One of the most popular writers of our time, bestselling author JK Rowling is credited with doing perhaps more than any other contemporary writer to get Britain’s schoolchildren reading again with her Harry Potter books. Appropriately enough, her own “rags to riches” life story reads like a magical tale out of one of her own novels.
Joanne Kathleen Rowling was born on 31 July 1965, in the quaint village of Chipping Sodbury, in Gloucestershire, England. Her father was Peter James Rowling, and her mother, Anne. Two years after Rowling was born, her mother gave birth to a sister, called Diana. Rowling (who likes to be called by her nickname, Jo) has said that one of the reasons she first began making up stories was in order to keep her younger sibling entertained.
Rowling attended school at nearby St. Michael's village school, and has often claimed that her first headmaster, an elderly teacher called Alfred Dunn, was the inspiration for the character of Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter's head teacher at Hogwarts. Rowling was composing her first fantasy stories in her spare time, including one of her earliest tales, about a rabbit called Rabbit. Rowling's sister recalls that he was unlucky enough to catch the measles, and was visited by his friends, including a giant bee called Miss Bee. When she was nine-years-old, the family moved to the village of Tutshill, near Chepstow, where she went on to attend secondary school at Wyedean College.
In interviews, Rowling has described herself as being "shy and freckly, with no sports ability, but a great love of literature." When asked about her teenage years, she said, "The character of Hermione is loosely based on me, which I'm not particularly proud of." During the same period, an elderly aunt gave her a copy of Jessica Mitford's autobiography, 'Hons and Rebels'; Mitford subsequently became one of her favourite authors. Quiet and studious, she did well at school, and went on to graduate with a Bachelor's degree in French and Classics at the University of Exeter. Her student days were happy ones by all accounts, for she recalls her delight at meeting "like-minded people", and she was also lucky enough to spend a year studying in Paris.
After graduating, Rowling moved to London, where she initially began training to become a bilingual secretary. However, she abandoned this idea after a while, since she soon discovered that she was "the worst secretary ever, very disorganised!". In addition, her attention would wander during meetings, as ideas for stories would come to her while she was meant to be taking dictation. But her daydreaming was to prove far more rewarding in the long run, for in early 1990, during the course of a long train journey from Manchester to London, she first had the idea for a story about a young boy who goes to study at a school for wizards.
Shortly afterwards, she decided to retrain as an English teacher, and moved to Portugal, where she met and married a native journalist, called Jorge Arantes, in 1992. She gave birth to their daughter, Jessica Isabel, on 27 July the following year. Sadly, the marriage was short-lived, and the couple separated only four short months later. A year later, Rowling moved back to Britain, and went to live in Edinburgh, Scotland, so that she could be near her sister. Life as a single mother living on social security in the bleak Scottish winter was dismal, and she was subsequently diagnosed with clinical depression; she is on record as saying that at one point during this ultra-low period of her life, she even contemplated committing suicide.
However, like all true writers, she channelled her worst experiences to creative ends, and used her experience of depression as the basis for the happiness-sucking wraiths in the Harry Potter books, the Dementors. Her daily routine included lots of long walks in order to get her baby daughter to fall asleep, and she would often end up in Nicholson's Café. It was here in this Edinburgh café that she first began to set down on paper her ideas - and the rest, as they say, is history…
Creating the character of Harry Potter did not bring overnight fame and fortune for the struggling single mum; and there were to be many twists and turns along the way before Rowling's quality as an author were fully recognised. In 1995, she finished typing out 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' on an old manual typewriter, and sent it out to various literary agents. A reader called Bryony Evans, at Christopher Little literary agents, was quick to recognise the potential of her work, and the firm promptly agreed to represent her, sending the book out to no less than twelve publishers.
It was to be a full year before she received the exciting news that her book had found a publisher: the lucky firm was the small publishing house of Bloomsbury. Publishing legend has it that the decision to publish the book owes much to Alice Newton, the eight-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury's chairman. Rowling was paid an advance of £1,500 for her first novel, which was published in June 1997, with an initial print run of one thousand copies, 500 of which were sold to libraries. Incidentally, these first Harry Potter books are now regarded as collector's items, and are estimated to be worth up to £25,000 apiece.
As her books gained more exposure, Rowling's talent and ability as a children's writer was soon recognised. One of the first awards she won was the much-coveted Nestle Smarties award – indeed, she went on to win the award three consecutive times, before thoughtfully withdrawing her fourth book from the running in order to give other writers a fighting chance. A grant of £8,000 from the Scottish Arts Council enabled her to carry on writing full-time – but within a relatively short time, she had sold enough books to guarantee her financial security. But she could hardly have envisaged the success and fortune that was waiting just around the corner.
In 1998, one short year after her first book had seen print, she sold the film rights for her first two books to Warner Brothers, for an undisclosed seven-figure sum, making her a millionaire overnight. When her fourth book, 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' was published, the book broke all previous publishing records, selling over 372,000 copies in the UK on the first day, and over three million copies in the United States within the first 48 hours. Unsurprisingly, Rowling was named Author of The Year at the British Book Awards in 2000.
Life was going well for Rowling on the personal front too: in December 2001, she married Neil Michael Murray, an anaesthetist, in a private ceremony at her home in Aberfeldy, Scotland. Rowling and Murray's son, David Gordon Rowling Murray, was born in March 2003, and she went on to give birth to a daughter, Mackenzie Jean, in January 2005. These happy developments in her private life meant that her output slowed down, and the tabloid press speculated that she was suffering from writer's block.
Rowling's heated response underlined the uneasy nature of her relationship with the press, which some critics suggested led to the creation of the character of Rita Skeeter, the muckraking journalist in the Harry Potter books. The press have depicted Rowling as a recluse who hates to be interviewed – an image that she outspokenly disagrees with. She even went to court to defend her baby son's privacy, when a photographer took some long-range pictures of him in his buggy.
More recently, she took part in a BBC documentary, 'A Year In the Life', which showed her reduced to tears when she revisited the tiny Edinburgh flat where she completed the first Harry Potter book, saying "this is where I turned my life around."
Rowling's books have made her a multi-millionaire, and the 2008 Sunday Times Rich List named her the 144th richest person in Britain. To her credit, she has used her considerable wealth and power to establish herself as a notable philanthropist.
In 2000, she founded the Volant Charitable Trust, which sets aside £5.1 million annually to help women and children in need, especially focusing on organisations that help one parent families. She is also president of the charity One Parent Families, and was their first Ambassador in 2000.
Having completed the final installment in the seven-book Harry Potter series, which was published in July 2007, Rowling has said that she is not planning to write an eighth book, saying "In ten years time, I might want to return to it, but I think it's unlikely." However, she did recently write a short story concerning a 33 year-old Harry Potter.
She also said that she wants to spend a lot of time with her family, but would continue writing for children – "because that's what I enjoy!" 'The Tales of Beedle The Bard' was published in December 2008 to raise money for the Children's High Level Group, now called Lumos.
Since then she has turned her attention to adult literature. On 12 April 2012, she revealed the title of her new book 'A Casual Vacancy'. It tells the story of a village at war, with the publication announcement stating: "Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils ... Pagford is not what it first seems." It will be published by Little Brown on 27 September 2012.
Rowling hasn't forgotten about her boy wizard Harry Potter as she was instrumental in setting up 'Pottermore' with Sony. This website opens up the world of Harry Potter to its fans as they can explore the places depicted in the books, find out which house they belong to and find out more about characters. She has also teamed up with Sony to create a Harry Potter-based augmented reality game called 'Book of Spells' for the firm's new Wonderbook, which will be released in Christmas 2012.
She now lives with her husband and three children in Edinburgh where she intends to build two large interlocked tree houses for her offspring to play in.