Today we are talking about a gal who has sold more than 400 million copies of her books, got children excited to read massive page-turners, won multiple awards including being named the Most Influential Woman in Britain, and unlike like the other gals we’ve talked about in the series so far, she’s still alive and building a legacy and inspiration. Today we’re talking about the life of Your Gal, J.K. Rowling.
Learn About J.K. in Less Than 3 Minutes
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Joanne Rowling was born on July 31st 1965 at Yate General Hospital just outside Bristol. The young Joanne grew up surrounded by books.
“I lived for books. I was your basic common-or-garden bookworm, complete with freckles and National Health spectacles.” – Joanne Rowling
She grew up in Gloucestershire in England and in Chepstow, Gwent, in south-east Wales. Even as a child Jo was writing stories and essentially a children’s book that was written and illustrated by herself for her younger sister.
Jo’s family moved to the nearby village Winterbourne when Rowling was four. She attended St Michael’s Primary School. Her headmaster at St Michael’s, Alfred Dunn, has been suggested as the inspiration for the Harry Potter headmaster Albus Dumbledore.
Aged nine, Jo moved to Church Cottage in the Gloucestershire village of Tutshill, close to Chepstow, Wales. She attended secondary school at Wyedean School and College, where her mother worked in the science department. Jo later said that she based the character of Hermione Granger on herself when she was that age. Sean Harris, her best friend in the Upper Sixth, owned a turquoise Ford Anglia which she says inspired a flying version that appeared in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Her parents were Peter James Rowling, a Rolls-Royce aircraft engineer, and Anne Rowling, a science technician in the Chemistry department at Wyedean Comprehensive. Her parents first met on a train departing from King’s Cross Station bound for Arbroath in 1964 which JK had said in an interview that that place was always magical to her and is why it later made it into her writing.
Jo left home at eighteen for Exeter University, where she read so widely outside her French and Classics syllabus that she clocked up a fine of £50 for overdue books at the University library. Her knowledge of Classics would one day come in handy for creating the spells in the Harry Potter series, some of which are based on Latin. After a year of study in Paris, Rowling graduated from Exeter in 1986 and moved to London to work as a researcher and bilingual secretary for Amnesty International.
The Idea of Harry Potter
In 1990 Jo was on a train from Manchester to London when a book idea came out of nowhere. She was on a 4 hour train with nothing to write with. She sat on the train and let her imagination fill in the details and also hold tight to those ideas as to not lose them when she found a pen. She would spend the next 5 years working on the book. However life would try to get in the way.
The winter of the that same year as coming up with the idea for Harry Potter, Jo’s mother died at the age of 45. Anne lots a 10 year struggle with Multiple Sclerosis. It’s not easy losing a parent that young and Jo said she channeled that into her books. A major theme in the books is death.
After seeing an advert for a need for teacher for English as a foreign language, Jo took the job and moved to Porto in Portugal. She wrote during the day and taught at night. In Portugal she met a TV journalist, Jorge Arantes, they married in 1992 and had a daughter. The marriage was to be short lived.
Single-Mom in Edinburgh
In 1993 Jo, her daughter and the first 3 chapters of what would be Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland.
It was in Edinburgh were the book of Harry Potter really took shape. It’s also where the most about of rumors and urban legends spawn around Jo’s personal life. In an informal survey the most common knowledge of J.K. was a penniless single mother on welfare who couldn’t afford paper or heat. Let’s debunk that now.
Jo herself has said that her 6 months in Edinburgh were “a pretty unhappy 6 months.” She was 28 and living on government benefit, there was little work, but what was more frustrating and complicated was affording childcare – even just working part time. Still she persisted. She did a lot of writing in that time. Jo has debunked rumors that she couldn’t afford paper and would write on napkins. Writers will write on anything when they have a flash of an idea, or a note to research but it doesn’t mean that you’re too poor to afford paper it means you use what you find.
There was also stories that Jo would write in cafes because her flat didn’t have heat, she really doesn’t like the assumption that she was so naive to not have a heat in a place that gets as cold as Edinburgh. As Jo has said it came down to writing in cafes because like many infants, her daughter would only fall asleep for her naps if she was in motion. She would load up the stroller and walk around town. The instant her daughter fell asleep Jo was rush into the nearest cafe and write.
Since the idea on the train, Jo had plotted out 7 books – one for each school year. She even knew what the last chapter would be. In 1995 the book was ready to submit to agents and publishers.
Road to Publication
Jo sent the first three chapters to a number of literary agents, one of whom wrote back asking to see the rest of it. She says it was, “the best letter I had ever received in my life.”
They submitted the book to 12 different publishing houses, all of which turned it down. A year later, she was finally given the green light by a publishing house called Bloomsbury in London. Although they agreed to publish the book, Jo says that she was advised to get a day job, since she had little chance of making money in children’s books in their opinion.
The book was first published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books in June 1997, under the name J.K. Rowling. The “K” stands for Kathleen which is her grandmother’s name. It was added at her publisher’s request, who thought a book by an obviously female author might not appeal to the target audience of young boys.
1997 The Year Everything Changed
Book sales were doing well, awards were coming in but Jo was taking the advice of keeping her day job as a teacher as she worked on book 2. Harry Potter was placed into auction for American publishers to buy the rights. Scholastic won the rights with a bid of $105,000 which is an incredible sum of money for a first-time author of a children’s book. Jo became a full time author.
Her first novel was published in the US under a different title, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, in 1998. Six more books followed in the Harry Potter series, each achieving record-breaking success. Jo Comments that it is ironic to her, that she was putting herself in a frame of mind to write Harry, of how it would feel to be suddenly famous. And then after she put herself in Harry’s shoes in her mind, her life became the life similar to Harry’s. With the widespread success of the books, she too was suddenly famous. Reporters not only came to her home but also to her father’s home. Private life was becoming far less private.
Jo was very involved in the movie productions, She insisted that the cast all be actually British so that the film would stay true to the core of the books. It is also noted that Jo talked to the cast. Since only 4 out of 7 books were written by the time they filmed the first movie, the cast did not know what would happen to their characters later down the road but Jo had it all planned out and gave Alan Rickman (Snape) and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) and Daniel Radcliffe (Harry) all clues and tidbits of what would happen to their characters in the future so that they could understand their character better.
Throughout the whole process Jo was right there with the movies making sure that they kept true enough to the books in order for the plot lines to not get messed up. Jo reviewed all the scripts as well as acting as a producer on the final two-part installment, Deathly Hallows.
Jo also demanded that Coca-Cola, the victor in the race to tie in their products to the film series, to donate $18 million to the American charity Reading is Fundamental, as well as several community charity programs.
Books Beyond Potter
J.K. Rowling published her first novel for adults in 2012, The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown), The book has now been translated into 44 languages and was adapted for TV by the BBC in 2015.
Under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, Jo also writes crime novels. The Cuckoo’s Calling was published to critical acclaim in 2013, at first without its author’s true identity being known. Robert Galbraith is described as “a former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry”.
Jo said that she had enjoyed working under a pseudonym. She explained that she took the name from one of her personal heroes, Robert Kennedy, and a childhood fantasy name she had invented for herself, Ella Galbraith.
In 2016, Jo wrote her first screenplay with the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. A further extension of the Wizarding World was released to critical acclaim.
To say that Jo supports charities and organizations is an understatement. She even lost her billionaire status to millionaire due to charitable giving.
“You have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently,” – Joanne Rowling
She supports a number of causes and organisations, through her charitable trust Volant. Starting in 2000, Volant is a grant making trust to support Scottish charities, groups and projects, both national or community-based, which help alleviate social deprivation, particularly concerned with women, children and young people at risk.
She is also the founder and president of the international children’s charity Lumos. Which provides provides solutions for children that looks beyond the institutions of orphanages.
Jo supports Multiple Sclerosis research directly through the Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic.
She was a patron of the Maggie’s Centres for Cancer Care for several years. Maggie’s Centres are a network of drop-in centres across the United Kingdom and Hong Kong, which aim to help anyone who has been affected by cancer, in numerous practical ways.
For Doctors Without Borders, she performed in a fundraising event with authors Stephen King and John Irving in New York in 2006, and in 2011 contributed to a book in aid of the charity, Dear Me: More Letters to My 16-year old Self.
Harvard Commencement Speech
Jo gave a great commencement speech to the 2008 graduating class of Harvard. The speech was also published as an illustrated book Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination (Sphere), and sold in aid of Lumos and university-wide financial aid at Harvard.
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ABOUT YOUR GAL FRIDAY
Your Gal Friday is a weekly podcast with supplemental video and article profiling and amazing gal of our galaxy that we can all learn from. Each month your hosts Kate Chaplin & Phoebe Frear talk about the life and legacy about a gal in the subjects of art, history, science and culture.
Your Gal Friday also ties into Gal’s Guide school outreach. Gal’s Guide offers a K-University presentations of Women You Didn’t Learn About in School. Showcasing 14-26 amazing gals to classrooms and assemblies, the presentations spotlight these gals where the podcast goes more in depth of your new favorite gals every Friday.