THE MOST POWERFUL MYTH surrounding J.K. Rowling — second only to the myth of Harry Potter himself — is how the author created Harry Potter. The myth is so irresistible that any single mother with limited means writing a book will hear someone at some point say to her in a spirit of encouragement: “Look at J.K. Rowling.” They’ll say it even if they know nothing of Rowling or the mom.read more
In this creation myth, a single mother, Joanne, her baby sleeping in a stroller beside her, scribbles at a local café to escape her unheated apartment. From a fortunate confluence of imagination, postpartum hormones, financial straits, and broken marriage blues, she inks a first novel on paper napkins. A thousand or so napkins plus seven follow-up books later, her series redefines the children’s book market and sells 450 million books worldwide.
Rowling has herself described the characterization as “50 percent true, 50 percent embroidery.” She was not, for example, a homeless, teenage meth addict. She was a college graduate planning to get her teaching certificate upon finishing her novel. And while Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone would be her first book, at 30 she had already tried writing two novels, and had consumed, since childhood, a steady diet of Tolkien, Dickens, Hardy (the word "Dumbledore" came from The Mayor of Casterbridge), Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild, Barry Hines, Margery Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers. The idea for Harry came to Rowling on a train to Kings Cross Station more than six years before the book was finally published — a gestation period close to that of an African elephant. Not exactly the spontaneous mythological birth of Harry springing out of Rowling’s head. And while she was clinically depressed and living on benefits (unlike the United States, Britain regularly provided them to graduates embarking on new careers), her accommodations, though poor, were heated, and writing paper was within her budget. She simply liked going to the café so that she wouldn’t have to interrupt her writing flow to make herself another cup. Rowling is a practical woman. On her “castaway” interview with BBC Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs, the book she said she’d take with her wasn’t Shakespeare’s sonnets or the collected works of Proust — it was an SAS Survival Guide.
Rowling’s real life story is neither as romantic nor as tragic as has been portrayed in the media, but that’s not the point. The myth tells us something important, if off-putting, about ourselves: we want the creative process of the down-at-heel single mother to be a fecund miracle, in the same way we want all rags-to-riches stories to involve a firm but romantic pulling-up of bootstraps. On this side of the pond, we in the United States call this dream American, but it is just another variation on our fantasy about artistic creation in general. Deprivation kindles an emotion so powerful that in the garret a gushing Van Gogh paints The Potato Eaters.
Self-reliance, the 19th century concept of relying on one’s own resources and abilities without fuss or help, is the basis for such pervasive and lyrical 19th century idioms as “pulling one’s self up by one’s boot straps,” “hoeing one’s own roe,” and “paddling one’s own canoe” (“Voyager upon life&r...