Twenty-five years ago this month, a British writer published the first volume in a series of books that would soon entrance the world and make her one of the most famous and richest authors in history. The author was Joanne Rowling, a single mother so poor she had to write in cafés because she could not afford to heat her home. Rowling’s story is a rags-to-riches tale worthy of a novel itself.
Rowling’s second career, after writing, is breaking records. With more than five hundred million books sold, she is the top-selling author in the history of publishing. The eight Potter films have grossed $7.7 billion, while her play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, broke Broadway records with ticket sales worth $2.3 million in a single week. Rowling was the first author to make a billion dollars from writing books. The films, meanwhile, are reputed to have given her an incredible $700 million.
Rowling’s rags-to-riches story began in 1990, when the idea for the character Harry Potter suddenly came to her during a Manchester to London train journey. She had been writing since she was a child. Over the next five years, she prepared the plots for a series of books, scribbling notes on hundreds of pieces of paper. During the same time, she moved to Portugal, got married, had a baby daughter, got divorced, and moved back to Britain, to Edinburgh — with the notes in a suitcase.
Dirt poor, on welfare benefit, unable to pay her heating bills, and seriously depressed, she wrote the first three chapters of her first book in cafés, with the baby asleep beside her. At moments, she considered suicide. Rowling sent off the three chapters to a dozen publishers. All said no. Then fate stepped in. The head of Bloomsbury Publishing gave the chapters to his eight-year-old daughter. Returning just one hour later, she told her father that he had to publish. Bloomsbury decided to print five hundred copies. As if by magic, word of mouth spread the story around Britain, and children started to fall in love with Harry the orphan wizard… followed by children around the world. Then adults fell under the spell.
Born To Write
The Harry Potter books are well-plotted storytelling at its best, with loveable heroes, quirky characters, and cruel, scary villains. The series’ more than one million words create a sense of wonder and joyful addiction, allowing readers to follow the journey of the story’s three heroes as they make their way through their young lives.
Rowling published the seventh and final volume of the series —Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows— in July 2007. Since then she has turned to writing fiction for adults while also continuing to publish stories for younger readers. During the same period, Harry Potter has become a merchandising phenomenon, with theme parks in both the UK and the US.
J.K. Rowling is also a phenomenon, and not just in the publishing sense. Her generosity is legendary. She has founded and supported numerous charities, on a worldwide scale, with donations of millions of dollars going to causes such as helping the homeless, the victims of domestic violence and single parents in need, as well as projects aimed at ending the institutionalisation of children in orphanages. Perhaps closest to her heart is her own philanthropic project, the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic at the University of Edinburgh, which she founded with a gift of $16 million. The clinic is named after her mother, who died of an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis in 1990, aged just forty-five. Rowling has spoken of her sadness that her mother never lived to see her astonishing literary success.
Over the last twenty-five years, J. K. Rowling has created a loyal fanbase amongst her millions of readers around the world. A highly unusual example of this affection, perhaps a little obsessional, occurred in 2016. Desperately short of money while writing the first Harry Potter book, Rowling found furniture for her Edinburgh flat wherever she could. This included a set of four chairs made in the 1930s, which she got for free. Rowling chose the least uncomfortable one to sit on while typing out the first two Harry Potter books. Nineteen years later, in 2016, the same chair, now decorated with messages painted by the author, was sold at auction in New York for almost $400,000. Perhaps the buyer, who wanted to remain anonymous, was bewitched by a spell cast by Harry the young orphan wizard himself?
The ‘J. K.’ before Rowling refers to Joanne and to Kathleen, the name of her grandmother. The reason for the initials was that her publishers thought that boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman, revealing just how much sexism still exists in the industry. Rowling has since supported at-risk women through philanthropic projects. But in 2019 she shared opinions on transgender people that caused controversy. They were a response to proposed changes to UK gender recognition laws that allow people to have the gender they identify with rather than that which accords with their biological sex. Rowling believes that sex and gender are the same, and said that while she supported the trans community, trans women shouldn’t be recognised as women in the same way, as it threatened women’s rights. Many people criticised Rowling, including feminist Judith Butler who believes that gender identity is cultural and separate from one’s biological sex. Some LGBT organisations called Rowling transphobic. However, many understand her concern for women, too.