J.K. Rowling Built an Empire From Rock Bottom

Running from her dream brought her to the edge. Giving in brought her back.
J.K. Rowling Built an Empire From Rock Bottom
J.K. Rowling Built an Empire From Rock Bottom

Finding someone who’s never heard of J.K. Rowling might be challenging. She’s become a household name after her meteoric rise as an author in the '90s, has published more than a dozen books, and even became a Forbes billionaire for a time. But finding someone who has never heard of the character she created, Harry Potter, might be impossible. Since she published the first book in the series in 1997, the franchise has spread from the the pages of books into plays, foods and even an entire theme park. 

Most focus on the fun elements of the Harry Potter world but, when the series first came out, some parents complained that the story was too dark. Characters die, and the adventures get frightening, but those elements were all part of the reason the stories existed at all— they came from the place Rowling was in life when she started writing. When she had hit rock bottom and had no idea there would be a fairytale ending to it. 

The way Rowling looks back on that time now, she sees it as a gift. Not that she would ever wish that kind of pain on someone else, but she appreciates it for taking the fear out of failure. Once liberated from the fear she had spent her life trying to avoid, Rowling was free to tell stories the way she had always wanted to from her earliest years.

You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.-J.K. Rowling

A Girl Born to Tell Stories

The life story of J.K. Rowling shares many similarities with that of Harry Potter. They share a birthday—she was born on July 31, 1965, in England. Her parents, met on a train at King’s Cross Station headed for Scotland—the train station where Harry Potter boards the train that takes him to wizarding school and the same station where Rowling was headed when the idea for the  story sprang into her mind, fully-formed.

But Rowling’s tale begins long before that.

As a child, she was enamored with stories and, once old enough to read, she lived for books. She described herself as “your basic common-or-garden bookworm, complete with freckles and National Health spectacles.” By the age of 5 or 6 she had written her first story down, entitling it Rabbit, which was about, unsurprisingly, a rabbit. But even those early stories showed her flights of fancy; her rabbit got the measles and was visited by a giant bee called Miss Bee.

In those years, Rowing’s parents made it clear that her creative stories would never amount to anything. Both of her parents had grown up poor and neither attended college. It made them want to save their daughter from the lives of pain they were both familiar with and push her to do something practical.

Rowling followed their advice. Mostly. She wanted to go to college and, instead of studying English literature like she wanted, compromised on modern languages—although Rowling admits she spent far more time in school writing stories than doing her schoolwork. 


The Train Ride that Changed Her Life

When she graduated, Rowling again did the reasonable thing. She became a secretary and moved to Manchester to be with her boyfriend. But no matter how many reasonable things Rowling did, that dream of writing books would not go away and, on a train back to London one day, everything clicked.

Her train had been delayed by four hours, and for whatever reason a story popped into her head. It was about a boy who doesn’t know he’s a wizard and suddenly goes to wizarding school. In other words, a story about a person who was trapped in the wrong life, but who found their way into the one they were destined for—just like Rowling.

As soon as her train arrived, Rowling began writing down the story and, over the next five years, she developed the framework for the entire seven-book series that was to come.

She borrowed inspiration freely from the events that happened in her life, Most tragically, the death of her mother just four months after she began writing the Harry Potter series—with Rowling never having even told her mother that she was writing anything at all. Rowling channeled all of that pain of loss into the loneliness that Harry felt as a child without parents and forged ahead.

As hard as the passing of her mother was on her, Rowling hadn’t even approached rock bottom. Following a posting in The Guardian newspaper, Rowling moved to Portugal to teach English. She taught during the day and worked on the world of Harry Potter at night. After 18 months, she met a Portuguese television journalist and they started a relationship that accelerated quickly and disintegrated just as fast.

Nine months after getting married, Rowling gave birth to her daughter in July of 1993 and, within four months, the relationship had completely fallen apart. Not only had the couple separated, but Rowling left Portugal entirely and moved to Scotland to be near her sister.



Finding Freedom in Failure

Freshly uprooted from her life with a baby and no job, Rowling describes herself as “as poor as you can be without being homeless.” She applied for welfare and considered herself a complete failure—her career off-track, her relationship failed, and her in the poverty her parents had pushed so hard for her to avoid.

She entered a period of deep depression that had her considering ending it all. But there was one thing she still had—the story of Harry Potter. She had left Portugal with the first three chapters in her suitcase and poured herself into working on them with renewed vigor. As bad as the period felt, Rowling suddenly found freedom to do the thing that had been in her since she was a child.

As soon as Rowling began writing the first book in the series she felt that it would be a huge success, but she also knew that getting it published would be the real challenge. And she was right. In 1995, five years after she first had the idea, Rowling finally found a literary agent who agreed to help her find a publisher. But when they submitted to a dozen publishers, they were rejected by every one.

The acceptance letter that eventually came took another year to arrive. Barry Cunningham at Bloomsbury had given his daughter the first chapter of Harry Potter and she immediately wanted to keep reading. But this wasn't a big celebration. Cunningham picked up the book with a $2,500 advance and a deal to print just 1,000 copies. He even told her to get a day job because she’d never make any money in children’s publishing. But once Rowling had stopped running from what she really wanted to do, success suddenly started to show up.

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.-J.K. Rowling

A Life Transformed

Just five months after  Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published, (the name was changed to Sorcerer’s Stone for its U.S. release) it was awarded the Nestlé Smarties Book award. Before a year had elapsed, it won the British Book Award for Children’s Book Of the Year, then the Children’s Book Award. When the rights to publish the book in the United States were auctioned off in 1998, Scholastic bought them for $105,000 and Rowling's jaw dropped.

Suddenly, Rowling's life began to take on the heroic scale of her stories. Pottermania soon became a craze, and over the next 10 years Rowling broke book sales records around the world as people clamored for more of the very thing that Rowling had spent so much of her life trying to ignore.

When it came time to end the series, Rowling knew what she wanted the final word to be: “scar,” a reference to the wound on her hero’s head that set his story in motion, so much like hers. But if you flip to the end of the final book in the series, that’s not what you'll find.

Instead, it’s a short sentence of three words: “All was well.” A sign that Rowling was no longer the person she was when she started writing the series. Just like her character, she had taken the pain of her circumstance and used it to cause her own transformation, finding the peace that had been missing in her life for so long.