It was 1990 when, on a delayed train from Manchester to London, Joanne Rowling jotted down the beginnings of a story centered on an orphan boy who, aged 11, discovers he’s a wizard. Little did she know that, more than 25 years later, the magical world she was creating would maintain an army of loyal fans from around the globe.
The Harry Potter books went on to sell more than 26 million copies in the UK alone, and the film franchise became one of the most successful in history, making more than £7 billion at the box office worldwide.
With the official opening night of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and subsequent book release just weeks away, we take a look back at the most notable stages in JK Rowling’s career.
Four years after graduating from Exeter University with a degree in French and Classics, the initial idea for the Harry Potter series came to JK Rowling as she travelled on a delayed train service from Manchester – where she worked at the Chamber of Commerce – to London. The plot that was forming in her head would lead her on a five year journey towards the completion of her first novel, as well as the skeletons of six further stories.
Upon finding a newspaper advertisement, Rowling relocated to northern Portugal where she worked teaching English as a foreign language. Bringing her manuscript along, she worked on the Philosopher’s Stone in her free time.
Rowling moved back to the UK, settling in Edinburgh, Scotland. Though she planned to secure work as a teacher, she was disappointed to discover that she would need a PGCE qualification in order to pursue her chosen career path. While unemployed, Rowling dedicated any time she could to her novel, balancing her writing with job hunting and caring for her young daughter.
Some five years had passed since the idea for the Harry Potter series occurred to Rowling when she finally became the proud owner of a complete manuscript. Managing to secure an agent, the search for a publisher began. While Rowling began training for her PGCE, her manuscript was rejected by 12 different publishing houses.
Rowling’s search eventually ended in success when London publishing house Bloomsbury accepted her manuscript. In June of the following year, the Philosopher’s Stone was published. The novel won critical acclaim, and Rowling was awarded with the Smarties Book Prize. She also received an £8,000 grant from the Scottish Arts Council, to help her continue writing.
After winning theBritish Book Award for Children's Book of the Year and the Children's Book Award, US publishing rights to the Philosopher’s Stone were sold at auction to Scholastic. Rowling’s second novel, the Chamber of Secrets, was published in July of 1998, and subsequently won the Smarties Book Prize again.
The third chapter of Harry’s story, the Prisoner of Azkaban, was published in the summer of 1999. Rowling went on to become the first person to win the Smarties Book Prize for three consecutive years. She then sold the film rights for her first four novels to Warner Bros.
The fourth instalment of the Harry Potter series, Goblet of Fire, managed to break sales records on both sides of the Atlantic. Rowling was named Author of the Year in the 2000 British Book Awards. She then went on to established the Volant Charitable Trust, a grant-making trust dedicated to helping fund charitable organisations and projects working to relieve social deprivation in Scotland.
In March of 2001, Rowling received an OBE from the Prince of Wales for her services to children’s literature. November of the same year saw the release of the first Harry Potter film, which made over 900 million US dollars at the box office.
After what many considered too long a wait (three years), Rowling’s fifth and longest novel, Order of the Phoenix, was released. Having previously denied rumours that she was suffering writer’s block, Rowling eventually admitted that the fifth instalment ended in her ‘running out of time and energy’.
As well as the release of her sixth novel, the Half-Blood Prince, and the Goblet of Fire movie, Rowling worked alongside MEP Emma Nicholson to set up the Children’s High Level Group, now known as Lumos, a charity that works to end the institutionalisation of children.
Rowling’s final novel in the Harry Potter series, the Deathly Hallows, was released in 2007, revealing the final fate of the schoolboy wizard. Rowling also auctioned one of seven handwritten copies of The Tales of Beedle the Bard, mentioned in the final Potter instalment. The book fetched almost £2 million. The following year, Rowling agreed to publish the book, donating the £19 million proceeds to her charity, Lumos.
On July 7 2011, Rowling was joined in Trafalgar Square, London, by the Harry Potter cast and crew and thousands of fans to bid a tearful farewell to the end of the Harry Potter film franchise. The Deathly Hallows Part 2 premiere boasted a red carpet stretching 1.2km, thought to be the longest in the world. The film opened in cinemas on July 15. Later that year, Rowling (along with Potter crew including David Heyman and David Yates) collected the Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema at the 2011 British Academy Film Awards.
After being awarded Freedom of the City of London, Rowling featured in the opening ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London where she read from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, was released in September after being announced earlier in the year. By December, the BBC revealed their plans to adapt the book into a three-part drama.
In 2013, Rowling was revealed as the writer behind crime fiction novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, which had been published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. With Rowling exposed as the author, sales of the book rocketed. This year also brought the announcements of two new projects: Rowling’s screenwriting debut, the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trilogy, and a West End stage production, yet to be named.
In June 2015, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was confirmed as the production name for the West End play; four months later, Rowling revealed that the play would be set 19 years after the Deathly Hallows. Tickets sold out within a matter of hours.
Just days before the first preview of the Cursed Child, Rowling revealed the official cast photos of the show’s eight principal characters: Harry and Ginny Potter and their child, Albus; Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger and their daughter, Rose; and Draco Malfoy and son, Scorpius. The first ever preview was shown to an audience of 1,400 on June 7 at London’s Palace Theatre.