JK Rowling interview in UK magazine Tatler
Published: January 11th, 2006
Special JK; for all her incredible riches and fame, JK Rowling is not one
to splash it about. She talks to Geordie Greig about love, loss..and that
missing Harry notebook.
A tear slowly trickles down JK Rowling's cheek. She is sitting in her
large and comfortable drawing room in the Morningside area of Edinburgh.
It is early afternoon; sandwiches and chocolate cakes are left untouched
on the coffee table as she painfully recalls the most traumatising moment
of her life. It was the day her mother, Anne, died aged 45 after a
10-year battle against multiple sclerosis. A small part of her agony is
that her mother never knew she was writing Harry Potter, let alone that
she would become the most successful author on earth. "The night she died
I had been staying with my boyfriend's family, the first time I had ever
spent Christmas away from home. I had gone to bed early, ostensibly to
watch The Man Who Would Be King, but instead I started writing. So I know
I was writing Harry Potter at the moment my mother died. I had never told
her about Harry Potter."
"Dad called me at seven o'clock the next morning and I just knew what had
happened before he spoke. I just knew. There was no way my father would
call me at 7am for any reason other than that. As I ran downstairs I had
that kind of white-noise panic in my head but could not grasp the
enormity of my mother having died." It was New Year's Day 1991 and Joanne
Rowling, then 25, and her boyfriend piled into his car and drove to her
parents' home in Wales. "I was alternately a wreck and then in total
denial. At some point on the car journey I can remember thinking, 'Let's
pretend it hasn't happened,' because that was a way to get through the
next 10 minutes."
Joanne Rowling is startled by her tears. She is naturally reserved and
very private. She is also very ordered and in control. Her long blonde
hair is protective as well as pretty. All seven Harry Potter books were
mapped out before she started writing. She dabs a proffered napkin to her
eyes and pauses before continuing: "Barely a day goes by when I do not
think of her. There would be so much to tell her, impossibly much." A
priority in her life is now to raise funds for research into MS, which
confined her mother to a wheelchair in her final days. "She was so young
and so fit. To have your body in rebellion against you is a dreadful
thing to witness, let alone suffer," says Rowling, now patron of the MS
Society Scotland. On 17 March she will hosted a fundraising masked ball
at Stirling Castle; one of the many attractions will be a treasure hunt
with clues set by her.
Her mother's condition forged her own psychological strengths and
vulnerabilities, as well as leading to make Harry Potter suffer the death
of his parents. Her orphaned schoolboy with his trademark specs became
one of the most successful characters in children's literature, selling
300 million books in 63 countries; some of the Harry Potter books have
sold three million copies within 48 hours of going on sale.
Death is the key to understanding JK Rowling. Her greatest fear - and she
is completely unhesitant about this - is of someone she loves dying. "My
books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's
parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his
quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so
understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of
it." In the seventh and final Harry Potter book there will be deaths of
both goodies and baddies. She was talking to her husband, Neil, the other
day, after she had just written the death of one particular character.
"He shuddered. 'Oh, don't do that,' he said to me, but of course I did."
And with one swirl of her pen, millions of children will weep or rejoice.
Countless Harry Potter websites try to predict what will happen in the
final book. "Neil is the only person I can talk to about what happens
because he instantly forgets," she says, laughing.
All unpublished Potter information is gold dust. Rowling's dustbins have
gone over; her letters have been stolen; printers have been offered
bribes; friends have had cheque books waved at them by tabloid reporters.
She is a little worried because one Harry Potter notebook has gone
missing and it contains plot details on the final book. "I am sure it
will turn up. I just hope I didn't leave it anywhere. I have been looking
everywhere. What I don't want is someone to find it and take it to The
Sun." Anything not filed and locked away in her office is shredded. And
because of global marketing she has to train herself not to talk about
what she is currently writing. "I so nearly told you the title, it almost
popped out," she says at one point. On eBay, large sums are paid for
Harry Potter books signed by her, many of them fakes. "I can identify
fake ones pretty well," she says. But she tries not to get too involved
in Pottermania. She once caused the share price of her publisher,
Bloomsbury, to fall by changing a word on her website.
Nothing about her life after Harry has ever been the same. She has met
the Queen twice: "My mother would have loved for me to have phoned to say
I was getting the OBE but you mustn't tell the neighbors. Can you
imagine! That would have been so hard for her." Nelson Mandela invited
her to South Africa: "Sadly I had to say no because I was pregnant."
Sigourney Weaver invited her round: "I was in America but it was all so
strange. I had never met her so I didn't go." Bill Clinton declared he
was a fan: "Telling my mother would have been the best bit about meeting
the President." More money than she can spend rolls in - estimates have
topped £500 million, with The Sunday Times Rich List valuing her at £435
million in 2004; she has frequently denied the figures.
This modest, gentle woman, born in Chipping Sodbury, cannot really
believe she is as famous as Walt Disney was in his day. "I cannot really
emphasise how unconnected I was when all this happened to me. I was
totally obscure and no one I knew knew anyone famous. So this was very
alien to me and I was scared rigid." But you know that your PA could
arrange a meeting for you with anyone in the world? "When you say that to
me I just find it freakish. I'm not being disingenuous. I'm not trying to
be modest but it still puzzles me, and I'm very wary of it." Between 800
and 1,000 letters arrive every week; all are answered.
Harry Potter has been translated in Latin and Mandarin. The Pope
allegedly condemned the books for their heretical magic: "I can remember
reading about it and thinking surely there are more important things for
him to worry about than my books - world peace, war in the Middle
East..." She has endured death threats, stalkers, begging letters and
prying paparazzi. On Mauritius she was "long-lensed" in her bikini.
Having her daughter Jessica in the papers is what really freaked her out;
she had always tried to keep her out of the press. Privacy, she realised,
was something for which she would have to pay, hence the occasional
private jet to remote places where anonymity is more likely. Tswalu, the
stunning South African safari camp owned by the Oppenheimer family in
Kalahari, was one fabulous recent holiday. Hawaii was another. Last year
she hired Hopetoun, the magnificent 18th-century seat (well, 1699) of the
Marquess of Linlithgow outside Edinburgh, for her 40th birthday. She had
tried to hire the royal yacht Britannia but turned it down because no
dancing is allowed. She booked Hopetoun under her married name of Mrs.
Murray and arranged every detail, down to the last-minute splurge down
Bond Street where she spotted a fairytale set of diamond earrings. She
hesitated, asked the price, gulped and said: "I'll have them."
It's all a long way from her single-parent days surviving on £70 a week,
when she worried if she had enough for herself and her daughter to eat.
'Richer Than the Queen' was the most indelible headline after she went
from unknown with no money to famous with oodles of it. She laughs. "Well
I'm certainly not going to complain about having the money. Not for a
second. Of course it makes everything easier. If you've literally been
worrying, 'Will the money last till the end of the week?' you will never,
ever complain about having money. It enables you, sets you free from
worry. It allows you to travel, to help people. There is no way I am ever
going to complain about having the money. I'm grateful for it every
With three houses - in Edinburgh, Perth and London - and a tight team of
advertisers, a to-die-for PA and two secretaries, she has kept her world
small and manageable. There are flurries of mild extravagance. "I love a
handbag and I love shoes." But the sensible gene also kicks in. This is
never going to be a woman with leopardskin on the walls or Rembrandts
stacked up the hallway. "I've got a mental amount that I can't spend
beyond. I just couldn't. I still have a limit to what I think I would be
justified in spending on frivolity." And when she bought her Bond Street
earrings, mild guilt set in and she wrote out a cheque for the same
amount to a charity. There are very few luxuries in her life. A Jane
Austen first edition is on her shelf but it jostles for space with
She knew money brings complications, and like all very rich people
wondered if people might be interested in her just for her income. That
is until she met Neil Murray. Bearded, rock-star handsome, unpretentious
and easy-going. Murray is a hardworking GP with long hours. Very hands-on
as a father, he is not interested in the limelight or the shiny baubles
that money can bring. "Money just wasn't an issue with him. In fact, Neil
doesn't really spend money. That's not what he wants." Two children later
(David, two, and Mackenzie, nine months), they could not look happier.
How tricky was it dating as a woman who was so famous and so rich? "I had
thought before I met Neil that it would be a factor in my remaining
single forever. Certainly before I met Neil I hadn't met anyone that I
could conceive of marrying. I thought, 'I'm not going to meet anyone.' I
did believe that. I cannot emphasise that enough. I thought, 'I've been
lucky. I've got my work. I had my child." I couldn't complain. I'm not
someone who will take just anyone. I know I can survive on my own. I have
been on my own for long stretches, which is not to say that at times I
wasn't very lonely. I was, but I am a coper. I can do the being-on-my-own
She can now admit that the pressure of her fame was almost head-splitting
at times. "I've never said this before, but when I was repeatedly asked,
'How are you coping?' I would say, 'Fine.' I was lying to myself at the
time. Denial was my friend. The truth is that I could easily have said,
'Well now you mention it, it's all quite difficult to deal with. I will
go home on my own this evening to look after my daughter, and I will feel
enormous pressure.' I was isolated before I got famous, and having fame
on top of an already isolating situation didn't help.
"I was hypersensitive because I had a daughter from my first marriage. It
was as though I'd lived under a rock for a long time and suddenly someone
had lifted it off and was shining a torch onto me. And it's not that life
under the rock was awful but actually I was petrified and didn't know how
to handle it."
So this beautiful, gentle, guileless woman, who needs security guards if she goes into a bookshop, has remained remarkably normal. She still, for instance, writes her books in cafes in Edinburgh. 'For the first time I have a proper study, but you know what: I still prefer doing it in cafes. Occasionally I might look up and find a table of people staring at me. I get very embarassed and go.' When she was writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone she couldn't afford child care, so she would walk and walk with her daughter in a pram until she fell asleep and then rush to a cafe to start scribbling. 'My power of concentration is battle-hardened. It's just the way I've always had to write.'
This year she will finish writing the Harry Potter series. The final chapter sits, already written, in her safe. A new children's book is also complete. It is about a monster and is what Rowling calls a 'political fairy story'. It is aimed at children younger than those who read Harry Potter: 'I haven't even told my publisher about this.' There are also some short stories already written.
She is disarmingly normal. Her favourite drink is gin and tonic, her least favourite food tripe. Her heroine is Jessica Mitford and her favourite author Jane Austen. She can't drive, having failed her test at 17 and left it at that - 'I have a distinct fear of cars, that something awful is going to happen.' She gave up somking five years ago and has spent most of the past three years pregnant or caring for a small baby. She is a Christian (Episcopalian) and, 'like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes about if my faith will return. It's important to me.'
Life is always changing for her. She is involved in a new project to help impoverished orphans in Eastern Europe. The Sunday Times and thought it was too upsetting to read after seeing photographs of young children literally caged: 'I then thought it is wrong to avoid it, so I thought, "Why don't I try to do something to help."' She wrote to the president of the Czech Republic, to her MP, to everyone she could think of - and it worked. She is now part of an EU group that is planning to visit similar orphans in Romania. Again, the Potter theme of overcoming the loss of a parent returns.
But in the meantime Cinderella has to get ready for her own ball - for the MS cause. She has her Amanda Wakeley dress bought and ready and a mask will be made. She will raise hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, for MS. She wants to make a difference. She does not want her mother's death to have been in vain.
She scatters scary MS facts as quick as a wizard in a game of Quidditch. The strangest is that the most likely people in the world to get MS are Scots - for some yet unknown reason Scotland is the MS capital of the world. The goals of her fundraising are to enable better treatments - and ultimately a cure - for MS to be found. She is heading a campaign to ensure people with MS get the care they need now. Currently some are left to come to terms with their devastating diagnosis on their own. Later, if the disease gets worse, they may be denied basics such as an electric wheelchair. Her mission is to change the way people with MS are treated and to unlock the mysteries of the disease. 'Not a day goes by when I don't think of my mother. Her death depth-charged me. It changed my life.' Now se wants it to change other lives for the better.
Thanks to staffer K'lyssa for the help typing this!
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