#WCIW: JK Rowling
Brilliant Writer. Cultural Icon. Tremendous Philanthropist.
On July 31st 1965 in Chipping Sodbury, England, a place with a storybook name, Joanne Kathleen Rowling was born. Growing up, the creator of the fantastical Harry Potter universe was a self-described "plain and bookish" girl, often lost in the imaginary worlds she found through books and films.
From a young age she yearned to become a writer herself, creating her own worlds for others to discover. At age six she wrote a book about a rabbit with measles. After her mother praised her effort, Rowling replied “well, get it published then.” She admits it was a “bit of an odd thing for a child of six to think. I don’t know where it came from…”
The budding author would need to wait a few more years to see her work in print. Her early years were spent in Gloucestershire and then Chepstow in South Wales. After grade school she studied French at the University of Exeter, and upon graduating worked at several jobs in London, including a stint at Amnesty International, which she would become a great supporter of later in life.
It was on a train ride from Manchester to London in 1990, Rowling began to imagine the characters and world that would become the Harry Potter universe.
She didn’t have a pen on the train, and was too shy to ask for one, so on arriving home she frantically began to write. The story flowed quickly and her excitement built with every page, but the project was interrupted in December of that year when her mother passed away.
The loss was overwhelming, but even grief fuelled her writing by prompting her to depth to her characters, especially Harry, who lost his mother as a baby. Seeking a change the following year, Rowling moved to Portugal where she taught English. She met and married her first husband there, and while their union was turbulent and ended badly, the couple produced a daughter, Jessica.
Life took further turns for the worse, and by 1993, Rowling found herself in dismal circumstances. She'd been thrown out of her home, had moved back to Britain, and was raising her daughter Jessica as a single parent. Despite the hardship of living on welfare, Rowling persevered in her writing, often balancing her napping daughter in cafes while she wrote.
Upon finishing Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Rowling started into the difficult but life-long dream of getting published. Eventually she found an agent willing to work on her behalf, and together they persevered while twelve major publishers turned down the manuscript. But number thirteen turned out to be their lucky number, when finally, Bloomsbury agreed to take up the title.
In 1997, a humble 1,000 copies of the book were released, 500 of which went to libraries. Larger printing runs soon followed as sales picked up quickly and the was well-reviewed by critics and audiences. The growing attention attracted a US publisher in 1998, and a year later hit the milestone of 300,000 copies sold.
The rest, as they say, is history. Further books followed and the series became a worldwide phenomenon, especially with the purchase of film rights by Warner Brothers in 1999. To this day, the books and films remain some of the highest-grossing media properties of all time.
Throughout it all, Rowling has remained down-to-Earth and has involved herself and her fame in charity, activism, and philanthropy. A self-professed feminist, she is extremely outspoken on Twitter and often comes out in defense of women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights. While she was the very first author to be added to the Forbes Billionaires list, Rowling happily lost the honor by giving away an astonishing $160 million of her fortune to various charities.
Remembering her own years of struggle, she also started Lumos, a not-for-profit organization helping parentless children and aiming to end the practice of institutionalizing orphans by 2050.
For her brilliant mind, her struggle to create her own success, and her tremendous charitable support, author and philanthropist J.K. Rowling is this week’s #WCIW.