J. K. Rowling

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The story of Harry Potter's creator

by Ann-Marie Imbornoni
J.K. Rowling

J. K. Rowling
Source/AP Photos

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Joanne Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter series of books, was born in Chipping Sodbury, near Bristol, in southwest England. Her birthday, as true Harry Potter fans know, is July 31, the same as her famous boy-wizard hero.

The family, including her parents and younger sister Di, lived in Yate and then Winterbourne, also near Bristol. Her father worked on airplane engines for Rolls Royce. When Joanne was nine, the Rowlings moved to Tutshill, near Chepstow, England, close to the border of Wales.

School Days

Joanne—called Jo by her family and friends—did well in school, and in her senior year was the top girl in her class. In fact, Rowling has said that as a child she resembled Hermione Granger, Harry's obsessively studious friend, whom she modeled after herself. Although, Rowling notes, "I was neither as clever or as annoying (I hope!)."

At school, Rowling's favorite subjects were English and foreign languages. She particularly enjoyed reading books such as Manxmouse by Paul Gallico, about a creature with a mouse's body, rabbit's ears, and monkey's paws, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and other books in C. S. Lewis's Narnia series.

A Storyteller from the Start

After graduating from public school with top honors in English, French, and German, Rowling went on to study French at the University of Exeter. She earned her degree in 1986 and over the next several years held a variety of secretarial jobs, including one at a publishing firm, where she had to send out rejection letters to prospective authors.

What she really wanted to do, however, was write. Rowling wrote her first story, Rabbit, about a rabbit with measles, at age five or six. Later, she tried her hand at writing novels, for adults. But she never finished writing any novel before she wrote the Harry Potter books.

Harry Potter Is Born

Rowling started writing the first Harry Potter book in 1990. The idea for Harry—a lonely, downtrodden 11-year-old orphan who learns he is actually a wizard when he is magically invited to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry—came to Rowling while she was stuck on a delayed train between Manchester and London. Although she left England a short time later to teach English in Portugal, Rowling continued to flesh out Harry's story.

Rowling returned to Britain in 1993, settling in Edinburgh, Scotland, to be near her sister. Divorced after a brief marriage in Portugal and now with a baby, she suffered through a period of poverty and depression while she struggled to earn a living and take care of her daughter, Jessica. It was during this difficult time that she finally completed Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which was renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for the U.S. edition. When her publisher suggested she add a middle initial to her name, she chose that of her grandmother, Kathleen.

Success at Last

Following its publication in Britain in June 1997, the book quickly became a hit with children and adults alike and won numerous awards, including the British Book Awards' Children's Book of the Year. Rowling always envisioned the book as part of a seven-volume series—one book for every year that Harry spends at Hogwarts—and a new Harry Potter book appeared every year for the next three years. These were Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999), and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000). These were followed by two short books from Harry Potter's world, Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2001). The profits from those two went to a British charity, Comic Relief.

Rowling's road to fame and fortune may have been a bit rocky at times, but her success has been sure. In 2000, the 35-year-old author became the highest-earning woman in Britain, netting more than £20.5 million (about $30 million) over the previous year. She received an OBE (Order of the British Empire), a medal of achievement awarded by the queen, in March 2001. At the end of that same year, she married her second husband, Dr. Neil Murray. On March 23, 2003, Rowling's second child, David Gordon Rowling Murray, was born. She gave birth to a baby girl, Mackenzie Jean Rowling Murray, on January 25, 2005.

Not Just Another Best-Seller

On June 21, 2003, three months after David was born, the fifth book of the Harry Potter series was released. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix broke—no, shattered—no, obliterated—the previous record for first-day sales by a book, which had been set by Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The fourth book sold 372,775 copies in the United Kingdom the day it was released; the fifth one sold almost 1.8 million. The United States sales figures were even more impressive. All told, Order of the Phoenix sold about seven million copies the day it was released.

The Harry Potter books have been translated into more than 60 languages, and it has been estimated that more than 300 million copies have been sold around the world. The first four books have been made into films: Sorcerer's Stone made more than $950 million; Chamber of Secrets, more than $850 million; Prisoner of Azkaban, more than $780 million; and Goblet of Fire, more than $890 million. All four are among the top twenty highest-grossing films of all time.

In February 2004, Forbes magazine estimated that Rowling had £576 million, or more than a billion dollars. This would make her the first person ever to become a billionaire from writing books.

On July 16, 2005, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released, destroying the previous book's sales records; on the first day of sales, it sold 6.9 million copies in the United States alone. That's about 80 copies per second!

The Films

Harry Potter has became a worldwide phenomenon expanding the seven books into eight films. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released in 2001 grossing over $90 million in its opening weekend. An all around success the films following were equally successful. The franchise’s least successful opening weekend still grossed of $77 million. The final film in the Harry Potter story, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, grossed over $169 million in its opening weekend. The movies brought joy to many across the globe of all ages.

The Story isn’t over

In 2011 J.K. Rowling announced the release of the website Pottermore. Pottermore is an interactive website where users can get sorted into their Hogwarts House using a quiz created by Jo herself. You can also discover what your wand and patronus are. Users can play games, create potions, duel with other users and more. You can also learn more about your favorite characters with extras written by J.K. Rowling. There is even a short history of Wizarding in America that was written in preparation for the first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film. 

In 2012 the Leavesden Studios in London created a studio tour for fans of the franchise to go and see a lot of the set pieces, props, costumes and much more.

In 2016 a West End play called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opened. Written by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany the play follows the life of Albus Severus Potter, Harry Potter’s second child, as he goes to Hogwarts for the first time. The script was released on July 31, 2016. Although many fans who only read the script were disappointed, the play has been praised as an incredible production with amazing magical effects.

Beyond Potter

Although it seems that stories about Harry Potter himself are done, J.K. Rowling has been involved with the creation of a Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise. Set in the same universe as Harry Potter, but takes place in the 20s starring Eddie Redmayne as magizoologist, Newt Scamander, the five films will take place over 15 years in five different countries. The first Fantastic Beasts film was set in the United States, released in November of 2016. Other than what was released on Pottermore this was the first glimpse of how American Wizards interact with the muggle world and what that society looks like.

Nowadays, in her spare time, J.K. Rowling enjoys making sarcastic remarks about the 45th President of the United States on Twitter. 

Additional Content provided by Sabrina Petrafesa

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