Friday, July 31, 2009

Notes for July 31st, 2009

This Day In Writing History

On July 31st, 1965, the legendary fantasy novelist J.K. Rowling was born. She was born Joanne Kathleen Rowling in Yate, Gloucestershire, England, a British girl of Scottish descent. Though her first name is Joanne, she has always been known as Jo. "No one ever called me 'Joanne' when I was young, unless they were angry," she once said.

Around the age of five or six, Rowling began writing fantasy stories, which she read to her younger sister. She enjoyed playing "wizards and witches" with her childhood best friend, Ian Potter, whom she would name her most famous character after. She attended St. Michael's Primary School, whose headmaster was a kind, elderly man named Alfred Dunn.

When she was a young teenager, Rowling's great aunt, who "taught classics and approved of a thirst for knowledge, even of a questionable kind" gave her a copy of Hons and Rebels, the autobiography of British political activist Jessica Mitford. Mitford was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family. In the 1930s, her sisters and father were ardent Nazi sympathizers, but Jessica became a devout communist, eloped, and ran away to Spain to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. J.K. Rowling loved her autobiography. Mitford became her heroine and she read all of her books.

Rowling received her college education at the University of Exeter, where she studied French and the classics. University was a "bit of a shock" to her, as she "was expecting to be amongst lots of similar people– thinking radical thoughts." Once she made some like-minded friends, however, she began to enjoy college. After a year of study in Paris, Rowling returned to London, where she worked as a researcher and bilingual secretary for Amnesty International.

Around this time, in 1990, while on a four-hour delayed train trip from Manchester to London, an idea formed in Rowling's mind for a story about a young boy attending a school of wizardry. She wouldn't act on the idea until a few years later. In 1991, she moved to Porto, Portugal, to teach English as a second language. While there, she met Portuguese TV journalist Jorge Arantes. She married him the following year and bore him a daughter, Jessica (named after her heroine, Jessica Mitford). Six months after the baby was born, Rowling and her husband separated.

Just over a year after the separation, Rowling moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, to be near her sister. She was diagnosed with clinical depression and contemplated suicide. Broke and surviving on welfare, Rowling decided to try her hand at writing. She completed her first novel, writing in longhand in cafes and at other locations while out with her daughter, (she took her out for walks to get her to sleep) then typing it up on an old manual typewriter. She decided to go back to teaching, but in order to teach in Scotland, she would need a postgraduate certificate of education, which required a year long, full-time course of study.

While studying for her teaching certificate, Rowling tried to get her novel published. After an enthusiastic response from one of their readers, the Christopher Little literary agency agreed to represent J.K. Rowling. They submitted her novel to twelve different publishing houses, and all of them rejected it, some stating that the novel was unpublishable and would never sell. Finally, a small publishing house in London called Bloomsbury - which was teetering on bankruptcy - decided to take a chance on the book and publish it. This was because Alice Newton, the eight-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury's chairman, was thrilled with Rowling's novel. When given the first chapter to review, she quickly the demanded the next. And the next.

J.K. Rowling was paid a 1,500 pound advance by editor Barry Cunningham, but he warned her not to quit her day job, because she had little chance of making money in children's books. Her novel was published in June of 1997. It was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. It told the story of Harry Potter, an 11-year-old orphan boy being raised by his ignorant, hateful, and abusive aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley. Forced to live in a staircase closet and tormented by his odious cousin Dudley, Harry's bleak life changes forever when a giant called Hagrid arrives to take him away from his nasty relatives.

Hagrid reveals to Harry the truth about himself, which his aunt and uncle had concealed from him: Harry is a wizard, like his father, James Potter, and his mother Lily - his aunt Petunia's sister - was a witch. When Harry was a baby, his parents were murdered by the evil dark wizard Lord Voldemort, who tried to kill Harry as well. But Harry miraculously survived, and the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead is the result of his attempted murder.

Harry discovers that there exists a secret world of wizards and witches hidden from the eyes of muggles - people born without magical powers. Hagrid takes him to Diagon Alley, a shopping district in the magical world, where he learns that he has inherited his parents' fortune. There, Harry buys the books and accouterments he'll need for boarding school - the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry - where he will learn to master his magic and become a great wizard.

On the train ride to Hogwarts, Harry meets fellow students Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. The three will soon become inseparable best friends. At school, Harry meets his teachers, including kindly old headmaster Albus Dumbledore, (modeled after Rowling's old headmaster, Alfred Dunn) teacher and house director Minerva McGonagall, and professor Severus Snape, director of the sinister Slytherin house, who may or may not be a "death eater" - a follower of the evil Lord Voldemort.

At the Hogwarts school, the students play a sport called Quidditch - kind of a cross between soccer and polo, the playing field high in the air, the players riding on broomsticks. Harry takes a liking to the sport and becomes a talented Quidditch player.

As the forces of good and evil in the magical world prepare for a coming war, Harry learns that his ultimate destiny is to face (and hopefully destroy) his parents' murderer, Lord Voldemort, to whom he is psychically linked via his lightning-shaped scar. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is the first is a series of seven Harry Potter novels that follow the boy wizard through his years at Hogwarts, as he prepares for his final showdown with Lord Voldemort. Meticulously plotted and detail-rich, the novel became a huge bestseller after it was published in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. J.K. Rowling has said that if she had been in a better position to do so at the time, she would have fought her American publisher, Scholastic, Inc., to retain the novel's original title for its U.S. publication.

The Harry Potter novels created a literary phenomenon. They not only encouraged millions of children to discover the joy of reading, they also earned millions of adult fans as well, including me. They also disproved the long held notion that children's novels must be brief and fast-paced. Rowling's amazing fantasy novels are full-length and epic in scope. The fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, (2003) clocked in at a whopping 750+ pages. She has earned the respect of many of her fellow writers, including horror master Stephen King, who is a huge fan of the series.

There were however, some people who were less than thrilled by the adventures of Harry Potter. Christian fundamentalists around the world attacked Rowling's novels, accusing her of encouraging children to dabble in the occult, including practicing real witchcraft and engaging in devil worship. Rowling dismissed these ridiculous accusations, explaining that magic in her novels is depicted as a talent - a gift one is born with - and not part of a religion. She also noted that she belongs to the Church of Scotland.

Christian fundamentalists still attack her novels. The Catholic Church was mostly divided on the issue; Cardinal John Ratzinger, now Pope Benedictus XVI, attacked the Harry Potter novels for their "subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly." The Harry Potter novels were at the top of the American Library Association's list of most challenged books for the years 1999-2001.

The Harry Potter novels made the jump to the big screen in November of 2001, when a feature film version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was released. Like the novel it was based on, the movie was a huge hit. The film version of the sixth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was just released this month. It was supposed to have been released in November 2008, but studio Warner Brothers decided to hold it up and push it as a summer blockbuster in 2009.

The last film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be released in two parts, as the studio claimed there was too much detail in Rowling's last novel for one feature film. That didn't stop them from condensing the 750+ page Order of the Phoenix into a 138-minute movie whose screenplay removed a tremendous amount of important details, including the critical ending scene between Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore. Needless to say, the film was a huge disappointment.

J.K. Rowling said from the beginning that the Harry Potter chronicles were planned to be a seven-novel series. At the end of the last book, there is a prologue set 19 years in the future. While some new characters are established, there is no indication that Rowling will continue the series further - though she hasn't ruled it totally out of the question, either. She has written some supplemental books, including Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, (2001) Quidditch Through The Ages, and most recently, The Tales Of Beedle The Bard (2007). She has expressed interest in writing other, non-Harry Potter related works.

All in all, the Harry Potter novels have sold over four hundred million copies. The book, movie, and merchandising royalties have made J.K. Rowling, once a broke single mother on welfare, the 12th richest woman in Britain, enabling her do a lot of philanthropic work, raising money to combat poverty, help single mothers, benefit multiple sclerosis research, (her mother died of the disease) and for other causes.

On the day after Christmas, 2001, Rowling married her second husband, Neil Michael Murray, an anesthetist. She bore him two children, a son and a daughter. They live on an estate in Perth and Kinross, Scotland. They also own homes in Edinburgh and Kensington, West London.

Quote Of The Day

"We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better." - J.K. Rowling

Vanguard Video

Today's video is a two part video of J.K. Rowling delivering a commencement address at Harvard on June 5th, 2008. Enjoy!

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