J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels have been prize-winning and consistently on the bestseller lists, and have now sold over 325 million copies worldwide in 64 languages.
J.K. (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling was born in Chipping Sodbury General Hospital in the UK in 1965. Such a funny-sounding name for a hospital may have contributed to her talent for collecting odd names.
Jo moved house twice when she was growing up. The first move was from Yate (just outside Bristol in the south west of England) to Winterbourne (on the other side of Bristol). Jo, her sister and friends used to play together in her street in Winterbourne. Two of her friends were a brother and sister whose surname just happened to be Potter! The second move was when Jo was nine and she moved to Tutshill near Chepstow in the Forest of Dean. Jo loved living in the countryside and spent most of her time wandering across fields and along the river Wye with her sister. For Jo, the worst thing about her new home was her new school.
Tutshill Primary School was a very small and very old-fashioned place. The roll-top desks in the classrooms still had the old ink wells. Jo’s teacher, Mrs Morgan, terrified her. On the first day of school, she gave Jo an arithmetic test, which she failed, scoring zero out of ten. It wasn’t that Jo was stupid – she had never done fractions before. So Jo was seated in the row of desks far to the right of Mrs Morgan. Jo soon realised that Mrs Morgan seated her pupils according to how clever she thought they were: the brightest sat to her left, and those she thought were dim were seated to her right. Jo was in the ‘stupid’ row, as far right as you could possibly get without sitting in the playground.
From Tutshill Primary, Jo went to Wyedean Comprehensive. She was quiet, freckly, short-sighted and not very good at sports. She even broke her arm playing netball. Her favourite subject by far was English, but she also liked languages.
Jo always loved writing more than anything. ‘The first story that 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. And ever since Rabbit and Miss Bee, I have wanted to be a writer, though I rarely told anyone so. I was afraid they’d tell me I didn’t have a hope.’
At school, Jo would entertain her friends at lunchtime with stories. ‘I used to tell my equally quiet and studious friends long serial stories at lunchtimes.’ In these stories, Jo and her friends would be heroic and daring.
As she got older, Jo kept writing but she never showed what she had written to anyone, except for some of her funny stories that featured her friends as heroines.
After school, Jo attended the University of Exeter in Devon where she studied French. Her parents hoped that by studying languages, she would enjoy a great career as a bilingual secretary. But as Jo recalls, ‘I am one of the most disorganised people in the world and, as I later proved, the worst secretary ever.’ She claims that she never paid much attention in meetings because she was too busy scribbling down ideas. ‘This is a problem when you are supposed to be taking the minutes of the meeting,’ she says.
When she was 25, Jo went to Portugal to teach English, which she really enjoyed. Because she worked afternoons and evenings, she had mornings free to write. It was in Portugal that Jo started her third novel (‘I abandoned the first two novels when I realised how bad they were’). This new novel was about a boy who was a wizard.
When she returned to the UK, Jo had a suitcase full of stories about Harry Potter. She worked as a French teacher and also at the same time set herself a target: she would finish the ‘Harry’ novel and get it published. In 1996, one year after finishing the book, Bloomsbury bought Jo’s first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
‘The moment I found out that Harry would be published was one of the best of my life,’ says Jo. A few months after ‘Harry’ was accepted for publication in Britain, an American publisher bought the rights for enough money to enable Jo to give up teaching and write full time – her life’s ambition!
Writing the Harry Potter books
The idea for the Harry books came to Jo while on a train. Jo has said that she didn’t really focus on magic, rather that ‘it chose her… The starting point for Harry’s world is “what if it WAS real?”‘
Jo has said that she doesn’t really think anyone or anything directly influenced the Harry Potter books, except perhaps Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse, ‘which was my favourite book when I was about eight, and which is also a blend of magic with the workaday.’
Jo has a ‘basic plot outline for every Harry Potter book, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write. It’s more fun.’ She writes nearly every day, sometimes for 10 or 11 hours, sometimes for three hours. She says that it depends on ‘how fast the ideas are coming.’
The Harry Potter novels must be read very carefully because what may be a small event in the first book may become very important in a later adventure. Despite the fact that she claims to be really disorganised, Jo plans the Harry Potter books in detail. She knows the plot of every book and has them all written down and stored in a secret diary somewhere very safe. She won’t discuss these plots with anybody so don’t try asking her!
She doesn’t have a floorplan of Hogwarts – because it would be very difficult to draw as the staircases and rooms keep moving, but Jo knows exactly what the castle looks like. She came up with the names of the Hogwarts’ houses on the back of an aeroplane sick bag, which she still has – empty of course! She keeps a record of bizarre names in her notebook and chooses the name she thinks best fits a new character. Some of the monsters in the Harry Potter books are imaginary and others are from legend, so you will have to do some research to find out which is which!
Writers often use real people as inspiration for their work and Jo is no exception. Some of the characters in Harry Potter are based on real people but most are made up. Gilderoy Lockhart is an exaggeration of someone Jo once knew. Ron Weasley is a lot like her oldest friend, Sean Harris, to whom she dedicated The Chamber of Secrets and Hermione is a bit like Jo when she was at school. She has also said that Harry is ‘a bit like me in some ways and better than me in a lot of ways.’
Jo plans to write one novel for every year that Harry is at Hogwarts, so there will be seven books in total. Since there isn’t a University for Wizards, there won’t be a book about Harry going to university. There will, however, be lots of new creatures and lots of exciting adventures in the whole series, including the reason why some witches and wizards become ghosts when they die; what Harry’s parents did before they were killed by You-Know-Who; and a reappearance from Scabbers the rat!
Jo has been writing for most of her life. ‘I couldn’t think of a better way to make a living and truthfully, I think it is the only thing I am good at.’ Writing can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a lot of hard work, but don’t let that put you off! Jo’s advice to aspiring young writers is ‘to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing and it will enlarge your vocabulary. Start by writing about things you know about, your own experiences and feelings. That’s what I do.’