So what’s she like? With a crooked, wicked smile and flashing eyes, she has the look of a pretty witch herself. She admits she wanted to be one when she was a child. “Not exactly a witch but to have magical powers,” she says. “Kids are the most powerless people in society6 – even happy kids are powerless. The idea that you can influence the outside world with magic powers is irresistible.”
A former teacher, Rowling is as entranced by her teenage wizard as her fans are. “I’m writing the books for me,” she says passionately. “It’s really wonderful and the novelty hasn’t worn off.” As has been reported, Harry first appeared to her on a train from Manchester to London way back in 1990. The idea, she says, “came very, very quickly – I could see him.”
She speaks with intensity, in short, sharp sentences, curving her body round the words. Despite the popular image of her as shy and secretive, she is enormously engaging, the kind of woman who would sit on the stairs at a party and charm for England – although she is sufficiently spiky7 to make herself a little bit scary.
The books are written with such verve and intelligence that adults love them. There’s a special imprint (£1 pricier) with grown-up covers for older readers who don’t want to be seen reading kiddy books on the bus8. How does she feel about this?
“I never think of it being different for adults, although the books do work on two levels,” she says. “But people should never underestimate children. They get incredibly sophisticated stuff.”
It’s adults who’ve interpreted the books weirdly. Rowling has been accused of “promoting evil”9 through featuring wizards and witches, and a church-run school in Kent has banned the books.
“I didn’t set out to upset people,” she retorts. “I think they’re moral stories. But some people always have an objection to putting magic into children’s stories. I’m very anti-censorship. I object to people telling children what not to read.”
What about the accusation of conservative cosiness – that Harry goes to a private school, when she herself went to a comprehensive? “What makes me laugh hardest are apologists for boarding schools, and witches,” she says. “I’ll never be allied to either. Harry moves from a workaday world into a magical community – Hogwarts is a meritocracy. Magic comes from every walk of life. It doesn’t say anywhere that they pay fees.”
I’ve been depressed myself. Happiness was something that happens to other people. But I got over it
Rowling does raise one issue by depicting wizards from old families who believe their ‘pure blood’ makes them superior to the mixed races, half-wizard and half-Muggle, or pure Muggle with magical powers. “It’s a kind of Nazism,” she says seriously.
With each book, tracking a new school year, Harry’s adventures deepen and darken. In the first book he was 11, going to school, making friends. With each subsequent story, Harry has had to cope with increasingly difficult emotions. Rowling won’t discuss plots, but she says the much-talked about death scene in The Goblet of Fire will not be the last.
“There’ll be deaths from now on,”10 she says, and there’ll also be much more mushy stuff. “Harry has already gone ‘phwoar’ in Book Three. So he’s felt the first innocent stirrings. It’s fun to write about.”
Rowling as a teenager was an intelligent misfit, alone in her bedroom with a joss-stick. Her vices were “smoking, make-up and listening to The Clash”. She still wears make-up and smokes like a chimney. She wrote from a very young age. “I finished a rabbit story when I was 12,” she confesses.
She created Hermione, Harry’s insufferable know-all friend, as “a caricature of me. But I love her. I totally understand where she comes from.”11
The most malevolent characters in the book, the soul-sucking prison guards called Dementors, come from Rowling’s own experience of depression. “That’s who the Dementors are,” she offers. “I’ve been depressed myself. Happiness was something that happens to other people. But I got over it. Adults find Dementors more frightening than children – adults are more likely to have brushed up against that feeling – loss, abuse. We all lose someone.”
Rowling’s life has been up-ended by misery. She started the books in 1990 when working for Amnesty International. Six months later, her mother died. It’s no coincidence that Harry’s lack of parents is his deepest grief.
Rowling moved to Manchester, where all her mother’s jewellery was stolen and she was made redundant. Then she moved to Portugal. “I met my ex-husband, married him and left him in just over a year,” she says – this dismissive remark is the only mention he gets. Eventually she moved to Edinburgh with her baby daughter Jessica. “I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I came for Christmas, with my sister. I was flat broke, as broke as you can get without being homeless. Income support. Young baby. Just enough money for a deposit on a grotty flat.”
Harry Potter is the most banned book in America
She finished Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone in the grotty flat, and started part-time work “so I could earn up to the legal limit of £15 a week, which paid a bill a month”. She was still in that flat when the book was accepted. “It was my life’s ambition and I was walking on air.”
There are stories that it was so cold in the flat that Rowling wrote in a local café12, with Jessica in her pram next to the table. “Let’s not go too far,” she says. “I get asked if I wrote on napkins.” Sometimes, she jokes, she gets the urge to tell people she wrote on potato peelings.
Now, she’s a several-times-over millionaire. But the main thing her new-found immense riches have done is bought the quick, anxious writer peace of mind. “The thing for anyone who has found themselves with money, after having no money, is that you stop worrying. Worry about money is like a constant background hum in your life. Childcare is a killer for single parents – it’s phenomenally expensive.”
Book seven will be the last in the series. What will she do then? “I’ll cry,” she says flatly. “A lot. Because such a huge part of my life will be over. Then I’ll keep on writing because I couldn’t not.”
She looks up from under her fringe with a wicked, spiky glint in her eye. “My publisher keeps saying, ‘You will give anything you write to us, won’t you?’ But maybe I’ll take a pseudonym and send it in anonymously.”13
Here’s what happened over the next 16 years…
1) Warner Brothers will eventually make eight films from Rowling’s seven books. Their combined box office gross hits a magical £5.84bn!
2) Having celebrated her 51st birthday on July 31, JK Rowling’s net worth is estimated to be $1bn, making her the world’s richest author. She is also one of the UK’s biggest philanthropists, donating more than £10m through her charities, the Lumos Foundation and the Volant Charitable Trust, last year.
3) Signed copies of The Goblet of Fire first edition now change hands for more than $10,000 (£7,500).
4) Expect a tsunami of hype ahead of the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in cinemas on November 18. Eddie Redmayne stars in this Hogwarts prequel.
5) At the Leveson Inquiry in 2011 (above) Rowling reveals that a journalist tried to get to her by slipping an envelope into her five-year-old daughter’s schoolbag.
6) In 2005 Rowling sets up the Lumos Foundation, which aims to help eight million children worldwide who are marginalised to regain the right to a family life.
7) You only need follow her on Twitter to see how stridently Rowling engages with politics (Labour, pro-Union, pro-EU). She frequently calls out those she feels are in the wrong.
8) In 2007 publisher Bloomsbury says demand for the adult cover of final Harry book The Deathly Hallows outstripped the children’s cover, in part because kids who grew up with Harry wanted the grown-ups’ version.
9) Harry Potter is the most banned book in America, according to the American Library Association.
10) After The Goblet of Fire no beloved character was safe. The Deathly Hallows is a veritable bloodbath. Potter now also apologises for the death of a beloved character every May 2.
11) In 2014 Rowling admits she regrets that Hermoine ended up with Ron, saying “it was a form of wish-fulfilment… for very personal reasons”. She apologised for breaking readers’ hearts by saying it.
12) A mini Harry Potter industry has evolved in Edinburgh – it is hard to find a café in which Rowling didn’t allegedly write her books. Confirmed locations are The Elephant House and Nicholson’s.
13) Rowling is as good as her word. The Cuckoo’s Calling by ‘Robert Galbraith’ was published in April 2013.