She grew up in poverty and spent years struggling to get by as a single mom. She battled severe depression and her first book was soundly rejected by a dozen publishers.
And then she went on to become the wealthiest author of all time.
Welcome to the magical world of J.K. Rowling.
The early years
Joanne Rowling was born on July 31, 1965, in Yate, England, where she lived with her parents and sister, Dianne.
“As soon as I knew what writers were, I wanted to be one,” Rowling writes on her website. She wrote her first book at age 6 — and has been writing ever since.
Rowling’s childhood was far from idyllic. The family didn’t have much money and her mother’s 10-year battle with multiple sclerosis affected each of them in myriad ways.
The author studied French at Exeter University, where she claimed she did “no work whatsoever.”
After college, she worked as a researcher and secretary for human rights organization Amnesty International in London.
While riding a train from Manchester to London in 1990, the idea for the story of a young boy who doesn’t know he’s a wizard took root in Rowling’s mind. By the time the ride was over, Rowling had a basic outline for a seven-book series.
So goes the origin story of a legend.
Rowling describes the day her mother died as the most traumatic event of her life. She was 25 years old at the time, and six months into writing the early drafts for the Harry Potter series.
After her mother’s passing, Rowling moved to northern Portugal, where she dated Jorge Arantes. She worked afternoons and evenings teaching English and devoted her mornings to writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
In 1992, Rowling married Arantes and, in 1993, she gave birth to a daughter, Jessica Arantes. However, the couple separated four months after Jessica’s birth.
Following the split, Rowling relocated to Edinburgh, Scotland, to be nearer to her sister while experiencing the darkest time of her life. Desperately poor and relying on welfare to survive, the single mom battled severe depression that sometimes bordered on suicidal thoughts. She was jobless, penniless and she had a small girl depending on her for her every need.
“I was the biggest failure I knew,” Rowling said during a 2008 Harvard University commencement speech.
Throughout the five years following her mother’s death, Rowling continued creating the secret wizarding world of Harry Potter, further outlining the series while writing the first draft of the first book. She’d sit in cafes throughout the city, painstakingly writing her manuscript on small scraps of paper that she would later transfer to pages using a rickety typewriter. Finally, in 1995, the first book in the series was complete.
Harry Potter was ready for his grand debut. Not everyone was quite as ready, though.
The muggles of the world had no idea that an entire society of spell-casting wizards inhabits the same planet as they do, but J.K. Rowling was ready to reveal all — if only someone would agree to publish her book!
Rowling submitted her manuscript to 12 different publishing houses. The publishers must have been under a confundus charm, as each one soundly rejected the manuscript, claiming it was far too long for a children’s book. Ironically, at 320 pages, it is the shortest book in the series, with the fifth and longest book measuring nearly three times its length.
Finally, Rowling commissioned the Christopher Little Literary Agents to find a publisher for the story of The Boy Who Lived. After several failed attempts, the series was accepted by Bloomsbury, a small publishing house in London. The publishers encouraged Rowling to use initials for a book geared toward young boys, and after adding a “K” for her paternal grandmother, Kathleen, Joanne (Jo to her friends) became J.K. Rowling.
On June 26, 1997, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit the bookstores — and it was an instant sensation. All 500 copies of the initial printing sold rapidly, and just three days after its release, American publishing house, Scholastic, paid $105,000 for the rights to print the book in the United States. Rowling celebrated by purchasing her own apartment.
On July 2, 1998, Bloomsbury published the second book in the series, with an initial print run in the U.K. of 10,000.
In October of the same year, Scholastic published the first book in the series with a slight name change, illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, and an initial print run of 50,000. To date, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has sold 120 million copies around the world.
Also in October 1998, Rowling signed a seven-figure deal with Warner Bros. to turn the books into movies. The chart-topping series ended in 2011, with total sales from the franchise grossing at $21 billion, making it the most profitable movie franchise of all time.
Rowling continued writing Harry Potter books with just one-year breaks between each release until her catapult to fame finally caught up with her after the release of her fourth book in July 2000. She needed a break.
“The pressure of it had become overwhelming,” she told The New Yorker in an interview. “I found it difficult to write, which had never happened to me before in my life.”
Rowling also explained that she hadn’t had time to process the level of her fame and wealth.
“I needed to stop and I needed to try to come to terms with what had happened to me,” she said.
During this break from writing, on Dec. 26, 2001, Rowling married anesthesiologist Neil Murray. The couple have two children.
In June 2003, she published Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the longest book in the series. The sixth book was released in July 2005, with a record-breaking 10.8 million copies sold in the U.S.
In 2004, Forbes reported that Rowling was the first person in the world to become a billionaire by writing books. She later dropped off the billionaire list after giving much of her fortune to charity.
Harry Potter casts his final spell
In 2007, Rowling finished the series with the fastest-selling book of all time: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The seven books have collectively sold more than 500 million copies around the world.
In 2010, Universal Studios opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a theme park where guests can visit Hogsmeade, choose a magical wand and ride a roller coaster on a Hippogriff.
Rowling often speaks about how the hardships she endured in the early years of her life enabled her to create the wonderful world of Harry Potter.
“I couldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t had a few years where I’d been really as poor as it’s possible to go in the U.K. without being homeless,” Rowling said in 2012.
Elsewhere, Rowling said that she used her experience of depression to describe the despair and blackness the Dementors spread in Harry Potter’s world.
“It was entirely conscious,” she told the Times. “And entirely from my own experience. Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced.”
The author’s net worth stands at $92 million. The very best thing her wealth has given her, she writes, is the absence of worry. “I have not forgotten what it feels like to worry whether you’ll have enough money to pay the bills. Not to have to think about that anymore is the biggest luxury in the world.”
Rowling pays it forward with her remarkable philanthropy, giving special attention to charities that serve orphans.
The magic of Harry Potter lives on.