Among the audience of J.K Rowling’s commencement address at Harvard University, both young and old faces watched attentively like readers captured by her promising world of magic. A white-haired gentleman looked through a camera recorder and smiled, while young graduates laughed as she recalled some of her own experiences at 21. Her advice to the graduating class of 2008 was to value the benefits of failure and the importance of imagination. During one of the most difficult peri-ods of life, ‘I had an old typewriter and a big idea’, says Joanne Rowling. A thumbed copy of the speech, now published as a hardback titled Very Good Lives, sits on my desk as I begin to write of the author’s exemplary literary career.
Rowling’s celebrated seven book fantasy series, Harry Potter, has now sold over 500 million copies across the globe in over 200 territories. The novels have enjoyed a record-breaking success turning into one of the bestselling series in the history of literature. The books have been translated into 80 languages and inspired eight blockbuster movies distributed by Warner Bros. Despite this commer-cial success, the heart of Harry Potter is its story – a narrative that brings together dissimilar readers in an enchanting world of wizardry, powerful spells and dark forces. This cross-cultural connect of J.K Rowling’s writing is what causes millions of readers around the world to queue outside bookstores in the wee hours before midnight when a new Harry Potter book is released. The real magic, therefore, lies in the excellence of Rowling’s storytelling.
In her speech, Rowling spoke of the strong will and discipline she had to discover while writing her first book. J. K Rowling was divorced, unemployed, and living as a single parent with her daughter Jessica in Edinburgh, Scotland when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. It soon topped the New York Times best sellers list and grew into a literary sensation. J. K Rowling has also authored three companion volumes to the series – Quidditch Through The Ages, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Tales from Beedle the Bard.
Recently, she collaborated with acclaimed screenwriter, Jack Thorne and director, John Tiffany on the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which follows the journey of the protagonist after the last book. Day after day, crowds gather outside the purple lighted Palace Theatre in London’s West End, platonically drawn to the story. The American production of the play has become the most nominated Broadway play and has been honoured with, among others, a Tony Award for Best Play. Rowling made her debut in screenwriting with the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, released in November 2016 to immense love and critical acclaim. The film marks the first in a series of five to be written by the author.
Infamously, the first manuscript of Harry Potter received twelve rejections before being offered pub-lication by Bloomsbury. Today, it continues to evolve as a literary culture and franchise. When asked how she measures success by Lauren Laverne in an interview for The Guardian, Rowling answers, ‘success never feels the way you think it will be’, explaining that everything felt phenome-nally overwhelming a week after she got the American deal for her books.
Born to an aircraft engineer and a high school science technician, J. K Rowling was a student of French and Classics at University of Exeter in Exeter, United Kingdom. She recalls spending most of her time in the coffee bar writing stories. Explaining her passion for writing, she says ‘I have to write. It’s almost a compulsion. I need to do it. I don’t feel like myself if I’m not writing regularly, and I feel restless and odd if I have nothing to write’. At age six, she wrote her first story about a rabbit called Rabbit and at twelve, completed her first novel. Before becoming a full-time writer, Rowling had trained as a teacher and worked with the African Research department at Amnesty Internation-al. Rowling wrote most of Harry Potter in cafes around Edinburgh, people-watching with her young daughter next to her in a pram. During this period, Rowling lived on state welfare funds and was struggling to make ends meet. Her experience with depression and the death of her mother deeply informed the emotions evoked in her books. In an interview with Amazon Canada she shares her recipe for happiness, ‘step one would be finding out what you love doing most in the world and step two would be finding someone to pay you to do it. I consider myself very lucky indeed to be able to support myself by writing’.
On her website, the writer patiently answers questions for her fans. Discussing her writing process, she says, ‘I try to start work before 9am […] I can usually work through to about 3pm before I need more than a short break. During this writing time, I generally manage to drink eight or nine mugs of tea.’ Her writing room is in her garden, complete with ‘a kettle, a sink and a cupboard-sized bath-room’. In February of 2000, offering advice through a Scholastic interview to young people who wish to write, J. K Rowling said ‘the most important thing is to read as much as you can, like I did. It will give you an understanding of what makes good writing […] And also, start by writing about things you know – your own experiences, your own feelings. That’s what I do’. J. K Rowling is the honoured recipient of France’s Legion d’Honneur and the Hans Christian Anderson Award. She has also re-ceived several honorary degrees from prestigious universities around the world and an OBE for ser-vices to children’s literature.
In addition, J. K Rowling has written a list of other bestselling titles in genres of mystery and crime fiction. The first of these, The Casual Vacancy, was published in 2012 and adapted for BBC and HBO television in 2015. Rowling has written three books under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith – The Cuckoo’s Calling, The Silkworm and Career of Evil – which follow the investigations of detective Cormoran Strike. Disclosure of Galbraith’s real identity caused the sales of the books to skyrocket. They have now been televised as a BBC One drama series.
While the writer developed themes beyond magic in Harry Potter, quilling ideas of love, death and morality into the stories, her adult fiction discusses politics and everyday life in ways the fantasy couldn’t. Currently, J.K Rowling is working on the much anticipated fourth book of the series – Lethal White. Her writing attracts equal attention from critics and booklovers, making her one of the most successful writers with a growing empire.
In 2004, Forbes listed Rowling among the only five self-made female billionaires of the time and the first billion-dollar author. Alongside writing, Rowling involves herself in a host of philanthropic pro-jects. In 2013, she helped establish the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic at University of Edinburgh, burying a time capsule to mark its foundation. Her organisation Lumos, named after the light-giving spell from Harry Potter, aims to tackle the institutionalisation of children around the globe. She also created the Volant Trust to support charitable causes in Scotland and raised funds for Comic Relief through the sales of her companion books. Her name has now dropped from the list of the world’s richest owing to her massive contribution to charities.
In 2017, Rowling published Harry Potter: A History of Magic and a children-friendly version, Harry Potter: A Journey Through A History of Magic as part of an exhibition at the British Library – the first to focus on a single series of books by a living author. The pieces, along with recreations of the oth-er exhibits – magic wands, fortune telling teacups and broomsticks – have been archived online on Google Arts and Culture in six different languages. Rowling’s rejected pitch is now one of the most treasured objects in this display.
The material presence of Rowling’s literary creations is testament to the impact her work has had not only in the world of literature and art, but also on countless individual lives. The writer explains that the idea for her celebrated series came to her on a delayed train journey from Manchester to London’s King’s Cross in 1990. Today, one is not disappointed when asking for directions to the magical platform 9 ¾ from the first Harry Potter book, preserved for eternity on a brick wall at King’s Cross station where hundreds of travellers pause each day to re-experience the magic of her words.
Story by Nikita Biswal (Associate, Network Capital)