Biography of J.K. Rowling

Joanne Rowling was born July 31, 1965 in Gloucestershire, England. Her parents, Peter James Rowling and Anne Rowling (nee Volant) had met during a train ride from King’s Cross Station to Scotland, where they both intended to join the Royal Navy. When Anne had complained of being cold on the train, Peter had offered to share his coat with her, and the couple was married a little more than a year later. After their marriage, Peter and Anne left the navy and moved to the outskirts of Bristol, where Anne gave birth to Rowling and, less than two years later, a second daughter, named Dianne.

When Rowling was four years old, the family moved to Winterbourne, a nearby village. Although the two sisters frequently fought, they were extremely close, and Rowling would amuse Dianne by telling her imaginative stories, many of which she would write down. These stories would inspire long, dramatic scenarios that were enacted during their playtime, with the girls playing all of the parts. During their time in Winterbourne, Rowling also became friendly with a brother and sister who lived across the street and had the last name of Potter, a name which Rowling admitted that liked much more than her own.

In 1974, when Rowling was nine years old, the family moved again, this time to the country village of Tutshill in Wales. Almost at the same time as the family’s move, Rowling suffered the loss of her favorite grandmother, Kathleen (whose name she would eventually add to her own to come up with the pen name, J.K. Rowling). She finished her primary school studies at St. Michael’s Primary School, where the benevolent headmaster, Alfred Dunn, would supposedly serve as the inspiration for Professor Dumbledore.

At the age of eleven, Rowling began studying at Wyedean Comprehensive School and College. Lacking any natural athletic ability and with few friends, the lonely Rowling dedicated herself to her studies and her love of literature. Her interest in literature and writing was fueled when her aunt gave her a copy of Jessica Mitford’s biography, “Hons and Rebels.” Rowling promptly read all of Mitford’s other books and became a huge fan of the author. Interestingly, Rowling has commented on her studious adolescence, saying “Hermione is loosely based on me. She's a caricature of me when I was 11, which I'm not particularly proud of.” Rowling also supposedly based another Harry Potter character on an individual from Wyedean: John Nettleship, the head of science during her time at the school, has acknowledged himself as the inspiration for the malignant Professor Snape.

Despite her problems at Wyedean, Rowling continued to foster a secret hope to become a writer throughout her adolescence. This hope was encouraged by her close school friend, Sean Harris, for whom she dedicated the second book of the Harry Potter series, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” Rowling’s teenage years were also made more difficult when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

In 1983, Rowling graduated from Wyedean and began attending Exeter University for her BA in French. Although Rowling wanted to study English, her parents convinced her that a career as a bilingual secretary would give her more stability than a job in literature could. After graduation, Rowling moved to London and began to work as a bilingual secretary for Amnesty International, an organization that campaigns against human rights abuses. Rowling admits that she was not a very good secretary; instead of taking notes during meetings, she would jot down story ideas.

During a train ride from London to Manchester in 1990, Rowling first came up with the idea of a young boy who does not know that he is a wizard. Too shy to ask any of the other passengers for a pen, Rowling kept the ideas in her mind until the train arrived in Manchester, and then she immediately began to work on the story. Shortly after this initial inspiration, Rowling’s mother finally succumbed to multiple sclerosis and died in December of 1990. Her death was a huge blow to Rowling and would greatly influence the direction of the story about the young wizard and the loss of his parents.

Still devastated by her mother’s death, Rowling moved to Portugal in 1991 to work as an English teacher at a language institute. She brought her ever-growing book manuscript with her and, during her first week in Portugal, wrote the twelfth chapter of the book, “The Mirror of Erised.” While in Portugal, Rowling met and married a Portuguese journalist and gave birth to a daughter, Jessica, in 1993. However, the marriage was rocky, and, in December of 1993, Rowling returned to Britain with her daughter and moved to Edinburgh, Scotland to be near her sister.

Unfortunately, in order to get a teaching position in Scotland, Rowling needed a postgraduate certification of education (PGCE), which required a year-long course of study. While unemployed and looking for a job, Rowling spent nearly every evening working on the book in local cafés while her daughter was asleep in her stroller.

After Rowling finished the book in 1995, she sent the first three chapters off to agents and began the course of study needed for the PGCE. The second agent that she contacted decided to take on the project and spent almost a year trying to find a publisher. The small Bloomsbury Children’s Books finally accepted the manuscript and published the book under the name “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” in June 1997. Soon after its publication, Rowling’s book began to win numerous awards, including the British Book Award, the Nestle Smarties Book Prize, and the Children's Book Award.

Scholastic Press bought the American rights to the book (giving it the title of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) and paid Rowling enough money to quit teaching and support herself solely by writing the next books in the Harry Potter series. The sequel, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” was published in England in July 1998 and in America in June 1999, and the third book of the series, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was published in England in July 1999 and in America in September 1999.

These first three Harry Potter books took the three top spots on the New York Times Bestseller List and earned Rowling $400 million, promptly making her the richest author in the world. In 1998, Rowling sold the film rights to the Harry Potter series, and the first film in the franchise was released in 2001. Rowling completed the remaining four books in the Harry Potter series between 2000 and 2007, with the final book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” selling 15 million copies within the first twenty-four hours of its release.

In 2001, Rowling married Neil Michael Murray, a British anesthetist, and gave birth to their son, David, in 2003 and their daughter, Mackenzie, in 2005. Since her completion of the Harry Potter series, Rowling has received honorary degrees from St. Andrews University, the University of Edinburgh, Napier University, the University of Aberdeen, the University of Exeter, and Harvard University, as well as the Légion d’honneur from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. She is also an avid philanthropist and has donated much of her time and wealth to the Volant Charitable Trust, the charity One Parent Families, the Children’s High Level Group, and the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at Edinburgh University.

Rowling has stated that she has no intention of continuing the Harry Potter series, but she has written “The Tales of Beedle the Bard,” a book of fairy tales mentioned in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” and has mentioned writing a definitive encyclopedia of Harry Potter's world.


Study Guides on Works by J.K. Rowling