In the 15 years since she published her first Harry Potter, author JK Rowling has become both universally known and almost unrecognisable. The scruffy redhead who used to write in the cafes of Leith has slowly transformed into a glossy couture blonde, unknowable behind an impregnable sheen of wealth and control.
Author JK Rowling: PHOTO: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett
Once a penniless single mother, she became the first person on earth to make $1 billion by writing books, but her rare public appearances suggested a faint ice maiden quality, less Cinderella than Snow Queen. Sometimes she didn’t appear to be enjoying the fairytale at all, complaining of having had to hire privacy lawyers on more than 50 occasions, and suing a fan for writing an encyclopedia of Potter facts. The press began to hint at a coldly grandiose recluse.
Today, in real life, Rowling is warm and animated, quick to laugh, chattering so freely that her publicist tells her to lower her voice. “Am I speaking too loud?” She doesn’t look a bit concerned. “Well, I can’t get passionate and whisper!” When I tell her I loved the book, her arms shoot up in celebration. “Oh my God! I’m so happy! You’ve made me incredibly happy!" Anyone listening would take her for a debut author, meeting her first ever fan.
In a way, that’s what she is. Rowling has written seven Harry Potter books and sold more than 450 million copies, but her first novel for adults is unlike them in every respect. Except the location of inspiration. “Obviously I need to be in some form of vehicle to have a decent idea,” she laughs. Having dreamed up Potter on a train, “This time, I was on a plane. And I thought: local election! And I just knew. I had that totally physical response you get to an idea that you know will work. It’s a rush of adrenaline, it’s chemical. I had it with Harry Potter and I had it with this. So that’s how I know.”
Like so many British novels, The Casual Vacancy is inescapably about class. “We’re a phenomenally snobby society,” Rowling nods, “and it’s such a rich seam. The middle class is so funny, it’s the class I know best, and it’s the class where you find the most pretension.” The book is so funny that one is halfway through before noticing that every character is, to a varying degree, monstrous. Written from multiple perspectives, the novel invites the reader into their heads, where internal logic helps make sense of what can look, from the outside, inexcusable.
Rowling’s mother, a school lab technician, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Rowling was 15. She studied French and classics at Exeter University, went to work for Amnesty in London, lost her mother at 25 and moved abroad to teach English, returning at 28 with a six-month-old daughter, Jessica, following a short and catastrophic marriage to a Portuguese journalist.
Broke, clinically depressed and suicidal, she moved to Edinburgh to be near her sister and survived on benefits while writing the first Potter. After many rejections, the manuscript was bought by Bloomsbury for 2,500 pounds. Her editor advised her to get a teaching job, the likelihood of her earning a living from children’s books being, in his view, decidedly remote.
A 2007 documentary shows her 10 years later, soaring into a stratosphere of unimaginable wealth and fame. Watching it now, what’s striking is the discrepancy between the happily-ever-after finale of her rags-to-riches miracle and the unhappiness etched upon her face. There is a hunted expression in her eyes, a slightly brittle chippiness in her comments. None of this is discernible today, so I ask if it took time for the emotional DNA of unhappy early years to mutate and catch up with her new life.
“Well, it has now. But there was a definite lag. For a few years, I did feel I was on a psychic treadmill, trying to keep up with where I was. Everything changed so rapidly, so strangely. I knew no one who’d ever been in the public eye. I didn’t know anyone — anyone — to whom I could turn and say, ‘What do you do?’”
She’d had therapy when at “rock bottom” while writing the first Potter. “And I had to do it again when my life was changing so suddenly — and it really helped. I’m a big fan of it, it helped me a lot.” Her other salvation came with her second husband, Neil Murray, a doctor she married in 2001 and with whom she has a son, nine, and a daughter, seven.
Sudden wealth was not a straightforward joy. “You don’t expect the kind of problems it brings with it. I am so grateful for what happened that this should not be taken in any way as a whine, but you don’t expect the pressure of it, in the sense of being bombarded by requests. I was hit by this tsunami of demands.”
The writer now found herself in charge of a business empire stretching all the way to Hollywood, as the Harry Potter films began smashing box office records. “And it’s a real bore. Should I be more diplomatic? Oh, I don’t care. No, there is literally nothing on the business side that I wouldn’t sacrifice in a heartbeat to have an extra couple of hours’ writing.”
Fame has had its upsides: meeting Barack Obama was a starstruck moment for her. She has only ever once resorted to a disguise —when she went out to buy her wedding dress. She won’t say what the disguise was — “In case,” she grins, “I need to use it again.” She’s stopped minding that people get her name wrong (it rhymes with bowling, not howling), and quite likes being JK as a writer and Jo in real life.” Jo the mother is where I want to be the most private.”
The endless rumours that The Casual Vacancy would be a crime thriller just made her laugh. “Ian Rankin and I did once have a conversation in which he rightly said the Potter novels are in the main whodunnits, so we were talking about that, and that led to him telling everyone I was writing a crime novel, which was never the case.”
Her emotional world is now, she thinks, finally reconciled to her external reality. “In the end, you reach a very healthy point, where you disconnect. You really do. And I am there. And it’s been glorious for five years, it’s been thrilling, the sheer freedom. I am the freest author in the world. I can do whatever the hell I like. I was under contract to no one, and the feeling of having all of these characters in my head and knowing that no one else knew a damned thing about them was amazing. I wrote this novel as exactly what I wanted to write. And I loved it.” Guardian News Service