Harry and me
What did you read as a child?
MY favourite book was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. It was probably something to do with the fact that the heroine was quite plain but it is a very well-constructed and clever book and the more you read it, the cleverer it appears. And perhaps more than any other book, it has a direct influence on the Harry Potter books. The author always included details of what her characters were eating and I remember liking that. You may have noticed that I always list the food being eaten at Hogwarts.
My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. When my great-aunt gave me Hons and Rebels when I was 14, she instantly became my heroine. She ran away from home to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking with her a camera that she had charged to her father’s account. I wished I’d had the nerve to do something like that. I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics - she was a self-taught socialist - throughout her life. I think I’ve read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter after her.
What did you do when you left school?
I went to Exeter University for four years, including a year teaching English in Paris, which I loved. At first Exeter was a bit of a shock. I was expecting to be among lots of similar people - thinking radical thoughts. But it wasn’t like that. However, once I’d made friends with some like-minded people, I began to enjoy myself. Although I don’t think I worked as hard as I could have.
Why did you choose to study languages when you loved English literature so much?
That was a bit of a mistake. I certainly didn’t do everything my parents told me but I think I was influenced by their belief that languages would be better for finding a job. I don’t regret it hugely but it was a strange decision for someone who only really wanted to be a writer, not that I’d had the courage to tell anyone that, of course.
Where did you go once you had graduated?
That was an even bigger mistake. I went to London to do a bilingual secretarial course. I was - am - totally unsuited to that kind of work. Me as a secretary? I’d be your worst nightmare. But the one thing I did learn to do was to type. Now I type all my own books, so that’s been incredibly useful. I’m pretty fast.
When did the idea for Harry Potter first enter your head?
My boyfriend was moving to Manchester and wanted me to move, too. It was during the train journey back from Manchester to London, after a weekend looking for a flat, that Harry Potter made his appearance. I have never felt such a huge rush of excitement. I knew immediately that this was going to be such fun to write.
I didn’t know then that it was going to be a book for children - I just knew that I had this boy. Harry. During that journey I also discovered Ron, Nearly Headless Nick, Hagrid and Peeves. But with the idea of my life careering round my head, I didn’t have a pen that worked! And I never went anywhere without my pen and notebook. So, rather than trying to write it, I had to think it. And I think that was a very good thing. I was besieged by a mass of detail and if it didn’t survive that journey it probably wasn’t worth remembering.
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was the first thing I concentrated on. I was thinking of a place of great order but immense danger, with children who had skills with which they could overwhelm their teachers. Logically, it had to be set in a secluded place and pretty soon I settled on Scotland, in my mind. I think it was in subconscious tribute to where my parents had married. People keep saying they know what I based Hogwarts on - but they’re all wrong. I have never seen a castle anywhere that looks the way I imagine Hogwarts.
So, I got back to the flat that night and began to write it all down in a tiny cheap notebook. I wrote lists of all the subjects to be studied - I knew there had to be seven. The characters came first and then I had to find names to fit them. Gilderoy Lockhart is a good example. I knew his name had to have an impressive ring to it. I was looking through the Dictionary of Phrase and Fable - a great source for names - and came across Gilderoy, a handsome Scottish highwayman. Exactly what I wanted. And then I found Lockhart on a war memorial to the First World War. The two together said everything I wanted about the character.
Can you describe the process of creating the stories?
It was a question of discovering why Harry was where he was, why his parents were dead. I was inventing it but it felt like research. By the end of that train journey I knew it was going to be a seven-book series. I know that’s extraordinarily arrogant for somebody who had never been published but that’s how it came to me. It took me five years to plan the series out, to plot through each of the seven novels. I know what and who’s coming when, and it can feel like greeting old friends. Professor Lupin, who appears in the third book, is one of my favourite characters. He’s a damaged person, literally and metaphorically. I think it’s important for children to know that adults, too, have their problems, that they struggle. His being a werewolf is a metaphor for people’s reactions to illness and disability.
I almost always have complete histories for my characters. If I put all that detail in, each book would be the size of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but I do have to be careful that I don’t just assume that the reader knows as much as I do. Sirius Black is a good example. I have a whole childhood worked out for him. The readers don’t need to know that but I do. I need to know much more than them because I’m the one moving the characters across the page.
I invented the game of Quidditch after a huge row with the boyfriend I lived with in Manchester. I stormed out of the house, went to the pub - and invented Quidditch.
Did you give up work to write the books?
Oh no! I moved to Manchester and worked for the Manchester Chamber of Commerce - rather briefly, because almost immediately I was made redundant. I then went to work at the university but I was really very unhappy. My mother had died about a month after I moved there. And then we were burgled and everything my mother had left me was stolen. People were incredibly kind and friendly but I decided that I wanted to get away.
I knew that I’d enjoyed teaching English as a foreign language in Paris and I thought to myself, how would it be if I went abroad, did some teaching, took my manuscript. had some sun ... that’s how I came to live in Oporto in Portugal, teaching students aged eight to 62. They were mostly teenagers preparing for exams but there were also business people and housewives. The teenagers aged between 14 and 17 years were easily my favourite. They were so full of ideas and possibilities, forming opinions. I became head of that department.
After six months, I met my husband-to-be, a journalist. We married and the next year had Jessica - just before my 28th birthday. That was, without doubt, the best moment of my life. At that point, I had completed the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, almost exactly as they appear in the published book. The rest of the book was in rough draft.
Why did you move to Edinburgh?
It became clear that my marriage wasn’t working and I decided that it would be easier if I came back to Britain. My job wasn’t tremendously secure and, of course, it stopped completely over the summer holidays. I was worried about finding work during that period, especially with a small baby. I came to Edinburgh to stay with my sister for Christmas and I thought, I can be happy here. And I have been.
The only people I knew in Edinburgh were my sister and her best friend. I’d only met my sister’s husband once before. Most of my friends were in London but I felt that Edinburgh was the kind of city in which I wanted to bring up my child. Pretty soon I made some good friends. Maybe it was my Scottish blood calling me home.
How did you continue to write?
I decided to return to teaching to earn a living but first I had to get the qualification - a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education. That would take a year, so I knew that unless I made a push to finish the first book now, I might never finish it. I made a huge, superhuman effort. I would put Jessica in her pushchair, take her to the park and try to tire her out. When she fell asleep, I’d rush to a caf and write. Not all the cafs I went to approved of me sitting there for a couple of hours having bought only one cup of coffee. But my brother-in-law had just opened his own caf - Nicolson’s - and I thought they might be welcoming. I was careful to go when they weren’t busy and the staff were very nice. I used to joke about what I’d do for them if I ever got published and the book sold well … I still wasn’t sure that I’d ever be published. So, my first book was finished in Nicolson’s.
What happened after Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published?
My publisher was very encouraging and told me it was selling surprisingly well. There was no great fanfare - a good review in The Scotsman, followed by some others - but mostly it seems to have been word of mouth. Then my American publisher, Scholastic, bought the rights to the first book for more money than anyone had expected. The burst of publicity terrified me. I was teaching part-time and trying to write Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I felt frozen by all the attention.
What made you decide to become a full-time writer?
It wasn’t an easy decision. I didn’t know whether this was all just a flash in the pan. And I had my daughter to think of. But I thought that I could probably afford to write full-time for two years, although I was risking my teaching career because I wouldn’t gain the experience necessary to go back to it as a career. When I won the Smarties Book Prize, sales started to climb. I got my first royalty cheque. I didn’t expect to earn any royalties - not for a first novel - so, that was a very proud moment.
Did you receive many letters from your readers?
I remember my first ever fan letter, from Francesca Gray. It began, "Dear Sir … " I’ve since met her. There was a growing trickle of mail but when the book began to sell well in America, the letters poured in. I realised that I was fast becoming my own inefficient secretary. It was a really nice problem to have but it was time to hire someone to do things properly.
What happened when Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was published?
It went almost straight to number one in the bestseller lists, which I thought was incredible. You have to remember that these things were taking me hugely by surprise. The fact is that it all happened very quickly but what mattered was that I had written a book I was proud of.
And Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban?
The idea that children would queue up in bookshops to buy copies of my books delighted me. But there are other more disconcerting sides to that level of publicity - having your photograph appear regularly in the papers is not something I ever anticipated. But all the time, children are reading the books. And we know now that adults are reading the books, too. And they like them. That’s what I remember when I’m feeling besieged.
Your books have now been translated into at least 50 languages. What do you think of the different versions?
I’ve recently received copies of the first Harry translated into Japanese - it’s beautiful. But I think the one I’m most impressed with is the Greek translation.
Sometimes I find strange little aberrations. In the Spanish translation, Neville Longbottom’s toad - which he’s always losing - has been translated as a turtle. Which surely makes losing it rather more difficult. And there’s no mention of water for it to live in. I don’t want to think too much about that … In the Italian translation, Professor Dumbledore has been translated into "Professore Silencio". The translator has taken the "dumb" from the name and based the translation on that. In fact "dumbledore" is the old English word for bumblebee. I chose it because my image is of this benign wizard, always on the move, humming to himself, and I loved the sound of the word too. For me "Silencio" is a complete contradiction. But the book is very popular in Italy - so, it obviously doesn’t bother the Italians!
Do you think you’ll finish all seven Harry Potter novels?
Absolutely - if only for myself.
What will you do once you’ve finished the seventh?
It will be the most incredible thing to finish the books. It will have been a very long time to spend with those characters in my head and I know I’ll be sad to leave them. But I know I will leave them alone.
I’m sure I’ll always write, at least until I lose my marbles. I’m very, very lucky.
Because of Harry’s success. I don’t need to do it financially, nobody’s making me. I just need to do it for myself. Sometimes I think I’m temperamentally suited to being a moderately successful writer, with the focus of attention on the books rather than on me. It was wonderful enough just to be published. The greatest reward is the enthusiasm of the readers.
There are times - and I don’t want to sound ungrateful - when I would gladly give back some of the money in exchange for time and peace to write. That’s been the greatest strain, especially during the writing of the fourth book. I’ve become famous and I’m not very comfortable with that. Because of the fame, some really difficult things have happened and it’s required a great effort of will to shut them out. And I’ve also had to juggle the pressure to promote each book with the pressure from readers - and myself - to finish the next one. There have been some black weeks when I’ve wondered whether it’s worth it but I’ve ploughed on.
If you look at any famous person, there are always problems attached and they’re not pleasant. But I still know that I’m an extraordinarily lucky person, doing what I love best in all the world.
This is an edited extract from a book about JK Rowling in the Telling Tales series on Britain’s leading children’s writers, produced by Egmont Books, price 2.99 each. The series also includes Anne Fine, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo.