J.K. Rowling
Marie Claire Australia|December 2021
She was the penniless single mother who cast a spell on the world and inspired a generation to read. Twenty years since the first ‘Harry Potter’ film, Kathryn Madden examines the life of the chart-topping yet controversial author

Joanne Rowling stood on the cobbled street of Rua Duque de Saldanha, desperately gasping for breath. It was 5am in a dingy quarter of Porto, Portugal, and the 28-year-old was alone in a foreign city, kicked out of home after a heated row with her husband. Her four-month-old baby was sleeping inside with the man she feared, and all she had were the clothes on her back and a few of her nearest possessions – including the first three chapters of a story she’d been writing, scribbled on note paper and stored in a shoebox.

In that moment, as first light hit the hand-painted Portuguese tiles, she wouldn’t dare to dream that the box of notes would one day change her fate. That her story about a boy wizard, Harry Potter, would become the highest-selling book series in history; and that somewhere in the world, someone would start reading a copy every 30 seconds. The introverted redhead would be named the world’s first self-made billionaire author and add Hollywood films, musicals, theme parks and other spin-offs to her CV.

Rowling’s seven-book saga of magic, morality and mortality was not a fairytale. But as the intensely private writer rose from that slummy European street to superstardom, many would come to surmise that her own personal story indeed was.

She was born Joanne Rowling on July 31, 1965, in Yate, south-west England. Her father, Peter, was an aircraft engineer, and met her mother, Anne, while working in the Royal Navy. The family lived in a humble cottage with a cupboard under the stairs, cabinets brimming with books and an enchanting forest just down the road.

Rowling was a serious soul and voracious reader. “I was the epitome of a bookish child – short and squat, thick National Health glasses,” she later said. She’d regularly lead her younger sister, Dianne, in games of witches and wizards, and wrote her first book, titled Rabbit, aged six.

When Rowling was 15, a dark cloud settled over her family. Her beloved mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), and Rowling remembers days when she couldn’t lift the teapot. “Home was a difficult place to be,” she told a BBC radio show.

The head girl, who’d become more outgoing as a teenager, missed out on a place at Oxford, and instead went to Exeter University to study French and Classics. She relished her newfound freedom, descending on pubs and coffee houses with a large group of girlfriends, and had her first serious boyfriend.

“Jo was very shapely and she had this big hair, kind of backcombed and lacquered, and lots of heavy eyeliner,” fellow student Yvette Cowles told biographer Sean Smith. “She liked to party and have a good time. But she did have a serious side and I wonder if this thing of being the life and soul was a cover.”

After university, Rowling decided to move to Manchester to be with her boyfriend. One ordinary day, following a weekend of fruitless flat-hunting, she sat on the train back to London gazing out at the green paddocks and spotty Friesian cows.

Suddenly, Rowling’s carriage was not filled with sleepy commuters, but wide-eyed witches and wizards on their way to boarding school. “The idea for Harry just appeared in my mind’s eye,” she has said. “I can’t tell you why or what triggered it … I have never been so excited by an idea.”

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