Joanne “Jo” Murray, OBE (née Rowling; born 31 July 1965), better known under the pen name J. K. Rowling, is a British author best known as the creator of the Harry Potter fantasy series, the idea for which was conceived whilst on a train trip from Manchester to London in 1990.
The Potter books have gained worldwide attention, won multiple awards, sold more than 400 million copies, and been the basis for a popular series of films.
Aside from writing the Potter novels, Rowling is perhaps equally famous for her “rags to riches” life story, in which she progressed from living on welfare to multi-millionaire status within five years.
The 2008 Sunday Times Rich List estimated Rowling’s fortune at £560 million ($798 million), ranking her as the twelfth richest woman in Britain.
Forbes ranked Rowling as the forty-eighth most powerful celebrity of 2007, and Time magazine named her as a runner-up for its 2007 Person of the Year, noting the social, moral, and political inspiration she has given her fandom.
In 2009 she became one of the richest people in the world.
She has become a notable philanthropist, supporting such charities as Comic Relief, One Parent Families, Multiple Sclerosis Society of Great Britain, and the Children’s High Level Group.
Rowling was born to Peter James Rowling and Anne Rowling (née Volant), on 31 July 1965 in Yate, Gloucestershire, England, 10 miles (16.1 km) northeast of Bristol.
Her sister Dianne (Di) was born at their home on 28 June 1967 when Rowling was 23 months old. The family moved to the nearby village Winterbourne when Rowling was four.
She attended St Michael’s Primary School, a school founded almost 200 years ago by famed abolitionist William Wilberforce and education reformer Hannah More. Her elderly headmaster at St Michael’s, Alfred Dunn, was claimed as the inspiration for the Harry Potter character Albus Dumbledore.
As a child, Rowling often wrote fantasy stories, which she would usually then read to her sister. She recalls that
I can still remember me telling her a story in which she fell down a rabbit hole and was fed strawberries by the rabbit family inside it. Certainly the first story I ever wrote down (when I was five or six) was about a rabbit called Rabbit. He got the measles and was visited by his friends, including a giant bee called Miss Bee.”
At the age of nine, Rowling moved to the Gloucestershire village of Tutshill, close to Chepstow, Wales.
When she was a young teenager, her great aunt, who Rowling said “taught classics and approved of a thirst for knowledge, even of a questionable kind”, gave her a very old copy of Jessica Mitford’s autobiography, Hons and Rebels.
Mitford became Rowling’s heroine, and Rowling subsequently read all of her books.
She attended secondary school at Wyedean School and College. Rowling has said of her adolescence,
“Hermione is loosely based on me. She’s a caricature of me when I was eleven, which I’m not particularly proud of.”
Sean Harris, her best friend in the Upper Sixth owned a turquoise Ford Anglia, which she says inspired the one in her books.
“Ron Weasley isn’t a living portrait of Sean, but he really is very Sean-ish.”
Of her musical tastes of the time, she said
“My favourite group in the world is The Smiths. And when I was going through a punky phase, it was The Clash.”Rowling read for a BA in French and Classics at the University of Exeter, which she says was a “bit of a shock” as she “was expecting to be amongst lots of similar people– thinking radical thoughts.”
Once she made friends with “some like-minded people” she says she began to enjoy herself.
With a year of study in Paris, Rowling moved to London to work as a researcher and bilingual secretary for Amnesty International.
In 1990, while she was on a four-hour-delayed train trip from Manchester to London, the idea for a story of a young boy attending a school of wizardry “came fully formed” into her mind. She told The Boston Globe that
“I really don’t know where the idea came from. It started with Harry, then all these characters and situations came flooding into my head.”
When she had reached her Clapham Junction flat, she began to write immediately.
However, in December of that year, Rowling’s mother died, after her ten-year battle with multiple sclerosis. Rowling commented,
“I was writing Harry Potter at the moment my mother died. I had never told her about Harry Potter.”
Rowling said this death heavily affected her writing and that she introduced much more detail about Harry’s loss in the first book, because she knew about how it felt.
Rowling then moved to Porto, Portugal to teach English as a foreign language.
While there, on 16 October 1992, she married Portuguese television journalist Jorge Arantes. Their one child, Jessica Isabel Rowling Arantes (named after Jessica Mitford), was born on 27 July 1993 in Portugal. They separated in November 1993
In December 1993, Rowling and her daughter moved to be near her sister in Edinburgh, Scotland. During this period Rowling was diagnosed with clinical depression, and contemplated suicide. It was the feeling of her illness which brought her the idea of Dementors, soulless creatures featured in Harry Potter.
After Jessica’s birth and the separation from her husband, Rowling had left her teaching job in Portugal. In order to teach in Scotland she would need a postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE), requiring a full-time, year-long course of study. She began this course in August 1995, after completing her first novel while having survived on welfare.
She wrote in many cafés, especially Nicolson’s Café, whenever she could get Jessica to fall asleep. In a 2001 BBC interview, Rowling denied the rumour that she wrote in local cafés to escape from her unheated flat, remarking,
“I am not stupid enough to rent an unheated flat in Edinburgh in midwinter. It had heating.”
Instead, as she stated on the American TV program A&E Biography, one of the reasons she wrote in cafés was because taking her baby out for a walk was the best way to make her fall asleep.
“The Elephant House” – Café in Edinburgh in which Rowling wrote the first part of Harry Potter
In 1995, Rowling finished her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on an old manual typewriter.
Upon the enthusiastic response of Bryony Evans, a reader who had been asked to review the book’s first three chapters, the Fulham-based Christopher Little Literary Agents agreed to represent Rowling in her quest for a publisher. The book was submitted to twelve publishing houses, all of which rejected the manuscript.
A year later she was finally given the green light (and a £1500 advance) by editor Barry Cunningham from Bloomsbury, a small British publishing house in London, England.
The decision to publish Rowling’s book apparently owes much to Alice Newton, the eight-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury’s chairman, who was given the first chapter to review by her father and immediately demanded the next.
Although Bloomsbury agreed to publish the book, Cunningham says that he advised Rowling to get a day job, since she had little chance of making money in children’s books. Soon after, in 1997, Rowling received an £8000 grant from the Scottish Arts Council to enable her to continue writing.The following spring, an auction was held in the United States for the rights to publish the novel, and was won by Scholastic Inc., for $105,000. Rowling has said she “nearly died” when she heard the news.
In June 1997, Bloomsbury published Philosopher’s Stone with an initial print-run of 1000 copies, five hundred of which were distributed to libraries. Today, such copies are valued between £16,000 and £25,000. Five months later, the book won its first award, a Nestlé Smarties Book Prize. In February, the novel won the prestigious British Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year, and later, the Children’s Book Award.
Its sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was published in July, 1998. In October 1998, Scholastic published Philosopher’s Stone in the US under the title of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: a change Rowling claims she now regrets and would have fought if she had been in a better position at the time.
In December 1999, the third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, won the Smarties Prize, making Rowling the first person to win the award three times running. She later withdrew the fourth Harry Potter novel from contention to allow other books a fair chance. In January 2000, Prisoner of Azkaban won the inaugural Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year award, though it lost the Book of the Year prize to Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.
The fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was released simultaneously in the UK and the US on 8 July 2000, and broke sales records in both countries.
Some 372,775 copies of the book were sold in its first day in the UK, almost equalling the number Prisoner of Azkaban sold during its first year. In the US, the book sold three million copies in its first 48 hours, smashing all literary sales records. Rowling admitted that she had had a moment of crisis while writing the novel;
“Halfway through writing Four, I realised there was a serious fault with the plot … I’ve had some of my blackest moments with this book … One chapter I rewrote 13 times, though no-one who has read it can spot which one or know the pain it caused me.”
Rowling was named author of the year in the 2000 British Book Awards.
A wait of three years occurred between the release of Goblet of Fire and the fifth Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This gap led to press speculation that Rowling had developed writer’s block, speculations she fervently denied. Rowling later admitted that writing the book was a chore.
“I think Phoenix could have been shorter”, she told Lev Grossman, “I knew that, and I ran out of time and energy toward the end.”
The sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was released on 16 July 2005. It too broke all sales records, selling nine million copies in its first 24 hours of release. While writing, she told a fan online,
“Book six has been planned for years, but before I started writing seriously I spend two months re-visiting the plan and making absolutely sure I knew what I was doing.”
She noted on her website that the opening chapter of book six, which features a conversation between the Minister of Magic and the British Prime Minister, had been intended as the first chapter first for Philosopher’s Stone, then Chamber of Secrets then Prisoner of Azkaban. In 2006, Half-Blood Prince received the Book of the Year prize at the British Book Awards.
The title of the seventh and final Harry Potter book was revealed 21 December 2006 to be Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In February 2007 it was reported that Rowling wrote on a bust in her hotel room at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh that she had finished the seventh book in that room on 11 January 2007.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released on 21 July 2007 (0:00 BST) and broke its predecessor’s record as the fastest-selling book of all time. It sold 11 million copies in the first day of release in the United Kingdom and United States. She has said that the last chapter of the book was written “in something like 1990”, as part of her earliest work on the entire series.During a year period when Rowling was completing the last book, she allowed herself to be filmed for a documentary which aired in Britain on ITV on 30 December 2007.
It was entitled J K Rowling… A Year In The Life and showed her returning to her old Edinburgh tenement flat where she lived, and completed the first Harry Potter book. Re-visiting the flat for the first time reduced her to tears, saying it was “really where I turned my life around completely.”
Harry Potter is now a global brand worth an estimated £7 billion ($15 billion), and the last four Harry Potter books have consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history. The series, totalling 4,195 pages, has been translated, in whole or in part, into 65 languages.
The Harry Potter books have also gained recognition for sparking an interest in reading among the young at a time when children were thought to be abandoning books for computers and television, although the series’ overall impact on children’s reading habits has been questioned.