This Day In Literary History
On July 31st, 1965, the legendary Scottish writer J.K. Rowling was born. She was born Joanne Kathleen Rowling in Yate, Gloucestershire, England.
Although 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, who would be the inspiration for her most famous character.
She attended St. Michael's Primary School, whose headmaster was a kind, elderly man named Alfred Dunn. She adored him and would model Harry's mentor and school headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, after him.
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, whom she took for walks to get her to sleep.
Later, she typed up her writings 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.
This was because Alice Newton, the eight-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury's chairman, was thrilled with Rowling's novel. 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 supplies 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, teacher and Gryffindor 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 up 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 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, 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 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 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, however, Pope Benedictus XVI attacked the Harry Potter novels for their "subtle seductions," for which he was ridiculed and scorned, given the child sexual abuse scandals plaguing the Church.
The former Pope was neither the first nor is he the last clergyperson to attack the Harry Potter novels, which reached the top of the American Library Association's list of most banned and 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 became a huge hit. The film version of the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was released in two parts in 2010 and 2011.
The movie studio, Warner Brothers, 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 one 138-minute movie.
The film's poorly written, threadbare screenplay removed a tremendous amount of important details, including the critical ending scene between Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore. Needless to say, that 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 an epilogue 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 companion books, including Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, (2001) Quidditch Through The Ages, The Tales Of Beedle The Bard (2007), and most recently, two Short Stories from Hogwarts books.
When her Harry Potter books first became an international sensation, Rowling expressed interest in writing other novels and she has. Her first non-fantasy novel, The Casual Vacancy, was published in September of 2012.
Geared toward adult readers, it's a scathingly funny black comedy centered around the people and politics of a quaint little English village whose appearance is deceiving, as a Parish Council election results in the spilling of several villagers' dark secrets.
In April of 2013, a detective novel titled The Cuckoo's Calling, written by a new author named Robert Galbraith, was published. According to the book jacket, Galbraith was an ex-RMP (Royal Military Police) investigator - the perfect person to write detective fiction.
He introduced private detective Cormoran Strike, a down-on-his-luck gumshoe. When famous supermodel Lula Landry dies in a fall from her balcony, her death is ruled a suicide. Her brother John doesn't buy it and hires Strike, a childhood friend of their late brother Charlie, to investigate.
The Cuckoo's Calling received rave reviews, but sold poorly. When writer and Sunday Times columnist India Knight sent out a tweet praising the novel, someone named Jude Callegari sent a reply tweet claiming that J.K. Rowling was the real author of the book.
Rowling didn't respond. Her circle of literary friends denied she had written The Cuckoo's Calling. So, Richard Brooks, arts editor for the Sunday Times, began an investigation. He sent a copy of the novel to linguistics experts who confirmed that Rowling had written it.
Confronted with the evidence, Rowling's agent was forced to admit that she had written The Cuckoo's Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Many thought that the mysterious Jude Callegari who had outed the pseudonym was Rowling herself as part of a publicity stunt.
They were wrong. Judith "Jude" Callegari was the best friend of the wife of one of the founding partners of Russells Solicitors, the UK law firm that represented J.K Rowling, who was furious that her pseudonym had been outed. She issued a press release stating the following:
"To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. I had assumed that I could expect total confidentiality from Russells, a reputable professional firm, and I feel very angry that my trust turned out to be misplaced."
Rowling explained the reason for her pseudonym by saying, "It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name."
After Rowling was revealed as the real author of The Cuckoo's Calling, sales of the novel on Amazon jumped 4000%. She decided to continue the Cormoran Strike series, and the second novel was published in June of 2014.
The Silkworm finds Strike hired by Leonora Quine, the wife of notorious novelist Owen Quine, who vanished without a trace shortly after the manuscript for his long-awaited second novel, Bombyx Mori, was leaked. Quine's novel, filled with rape, sadomasochism, and cannibalism, was considered unpublishable.
The Harry Potter novels have sold over four hundred million copies combined. The book, movie, and merchandising royalties have made J.K. Rowling, once a broke single mother on welfare, one of the richest women in the UK.
Her new found wealth enabled her do a lot of philanthropic work, including raising money to combat poverty, helping single mothers, raising money to benefit multiple sclerosis research, (her mother died of the disease) and helping 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. J.K. Rowling's most recent novel, Lethal White, the fourth entry in her Cormoran Strike series, is scheduled for release on September 18th.
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
Today's video features J.K. Rowling being interviewed by Val McDermid at the 2014 Harrowgate International Festival. Enjoy!