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

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS - Siob­han Syn­not

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.

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