Joanne [Kathleen] Rowling is 46 years old today. She is a survivor of domestic violence and a champion for single mothers. She fled her abusive husband in Porto, Portugal in 1993 and went on the dole (welfare in Great Britain). She wrote her first Harry Potter and plotted the series while living in a tenement apartment in Edinburgh, Scotland:
I never expected to mess up so badly that I would find myself in an unheated, mouse-infested flat, looking after my daughter. And I was angry because I felt I was letting her down.
She told Oprah that she has a strong survival instinct:
I had a very, very tiny baby, and then I went straight into poverty and depression. But in a strange way, all of that was enormously illuminating. And I did a lot of thinking after that marriage ended.
Today, she is the first self-made billionaire author in history.
Epic Failure Is Liberating
In 2008, Ms. Rowling gave a powerful commencement address at Harvard (the link will take you to the video and transcript):
Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.
. . .by any conventional measure, a mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. . .I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
Power to Imagine Better
Ms. Rowling has a degree in French and the Classics from Exeter University. While at Exeter, her great aunt gave her a copy of Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels which has had a profound impact on her philosophy. Ms. Rowling’s daughter Jessica is named for Ms. Mitford.
Ms. Rowling is a Socialist. In 2010, she used her personal experiences on the dole to lash out at the government in “The Single Mother’s Manifesto” which was published in The Times. Many of us would like to deliver a similar message to Congress today:
Nobody who has ever experienced the reality of poverty could say “it’s not the money, it’s the message.” When your flat has been broken into, and you cannot afford a locksmith, it is the money. When you are two pence short of a tin of baked beans, and your child is hungry, it is the money. When you find yourself contemplating shoplifting to get nappies, it is the money. . .Mr. Cameron. . .reveals himself to be completely ignorant of their [impoverished single mothers] true situation. How many prospective husbands did I ever meet, when I was the single mother of a baby, unable to work, stuck inside my flat, night after night, with barely enough money for life’s necessities? Should I have proposed to the youth who broke in through my kitchen window at 3 am?
She is close friends with Sarah Brown, the wife of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. She donated £1 million to the Labour Party.
Ms. Rowling’s parents, Peter James Rowling and Anne Volant, met on a train on their way to join the Royal Navy. Her mother contracted Multiple Sclerosis when Jo was 15; Mrs. Rowling died in 1990 at age 45:
It was a terrible time. . .devastated. . .we had never imagined. . .she could die so young. . .feeling as though there was a paving slab pressing down upon my chest, a literal pain in my heart.
After her mother’s death, her father soon married his secretary Janet Gallivan. Ms. Rowling and her father are estranged for “very big reasons.”
It wasn’t a good relationship from my point of view for a very long time. But I had a need to please that I kept going for a long time, and then there just came to a point at which I had to pull up and say, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Her sister Diane (Di) is an attorney, and the sisters are best friends. When Ms. Rowling was experiencing suicidal depression in 1993, Di convinced her to start writing. Ms. Rowling and baby Jessica stayed with Di and her husband Roger Moore until a flat became available. Most of her first book was written in Mr. Moore’s restaurant Nicolson’s.
Oprah traveled to Edinburg to interview Ms. Rowlings in the hotel where she finished writing the Harry Potter series. She conceived the idea at age 25 on a train trip from Manchester to London in 1990:
I had never been so excited about an idea before. . .I didn’t have a functioning pen. . .too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one. . .I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me. . .I began to write Philospher’s Stone that very evening.
The Christopher Little literary agency signed her as a client. It took them a year and rejection from twelve publishers before her manuscript was accepted. Bloomsbury gave her an advance of £1,500. Her agent and publisher didn’t think a book written by a woman would sell, so they suggested she use her initials. Since Ms. Rowling didn’t have a middle name, she opted to use “Kathleen,” her favorite grandmother’s name. Barry Cunningham at Bloomsbury advised her to keep her day job.
Ms. Rowling got a £8,000 grant from the Scottish Arts Council to buy a word processor and finish her second book. Scholastic Books bought the American rights for $100,000.
Ms. Rowling is a generous philanthropist:
I think you have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently.
In 2000, in memory of her mother, Ms. Rowling established the Volant Charitable Trust which funds causes related to social deprivation ~ especially for women and children ~ in Scotland. It has funded organizations which combat child poverty and domestic violence. She was Ambassador of One Parent Families for seven years. In honor of her mother, she invests heavily in research on Multiple Sclerosis. She also supports Amnesty International.
She donated her black satin Jimmy Choo shoes to the YWCA’s 104 Pairs of Shoes exhibition. The 104 pairs of empty shoes are auctioned off each year to raise money for anti-abuse charities in Great Britain and to shine a spotlight on the number ~ 104 ~ of women who die each year at the hands of violent partners. Ms. Rowling said:
I wore these shoes to the premiere of the first Harry Potter film. I love them dearly but they can do more good supporting hundreds of women rather than one nervous, wobbling writer.
“All Is Well”
The final words in the Harry Potter series are “all is well.” And, all is most definitely well in Ms. Rowling’s life today.
She was single for seven years. A week before she met her future husband, Ms. Rowling told a friend she wanted a man with intelligence, integrity, kindness, and a strong sense of self.
Ms. Rowling married Dr. Neil Murray, an anesthesiologist, in 2001. The couple has a son David and a daughter Mackenzie in addition to Jessica. They have two homes in Scotland and another in London.
He leaves her with her dignity, even though what she’s going through is a horrific thing. He does it all in such a subtle way. I do think he’s a genius. His dialogue is irreproachable.