Birth and family
Joanne Rowling was born on 31 July 1965 in Yate, Gloucestershire, to Anne, a science technician, and Peter James Rowling, a Rolls-Royce aircraft engineer.
Her parents first met on a train departing from King’s Cross Station bound for Arbroath in 1964. They married on 14 March 1965. One of Rowling’s maternal great-grandfathers, Dugald Campbell, was a Scottish man from Lamlash.
Her mother’s French paternal grandfather, Louis Volant, was awarded the War Cross for exceptional bravery in defending the village of Courcelles-le-Comte during World War I. Rowling originally believed Volant had won the Legion of Honour during the war, as she said when she received it herself in 2009. She later discovered the truth when featured in an episode of the UK genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? in which she found out it was a different Louis Volant who won the Legion of Honour. When she heard her grandfather’s story of bravery and discovered that the War Cross was for « ordinary » soldiers like her grandfather, who had been a waiter, she stated the War Cross was « better » to her than the Legion of Honour.
Rowling’s sister Dianne was born at their home when Rowling was 23 months old. The family moved to the nearby village of Winterbourne when Rowling was four. As a child, Rowling often wrote fantasy stories which she frequently read to her sister. Aged nine, Rowling moved to Church Cottage in the Gloucestershire village of Tutshill, close to Chepstow, Wales. When she was a young teenager, her great-aunt gave her a copy of Jessica Mitford’s autobiography, Hons and Rebels. Mitford became Rowling’s heroine, and Rowling read all of her books.
Rowling has said that her teenage years were unhappy. Her home life was complicated by her mother’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis and a strained relationship with her father, with whom she is not on speaking terms. Rowling later said that she based the character of Hermione Granger on herself when she was eleven. 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. Like many teenagers, she became interested in rock music, listening to the Clash, the Smiths, and Siouxsie Sioux, adopting the look of the latter with back-combed hair and black eyeliner, a look that she still sported when beginning university.
As a child, Rowling attended St Michael’s Primary School, a school founded by abolitionist William Wilberforce and education reformer Hannah More. Her headmaster at St Michael’s, Alfred Dunn, has been suggested as the inspiration for the Harry Potter headmaster Albus Dumbledore. She attended secondary school at Wyedean School and College, where her mother worked in the science department. Steve Eddy, her first secondary school English teacher, remembers her as « not exceptional » but « one of a group of girls who were bright, and quite good at English ». Rowling took A-levels in English, French and German, achieving two As and a B and was head girl.
Rowling earned a BA in French and Classics at the University of Exeter. Martin Sorrell, a French professor at Exeter, remembers « a quietly competent student, with a denim jacket and dark hair, who, in academic terms, gave the appearance of doing what was necessary ». Rowling recalls doing little work, preferring to read Dickens and Tolkien. After a year of study in Paris, Rowling graduated from Exeter in 1986. In 1988, Rowling wrote a short essay about her time studying Classics titled « What was the Name of that Nymph Again? or Greek and Roman Studies Recalled »; it was published by the University of Exeter’s journal Pegasus.
Inspiration and mother's death
Rowling worked as a researcher and bilingual secretary in London for Amnesty International, then moved with her boyfriend to Manchester where she worked at the Chamber of Commerce. In 1990, she was on a four-hour delayed train trip from Manchester to London when the idea « came fully formed » into her mind for a story of a young boy attending a school of wizardry. When she reached her Clapham Junction flat, she began to write immediately.
In December 1990, Rowling’s mother Anne died after ten years suffering from multiple sclerosis. Rowling was writing Harry Potter at the time and had never told her mother about it. Her mother’s death heavily affected Rowling’s writing, and she channelled her own feelings of loss by writing about Harry’s grief in greater detail in the first book.
Marriage, divorce, and single parenthood
An advertisement in The Guardian led Rowling to move to Porto, Portugal, to teach English as a foreign language. She taught at night and began writing in the day while listening to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. After 18 months in Porto, she met Portuguese television journalist Jorge Arantes in a bar, and found that they shared an interest in Jane Austen. They married on 16 October 1992, and daughter Jessica Isabel Rowling Arantes (named after Jessica Mitford) was born on 27 July 1993 in Portugal. She had previously suffered a miscarriage. The couple separated on 17 November 1993. Biographers have suggested that Rowling suffered domestic abuse during her marriage, which Rowling later confirmed; Arantes stated in an article for The Sun in June 2020 that he had slapped her and did not regret it. United Kingdom domestic abuse commissioner Nicole Jacobs formally advised The Sun that it was unacceptable « to repeat and magnify the voice of someone who openly admits to violence against a partner ». In December 1993, Rowling and her daughter moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, to be near Rowling’s sister with three chapters of Harry Potter in her suitcase.
Seven years after graduating from university, Rowling saw herself as a failure. Her marriage had failed, and she was jobless with a dependent child, but she described her failure as « liberating » and allowing her to focus on writing. During this period, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and contemplated suicide. Her depression inspired the characters known as Dementors, soul-sucking creatures introduced in the third book. Rowling signed up for welfare benefits, describing her economic status as being « poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. »
Rowling was left in despair after her estranged husband arrived in Scotland, seeking both her and their daughter. She obtained an Order of Restraint, and Arantes returned to Portugal, with Rowling filing for divorce in August 1994. She began a teacher training course in August 1995 at the Moray House School of Education at Edinburgh University, after completing her first novel while living on state benefits. She wrote in many cafés, especially Nicolson’s Café (owned by her brother-in-law) and the Elephant House, wherever she could get Jessica to fall asleep. In a 2001 BBC interview, Rowling denied the rumour that she wrote in local cafés to escape from her unheated flat, pointing out that it had heating. She stated that she wrote in cafés because coffee was available without her breaking the flow of writing, and that taking her baby out for a walk helped her to fall asleep.
In 1995, Rowling finished her manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone which was typed on an old manual typewriter. Upon the enthusiastic response of Bryony Evens, a reader who had been asked to review the book’s first three chapters, the Fulham-based Christopher Little Literary Agency agreed to represent Rowling in her quest for a publisher. The book was submitted to twelve publishing houses, all of which rejected the manuscript. A year later, she was finally given the green light (and a £1,500 advance) by editor Barry Cunningham from Bloomsbury, a publishing house in London. The decision to publish Rowling’s book owes much to Alice Newton, the eight-year-old daughter of Bloomsbury’s chairman, who was given the first chapter to review by her father and immediately demanded the next. Although Bloomsbury agreed to publish the book, Cunningham says that he advised Rowling to get a day job, since she had little chance of making money in children’s books. Soon after, in 1997, Rowling received an £8,000 grant from the Scottish Arts Council to enable her to continue writing.
In June 1997, Bloomsbury published Philosopher’s Stone with an initial print run of 1,000 copies, 500 of which were distributed to libraries. Today, such copies are valued between £16,000 and £25,000. Five months later, the book won its first award, a Nestlé Smarties Book Prize. In February 1998, the novel won the British Book Award for Children’s Book of the Year and, later, the Children’s Book Award. In early 1998, an auction was held in the United States for the rights to publish the novel, and was won by Scholastic Inc., for US$105,000. Rowling said that she « nearly died » when she heard the news. In October 1998, Scholastic published Philosopher’s Stone in the US under the title of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a change Rowling says she now regrets and would have fought if she had been in a better position at the time. Rowling moved from her flat with the money from the Scholastic sale, into 19 Hazelbank Terrace in Edinburgh.
Its sequel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, was published in July 1998 and again Rowling won the Smarties Prize. In December 1999, the third novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, won the Smarties Prize, making Rowling the first person to win the award three times running. She later withdrew the fourth Harry Potter novel from contention to allow other books a fair chance. In January 2000, Prisoner of Azkaban won the inaugural Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year award, though it lost the Book of the Year prize to Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.
The fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was released simultaneously in the UK and the US on 8 July 2000 and broke sales records in both countries, with 372,775 copies of the book sold in its first day in the UK, almost equalling the number Prisoner of Azkaban sold during its first year. In the US, the book sold three million copies in its first 48 hours, smashing all records. Rowling said that she had had a crisis while writing the novel and had to rewrite one chapter many times to fix a problem with the plot. Rowling was named Author of the Year in the 2000 British Book Awards.
A wait of three years occurred between the release of Goblet of Fire and the fifth Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. This gap led to press speculation that Rowling had developed writer’s block, speculations she later denied. Rowling later said that writing the book was a chore, that it could have been shorter, and that she ran out of time and energy as she tried to finish it.
The sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was released on 16 July 2005. It too broke all sales records, selling nine million copies in its first 24 hours of release. In 2006, Half-Blood Prince received the Book of the Year prize at the British Book Awards.
The title of the seventh and final Harry Potter book was announced on 21 December 2006 as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In February 2007, it was reported that Rowling wrote on a bust in her hotel room at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh that she had finished the seventh book in that room on 11 January 2007. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released on 21 July 2007 (0:01 BST) and broke its predecessor’s record as the fastest-selling book of all time. It sold 11 million copies in the first day of release in the United Kingdom and United States. The book’s last chapter was one of the earliest things she wrote in the entire series.
Harry Potter is now a global brand worth an estimated US$15 billion, and the last four Harry Potter books have consecutively set records as the fastest-selling books in history. The series, totalling 4,195 pages, has been translated, in whole or in part, into 65 languages.
The Harry Potter books have also gained recognition for sparking an interest in reading among the young at a time when children were thought to be abandoning books for computers, television and video games, although it is reported that despite the huge uptake of the books, adolescent reading has continued to decline.
Harry Potter films
In October 1998, Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to the first two novels for a seven-figure sum. A film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released on 16 November 2001, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on 15 November 2002. Both films were directed by Chris Columbus. The film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was released on 4 June 2004, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. The fourth film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was directed by Mike Newell, and released on 18 November 2005. The film of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released on 11 July 2007. David Yates directed, and Michael Goldenberg wrote the screenplay, having taken over the position from Steve Kloves. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released on 15 July 2009. David Yates directed again, and Kloves returned to write the script. Warner Bros. filmed the final instalment of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in two segments, with part one being released on 19 November 2010 and part two being released on 15 July 2011. Yates directed both films.
Warner Bros. took considerable notice of Rowling’s desires when drafting her contract. One of her principal stipulations was the films be shot in Britain with an all-British cast, which has been generally adhered to. Rowling also demanded that Coca-Cola, the winner in the race to tie in their products to the film series, donate US$18 million to the American charity Reading Is Fundamental, as well as several community charity programs.
Steve Kloves wrote the screenplays for all but the fifth film; Rowling assisted him in the writing process, ensuring that his scripts did not contradict future books in the series. She told Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid) certain secrets about their characters before they were revealed in the books. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) asked her if Harry died at any point in the series; Rowling answered him by saying, « You have a death scene », thereby not explicitly answering the question. Director Steven Spielberg was approached to direct the first film, but dropped out. The press has repeatedly claimed that Rowling played a role in his departure, but Rowling stated that she had no say in who directed the films and would not have vetoed Spielberg. Rowling’s first choice for the director had been Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, but Warner Bros. wanted a family-friendly film and chose Columbus.
Rowling had gained some creative control over the films, reviewing all the scripts as well as acting as a producer on the final two-part instalment, Deathly Hallows.
Rowling, producers David Heyman and David Barron, along with directors David Yates, Mike Newell and Alfonso Cuarón collected the Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema at the 2011 British Academy Film Awards in honour of the Harry Potter film franchise.
In September 2013, Warner Bros. announced an « expanded creative partnership » with Rowling, based on a planned series of films about her character Newt Scamander, author of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The first film was released in November 2016 and is set roughly 70 years before the events of the main series. In 2016, it was announced that the series would consist of five films. The second, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, was released in November 2018.
In 2004, Forbes named Rowling as the first person to become a US-dollar billionaire by writing books, the second-richest female entertainer and the 1,062nd richest person in the world. Rowling disputed the calculations and said she had plenty of money, but was not a billionaire. The 2021 Sunday Times Rich List estimated Rowling’s fortune at £820 million, ranking her as the 196th richest person in the UK. After spending eight years on the list, in 2012 Forbes removed Rowling from their rich list, claiming that her US$160 million in charitable donations and the high tax rate in the UK meant she was no longer a billionaire. In February 2013, she was assessed as the 13th most powerful woman in the United Kingdom by Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4.
Rowling acquired the courtesy title of Laird of Killiechassie in 2001 when she purchased the historic Killiechassie House, and its surrounding estate situated on the banks of the River Tay, near Aberfeldy, in Perth and Kinross. Rowling also owns a £4.5 million Georgian house in Kensington, west London, on a street with 24-hour security.
Rowling has consistently been ranked among the highest earning authors in the world. She was named the world’s highest paid author in 2017 and 2019 by Forbes with net earnings of £72 million ($95 million) and $92 million respectively.
Remarriage and family
On 26 December 2001, Rowling married Neil Murray (born 30 June 1971), a Scottish doctor, in a private ceremony at her home, Killiechassie House, in Scotland. Their son, David Gordon Rowling Murray, was born on 24 March 2003. Shortly after Rowling began writing Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, she ceased working on the novel to care for David in his early infancy.
Rowling is a friend of Sarah Brown, wife of former prime minister Gordon Brown, whom she met when they collaborated on a charitable project. When Sarah Brown’s son Fraser was born in 2003, Rowling was one of the first to visit her in hospital. Rowling’s youngest child, daughter Mackenzie Jean Rowling Murray, to whom she dedicated Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was born on 23 January 2005.
In October 2012, a New Yorker magazine article stated that the Rowling family lived in a seventeenth-century Edinburgh house, concealed at the front by tall conifer hedges. Prior to October 2012, Rowling lived near the author Ian Rankin, who later said she was quiet and introspective, and that she seemed in her element with children. As of June 2014, the family resides in Scotland.
The Casual Vacancy
In July 2011, Rowling parted company with her agent, Christopher Little, moving to a new agency founded by one of his staff, Neil Blair. On 23 February 2012, his agency, the Blair Partnership, announced on its website that Rowling was set to publish a new book targeted at adults. In a press release, Rowling said that her new book would be quite different from Harry Potter. In April 2012, Little, Brown and Company announced that the book was titled The Casual Vacancy and would be released on 27 September 2012. Rowling gave several interviews and made appearances to promote The Casual Vacancy, including at the London Southbank Centre, the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Charlie Rose and the Lennoxlove Book Festival. In its first three weeks of release, The Casual Vacancy sold over 1 million copies worldwide.
On 3 December 2012, it was announced that the BBC would be adapting The Casual Vacancy into a television drama miniseries. Rowling’s agent, Neil Blair acted as producer, through his independent production company and with Rick Senat serving as executive producer. Rowling collaborated on the adaptation, serving as an executive producer for the series. The series aired in three parts from 15 February to 1 March 2015.
In 2007, during the Edinburgh Book Festival, author Ian Rankin claimed that his wife spotted Rowling « scribbling away » at a detective novel in a café. Rankin later retracted the story, claiming it was a joke, but the rumour persisted, with a report in 2012 in The Guardian speculating that Rowling’s next book would be a crime novel. In an interview with Stephen Fry in 2005, Rowling had claimed that she would much prefer to write any subsequent books under a pseudonym, but had previously conceded to Jeremy Paxman in 2003 that if she did, the press would probably « find out in seconds ».
In April 2013, Little Brown published The Cuckoo’s Calling, the purported début novel of author Robert Galbraith, whom the publisher described as « a former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry ». The novel, a detective story in which private investigator Cormoran Strike unravels the supposed suicide of a supermodel, sold 1,500 copies in hardback (although the matter was not resolved as of 21 July 2013; later reports stated that this number is the number of copies that were printed for the first run, while the sales total was closer to 500) and received acclaim from other crime writers and critics—a Publishers Weekly review called the book a « stellar debut », while the Library Journal’s mystery section pronounced the novel « the debut of the month ».
India Knight, a novelist and columnist for The Sunday Times, tweeted on 9 July 2013 that she had been reading The Cuckoo’s Calling and thought it was good for a début novel. In response, a tweeter called Jude Callegari said that the author was Rowling. Knight queried this but got no further reply. Knight notified Richard Brooks, arts editor of The Sunday Times, who began his own investigation. After discovering that Rowling and Galbraith had the same agent and editor, he sent the books for linguistic analysis which found similarities, and subsequently contacted Rowling’s agent who confirmed it was Rowling’s pseudonym. Within days of Rowling being revealed as the author, sales of the book rose by 4,000%, and Little Brown printed another 140,000 copies to meet the increase in demand. As of 18 July 2013, a signed copy of the first edition sold for US$4,453 (£2,950), while an unsold signed first-edition copy was being offered for $6,188 (£3,950).
Rowling said that she had enjoyed working under a pseudonym. On her Robert Galbraith website, Rowling explained that she took the name from one of her personal heroes, Robert F. Kennedy, and a childhood fantasy name she had invented for herself, Ella Galbraith. Commenting on the choice of the name in an interview with Graham Norton, she remarked that, « when I was unmasked – when I was outed – people analysed the name as “Robert means a bright shining fame and Galbraith means stranger” and I was thinking “really? I had no idea!” But, you know, things get over analysed sometimes. »
Soon after the revelation, Brooks pondered whether Jude Callegari could have been Rowling as part of wider speculation that the entire affair had been a publicity stunt. Some also observed that many of the writers who had initially praised the book, such as Alex Gray or Val McDermid, were within Rowling’s circle of acquaintances; both vociferously denied any foreknowledge of Rowling’s authorship. Judith « Jude » Callegari was the best friend of the wife of Chris Gossage, a partner within Russells Solicitors, Rowling’s legal representatives. Rowling released a statement saying she was disappointed and angry; Russells apologised for the leak, confirming it was not part of a marketing stunt and that « the disclosure was made in confidence to someone he trusted implicitly ». Russells made a donation to the Soldiers’ Charity on Rowling’s behalf and reimbursed her for her legal fees. On 26 November 2013, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) issued Gossage a written rebuke and £1,000 fine for breaching privacy rules.
On 17 February 2014, Rowling announced that the second Cormoran Strike novel, named The Silkworm, would be released in June 2014. It sees Strike investigating the disappearance of a writer hated by many of his old friends for insulting them in his new novel.
In 2015, Rowling stated on Galbraith’s website that the third Cormoran Strike novel would include « an insane amount of planning, the most I have done for any book I have written so far. I have colour-coded spreadsheets so I can keep a track of where I am going. » On 24 April 2015, Rowling announced that work on the third book was completed. Titled Career of Evil, it was released on 20 October 2015 in the United States, and on 22 October 2015 in the United Kingdom.
In 2017, the BBC released a Cormoran Strike television series, starring Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike, it was picked up by HBO for distribution in the United States and Canada.
In March 2017, Rowling revealed the fourth novel’s title via Twitter in a game of « Hangman » with her followers. After many failed attempts, followers finally guessed correctly. Rowling confirmed that the next novel’s title is Lethal White. While intended for a 2017 release, Rowling tweeted the book was taking longer than expected and would be the longest book in the series thus far. The book was released 18 September 2018. The fifth novel in the series, titled Troubled Blood, was published in September 2020. In May 2021, Troubled Blood won the Crime and Thriller Book of the Year at the British Book Awards.
Rowling has said it is unlikely she will write any more books in the Harry Potter series. In October 2007, she stated that her future work was unlikely to be in the fantasy genre. On 1 October 2010, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Rowling stated a new book on the saga might happen.
In 2007, Rowling stated that she planned to write an encyclopaedia of Harry Potter’s wizarding world consisting of various unpublished material and notes. Any profits from such a book would be given to charity. During a news conference at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre in 2007, Rowling, when asked how the encyclopaedia was coming along, said, « It’s not coming along, and I haven’t started writing it. I never said it was the next thing I’d do. » At the end of 2007, Rowling said that the encyclopaedia could take up to ten years to complete.
In June 2011, Rowling announced that future Harry Potter projects, and all electronic downloads, would be concentrated in a new website, called Pottermore. The site includes 18,000 words of information on characters, places and objects in the Harry Potter universe.
In October 2015, Rowling announced via Pottermore that a two-part play she had co-authored with playwrights Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was the « eighth Harry Potter story » and that it would focus on the life of Harry Potter’s youngest son Albus after the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. On 28 October 2015, the first round of tickets went on sale and sold out in several hours.
Starting on 26 May 2020 and running until 10 July 2020, Rowling published a new children’s story online. The Ickabog was first mooted as a « political fairytale » for children in a 2007 Time magazine interview.
Rowling shelved the story and decided to publish it for children as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A print edition was released on 10 November 2020 and contains illustrations selected from entries to a competition running concurrently with the online publication. Rowling stated that all royalties from the book would be donated to charities helping groups strongly impacted by COVID-19.
The Christmas Pig
On 13 April 2021 it was announced that Rowling would be publishing a new children’s novel, entitled The Christmas Pig, due to be released in October 2021.
The story is unconnected to any of Rowling’s previous works.