Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Biography Podcast 0028 - Joanne (J.K.) Rowling

Hey everyone! Welcome to all you newcomers and welcome back to everyone else glad to have you here for this special episode 28 of the Biography Podcast - Stories of Life. Today, we do something a little different, we have someone who is still with us and is a woman as our subject! I hope you enjoy it.

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Biography Transcript
Joanne Rowling (a.k.a J. K. Rowling) was born on July 31,1965 in Chipping Sodbury , England, to Peter James Rowling (an aircraft engine plant employee) and a lab technician Anne Volant . Rowling lived in Yate, Gloucestershire England with her parents and her sister Diane (called Di, born 23 months after her) until her father moved the family to Winterbourne when she was four. While in Winterbourne, she attended St. Michael's Primary school. Later, around age 9, the family moved for the last time - fulfilling a dream of her parents - into the country town of Tutshill, near chepstow, South Wales.

Rowling's childhood seems to have been a happy one, full of fond memories, writing, stories and play acting on the stairs (which were a great prop) of the Winterbourne home. Many of her memories include her sister Di who, as she explains it in her biography, was her best friend - when they weren't fighting. And it seems like some of their rows were quite spectacular - including one where young Jo (according to Rowling no one called her Joanne growing up unless they were mad at her) threw a battery at her sister and hit her just above the eye. The scar remains to this day. Of course, Rowling insists that she never expected to hit her and that she fully anticipated that her sister would duck!

Rowling went to secondary school at Wyedean starting at age 11. It is the place where she met Sean Harris -to whom she dedicated Chamber of Secrets. Harris was a confidant of Rowling, and a great encourager of her writing and she herself says that "he was also the only person who thought I was bound to be a success at it, which meant much more to me than I ever told him at the time." Sean Harris also owned the Ford Anglia which was the car used by Harry and Ron Weasley to fly to Hogwarts at the beginning of the second Potter novel.

After Wyedean, Jo moved to the south coast of England and attended the University of Exeter where she studied French (bowing to the wishes of her parents) and the classics - many of which have impacted her writing of the Harry Potter novels. In 1990, after leaving university, Rowling moved to Manchester, England and there worked with Amnesty International and more importantly for the millions of Harry Potter fans - ended up on a train ride that was delayed where the thought of a scrawny black haired boy that was a wizard. It was on that train ride - bereft of a pen - that Joanne Rowling formed many of the main characters and themes of her extraordinary novels. Later in that same year if 1990, on December 30, something happened that as Rowling says changed both her world and Harry's forever: her mother died.

Nine months later, Rowling moved to Portugal to teach English at a language institute. The move had two purposes. First, to get away for a while. Second, to write more of her book by taking advantage of the hours associated with her new job. However, in 1992, Jo did something she hadn't planned on - she got married. While the marriage ended only a short time later in 1993, Rowling claims that when she returned to Edinburgh in time for Christmas 1994 even, though she didn't have the hoped for finished manuscript of her book, she had the best thing that she had been given in her life - her daughter Jessica.

In 1995, Rowling went into a writing "frenzy" as she describes it. Knowing that teaching full time and raising a daughter by herself would leave her little to no time to write, Jo determined to finish the first book before starting a job. Through 1995, every time Jessica would fall asleep in her pushchair, Jo would dash to the nearest cafe to write. Soon, the book was done. But the publishing didn't happen quite as quickly.

Once the book was completed, Rowling then TYPED the manuscript herself. When it was done, she covered the first three chapters and sent them off to her first agent. She thinks it must have been sent back the same day it returned so quickly. Thankfully, the second agent she tried requested the rest of the manuscript and then shopped it around to the publishing houses. The publishing houses, however, didn't seem to see it with quite as much promise as 12 publishers rejected the book before it was give a green light from a small firm called Bloomsbury. And why did Bloomsbury OK the book? Well, as legend has it, it was the eight-year-old daughter of the company chairman, a girl called Alice Newton, who was given the first chapter of the book to review that made the sale. Immediately after reading the first chapter - she demanded the second. Thus, the Philosopher's Stone was set to publication in 1997 with an initial print run of only 1,000 copies. In the spring of 1997, an auction was held for the American publishing rights which was won by Scholastic, who paid Rowling the sum of $100,000. It's reported that she says that "she almost died" when she heard the news.

Of course, if you've been on planet earth, in an industrialized nation and out of a coma since 1997, you know what has happened since then. The Philosopher's Stone (later released in the US as Harry Potter and the Sorcerers' Stone) went on to win awards, as did the second book - Chamber of Secrets, and the third book Prisoner of Azkaban. In fact, after the third consecutive Nestle Smarties Prize was awarded (the first time an author had won three times in a row) Jo withdrew Goblet of Fire (the fourth book) from contention to allow other books a chance. She has also won the Hugo Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Whitbread Award for Best Children's Book, a special commendation for the Anne Spencer Lindbergh Prize. And the popularity of the books continued to soar as Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix (the fifth book) and Half-Blood Prince (the sixth book) all had opening weekends that not only set records for book publications - but compared to the revenues of blockbuster movies!

Because of these incredible sales, Rowling has become a celebrity rather than just an author, however, over time she has come to grips with the fame. Thankfully, in Edinburgh, it seems that people don't accost her on the street - possibly because she's taken to coloring her hair in a subdued blonde rather than the red she became famous for when she was first recognized for the series.

Speaking of blockbuster movies, in 1998, Warner Brothers purchased the movie rights to the first two books for a figure into seven figures. No worries for Warner - the purchase payed off as movie goes flocked to Rowling's boy wizard come to life on the big screen. And they're still flocking to the theaters with each movie being bigger than the previous. On a side note though - the fourth movie really DIDN'T do justice to the book and many Potter fans wish they could conveniently jinx director Mike Newell. Alas, that's not possible and probably just as well, because instead, the Potter and Jo Rowling faithful are waiting for the release of the fifth movie (probably opening even as you're hearing this) and the final book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on July 21, 2007.

Lest you think Rowling has been sitting on her nest egg the entire time that Harry Potter has rocketed her to fame, let me be sure to inform you of all of the work that Jo Rowling has continued to do with charities from Comic Relief to Children and Young People in Crisis. She has written two books, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages which have raised over 15 million pounds for Comic Relief and has donated 22 million of her own personal money. And, as one might expect of someone who lost a parent to the disease, she also contributes money to the research and treatment MS.

Though Jo Rowling's first marriage didn't end well, she has fared much better the second time around. She was married to husband Neil Murray in 2001, and has had two children - son David in 2003 and dauther Mackenzie in 2005. She lives happily with them in several locations in Scotland and London.

So, are there more Potter's to come? According to Jo, no. Aside from the possibility of publishing an encyclopedia of the Potter universe (which would be greatly welcomed by the Potter fandom) based on the notes and backstories of the characters she has developed, Jo has said there would be no more Harry Potter books. She is planning on writing other children's stories however - which she will publish under her own name.

Sources:, wikipedia,, scholastic