling’s heroine, the Communist writer Jessica Mitford - spurred her to seek help. ‘She was something that earthed me and I thought, “this isn’t right, she cannot grow up with me in this state”,’ Rowling said. Friendship also saved her. She wrote much of the first Potter book in Edinburgh’s Nicolson’s café, owned by her brotherin-law and within sight of George Heriot’s school, on which Hogwarts is based. The character of Harry’s best mate, Ron, was inspired by her oldest friend, Sean Harris, who put down the deposit on her tiny flat when she arrived in Edinburgh with a baby and no money. Harris – who drove a turquoise Ford Anglia in the sixth form which inspired the flying version in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – was not the only friend or acquaintance who inspired a character. Alfred Dunn, the headmaster at her primary school, is reputed to be the inspiration for Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, while Rowling based the bookish Hermione Granger on herself aged 11. Another friend and fellow single parent, Fiona Wilson, dug into her savings as an office clerk and lent Rowling the £4,000 she needed to meet childcare costs while she did a teaching course, so she could graduate and teach part-time as she wrote the first Harry Potter novel. ‘I broke down and cried when my friend offered it to me. At the time it was like half a million pounds to me,’ she said. ‘It was this enormous sum of money. I think we both thought I would
She completed her first book – a story about a Rabbit, called Rabbit – aged six
never be able to pay it back.’ The writer later repaid her friend by gifting her a flat worth £200,000. Eight publishers rejected Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. Finally, in August 1996, Bloomsbury offered £2,500 with an initial print run of 500. It won Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, and a gold award in the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize, voted for by children. Since then, she has sold 265 million books in 200 countries and 62 languages, including Latin and Ancient Greek, earning her £562 million and leading Forbes to name her in 2004 as the first person to become a dollar billionaire by writing books, which Rowling denies. The books also drew grown-up readers, who had their blushes spared on the daily commute after Bloomsbury rereleased the books with moody adult covers. Later, when she started writing adult fiction, she also displayed a midas touch: within the first three weeks of its release, The Casual Vacancy had sold over one million copies and would go on to become a well-received television adaptation. However, not everyone is a fan. Booker Prize winner AS Byatt once savaged her most famous work, saying that Hogwarts was
‘a secondary world, made up from intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature, from the jolly-hockey sticks school story to Roald Dahl.’ Novelist Anthony Holden dubbed Harry ‘Billy Bunter on a broomstick.’ Others point out that Rowling’s vivacious storytelling has drawn children into a seven-volume saga: no mean feat. No wonder studios were falling over themselves to grab the movie rights. The bidding war gave unprecedented power to Rowling. Usually best-selling authors are handed a cheque with one hand and shown to the door with the other, but Rowling is famously protective of her writing, insisting that the BBC broadcast a reading of the first Harry Potter book by Stephen Fry unabridged and in one go. This meant clearing the schedules for an eight and a half hour Boxing Day Potterthon: Harry Potter and the Prisoners of Radio 4. For the film rights, Rowling agreed to a lower than usual fee upfront, but retained the right of veto on the director, the script and merchandising ideas. Rowling showed she shared the sturdy determination of Hermione when she disagreed with Steven Spielberg, who took an interest in directing the film. The director of ET and Schindlers List wanted to merge the plots of the first two books and cast American Sixth Sense child star Haley Joel Osment as Harry Potter. Instead, Rowling insisted each film tackle one book and that Harry had to be British. Spielberg walked away and the first film went to the more amenable family filmmaker Chris Columbus
Rowling based the bookish Hermione Granger on herself aged eleven
instead, with Rowling delighted by the casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Harry and pleased that Robbie Coltrane had accepted the role of Hagrid. At the film’s premiere, Rowling revealed a major plot twist in her own life: her new boyfriend, Dr Neil Murray. A friend of her sister’s, they first met at a dinner party some months after he had separated from his first wife. The couple married on Boxing Day 2001 in a private ceremony at Killiechassie House, her Perthshire mansion, and Murray is credited with bringing love and a new balance to Rowling’s life. Their first child, a boy, was born in March 2003 and the world breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced he would be christened David and not Harry. A daughter, Mackenzie Jean, followed two years later. When Rowling filmed an episode of the ancestry show Who Do You Think You Are? she chose to investigate her mother’s family rather than the Scottish side of her family (her parents first met on a train from King’s Cross to Arbroath and her maternal great-grandfather, Dugald Campbell, was born in Lamlash on Arran). She found that her mother’s paternal grandfather, Louis Volant, was a Frenchman who won the Croix de
Guerre during the First World War for exceptional bravery in defending the village of Courcelles-le-Comte. ‘My children have very little sense of my side of the family,’ she once told The New Yorker magazine. ‘I married someone who’s got a vast Scottish family – a clan, really – which is fabulous, and I love it, and I love them. But I wanted to have something I could show my children and say: “Look, I also have a family, I also have a background,” because there are very few people alive on my mother’s side of the family. I have a sister, that’s clearly very important, but above us nearly everyone’s gone.’ Pointedly, she did not mention her father, who married two years after her mother’s death. He attended Rowling’s wedding to Neil Murray in 2001, but two years later they were no longer on speaking terms. In December, 2003, Peter Rowling decided to auction his Harry Potter first editions; some of them did not sell, but others did, including a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, given to him on Father’s Day, 2000, and signed, ‘Lots of love from your first born’. The book was sold at auction for £27,500. The scale of Rowling’s wealth is hard to comprehend. She earns around one million pounds every three days, and at first she was hopelessly ill-prepared for the consequences of global fame and riches. ‘I imagined being a famous writer would be like being Jane Austen,’ she said. ‘Being able to sit at home in the parsonage, and your books would be famous. I never dreamt it would impact my life negatively, which at times it has.’ Rowling admits to being ‘thinskinned’ when it comes to the press and has fought hard to keep her family life private, saying in evidence to the Leveson Enquiry that she has engaged solicitors more than 100 times in response to press intrusion. She lost her official billionaire status through the size of her charitable donations, founding the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic at the University of Edinburgh with a gift of £10 million, setting up the international children’s charity Lumos, and contributing to other good works, including Comic Relief and One Parent Families. Harry Potter books may well eschew party politics, but Rowling has never been afraid to voice strong left-leaning views. These showed in her early career choice, with her very first job being as a researcher and bilingual secretary in London for Amnesty International. A close friend of Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah, in 2008 she gave one million pounds to the Labour Party, saying the ‘poor and vulnerable will fare better’ under the then Labour Government rather than a Conservative Party led by David Cameron. She continues to pay full taxes as a UK resident, as a debt of honour. She also campaigned against a Brexit vote, and in 2014 joined the Scottish independence debate, donating one million pounds to the Better Together campaign. This prompted a furious online response, but the author responded by saying she had thought long and hard before going public with her decision on independence .‘ There is a fringe of nationalists who like to demonise anyone who is not blindly and unquestionably pro-independence and I suspect, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve lived in Scotland for 21 years and plan to remain here for the rest of my life, that they might judge me “insufficiently Scottish” to have a valid view,’ she wrote. ‘When people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste. By residence, marriage, and out of gratitude for what this country has given me, my allegiance is wholly to Scotland.’ When writing, she says, all her books pivot on two themes: mortality and morality – ‘the two things I obsess about’ - culminating in her decision to let Harry Potter survive his final battle with Voldemort. A good death would have been a resonant conclusion to the series, she admits, ‘but I felt that would have been a betrayal because I wanted my hero to do what I think is the most noble thing. So Harry came back from war and he tried to build a better world, corny as it sounds.’
Above: Arriving in Trafalgar Square for the World Premiere of Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in 2011. Left: The Elephant House Cafe on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh, one of the cafes where Rowling often sat writing her early books.
Above: Rowling and husband Dr Neil Murray take to the red carpet to receive the Edinburgh Award in 2008.
Above: Rowling addresses the crowd at the world premiere of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
Above: Rowling and husband Neil Murray cheer on Scotland during a Six Nations rugby match at Murrayfield in Edinburgh. Below: An autographed copy of a Harry Potter novel, part of a set donated by Rowling to a charity auction.