Read an Excerpt
J. K. Rowling
Keep writing and throwing it away until one day you do something that you don't think belongs in the [trash bin]. Stick to writing what you know about. Don't give up.
—J. K. Rowling
In the beginning of the wildly successful Harry Potter series, Harry is a young boy who has no idea of the power he possesses as the wizard he doesn't yet know he is. Likewise, there was an untapped magic and wonder in author Joanne Kathleen "J. K." Rowling. Rowling, although she had loved to write from the time she was a little girl, had no idea of the immense talent she possessed and the powerful influence she would have to change the literary world—and the real one. As a result, Rowling, through her Harry Potter books, has enriched the lives of children and adults alike worldwide.
She spent years writing the first Harry Potter book and plotting out the next six without knowing (not even having a hint) that her untold hours of hard work would amount to anything. She was unpublished, with no connections and no agent. Yet even as a financially strapped single mother, struggling to support herself and her child, she still made time to write. She wrote for the pure love of it. Her dream was to be a published writer, and she admits that she didn't think she had much of a chance to realize the dream.
Was she ever wrong!
"This is my life's ambition, and I've overshot the mark so hugely," Rowling said in Lindsey Fraser's Conversations with J. K. Rowling.
Born July 31, 1965 in Chipping Sodbury, England, Rowling's literary rise was meteoric. In July 1997, her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the United States), was published. By July 1999, there were 30 million copies of her first three books in print. By 2000, 76 million copies, and by 2004, the total had reached 250 million copies of the first five books. By her fortieth birthday, Rowling was one of the wealthiest people in the world with a fortune estimated at $1 billion. Today there are over 400 million copies of Rowling's seven Harry Potter books in print. According to Forbes magazine in 2006, she is the first author-billionaire.
"I still know that I'm an extraordinarily lucky person, doing what I love best in all the world," Rowling said.
Her secret to success, however, wasn't magic or luck. It was born instead of an old-fashioned work ethic.
Harry Potter was created on a train ride and, in a way, so was Rowling. Her eighteen-year-old parents met on a train departing King's Cross Station in London in 1964. They sat near each other on their nine-hour trip to Arbroath in Scotland and instantly fell in love. And like the magical train ride that Harry takes to the huge castle known as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Rowling, too, experienced a train ride that changed her life and the lives of her readers.
In June 1990, Rowling was returning to London from Manchester by train. As she gazed out the window and watched the countryside go by, she had what she says was the purest stroke of inspiration she had ever had in her life. At this point in her novice career, Rowling had written many short stories and two adult novels. She worked on the novels while supporting herself as a secretary, but she felt neither manuscript was good enough to warrant finishing.
Harry's story was different, however. She imagined an eleven-year-old boy wizard who lived among mortals, not knowing his true powers. Orphaned, Harry was raised in a heartless manner by his nonmagical aunt and her pompous husband.
With that idea to go on, Rowling said she needed to answer the question of why Harry is where he is when the story starts. Eventually, she developed the backstory about the lightning bolt–shaped scar on Harry's forehead and how it provided the key clue to his past. When the evil wizard Voldemort killed Harry's wizard parents, Lily and James, he didn't possess enough magical power to kill the infant Harry. Weakened in the attempt, the dreaded Voldemort did manage to leave the distinctive scar on Harry's brow. In the magical world yet unknown to him, the scar serves as proof that Harry is legendary among wizards as "the boy who lived."
The never-before-published Rowling decided by the end of that fateful train ride that she would write seven Harry Potter books. They would correspond to the seven years Harry spends at Hogwarts. She rode the enthusiasm of her vision and started writing that very night.
In a sense, Rowling had been preparing for that moment her entire life. Many of the greatest minds of civilization have written about the value reading played in their lives and successes. Rowling's parents served as an example to her because they both loved to read. "My mother was a huge reader and never happier than when she was curled up reading. That was a big influence on me," she recalled. In Rowling's case, reading certainly taught her how other writers told their stories, and these stories expanded her own imagination.
Today, with her busy schedule, Rowling still makes time to read. When O, The Oprah Magazine asked, "With so much on your plate, when do you find time to read?" Rowling responded, "I never need to find time to read. When people say to me, 'Oh, yeah, I love reading. I would love to read, but I just don't have time,' I'm thinking, how can you not have time?"
Early in her life Rowling was not only reading children's books but also books such as Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, which she tackled at age eight. She was nine when she read Ian Fleming's James Bond thriller Thunderball. By her late preteens, she had read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and by age fourteen she conquered William Thackeray's Vanity Fair—all very sophisticated fare for a young girl. One book series that impacted her writer's imagination greatly was The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Other favorite childhood authors included Paul Gallico, Noel Streatfield, and E. Nesbit.
As a young adult, she was moved by Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities and inspired by the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien. Dickens's works frequently concerned matters of social injustice, and Tolkien wrote of epic battles between good and evil in imaginative realms. Both of these are important and recurring themes in the Harry Potter series.
Rowling says she was most influenced by the writings of Jessica Mitford. Her great aunt gave her Mitford's autobiography, Hons and Rebels, when Rowling was fourteen years old. Known as the "queen of the muckrakers," Mitford wrote extensively about social injustice. Rowling admired the way she lived her life and the courage she displayed as a human rights activist—courage that sometimes put Mitford in harm's way.
"[Mitford] showed her passion by acting on what she believed, not preaching. . . . I think I've read everything she wrote. I even named my daughter after her," Rowling noted. Mitford's courage ultimately permeated Rowling's novels as an essential character trait of Harry Potter and his two best friends, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.
Another key book Rowling read during childhood was Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse. Rowling remarked that the more she read this book, the more clever it became. Likewise, surprises abound on each page of the Harry Potter books. Rowling says of The Little White Horse on her website, "Perhaps more than any other book, it had a direct influence on the Harry Potter books. The author always included detail of what her characters were eating, and I remember liking that. You may have noticed that I always list the food being eaten at Hogwarts."
Like Goudge, Rowling meticulously planned her books. She created all of her characters and their backstories as if she knew them as living, breathing people. "Sirius Black is a good example," Rowling wrote, "I have a whole childhood worked out for him. The readers don't need to know that, but I do. I need to know much more than them because I'm the one moving the characters across the page."
She filled one notebook with nothing but notes about Quidditch, a thrilling wizard's team sport that Harry and his classmates play at Hogwarts. Rowling also put extensive effort into naming the unique places and things surrounding her characters and very carefully selected the names of her characters.
As she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, she also planned the plotlines for the next six novels. In addition, as she worked on the early novels, she wrote the last chapter of the seventh book—before the first novel was even close to completion. This prewriting of the final chapter of the last book served as Rowling's tangible commitment to herself that all the books would be completed. Her tremendous love of her work and belief in her ability to bring it to fruition drove her to invest significant time and energy to write her story the way she wanted it to be written. This is especially exceptional given the bleak financial circumstances she endured while she was writing.
In the summer of 1991, Rowling moved to Oporto, Portugal. After the death of her mother and the loss of her job, she wanted to get away. She found a position in Oporto teaching English in the afternoon and evenings and devoted her free mornings to continuing the work on the first Harry Potter book.
Drawing from her real-life experience of losing her mother, who was only forty-five, Rowling said that Harry's feelings about his dead parents became "much deeper, much more real. In my first weeks in Portugal, I wrote my favorite chapter in Philosopher's Stone, 'The Mirror of Erised.'" In the magic mirror, young Harry sees himself living happily with his parents. His greatest childhood desire (the mirror's name, Erised, is the word desire spelled backward) can be reflected back to Harry, but—like all illusions—it can never be realized.
At this time, Rowling realized her own desire for a family. While in Portugal, she married and gave birth to her daughter Jessica. The marriage soon failed. Rowling returned to Great Britain with Jessica, her unfinished manuscript, and boxes of Potter ideas in hand. In December 1994, she settled in Edinburgh, Scotland, where her sister, Di, lived with her husband.
Rowling had very little money and applied for and received welfare. It was depressing for the single mother. She never forgot that humiliating experience and the struggles that financial hardship brought. At one particularly low point, she settled in an unheated, dilapidated apartment where she could hear the pitter-patter of little feet, but they weren't Jessica's. They belonged to a community of mice running through the walls.
She stretched her dollars as far as she could and even frequented children's clothing stores to get the free diapers provided in their dressing rooms under the guise of shopping for her daughter. It broke her heart that she couldn't provide more for Jessica.
Very few people succeed in a vacuum without the care and concern of friends and family. In Rowling's case, she asked for help from her friend Sean Harris, who came through and lent her money, so she and her daughter could move to a better apartment. Rowling says that Harry's best friend, Ron Weasley, shares many of the traits of her friend Harris, including the fact that both are funny and loyal.
Rowling wanted to start teaching again but needed to get a teaching certificate to do so. She set her mind to finishing Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone before she started teaching full-time because she knew that teaching and taking care of a small child wouldn't leave her any spare time to write. She worked at a frenzied pace. Whenever her daughter fell asleep during the day, Rowling would take her to a café and write "like mad." In the evenings, she wrote still more. Initially, everything she produced was written in longhand.
In January of 1995, she began working toward her teaching certificate at a school called Moray House. When the school stopped offering child care, which Rowling needed for Jessica, a friend stepped forward and offered her a large loan that made it possible for her to continue her studies while Jessica was cared for.
"I broke down and cried when my friend offered it to me," Rowling said in Colleen Sexton's J. K. Rowling. "It was this enormous sum of money. I think we both thought I would never be able to pay it back. The friend was saying in effect: 'Here is a gift to help you."
She eventually typed the entire ninety-thousand-word book on a secondhand manual typewriter, then retyped it on public computers in a college library. By 1995, Rowling finished the first draft of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
After the first three chapters were rejected by the first agent she sent them to, Rowlings sent out the package to an agent who had a name she liked: Christopher Little of the Christopher Little Literary Agency. Office manager Bryony Evens initially rejected the manuscript because Little didn't represent children's books. But then, fate intervened. Evens was drawn to the interesting folder the three chapters came in. When she read the synopsis, she felt the book had the elements of "a classic." She then read the first three chapters and was so impressed that she received Little's okay to request the rest of the manuscript.
When Rowling received that letter, she read it several times, calling it the second best moment in her life, after the birth of Jessica. When the manuscript arrived at the agency office, Evens, and then Little, read it in one night. Little immediately decided to represent Rowling. Over the course of the next year, twelve publishers would reject her first Harry Potter book. The thirteenth publisher was Bloomsbury, and the head of their children's division, Barry Cunningham, was drawn to Rowling's detail.
"What struck me first was that the book came with a fully imagined world. There was a complete sense of Jo knowing the characters and what would happen to them," Cunningham recalled. Rowling's intense work on the backstories of her characters paid off when it mattered most, at match point in her fledgling career.
In August 1996, magic happened: Little informed Rowling that Bloomsbury had made an offer of $2,250 for the rights to publish the book, in addition to royalties. "I could not quite believe my ears," Rowling wrote. "'You mean it's going to be published?' I asked, rather stupidly. 'It's definitely going to be published?' After I had hung up, I screamed and jumped into the air. Jessica, who was sitting in her high-chair enjoying tea, looked thoroughly scared."
The years of hard work, the countless hours of thinking, planning, writing, and tweaking had paid off to meet Rowling's minimal goal of just having the book published. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone hit the bookstores of Great Britain on June 26, 1997, and one of literature's great phenomena was born. Joanne Kathleen Rowling had become "J. K." because Cunningham was concerned that boys might not want to read books written by a woman.
In the United States, Arthur Levine, editorial director for Scholastic Press, read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. He liked it so much that he paid $105,000 for the rights to publish the book in the United States, retitling it Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It was the largest amount ever paid to a first-time children's author and the largest amount Levine had ever paid for any book—period. He explained his reasoning this way: "In Harry Potter, the wand chooses the wizard; and when the wand chooses you, you take it."
Still not expecting lightning to strike, Rowling continued her teaching program while commencing work on her second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. To better fund her efforts, she applied to the Scottish Arts Council for a writer's grant. She submitted a proposal and writing samples and received a grant of $12,000.
Due in part to the publicity of winning the Smarties Book Prize, Rowlings first book began generating royalties—something she had never expected. She decided to devote herself to full-time writing. It was a risk, as she would give up her training to become a teacher, but she felt she was in a position to write full-time for two years. And the Smarties Prize turned out to be only the first in a very long line of awards her first book garnered.
Within those two years, the hardworking Rowling finished her second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but even though she accomplished it within her publisher's timeline, the perfectionist in her asked the publisher to allow her another six weeks to add finishing touches because she wasn't satisfied with it. Rowling was worried she wouldn't meet the expectations of her readers. Her extra care and hard work paid off: the book skyrocketed to the top of many bestseller lists.
With the second novel, her fame started to grow, and after her third, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, her fortune also increased. She had 30 million books in print, but Rowling refused to rest on her laurels. The hunger to turn out great work still burned within her.
Rowlings became unhappy with the plot development of her fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. While her first three books had followed the plots she'd planned years earlier, the fourth one needed work. "I wrote what I thought was half the book, and 'Ack!' Huge gaping hole in the middle of the plot," Rowling said. She rewrote chapter nine thirteen times and spent ten hours a day on the book. She was already rich and famous and could have sold anything that had her name on it, but her love of writing and her perfectionism would not allow anything less than her best effort. The Prisoner of Azkaban was released in 2002 and was an immediate hit.
J. K. Rowling's books are a hit because her characters are believable and idealistic, and at the same time they all reflect Rowling's life values. Among the reasons the Harry Potter character resonates with the public is that Harry is a hero. He is courageous and loyal and shows talent in "the subject of Defense against the Dark Arts," something a true hero needs. Rowling admires these traits, just as she admired Jessica Mitford in part because of her courage. Harry's friend Hermione Granger is based on Mitford and even more so on Rowling herself. Hermione is kindhearted, and Rowling says the character is "near enough" her. She says that while she was never as clever as Hermione, "I was that annoying on occasion."
During the years before the birth of Harry Potter, Rowling worked to survive, but she lived to write. She often found herself bored at many of her jobs and carved out time during the workday to jot down ideas for her latest stories. It wasn't that she didn't care about these jobs, but rather that her creativity and passion for writing simply could not be contained. She knew what she wanted to do, and this is partly why she has achieved such staggering success on a global scale.
Rowling is drawn to causes and themes that matter. "If I wasn't just writing full-time—it was important that my time was being spent on something worthwhile," she said.
One of her favorite jobs was doing research for Amnesty International, an organization committed to protecting human rights around the world. Rowling's work involved researching cases of human rights abuse in Africa. No doubt, this research has inspired her telling depictions of the prejudices and politics certain wizards have toward muggles (human beings without magical powers), elves, giants, centaurs, and other enchanted creatures who populate Harry Potter's world.
Rowling's books inspire readers because of the timeless themes of heroism and the power of good over evil. Through the selfless and heroic actions of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Sirius Black, Dumbledore, and others, Rowling's books do more than encourage children to read; they encourage children to do the right thing. At the end of each school year (the end of each book), Professor Dumbledore speaks to the student body at Hogwarts and always leaves them with one principle to live by. As Rowling herself put it, "What's very important for me is when Dumbledore says [at the end of the first book] that you have to choose between what is right and what is easy." This is the setup for the next three novels. In each of them, Harry and his friends are going to have to choose, because what is easy is often not what is right.
When Hollywood came calling to put Harry Potter on the big screen, Rowling stuck to her vision and principles. She retained script approval and Warner Brothers gave her input on such things as the look of Hogwarts to keep the films as close to her vision as possible. "The vital thing for me was that it would be true to the book. . . . I didn't want the plot to change very much at all," she said. Because of the control Rowling retained in her dealings with Warner Brothers, all of the cast members in the movie series are British actors. And in an unprecedented decision in a town not known for honoring the vision of its writers, Warner Brothers announced that the final novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, would be filmed in two feature-length parts to preserve the integrity of Rowling's plotline.
The first Harry Potter movie came out in 2001, and by September 2007, the first five movies had grossed $4.47 billion worldwide, making it the most successful movie franchise ever according to Warner Brothers. The Potter franchise has surpassed the six Star Wars and twenty-one James Bond movies and still has two more movies scheduled for release. Its success has put Rowling in the same enviable and rare position of creative control and box office clout enjoyed by two other stubborn visionaries who stayed true to their source material: George Lucas and Peter Jackson (who directed the Lord of the Rings trilogy).
Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, Warner Brothers Pictures president of international distribution, said in a 2007 press release, "This worldwide box office record once again proves that the appeal of the Harry Potter movies knows no border, no age limit, and no language barrier. Each of the five films has captured the hearts and sparked the imagination of audiences everywhere."
In late November of 2007, Rowling was featured on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and was named the magazine's Entertainer of the Year. "In this high-tech age," the article stated, "Rowling has turned back the clock." They lauded her as the force responsible for people toting around "her big, old-fashioned printed-on-paper books as if they were the hottest new entertainment devices on the planet."
Martha Stewart echoed similar sentiments when she wrote, "J. K. Rowling certainly made the world better with her Harry Potter series. She is a fabulous and gifted writer possessing a most fertile imagination, and she is most definitely a brilliant entrepreneur. Look at what she did: In an era of television, video games and Internet distractions, she single-handedly enticed millions of children to read—children who might otherwise have never discovered what a fabulous world awaited them inside a book."
Rowling will not stop writing anytime soon. She has never done it for the money or the fame, so the fact that she has both of them now doesn't mean she'll stop touching the world with her words and imagination. Her reward, she insists, is the enthusiasm readers have for her work.
After finishing the first four Harry Potter books, she said, "I'm sure I'll always write, at least until I lose my marbles. I'm very, very lucky. Because of Harry's success, I don't need to do it financially, nobody's making me. I just need to do it for myself."
Lucky for us.
How to Be Like J. K. Rowling
1) Invest time in what you believe in. Rowling spent years writing the first Harry Potter book and plotting out the next six without any assurance that her untold hours of hard work would amount to anything. She followed her heart and her love of writing.
2) Do what you love. Rowling wrote her first story at age six. She never wavered in her commitment to write and make her living as a writer. She calls writing the work she loves best in all of the world. Even after she became rich and famous, she continued to write and perfect the Harry Potter book series until she completed her goal of seven books.
3) Work hard. There are no guarantees that hard work will pay off, but it's just about guaranteed that nothing substantial can be accomplished without it. Initially, Rowling carved out the time to write wherever she could between working and caring for her infant daughter. Even after she achieved financial independence several times over, her work ethic didn't change.
4) Set goals. Once Rowling conceived the Harry Potter idea, she set a goal of writing seven Potter books. She planned out all the plotlines and, early on, wrote the last chapter of the seventh book, before the first one was even finished. This was a show of commitment to and faith in herself that she was going to write all the books.
5) Keep reading and writing. Rowling's advice to young writers today is gold: "Read as much as you can. Keep writing and throwing it away until one day you do something that you don't think belongs in the [trash bin]. Stick to writing what you know about. Don't give up." Rowling started out as and remains a voracious reader. Many of the books she read shaped her talent and craft and undoubtedly helped her in writing the Harry Potter series.
6) Be detailed. Rowling meticulously planned her books. Not only did she devise rich and elaborate wizardry histories and customs, she thought about all of her characters and their backstories so that she knew them as though they were living, breathing people. This meticulous detail is what caught the attention of Bloomsbury's children's division head, Barry Cunningham, and led to her first sale.
7) Leave no stone unturned. Walt Disney directed his employees to "plus" the experience of his movies and theme park attractions. Similarly, Rowling spent time even on little things—like folders—and it paid off. When she sent the first three chapters to the Christopher Little Literary Agency, office manager Bryony Evens took a second look at Rowling's submission because she was drawn to the interesting folder it came in. That one little detail got Evens to read the synopsis, and the rest is history.
8) No laurel resting. Rowling never became complacent. Even after achieving fame and fortune, when she became unhappy with the plot development of her fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling spent countless hours on rewrites until she was satisfied with the results.
©2008. Pat Williams, Ruth Williams. All rights reserved. Reprinted from How to Be Like Women of Power. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442