By Dana Hall.
The life J.K. Rowling leads today is so foreign from the one she led in the 1990s that even her name has changed. Known worldwide as J.K. Rowling, the author’s middle initial is non-existent in her legal name. She was told by publishers that young boys might be less likely to read a book penned by a woman and that she should use initials instead. With a lonely “J” at her disposal, Rowling created a middle name for herself, Kathleen, after her grandmother.
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Two decades ago, Rowling introduced us to a universe existing next to our own, full of wizards, witches, goblins and house elves. For younger generations, it is hard to remember a time when Harry Potter, one of the most recognized characters in literature, didn’t exist. What is even more difficult to imagine is a time when the author who created the character struggled to keep food on the table.
To this day, Rowling isn’t sure what prompted the idea for Harry Potter. As the story goes, the idea came to her while on a train from Manchester to London, entering her mind in the form of one short sentence: “Boy who doesn’t know he’s a wizard goes to wizarding school.”
The ideas spilled into her head throughout the rest of the trip, manifesting themselves into a seven-book series by the time she reached her apartment in Clapham Junction. “I don’t think I’d ever felt so excited,” she said in a 2010 interview with Oprah. “I thought, ‘I’d love to write that.’”
Throughout the next five years, Rowling would write Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in small fragments on bits of paper, which eventually transformed into longhand sheets. As the pieces of scrap paper amassed containing the earliest snippets of Harry Potter, Rowling’s troubles began.
In December 1990, her mother died of Multiple Sclerosis. Rowling was six months into writing what would become the most acclaimed children’s book of all time but had never told her mother about the project.
The loss sent Rowling into a spiral of emotion: filled with depression, confusion, and regret for not having shared Harry Potter with her mother, she began making a series of decisions that many could describe as rash, beginning with a sudden move to a new country. After seeing an ad in the Guardian promoting teaching English abroad in Portugal, she decided to leave the UK to live in the coastal city of Porto.
While teaching, Rowling continued writing. She was now channeling the emotions surrounding her mother’s passing, and death became a major theme in the series.
“At least half of Harry’s journey is a journey to deal with death in its many forms, what it does to the living, what it means to die, what survives death – it’s there in every single volume of the books.,” she said in her interview with Oprah. “The books are what they are because she died. Because I loved her and she died. That’s why they are what they are.”
It was in Portugal that Rowling met Jorge Arantes, with whom she began a passionate but toxic relationship. Rowling’s coworkers were skeptical of Arantes, feeling that he could be possessive and, at times, aggressive towards her. Caught in the excitement of a passionate relationship, the whirlwind romance quickly turned into a whirlwind marriage, which would last just over a year.
Rowling gave birth to their daughter, Jessica, while still married in 1993. Just a few months later, she divorced Arantes and moved back to the UK, this time to Scotland, with her daughter and the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which she had completed while in Porto.
She arrived in Edinburgh broke, recently divorced, and still battling the same depression that had followed her through her time in Portugal. Rowling speaks often of this time in her life, referring to it as her rock bottom. Dark as the times were, Rowling used the failures as ammunition for success.
“I was set free because my greatest fear at been realized and I was still alive. And I still had a daughter, whom I adored, and old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life,” she said in a speech to Harvard.
Hardly able to afford rent for her apartment, she began spending her days at Nicholson’s Cafe or The Elephant House, both cafes in central Edinburgh. With her daughter by her side, she continued writing until she had a full manuscript.
Finishing the book was only the beginning. Rowling now had a novel, but she needed a publisher. Her first attempt ended in rejection, as did the second and third. The belief that she had a story people would read, despite what publishers were telling her, kept her going. She submitted to a fourth, fifth, and sixth publisher, only to receive negative responses.
It took an alleged thirteen tries for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to gain acceptance from a publisher. The Sorcerer’s Stone hit shelves on July 26, 1997, to immediate success. Overnight, Rowling was catapulted from her small apartment in Edinburgh to worldwide recognition.
With the success, came fame, which exposed Rowling to a new chaos that she hadn’t been prepared for.
“From the outside, I’m sure everything looked amazing. But in my flat, where I was still a single mum and I didn’t know who to call to do my hair, everything felt phenomenally overwhelming,” she told the Guardian, in a 2015 interview.
Gradually, Rowling embraced her new life and continued writing the series throughout the next ten years. In 2001, she married Neil Murray. Together, they have two children, Mackenzie and David.
On July 21, 2007, Rowling appeared on stage at the Natural History Museum in London for an all night book reading for the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final installment of the series. Opening her latest work to a crowd of 1,500 who had been chosen by lottery to attend, she began reading the last pages of a series that had been with her for 17 years.
The series may have been finished, but the Harry Potter franchise lives on. Eight films, one theme park, and countless video games, board games, and products later, Harry Potter is one of the highest grossing franchises of all time. Rowling, who was living on state benefits while she wrote the first novel, is now worth nearly one billion dollars. In 2016, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was released, the latest expansion of the Harry Potter universe.
There is no way Rowling could have predicted that the idea she had on a train to London would become a story that raised a generation of young readers. She had no way of knowing that her financial troubles would come to an end or that she would be able to make a living off doing what she loved. What carried Rowling through her difficulties was the confidence that she had in what she was doing. Her story shows that everyone falls down seven times, but those who believe in themselves can always rise up eight.
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