Declaration of interest: I met Jo Rowling in 1991. Warm, witty and intelligent, she had a filthy sense of humour and a laugh like Sid James. She became one of my closest friends.Twenty years later, much has changed, but our friendship endures. I admire her enormously, not only as a writer, but as an astute, courageous and passionate person. She also makes bloody good cakes. - JJMarsh
What was your favourite childhood book, or books?
The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge. The tone is perfect; a seamless mix of the fairy-tale and the real. It also has a plain heroine, which delighted me beyond words as a child, because I was a very plain little girl and I hadn’t met many literary heroines who weren’t breathtakingly pretty. The opening paragraphs of The Little White Horse have stayed with me all my life. Goudge says that there are three kinds of people in this world: those who find consolation in food, those who find consolation in literature, and those who find consolation in personal adornment.
I know I read Little Women when I was eight, because we moved house shortly afterwards, when I was nine. Naturally, I whole-heartedly identified with Jo March, she of the burning literary ambition and short temper. My mother had everything Georgette Heyer ever wrote, so I whipped through those, too, when I was a pre-teen, and I FINALLY found a plain heroine there, too (Phoebe, in ‘Sylvester’, who also – hooray! - happened to be a writer).
Basically, I lived for books, and was sustained by literary characters with whom I could identify – I was your basic, common-or-garden bookworm, complete with freckles and National Health spectacles.
Writers always bemoan a lack of time. Amid family responsibilities, charity work and publicity demands, how do you carve out creative space?
You have to be highly disciplined. In her stunning biography of Colette, Secrets of the Flesh, Judith Thurman wrote that mothering and writing ‘are, at times, conflicting vocations’ - very true. My children come before my work, but when I’m in the thick of a novel, writing comes before answering emails and letters, returning telephone calls, doing mundane jobs around the house – virtually everything. By this you may deduce that I’ve got exceptionally patient friends (as you well know) and an amazing, tolerant husband.
Ebooks – Nemesis or Genesis?
Genesis. There’s no point trying to hold back progress, but print will never die; there’s no substitute for the feel of an actual book. I adore physically turning pages, and being able to underline passages and not worrying about dropping them in the bath or running out of power. I also find print books objects of beauty, and I don’t speak as a precious, first-edition-mustn’t-crack-the-spine-type collector, but as somebody who loves a shiny new paperback, and the smell of second-hand books.
However, there are times when e-books are a Godsend. We forgot to pack my youngest a bedtime book when we were away last year, and I truly appreciated the magic of being able to download one in seconds! This summer will be the first time that I take away fifty e-books to read while we’re on holiday, rather than filling up my suitcase with print books.
Well, setting aside the obvious answer (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) I’d have to go for Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels. My great aunt thought that Jessica Mitford was a simply deplorable character (Mitford ran away from her upper class family to become a Communist and join the war against Franco in the 1930s), and I overheard her telling my mother all about her, when I was fourteen. I showed interest, so Auntie Ivy gave me an old copy of Mitford’s autobiography, glad, no doubt, to get it off her respectable bookshelves. It was a most dangerous book to give to a dissatisfied, left-leaning teenager; Jessica Mitford immediately became my heroine. I read everything she’d ever written and ended up naming my eldest daughter after her.
Would you describe your writing room and its points of interest?
I share a study with my husband, so there are two computers back-to -back on an enormous partner’s desk, but I have the room to myself during the day. My side of the desk is a health hazard. Around me as I type this are: a long bit of dried-out orange peel, an empty plastic carton that held blueberries, half a bag of salted pretzels (two weeks old), an empty box that contained Optrex Eye Drops, a ton of reference books, a telephone buried out of sight under sundry bits of paper, a couple of old newspapers, a lot of pens (mostly defunct), a pair of broken sunglasses and a single earring. The rest of the room is pretty untidy, too, though not as bad as my side of the desk. I’d love to blame some of it on Neil, but it’s really me. I am much better at organizing ideas than stacks of paper.
I should add that I can, and do, write all over my house, and many other places besides. I love writing in bed, and I’ve got a favourite chair in our sitting room, where I sometimes go with my laptop if I fancy a change of scene. My fondness for cafés is also well-known.
What cheers and/or depresses you about the world of publishing today?
I feel as though I am slightly out of the loop on this one, not having published for a few years. My agent says that it is a difficult time for an unknown to be published, but I still believe that if you’ve got the goods, you will triumph eventually.
Are there any books you re-read?
Lots and lots. When I’m working, I find it incredibly difficult to read new books (although when I’m between my own novels, I devour other people’s). So if I’m writing, I re-read. I’ve re-read all of Jane Austen so often I can actually visualize the type on the page; I love Colette, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse, all of whom are always beside my bed. I read a lot of diaries and biographies, too; Chips Channon’s also a fixture on the bedside bookshelves, as is the afore-mentioned Secrets of the Flesh, and everything by Frances Donaldson is eminently re-readable.
Which word or phrase do you overuse – in writing or in life?
I’m not proud to say that it’s probably swearwords in every day life. Writing the Harry Potter books, I got sick to death of the words ‘passage’, ‘corridor’ and all others relating to my heroes’ endless movement around Hogwarts castle.
A.S. Byatt ruffled feathers when she pronounced the Orange Prize sexist. Do you think women need a separate platform for recognition?
Well, there’s no doubt that female writers have been under-represented when it comes to winning the big literary prizes (in contrast with awards for children’s literature, which are very egalitarian). Clearly, there are two possible conclusions to be drawn from largely male shortlists and prize winners: either female writers aren’t as talented as their male counterparts, or the world of big literary prizes echoes the under-representation of women in other areas of society. I subscribe to the second view, so I would say that the Orange Prize does a useful job in giving the best female writers of the day the kind of exposure that they might not otherwise receive.
Confess your guilty reading pleasure
Whodunnits, especially of the Golden Age – Christie, Sayers, Allingham and Marsh. Although, if I’m honest, I don’t feel guilty about them. Reading trashy magazines makes me feel most ashamed of myself.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. Since then, how have you changed as a writer?
I hope I’ve got better. I think I have.
The perennial literature debate flowered recently. How distinct is literary fiction from genre fiction, in your view?
There has always been an overlap. The late J. G. Ballard being the modern example that springs to mind; an outstanding writer who ‘transcended’ the science fiction genre. I am pretty indifferent to the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction myself, and I hop pretty freely between the two as a reader without feeling remotely as though I am ‘slumming it’. So-called ‘genre’ fiction has given us deathless characters like Sherlock Holmes, Ford Prefect and James Bond, who have forever influenced our culture and language; what is there to be snobbish about?
Tell us your secret talent(s) – apart from the cakes
I was going to say the cakes, so that’s put me right off my stride. I like doing killer Sudokus - does that count as a talent? I also have prehensile toes, though I suppose that might be classified as deformity. Nobody has ever enjoyed watching me write with my feet.
J K (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling was born in the summer of 1965 at Yate General Hospital in England and grew up in Chepstow, Gwent where she went to Wyedean Comprehensive.
Jo left Chepstow for Exeter University, where she earned a French and Classics degree, and where her course included one year in Paris. As a postgraduate she moved to London to work at Amnesty International, doing research into human rights abuses in Francophone Africa. She started writing the Harry Potter series during a Manchester to London King’s Cross train journey, and during the next five years, outlined the plots for each book and began writing the first novel.
Jo then moved to northern Portugal, where she taught English as a foreign language. She married in October 1992 and gave birth to her daughter Jessica in 1993. When her marriage ended, she returned to the UK to live in Edinburgh, where she trained as a teacher, and where Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone was eventually completed. In 1996 she received an offer of publication and the book was first published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books in June 1997, under the name JK Rowling.
Jo married Dr. Neil Murray in 2001, and a brother for Jessica, David, was born in 2003. A second sister, Mackenzie, followed in January 2005.
J K Rowling has received the following honours and awards: Order of the British Empire (OBE), 2001 • Prince of Asturias Award for Concord, Spain, 2003 • The Edinburgh Award, 2008 • Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur: France, 2009• Honorary Degrees from the University of Exeter, University of St Andrews, Napier University, University of Edinburgh, Dartmouth College, USA, Harvard University, USA, University of Aberdeen • Commencement speaker, Harvard University, USA, 2008 • James Joyce Award, University College Dublin, 2008 • Author of the Year, British Book Awards, 1999 • Booksellers Association Author of the Year, 1998 and 1999 • W H Smith Fiction Award, 2004 • Blue Peter Gold Badge, awarded 2007 • Outstanding Achievement Award, South Bank Show Awards, 2008 • Lifetime Achievement Award, British Book Awards 2008
J K Rowling supports a wide number of charities and causes.
She set up the Volant Charitable Trust, which supports a wide number of causes related to social deprivation and associated problems, particularly as they affect women and children. The Trust has funded a variety of projects in the UK and abroad. It also supports research into the causes and treatment of Multiple Sclerosis.
For seven years she was an Ambassador of One Parent Families, now called Gingerbread, a charity working with lone parents and their children. In 2007 she took an honorary position as President for the charity.
Since 1999 J K Rowling has been a supporter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society Scotland, for nine of those years as its Patron. Having lost her mother to MS at the age of 45, this is one of the causes closest to Jo’s heart and her support has included planning and hosting fundraising events, directly lobbying politicians, writing articles and giving interviews to raise awareness of this very Scottish disease, and contributing significant funds for research in Scotland, including research establishments in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. She has recently stepped down as Patron of the charity but continues to fund MS research directly.
In 2005 J K Rowling co-founded the Children’s High Level Group (CHLG) with Emma Nicholson MEP, inspired by a press report she read about children in caged beds in institutions in the Czech Republic. This charity aims to make life better for young people in care, in Eastern Europe and ultimately all over the world. In 2007 J K Rowling auctioned for CHLG a copy of one of the seven special editions of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, which raised £1.95 million. In December 2008 the book was widely published in aid of the charity and became the fastest-selling book of that year. In February 2010 the UK-based arm of the charity became Lumos.
Jo has supported a wide range of other causes and charities, including Comic Relief, for which she has written two short books; The Maggie’s Centres for Cancer Care, of which she was a Patron for several years, and Medecins sans Frontieres, in aid of which she performed in an event with Stephen King and John Irving in New York in 2006.
Images copyright JP Masclet
Images copyright JP Masclet