On a delayed train journey from Manchester to King’s Cross station in London, the characters Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley, and Hermione Granger came “fully formed” to the mind of a young temp named Joanne Rowling.
In the six tumultuous years following, she would imagine an entire magical world of witches and wizards, assume the pen name J.K. Rowling, and publish “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” the first novel in the now beloved “Harry Potter” series.
Rowling has since become the UK’s best-selling living author, her books have brought in more than $25 billion and sold more copies than any other book series, and the newest instalment in the story, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” is already a best-selling book — but not before Rowling had to overcome the hardships of rejection and being a single mother living on welfare.
Here’s an inside look at how Rowling went from living on welfare to becoming one of the world’s top-earning authors:
Born in the southwest of England, Rowling grew up along the border of England and Wales with her mother, father, and sister. She's said that she had always known she would be a book author. 'As soon as I knew what writers were, I wanted to be one. I've got the perfect temperament for a writer; perfectly happy alone in a room, making things up.' She wrote her first book (about a rabbit named Rabbit) at age six, and when her mother praised her work, she says she 'stood there and thought, 'Well, get it published then.''
Rowling's teenage years weren't particularly happy, she told The New Yorker, claiming she came from a difficult family and saying her mother's 10-year battle with multiple sclerosis took a toll on her and the family. 'You couldn't give me anything to make me go back to being a teenager. Never. No, I hated it,' she told The Guardian.
Rowling said she 'couldn't wait to get out' of her house. After studying French and classics at Exeter University, she went to work for Amnesty International in London as a researcher, among other jobs. It was during this time on a train journey from Manchester to her job in London that she began writing her 'Harry Potter' series.
Rowling describes the most traumatising moment in her life as the day her mother died -- it was New Year's Day in 1991 when Rowling was 25. This was six months after she began writing 'Harry Potter,' and she lamented that her mother never knew she was writing it. The loss of her own mother would eventually lead Rowling to make Harry Potter suffer the death of his parents.
'My books are largely about death,' she told the Telegraph in 2006, referencing not only the death of Harry's parents, but also the villain Voldemort's obsession with immortality. 'I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of it.'
After her mother's death, Rowling moved to northern Portugal for a fresh start and taught English as a foreign language. She started dating a man named Jorge Arantes, became pregnant, and moved into a small two-bedroom apartment with Arantes' mother.
The couple miscarried, but they married in October 1992. Rowling later gave birth to a daughter, Jessica, in July 1993. The rocky marriage lasted a mere 13 months, and Rowling and Jessica returned to the UK to live in Edinburgh, Scotland, not long after. She carried three chapters of 'Harry Potter' in her suitcase with her.
Living in a cramped apartment with her daughter, jobless and penniless, Rowling fell into a deep depression and admits she even considered suicide. She was forced to rely on state benefits and spent much of her time writing 'Harry Potter' in cafés with Jessica sleeping in the pram next to her.
Rowling received 'loads' of rejections from book publishers when she first sent out her 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' manuscript. She recently tweeted that she pinned her first rejection letter to her kitchen wall because it gave her something in common with her favourite writers.
Bloomsbury finally gave book the green light in 1997. The London publishing house paid £2,500 for the manuscript. Rowling added the 'K' to her pen name (for Kathleen, her paternal grandmother) at the publisher's request, since women's names were found to be less appealing to the target audience of young boys. Her editor also suggested she get a teaching job, since she was unlikely to earn a living from children's books.
Three days after the 'Harry Potter' book was published in the UK, Scholastic bid $100,000 for the American publishing rights, an unprecedented amount for a children's book at the time.
She eventually became the first person on earth to make $1 billion by writing books, and her Harry Potter series has now sold more than 450 million copies, won innumerable awards, been made into movies, and transformed Rowling's life.
To cope with her hurtle to stardom, Rowling says she sought therapy. 'For a few years I did feel I was on a psychic treadmill, trying to keep up with where I was,' she told The Guardian in 2012. '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?' So it was incredibly disorienting.'
She also cites her sudden wealth as a challenge, noting that she didn't expect the kind of problems it brought. '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,' she said. 'I felt that I had to solve everyone's problems. I was hit by this tsunami of demands. I felt overwhelmed. And I was really worried that I would mess up.'
But the very best thing her wealth has given Rowling, according to her website, is the absence of worry about paying the bills. 'I have not forgotten what it feels like to worry whether you'll have enough money to pay the bills. Not to have to think about that anymore is the biggest luxury in the world.'
She's also used her wealth and status for good. After being 'marked' by the image of a young, disabled boy screaming from a caged bed in the basement of an orphanage, Rowling founded the international nonprofit Lumos, which works to help disadvantaged children who live in institutions and 'so-called' orphanages around the world.
Despite her commercial success as the author of the 'Harry Potter' series, Rowling faced rejection yet again when she submitted the mystery novel to several publishing houses under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
One publisher said the company couldn't publish 'The Cuckoo's Calling' 'with commercial success' and suggested the author attend writing school. The novel was eventually accepted by Sphere Books, and after Rowling's identity as the author was leaked on Twitter, book sales immediately soared and topped the charts.
The extent of Rowling's impact goes beyond selling millions of books. Wharton professor Adam Grant says Rowling is perhaps 'the most influential person alive today' because of the continuing positive impact her books have on children.
Grant cites recent research, which found that reading Harry Potter could improve children's attitudes towards marginalized groups. 'As you learn about muggles and how they're looked down upon by wizards, you actually generalize that to other groups and say, 'You know, maybe we should not stereotype people or discriminate against them based on something they have no control over whatsoever,'' Grant explains.
'Ms. Rowling, the world would be a better place if you kept writing 'Harry Potter' books,' Grant writes on Quora. Thankfully, she seems to be taking that advice to heart.
Rowling has supplemented the 'Harry Potter' series with reference books, including 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,' which has been adapted into a film of the same name to be release this November. And she recently released writings on the Pottermore website about the wizarding schools around the world and the history of magic.
'The Cursed Child' play, which opens on London's West End Saturday and is already sold out through next Spring, is based on an original story Rowling wrote about Harry Potter almost 20 years after he defeats Voldemort. The play has received glowing reviews so far, and the script book, which will be released at 12:01 the following morning, has already become a best-seller through pre-sales.
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