It was in a darkened cinema during a school excursion (field trip for the Americans playing along at home) when I was first encountered the Boy Who Lived. Little did I, or anyone else in that audience, know that we were experiencing the beginnings of a narrative that would change literature, and indeed the world, forever.
Only muggles living in the darkest corners of Azkaban for the past twenty years haven’t heard of the Harry Potter series. The seven novels are the best-selling book series in history – beating both J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones saga in sales, readership demographic and academic studies – while the film adaptations are the second highest grossing film series of all time, runner up only to the Avengers of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.
The creator of this phenomenon, J.K. Rowling, is one of the most recognisable writers on the planet, and not just for the storytelling sensation she created. A benevolent entrepreneur, an influential social media personality, and an all round beautiful human being, Rowling has revolutionised what it means to be a famous writer in the 21st century.
In a special edition post of Fan Girl Corner, I will examine why Rowling is one of my role models, both personally and professionally. Warning: may contain spoilers.
1. OVERCOMING ADVERSITY
The classic image of a lone writer in the corner of a crowded café, scribbling away at their masterpiece, is a postcard image from the heyday of writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway… unless you’re a single mother trying to get your baby to sleep.
Having escaped a brief yet volatile marriage (rumours of domestic violence in her first marriage abound, however the full extent is unknown as Rowling herself has never confirmed these claims), Rowling’s economic status while writing the first Harry Potter book was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.” However, she has dismissed claims that she wrote in cafés to escape from her unheated flat, as her modest home was sufficiently heated, instead stating that taking her infant daughter for walks was the best way to get her baby to sleep.
Raising a child alone is difficult. Raising a child alone and working is equal to superhero strength. And raising a child alone while struggling to succeed in a creative profession such as writing is somewhere between superhero strength and supervillain crazy. Not only did Rowling manage to accomplish this nearly impossible feat, she achieved history-making success that most aspiring authors drool over.
As an emerging writer juggling motherhood myself, Rowling’s determination to achieve her creative dream while raising a child is personally inspirational, and reason enough for her to be a role model to young women everywhere.
In addition to her circumstantial hardships during these earlier years, Rowling also struggled with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts. Diagnosed with clinical depression, she channelled her pain into her writing by creating the Dementors – dark, floating, faceless creatures that literally feed on the happiness of witches, wizards and Muggles alike – which fans, academics and mental health professionals have praised as being the most literal embodiment of depression (which affects 350 million people worldwide) in pop culture.
As someone who has also struggled with depression and anxiety most of my life, I not only empathise with anyone who has been bitten by the black dog, but deeply admire any artists’ ability to effectively convey their emotions through their work.
As if Rowling’s financial and health issues weren’t enough, the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was infamously rejected by 12 different publishers before it was finally picked up by Bloomsbury. These rejections no doubt fuelled the depression demons that were already plaguing Rowling; however, like all successful writers, she persisted and proved to aspiring authors everywhere that perseverance is the key to publication success.
Like the genuinely kind and generous human being that she is, Rowling hasn’t forgotten her difficult beginnings. The numerous charities Rowling is involved with include anti-poverty, one-parent families, children’s welfare, multiple sclerosis and reading programs for illiterate British prisoners.
And her philanthropy isn’t just limited to hollow monetary donations, either. A dominant social media personality, Rowling is notoriously vocal on a range of societal and political issues from equal rights for the LGBT+ community, mental health issues, racism and bigotry, single mothers, immigration and tabloid journalism.
The origins of Harry Potter is just as classic as the image of the lone writer in the crowded café. In 1990, Rowling was on a crowded train heading to London when the idea for Harry suddenly “fell into her head”. An account of the experience on her website states:
“I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. I simply say and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, and all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who did not know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.”
The central theme of the Harry Potter series is death and loss, and Rowling has been praised for her subtle depiction of the ways death and violence affects youth and humanity as a whole. Rowling has stated that the books also comprise a prolonged argument for tolerance, a plea of sorts for an end to bigotry.
Strong and profound themes on their own, yet Rowling pushed them to their full emotive effect by combining them into a stunning allegory for World War II. Countless scholarly essays and cultural articles have been written comparing Voldemort and the Death Eaters’ quest to rid the wizarding world of “mud bloods” and “Muggle borns” to Hitler and the Nazi’s Third Reich.
Also considered prevalent throughout the seven books and eight films are themes such as normality, oppression and prejudice, power and the abuse of power, free will, violence and hatred, love, survival, and the questionable authority of the establishment.
In the nine years since the final book in the original series was published, fans continue to be hungry for more, more, MORE! And they haven’t been disappointed.
Their devotion has resulted in the latest additions to J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World™ – a sequel in the form of play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a novelisation of the play’s rehearsal script, and, of course, the faux-textbook spin off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which will soon be adapted into its own five film series.
Also in the years since, very few novels (including Rowling’s own subsequent books) have impacted upon readers so intensely. Because the battle between the Boy Who Lived and He Who Must Not Be Named is the kind of timeless storytelling achievement that only comes along once in a lifetime.
© Tara Jenkinson 2017