Happy 50th, J.K. Rowling! | Books | DW | 31.07.2015
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Happy 50th, J.K. Rowling!

Expelliarmus! Stupefy! Cruciatus!: These spells have enchanted millions around the world. From 'epic failure' to business-savvy empress of a magical universe, see how Rowling, now 50, further celebrates Harry Potter.

Do you know what a Horcrux is? Or why you should never kiss a Dementor? How catching the Golden Snitch can make you the biggest sports hero? If you can't answer these questions, you're probably a Muggle (a person with no magical abilities whatsoever) or you somehow have magically managed to escape the Pottermania that has been gripping hundreds of millions of readers and moviegoers for almost two decades now.

If that's the case, here's a basic Potter 101: Harry Potter is an orphan, who lives with his ghastly relatives, the Dursleys, in a cupboard underneath their staircase. Harry's whole life changes when, on his 11th birthday, he learns that he's the son of two powerful wizards who have been tragically killed. From then on, he is sent to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

UK author J.K. Rowling, who turns 50 on Friday (31.07.2015), is the celebrated creator of Harry's and his friends Hermione and Ron's adventures. They have become the best-selling book series of all time, outselling titles like "Twilight" or "Fifty Shades of Grey," and have been adapted into a series of eight films which have also smashed numerous box office records around the world.

A life-changing revelation on a late train

The initials "J.K." were originally meant to cover up the fact that the books were written by a female author. Rowling's first publisher assumed that Harry Potter, a boy, would naturally be more interesting for a male young audience which could be put off by a female author. There is no hard evidence to disprove this assumption, however, more than 450 million copies of the Harry potter series have been sold worldwide to boys, girls and adults alike. The books have been translated into more than 70 languages.

Rowling's own life story reads somewhat like a Hollywoodesque fairy tale. Though regurgitated ad nauseam and romanticized by the media, it's just too good not to be told.

While in her twenties, the unemployed single mother struggles to support her daughter and herself on welfare. She spends her time scribbling down notes on napkins in one of Edinburgh's cafés because it's too cold to write in her own apartment, while her toddler sleeps in a pram next to the coffee table. According to Rowling, the idea for the Harry Potter series came to her on a late train from Manchester to London. The fact that Harry always takes the Hogwarts train from the imaginary platform 9 ¾ at King's Cross Station in London is understood to be a reference to that seminal moment in 1990.

'Failure on an epic scale'

"That period of my life was a dark one," Rowling said about her early Edinburgh days. "I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless." She didn't just say this at any old public event but in her Harvard Commencement Speech in 2008 which since has become the most viewed Commencement Speech on the university's website.

She told these elite students, who seemed to have every possible road to success open to them, that it was precisely her epic failure that paved the way to her biggest success. "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," she told the crowd. "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."

At numerous public appearances and lectures, Rowling never tires to stress the power of imagination and that it can change the world. And it's precisely her sheer imaginative genius and unrivaled wit that make her tales so unique and appealing. She skillfully weaves together the magical world of wizardry and the normal, everyday life in present time Britain.

12 publishers now have deep regrets

For instance, there is an institution called the "The Ministry of Magic," the main governing body of the magical community. One of its main tasks is to make sure that no Muggle detects any magic that might be going on around them. The Ministry is usually depicted as a bureaucratic monstrosity with endless departments and either incompetent or corrupt employees, clearly resembling some government bodies in our non-fictional world. Creative puns and plays on words abound in Rowling's tales: For instance, a little enchanted sports ball - the aforementioned Golden Snitch - that can memorize who touched it last, is equipped with "flesh memory".

After the first book "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" was published in 1997, Rowling instantly became a bestselling author. The first edition only had 500 copies but quickly the number rose to millions of copies. 12 publishers had rejected Rowling's manuscript after London-based Bloomsbury picked it up and secured the book deal of the century. "I knew it would be hard to get it published," Rowling said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, but her "inner voice" told her that "if it is published it will be huge."

Pottermania at the cinema

Her intuition didn't lie: Formerly living on state benefits, Rowling now has an estimated fortune of 580 million pounds (roughly 800 million euros) and is one of the richest women in the world according to the magazine "Forbes." She still lives in Edinburgh - presumably with sufficient heating - with her second husband, two daughters and one son. Time Warner's film adaptations of Harry Potter also contributed considerably to Rowling's profile and wealth.

She negotiated a last word control over the scripts and also strongly influenced casting decisions. Reportedly, it was her who tipped the scale towards casting British actor Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter. Maybe due to her influence, the film adaptations stayed very close to the books, much to the approval of Potter fans who often showed up to screenings in full wizard or witch get-up.

Rowling keeps the ball rolling

And even now, eight years after the last book "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows" was published, the savvy businesswoman keeps the Harry Potter universe buzzing. Rowling created Pottermore.com, a website where she exclusively publishes short texts and reveals more on the background story to her novels - for paying members only.

She also answers readers' questions and reveals intriguing details on Twitter. Rowling made headlines a few years ago when she revealed that Professor Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts, is actually gay.

Rumors, rumors

When Rowling finished writing the series, after spending 17 years on it, she said in a BBC interview that she was "devastated" and "cried her eyes out." After that, she didn't publish anything for a long time. In 2012, her first novel specifically for adults, "The Casual Vacancy," hit the bookstores. The manuscript was handled with extreme secrecy: Only 30 people had been authorized to view it before publication. The tale of a corrupt small town in the countryside received mixed reviews. That didn't stop it from selling like crazy, of course.

Subsequently, Rowling tried to go incognito with the pen name Robert Galbraith, under which she published two detective novels. But her cover was soon blown by her lawyer, who had talked to his wife, who had talked to her friend... If you’re the creator of Harry Potter, nothing about you can stay secret for very long.

Rowling herself hasn't quite gotten over her literary prodigy. Responding to her fans' most pressing question: "WILL THERE BE ANOTHER BOOK!?" Rowling repeatedly and somewhat evasively answers: "I never said I'm definitely not doing it."

There even was a hashtag #newharrypotterbooks recently trending on Twitter. Unfortunately for the fans, it was a cruel joke by a Comedy Central TV show. But who knows: J.K. Rowling might secretly decide to toast to Harry's, Ron's and Hermione's next adventure while celebrating her 50th birthday.

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