Like that of her own character, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling's life has the luster of a fairy tale. Divorced, living on public assistance in a tiny Edinburgh flat with her infant daughter, Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone at a table in a cafe during her daughter's naps — and it was Harry Potter that rescued her.
Joanne Kathleen Rowling entered the world in Chipping Sodbury General Hospital in Bristol, England, a fitting beginning for someone who would later enjoy making up strange names for people, places and games played on flying broomsticks. Her younger sister Di was born just under two years later.
Rowling remembers that she always wanted to write and that the first story she actually wrote down, when she was five or six, was a story about a rabbit called Rabbit. Many of her favorite memories center around reading—hearing The Wind in the Willows read aloud by her father when she had the measles, enjoying the fantastic adventure stories of E. Nesbit, reveling in the magical world of C. S. Lewis's Narnia, and her favorite story of all, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.
At Exeter University Rowling took her degree in French and spent one year studying in Paris. After college she moved to London to work for Amnesty International as a researcher and bilingual secretary. The best thing about working in an office, she has said, was typing up stories on the computer when no one was watching. During this time, on a particularly long train ride from Manchester to London in the summer of 1990, the idea came to her of a boy who is a wizard and doesn't know it. He attends a school for wizardry--she could see him very plainly in her mind. By the time the train pulled into King's Cross Station four hours later, many of the characters and the early stages of the plot were fully formed in her head. The story took further shape as she continued working on it in pubs and cafes over her lunch hours.
In 1992 Rowling left off working in offices and moved to Portugal to teach English as a Second Language. In spite of her students making jokes about her name (this time they called her "Rolling Stone"), she enjoyed teaching. She worked afternoons and evenings, leaving mornings free for writing. After her marriage to a Portuguese TV journalist ended in divorce, Rowling returned to Britain with her infant daughter and a suitcase full of Harry Potter notes and chapters. She settled in Edinburgh to be near her sister and set out to finish the book before looking for a teaching job. Wheeling her daughter's carriage around the city to escape their tiny, cold apartment, she would duck into coffee shops to write when the baby fell asleep. In this way she finished the book and started sending it to publishers. It was rejected several times before she found an London agent, chosen because she liked his name--Christopher Little, who sold the manuscript to Bloomsbury Children's Books.
Rowling was working as a French teacher when she heard that her book about the boy wizard had been accepted for publication. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published in June 1997 and achieved almost instant success. With the publication of the American edition, retitled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, in 1998, Rowling's books continued to make publishing history. Harry Potter climbed to the top of all the bestseller lists for children's and adult books. Indeed, the story of the boy wizard, his Cinderlad childhood, and his adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry caught the imagination of readers of all ages. In Britain a separate edition of the first book appeared with a more "adult" dust jacket so that grown-ups reading it on trains and subways would not have to hide their copy behind a newspaper.
Jo Rowling lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, with her daughter Jessica and continues to work on writing the seven-book saga of Harry Potter.