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The Making of the Potterverse
A Month-by-Month Look at Harry's First 10 Years
By Scott Thomas, Jennifer Hale
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2007 Scott Thomas
All rights reserved.
In an article that begins with the words "A young author has sold her first book to an American publisher for more than 100,000 pounds," J.K. Rowling was introduced to the world thanks to a piece in the Telegraph. Like most of the articles of the time, it detailed that Rowling was a single mother who wrote as often as she could, relied for a time on public assistance and then, some would say miraculously, made her sale. In describing Harry's adventures, the journalist noted, "It tells the story of Harry Potter, an orphan who thinks he is an ordinary boy, brought up by a cruel uncle and aunt. He discovers that he is a wizard and, as in C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, he passes through a time warp into a world of make-believe. Encouraged by her success, Miss Rowling plans a further six books recounting the adventures of Harry Potter." The book, titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was published on June 26, 1997, in the United Kingdom.
Producer David Heyman caught wind of Harry Potter at about this time. As he explained, he had had started his company, Heyman Films, with the intention of producing films that would be appropriate for his brother and sister, who were 10 and 14 at the time. "My Head of Development, Tanya Seghatchian, read an article about a new children's book by a then-unknown author," he explained. "The agent sent her a copy and my assistant Nisha read it over the weekend. Nisha reported that it was a curious book about a young boy who goes to wizard school. I thought it was a wonderful idea and read the novel that evening. What I thought was a great idea turned out to be an even more remarkable book, and so much richer than the idea that initially attracted me. I realized this was something very special and began pursuing the rights the following morning." He added that when he met J.K. Rowling, "I made her a promise to be true to her vision. This was and has been the most important consideration to me throughout the process. I told her how I wanted to keep the darkness and the edge of the material intact. I also think Jo was excited by the fact that I wanted her to be involved in the creative process. And she was an invaluable collaborator. Her inspiration and ideas were absolutely wonderful."
* * *
The Herald in Glasgow offered a profile of Rowling, elaborating on her background, her struggles and her efforts to sell Harry Potter. In the course of the interview, Rowling admitted, "This book saved my sanity. Apart from my sister, I knew nobody. I've never been more broke and the little I had saved went on baby gear. In the wake of my marriage [ending], having worked all my life, I was suddenly an unemployed single parent in a grotty little flat. The manuscript was the only thing I had going for me." A number of other publications provided more details of her past and the initial development of Harry Potter, among them: the Sunday Times, the Scotsman, and the Electronic Telegraph.
The manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in America) had been completed in 1996, and attracted the attention of agent Christopher Little, who wanted to represent J.K. Rowling. Eight UK publishers ultimately rejected the manuscript, but Bloomsbury took it on, offering the author a $4,000 advance.
When the first Harry Potter went into auction in America, Scholastic managed to secure the rights for about $100,000 — an unbelievable amount as far as J.K. Rowling was concerned (and, ironically, about one percent of what she's worth in 2007). In addition, the Bristol Evening Post reported that two Hollywood studios were attempting to secure a deal for the films based on the rights David Heyman had acquired.
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Following the sale of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Rowling took home, in her mind, an even bigger prize: a gold medal and £2,500 as part of the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize — the children's equivalent of The Booker. "It's a particularly wonderful award to win from my point of view," she told the press, "because the final judging is done by children and they are obviously the people whose opinions matter to me the most." She also mentioned that she planned on a seven-book series and that she was halfway through book three, having already finished book two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Most surprisingly, she added, "I also have another children's book half-finished." No further word on that particular project.
* * *
Nestlé Smarties winner J.K. Rowling visited the school she used to attend, the Forest of Dean, where she talked to students about becoming a writer and encouraged them to read. At the time, the press noted that the first Harry novel had sold 35,000 copies.
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The "good humor and pace" of the first Harry Potter novel got it into the top four of the Guardian's Children's Fiction Prize.
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The Scottish Braille Press made a Braille edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Sally McCallum of the Braille Press said, "Everyone was really excited about publishing Harry Potter in Braille because the book was so good and it is important to have good books in Braille for children." Added author J.K. Rowling, "It is wonderful. I'm really honored that the title has been chosen."
* * *
J.K. Rowling paid a surprise visit to Alford Primary School in England, where she read from her novels and took questions from the students.
* * *
The Electronic Telegraph conducted an interview with Rowling and in the accompanying profile observed, "When her first novel was published last year, Rowling became a literary sensation. The novel won her the Smarties Prize — the children's equivalent of the Booker. It was sold to eight other countries, netting a $100,000 advance for the American edition, a huge sum for a first novel, almost unheard of for a children's novel. Such is the excitement about Joanne Rowling that she is being compared to C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl, who also achieved the rare trick of delighting both children and adults. The secret seems to be that her target [audience] consists of one person: herself." This article was also the first mention of a possible Harry Potter film deal, though Rowling couldn't really comment on it at that early juncture.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was published in Britain. Of the book's arrival in the UK, The Scotsman wrote, "The second novel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, has leapt to the top of the hardback bestseller lists, overtaking adult works with all the élan of a gracefully speeding broomstick. Certainly, young readers have been clamoring for the next installment of Harry's funny, scary, magical life. It is the book which will keep the beloved offspring quiet for substantial segments of the summer holidays. Yet adults, not all of them teachers or parents avidly curious to learn what has so enthralled their children, are it seems almost equally allured by Harry's escapades at Hogwarts. This is as it should be. The great children's books have always transcended petty boundaries of age."
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The value of Bloomsbury stock was being driven upward by the success of J.K. Rowling's creation. * * *
The Irish Times offered a story that expressed amazement at the success of the Harry Potter novels, noting in particular that they had knocked John Grisham from the top of the bestseller lists.
In reviewing Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Booklist opined, "Rowling's first novel, which has won numerous prizes in England, is a brilliantly imagined and beautifully written fantasy that incorporates elements of traditional British school stories without once violating the magical underpinnings of the plot. In fact, Rowling's wonderful ability to put a fantastic spin on sports, student rivalry, and eccentric faculty contributes to the humor, charm, and, well, delight of her utterly captivating story." Added the Columbus Dispatch, "Published last year in Great Britain and released just this month in the United States, the novel blends a rollicking adventure with supernatural inventions and themes of courage and home. Compared by English reviewers to Roald Dahl fantasies, the novel does indeed bear similarities: flamboyant characters clearly divided into camps of good and evil, an unsqueamish embrace of sorcery, and empowered children who nevertheless remain childlike."
* * *
Heyday Films (David Heyman's company) officially announced its acquisition of the film rights to the Harry Potter novels, with Warner Brothers as official distributors. Said Rowling, "I am in a kind of stunned relief. The talks went on for months and months and at some stages I thought it would never happen. It will be an incredible experience to see in real life what I have seen inside my mind. It will be quite disorientating, but wonderful."
Bloomsbury expected sales of Harry Potter novels to exceed 300,000 by the end of the year.
* * *
The AP conducted an interview with Rowling in which she made an interesting comment about the creative process: "I have a very visual imagination. I see it, then I try to describe what is in my mind's eye," she said.
* * *
Early in the month, J.K. Rowling sat for an in-depth interview with National Public Radio.
In a short profile of Rowling, Newsweek wrote, "Rowling's Cinderella-like story began eight years ago in Edinburgh. An unemployed schoolteacher and the divorced mother of a three-month-old daughter, she began to write out of desperation, convinced that she had nothing left to lose. To escape her chilly flat, she wheeled her daughter's stroller through the streets until the baby fell asleep. Then she would dash into a coffee shop and write. Unable to afford either a word processor or the cost of copying her manuscript, she typed it out twice and sent it off to publishers. The day her English publisher bought the story, she says, was 'comparable only to having my daughter.'"
* * *
Rowling took part in an online chat hosted by Amazon.co.uk. In that interview she pointed out that, "My first two novels — which I never tried to get published — were for adults. I suppose I might write another one, but I never really imagine a target audience when I'm writing. The ideas come first, so it really depends on the idea that grabs me next."
The months that followed brought many interviews with J.K. Rowling in which she detailed aspects of the process of creation, such as how the idea for Harry Potter had come to her while riding on a train; the development of certain characters; her struggles as a single mother and the financial desperation she was living through; and the fact that even at this early stage of her success, her life was definitely on an upward swing. The indication was also that she simply had no idea how successful she and her creation would ultimately become.
* * *
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was published on June 2, debuting at the #1 position on several charts, and the publisher quickly moved 700,000 copies. Entertainment Weekly reported, "Originally scheduled for fall '99, Chamber of Secrets was rushed out three months early because Scholastic was horrified by the flood of Internet sales of the British edition." For this same reason, Scholastic announced that they would be publishing book three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, in the near future, only a few weeks after its British publication. Entertainment Weekly speculated, "Some publishing insiders believe the series may spur big changes in the industry: Rights to popular authors may soon be sold by language instead of by country."
* * *
While appearing on Britain's Radio 4's Book Club series, J.K. Rowling was asked her opinion of why Harry Potter had taken off the way he had, with host James Naughtie noting, "Nothing like this has happened in children's literature for quite a long time." Said Rowling, "I always find it very hard to talk about the book in these terms, because I find it very, very difficult to be objective about them. To me, they remain my private little world. I was writing about Harry for five years before anyone else read a word of him and it's still an amazing feeling to me to be in a room, as we are today, with people whose heads are also populated with these characters, because, as I say, for five years, they were my private secret. From the moment I had the idea for the book, I could see a lot of comic potential in the idea that wizards walk among us and that we are foolishly blind to the fact that the reason that we keep losing our keys is that wizards are bewitching them for fun.
* * *
A foreshadowing of things to come occurred when CNN reported on an Atlanta, Georgia, bookstore that opened up early to accommodate Harry Potter fans who had gathered beforehand to acquire copies of The Prisoner of Azkaban. By the release of book four, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, this would be nothing by comparison.
In an interview with Time magazine, J.K. Rowling admitted that a regular character would probably perish in the next novel. "I am writing about someone, Voldemort, who is evil," she said. "The only way to show how evil he is is to take a life, to kill someone the reader really cares about."
Word leaked out that Warner Brothers had apparently snapped up the rights to the Harry Potter novels in a seven-figure deal, which one newspaper referred to as "a shocking amount for a 'kids' movie." The report also noted: "Rowling says that she intends to make the tone of the books darker and scarier as the boy wizard and his friends age. All the prospective directors have made movies dealing with the fantastic and the dark."
Appearing on CBS's 60 Minutes, J.K. Rowling was asked by reporter Lesley Stahl how long she had been developing Harry. According to the author it had been for quite some time. "What amused me — I went through this last night to show you — this is my employment history [she holds up a series of papers]. [Harry material] is on the back of stuff that I really should have been doing at work, and on the front you have bits of my writing. This is really old. This is a photocopy from a textbook when I was teaching in Portugal. And obviously this was what I was supposed to be doing with the children, and on the back you've got all the ghosts for Gryffindor."
* * *
A South Carolina mom made headlines when she called for the Harry novels to be banned due to the fact that they carry a tone of "sheer evil." Rowling said, "I don't pretend that an evil presence is a cardboard cutout and nobody gets hurt."
Back in 1964, the Beatles had five spots in America's Top 10 singles. It seems that Harry Potter was giving them a bit of a run for their money when, shortly after the publication of Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling's novels held the top three slots in the country's bestseller lists.
While on her North America tour to promote book three, Rowling visited students at a Montclair, New Jersey, school. There she read excerpts and took questions from the students.
A bookstore signing in Worcester, Massachusetts, drew thousands of fans. Larry J. Abramoff, owner of Tatnuck Bookseller, observed, "We're absolutely overwhelmed by the turnout. We couldn't believe that people were arriving so early." They began arriving at 11 a.m., some with lawn chairs and picnic baskets. Rowling wasn't scheduled to arrive until 7 p.m. The pattern of unprecedented crowds continued at every bookstore she went to.
Excerpted from The Making of the Potterverse by Scott Thomas, Jennifer Hale. Copyright © 2007 Scott Thomas. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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