This post is a request by long time blog reader The Ikarians, who left me a voicemail comment a little while back requesting the story of how JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book.
I had known some of this story already, but after looking into it more I found some very interesting parts of the story that I don’t think gets talked about too often…
A CHILDHOOD UNDER THE STAIRS
When JK Rowling first stepped foot on to the set of the original Harry Potter movie she was in total shock.
Up until that day she had never realized the house Harry lived in was the exact same layout as the house she herself had grown up in, with cabinet under the stairs and everything.
The movie makers had built the set of the house by what was described in the book, bringing to life a part of her childhood that she didn’t even know she’d written into the story.
Luckily she never had to sleep in a cabinet under the stairs or anything like that, but her parents were definitely very open about how they would have preferred another child.
Before she was born they were expecting a boy and had even picked out a special name for him, but surprise…they got her instead. She was Joanne instead of the ‘Simon John’ that they had wanted and she never forgot it.
And when her parents had another child which turned out to be a girl they were often equally as open about how delighted they were in her sister but not her. How did she feel during times like this? In her own words: “I went up to my room and wept.”
This kind of a childhood left her on very shaky ground, and even though she was often able to hide it from others by pretending to be strong and confident (even to the point of being bossy and coming off as a know-it-all) inside she felt unsure of herself and afraid to be who she really was.
HARRY APPEARS …BUT THERE’S NO PEN
The story of Harry Potter first came into JK Rowling’s life when was in her twenties. She was stuck in a train station waiting on a train that was supposed to be going to London, but for the time being was going absolutely nowhere.
It was hard for her to mind too much though, as she had always loved trains and train stations. Trains were a deep part of the folklore of her life and she had grown up hearing romantic tales of how her parents met and fell in love at King’s Cross train station.
All of a sudden while she was sitting there on the train a vision of a boy popped into her mind, she could see him and his story very clearly, here was this scrawny little boy who didn’t know he was a wizard and was setting off toward a far off wizarding school.
The world of Harry Potter came flooding into her mind with all it’s little details like how exactly the wizarding school was run and the various characters who had adventures there.
But there was one major problem: she didn’t have a pen.
Frantically digging through her bag she first searched for a pen or pencil, but then eventually for any kind of writing instrument at all that she could use to start bringing this story to life on paper. Anything would do, an eyeliner even, but there was nothing.
And so she had to sit there all during the wait and the train ride just thinking about the world of Harry Potter. As soon as she got home she started writing and writing.
She had always wanted to be a writer ever since she wrote her first book, called ‘Rabbit’ at around six years old. She loved books a lot and she loved writing even more and had secretly harbored the dream of becoming a writer someday, but was riddled with self-doubt.
When her childhood best friend Sean Harris (who later became the inspiration for Ron Weasley) had found out about her dream he encouraged her to keep writing and not to give up. And indeed over the years she had always kept scribbling away longhand on whatever paper was around but she’d never truly commited herself to the goal of becoming published.
And now here was the story of Harry Potter calling out to her, a story that her heart leapt with joy at the thought of writing. She even started to make very detailed things like diagrams of the lives of every student of Hogwarts and drawings of the characters so she could ‘know what they looked like’.
But despite this world that was coming alive on the paper in front of her she still felt unsure of herself, she was afraid to dedicate herself to writing a book about child wizards going to wizarding school, even if it was her dream.
And then tragedy struck.
ATTACK OF THE DEMENTORS
Just a few months after JK Rowling put her first Harry Potter ideas to paper her mother died after a long battle with multiple sclerosis.
JK Rowling wasn’t close to her father, in fact in many ways she had spent her life in fear of him, but things with her mother were different and the loss left her utterly devastated.
Her mother never saw any of the pages of the book in progress or even knew about the world of Harry Potter, yet her death changed the book on a very deep level. JK Rowling describes it like this:
“Her death is on virtually every other page of the Harry Potter books.
At least half of Harry’s journey is a journey to deal with death in it’s many forms, what it does to the living, what it means to die. What survives death.
It’s there on every single page.”
After the trauma of losing her mother she made big changes in her life. The book was put to the side and she moved to Portugal to work as a teacher, got married, and had a daughter.
This was a more conventional route, much safer than wagering everything on pouring herself into trying to get a book published.
However, the marriage rapidly fell apart. She had spent her life afraid of her father and now she’d ended up marrying a man much like him. The marriage lasted a mere thirteen months and a day, and soon she was on a desperate plane ride back to the UK with no money and a new baby to take care of.
To put things bluntly, her life was now in shreds and there was nowhere to hide from it. She was now literally as poor as you could get in the UK without being homeless.
It wasn’t long before she sank into the darkest depression of her life. For most people the Dementors are just spooky characters in a book, but to her they came from real terrors, a deep unrelenting depression and haunting thoughts of suicide.
She described this time in her life as:
“The cold absence of feeling, the cold hollowed out feeling. It was only because of my daughter that I got help.”
BEYOND FEAR, BEYOND DEATH
JK Rowling was terrified about what growing up around a extremely depressed mother would do to her daughter. Or worse, growing up around no mother at all. So she sought out medical help for her depression and started attending therapy sessions under the care of a doctor.
And while the therapy sessions helped keep her suicidal thoughts at bay, outside of the sessions she was faced with a life that had hit absolute rock bottom. But to her surprise, this ended up being a source of great strength …there was nothing left to do but to face her failure. This rock bottom failure gave her a freedom she had never experienced before, for the first time in her life she felt free to be her true self:
“Failure was a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was. I began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”
She threw herself into putting the Harry Potter story on paper no matter what, even if in the end it got rejected by every single publisher and never got published. This was her dream, this was who she was…and really what did she have to lose?
During this time her daughter had a hard time falling asleep and the best way to get her to rest was to take her around in a stroller each day until she dozed off. After these walks JK Rowling would stop into a local coffee shop called The Elephant House, sit at a particular out of the way table, and write and write.
And so in this way Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was written out longhand over many afternoons in a coffee shop and then later typed up on an old typewriter.
The rest is, well, history.
Through the writing of Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone (er, Philosopher’s Stone) she was not only able to fulfill her dream of becoming a published author but she also experienced an unexpected side effect… becoming the richest author in the entire world.
She didn’t just coast on the success of the first Harry Potter book though, she made sure the entire series was good and infused it with the wisdom she’d learned throughout her life. From the shaky ground of her childhood, to the crushing death of her mother, hitting rock bottom, and the struggle to write the first book. How had she overcome all this? The message of the Harry Potter series in her own words…
“Love is the most powerful thing, beyond fear, beyond death.”
Her love for her family, of writing, and of the story of Harry Potter helped her overcome the hardships of life and ultimately gave her what she needed to succeed.
JK Rowling had come a long way from the girl who so desperately tried to hide who she was, who sitting in her childhood home would have never dared to dream that one day she’d actually be walking through the set of a movie …a movie based on a book written by Joanne ‘K’ Rowling.
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