Books & Reading
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

Partners:
 
Charmed, I'm Sure

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 1999; Page C1

   


The woman at the breakfast table is compact, petite and possessed of a certain seen-it-all attitude that well-applied makeup cannot hide. Remember that gritty working-class, on-the-dole, rock-and-roll movie "The Commitments"? In her high-heel boots and low-neck sweater, J.K. Rowling sounds and smokes and laughs and looks for all the world like one of the bluesy backup singers.

Smart sassy. Tough literate. Gentle-mannered don't-mess-with-me. Joanne Kathleen Rowling, better known as the creator of Harry Potter – a young heroic wizard in a phantasmagoric series of novels – is in town for a couple of days.

In three short years Rowling, 34, has become one of the wealthiest women in England and the epicenter of a global madness. There are more than 8.2 million copies of her books in print in the United States. They have been translated into 28 languages.

She is in this country for three weeks to sign her three books, to meet her armies of admirers and to counter a small but cantankerous clutch of critics who claim her books promote witchcraft.

By 1 p.m. – three hours before the author started signing – the line at Politics & Prose stretched out past Marvelous Market, a bread shop down the block. At 2 p.m. the line turned the corner and ran halfway down the next block. Outside the store a chalkboard proclaimed: "No guarantees that any book will be signed or that anyone will meet Ms. R."

But yesterday morning, before venturing out into this world just wild about Harry, she picked at a couple of blackberries, drank a little orange juice, smoked a few Marlboro Lights and talked about the astonishing ways in which her life has changed.

And the ways in which it hasn't.

Life yesterday was a blur for Rowling. Literally.

She had lost one of her contact lenses and everything and everyone looked a little fuzzy in the Willard Room. She squinted her blue eyes, waved smoke away from her blondish hair, adjusted a silver loop earring and apologized for depending on cigarettes. "I'm a flawed role model," she said.

On the other hand, she is a staunch believer in doing what you want to do.

A while back, Rowling (rhymes with bowling) bought a book for her 6-year-old daughter Jessica. The girl is named for the socially committed and curious Jessica Mitford. The book is Mitford's autobiography. She will give it to Jessica when she is old enough to appreciate it. Rowling admires Mitford because she "followed her principles."

When kids turn 18, Rowling said, they should do what they want to do, "not what your parents tell you to do." Finding the parent within yourself is a strong theme of her most recent novel, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."

Rowling knows about following a dream.

She was born in Chipping Sodbury, near Bristol. Her father was a manager at a Rolls-Royce engine plant and her mother was a lab technician. Her grandfather was "a complete fantasist." "He would tell outrageous lies to everyone," Rowling said. "I think maybe that's where I got my imagination."

From the time she was 6, she knew her destiny. "All I ever wanted to do was be a writer," she said.

A bright student, Jo – as friends have always called her – went from a state-run school in Chapstow to Exeter University. She longed to major in English because she loved to read, but she "bowed to parental pressure" and concentrated on French. Her parents wanted her to be a translator or interpreter, maybe work in the United Nations.

"I'm not an organized person," she said. "I shudder to think about what would have happened."

She wrote a lot of stories while in college, "but never finished anything." She continued to read. She's read all of Jane Austen. She loves the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, author of "The Commitments," but she didn't bring his new novel with her to America "because I knew I needed to sleep."

One of her favorite children's books is "Little White Horse" by Elizabeth Goudge.

After graduating, she landed in London and worked at Amnesty International, then at the Chamber of Commerce in Manchester. "Very dull," she said, pronouncing it "dool."

Around the time her mother died in 1990, Rowling moved to Portugal to teach. She met and married a Portuguese journalist. Jessica was born in the summer of 1993. After a divorce, Rowling returned to England with no money, no job and a young child.

Life looked bleak. And, like Harry Potter, she needed a miracle to turn her life around. At Christmastime she visited her younger sister, Di, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Rowling planned to stay a fortnight. Instead she stayed for good. Edinburgh – where hard times are hardly a novelty – "was a better place to be poor than London," she said.

Tales of her destitution have been overstated. "We were quite broke," she said. "But we weren't starving. A couple of times I did skip meals. There was nothing in the cupboard."

But she received welfare money and "I had a sister who could help in dire extremity," she said. Though her father is still alive and remarried, he was in no position to assist, she explained. For nine months Rowling didn't work. She knew that eventually she could get a job teaching French in high school. But she wanted to give writing one concentrated try. She might never have the opportunity again. She did what she wanted to do. While Jessica napped, she wrote. "I genuinely didn't give much thought to what would happen afterwards," she said.

In Edinburgh, mother and daughter belonged to a Church of Scotland congregation. Jessica was christened there. At church Rowling met an older woman named Susan, "who's coming on to 70" and never married. "We were not 'dead certs' for friendship," Rowling added.

"Susan really helped me," Rowling recalled. The elderly woman would take care of Jessica for an afternoon and encourage Rowling to get out a little, kick up her heels, see an art show, do some window shopping. Instead, Rowling would find an empty table at a coffee shop and work on Harry Potter.

When Susan would ask Rowling how she had spent her time, Rowling would tell her and Susan was invariably disappointed. Rowling never showed Susan her work. "I was very very very insecure," she said. "I never showed anyone my writing."

Her secret project was "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," the first in the series. She sent it to agent Christopher Little, who agreed to represent her. After four attempts, he sold it – to Bloomsbury – and the rest is publishing hysteria. When the book was published in America, the high-toned "Philosopher" was changed to "Sorcerer."

At one crucial point during the writing process she did tell Di the plot of the book. "She laughed at the key parts," Rowling said. "It meant so much to me."

And it gave her the push to sled on.

Adoring Fans

This is how zealous folks are for Harry Potter and his creator. At a Livingston, N.J., book signing, more than a thousand people were turned away. At Borders Books at Baileys Crossroads extra personnel were called in from other stores. And at Toys, Etc. in Potomac, the proprietors were so rattled, the handcrafted sign read: "WELCOME AUTOR J.K. ROWLING."

"People were so excited to see her," store owner Brian Mack said of the noon event. Seven hundred parents and children waited in line to get their books signed, but "most of these people just wanted to tell her how much they appreciated her." An official from Montgomery County presented Rowling with a proclamation. Kids brought drawings to her.

Politics and Prose had its share of insanity, said floor supervisor Angelo Parodi. A few parents had demanded "an exclusive audience with her holiness." That would be Rowling, of course. "And then we had one attempt at bribery last night."

One observer said that the line developed its own form of government. The first Potter fan arrived at 8 a.m., and before long the parents (mainly mothers) had devised a "trust" list of the first 20 people in line, which allowed them to go to the bathroom without forfeiting their spots.

"He's on a dentist appointment. Can't you tell?" said Peg Shook of Calvert County, who took off from work and extricated her son, Stratton, 11, from school for the day.

"It's sort of like in the '20s, being able to say you met A.A. Milne," said Karen Reilly, who dragged her 5-year-old son, Joey, up from Williamsburg for the signing. Just before 4, Rowling arrived. It was like a Hollywood gala. The sea of fans parted and Rowling strolled by, waving. The throng clapped and cheered as though she were Literate Spice.

One mother, who was holding ticket No. 100, said that Rowling's signature had "achieved flat-line" by the time her book was signed. Though the author only spent a couple of nanoseconds on each book, she stopped to compliment many of the kids on their clothes or their manners.

One little girl said that her books were "magic." Rowling told her that that was the nicest compliment she had ever received. Eventually more than 1,000 fans filed through.

At one store, a little girl came dressed as Hermione, a popular character from the series. Rowling, at breakfast, confessed that Hermione "is a loosely based caricature of what I was at 11." Like Hermione, she said, she was always raising her hand with an answer to the teacher's question. At that age, "I was irritating. I stood out." Other characters are based on real-life friends, she said, but eventually they take on lives of their own.

And the Not-So-Adoring

One of Rowling's most terrifying characters is the sinister sorcerer Voldemort. He is the embodiment of pure evil. To some parents, he is too scary. They are concerned Rowling is promoting witchcraft.

In South Carolina, the Board of Education is reviewing whether the books are appropriate for students of all ages.

Elizabeth Mounce of Columbia, S.C., is representative of those who are hoping to restrict Rowling's books from certain classrooms. "We're not trying to ban the book," she said from her home. "We just felt there was a lot of evil in them, a lot of violence." Mounce said the sorcery and gore was too much for her fourth-grade son.

To such critics, Rowling said she has a "very basic solution: Don't read them."

She continued, "If you ban all books with witchcraft and supernatural, you'll ban three-quarters of children's literature."

"I positively think they are moral books," she said. "Harry, Ron and Hermione are innately good people. I've met thousands of children, but I've never met a single child who has asked me about the occult."

"I don't want to give anyone nightmares," she said.

She admitted that "the books get scarier." But when readers have finished the final installment – book No. 7 is scheduled to be available in 2003 – "they will understand."

Happy Ending

Joanne Kathleen Rowling is following her dream and no one is going to get in the way. The next four books have been outlined. Warner Bros. has bought movie rights to "The Sorcerer's Stone" and the movie is due to be released in 2001. Rowling said she has final script approval.

She said she will finish the book tour and be back in Edinburgh on Nov. 1 to settle in to her newfound fame and freedom.

Her life has changed, she said, taking a puff on her cigarette, "99 percent for the better."

The biggest difference is the sense of relief. She has been touched by the most astonishing magic. There is no chance that she is ever going to have to teach French again. She is going to be able to follow her principles and do what she wants to do.

Just write.

Staff writers Libby Copeland and Ellen Edwards contributed to this report.

   

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar