Monday, April 7, 2014

The Story Wizard: J. K. Rowling

My grandfather was a railroad man -- so maybe it's my family heritage -- but the sound of a train on a summer night can transport my thoughts to far-off places and times. I always wonder where the train is coming from and where it's going. Some little part of me wants to hop that train like a sooty-faced hobo and catch a ride to an alternate life. 

It's not that I'm unhappy right where I am, but there's just something wistful, something beckoning in the sound of a train. Who knows? Maybe I could be like Harry, Ron, and Hermione -- off to conquer the world and the Dark Lord on the Hogwart's Express. 

So many great scenes in the Harry Potter books and movies take place on trains and in train stations. Harry meets Ron and the Weasleys while looking for Platform 9 3/4. The boys meet Hermione on the train. Harry's first encounter with the Dementors happens on a train. Fortunately, he meets Professor Lupin at the same time. Even the afterlife scene is set at King's Cross Station. The train takes Harry away from the muggle world and toward a new life. And perhaps the same could be said for the creator of these stories as well.

Trains have played an important role in the life of British children’s author J. K. Rowling.

King's Cross Station, photo by Timothy Baldwin

Her parents met on a train travelling from King's Cross Station to the town of Arbroath in Scotland. The year was 1964, and both were on their way to join the navy. They later married, and their daughter Joanne was born July 31, 1965.

Emma Watson
(Hermione Granger)
Young Jo loved reading and writing fantasy stories. Rowling later recalled: “...The first story I ever wrote down (when I was five or six) was about a rabbit called Rabbit. He got the measles and was visited by his friends, including a giant bee called Miss Bee."

Joanne's teen years were sometimes difficult. Her mother had multiple sclerosis, and her father became distant. Jo still loved books and writing, and she later confessed, “Hermione is loosely based on me. She's a caricature of me when I was eleven, which I'm not particularly proud of."

Her best friend was Sean Harris, a young man who owned a turquoise Ford Anglia, like the flying car featured in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In fact, the character of Ron Weasley was partly drawn from Sean.

Fast forward a few years. Jo had graduated from the University of Exeter and was living in Manchester. In 1990, she was taking a train from Manchester to London, when there was a delay for four hours. While she waited for the train to move again, the idea for Harry Potter simply popped into her head. She saw a boy who is on his way to Wizard School. 

The ideas came in a rush, but she couldn’t find a pen—and she was too shy to ask anyone if she could borrow one. But maybe that was a good thing, because she had time to really think through the plot. She had been writing since she was six years old, but never had she been this excited about a story. She started writing it down that night, but events in her life soon put her writing on hold, just like a train with a delay. 

Fast forward again. After a bitter divorce, Jo was a single mom, struggling to provide for her child. She took the baby on long walks to help her fall asleep. Then she pushed the stroller to a coffee-shop where she worked on her story—as often as she could. With hard work and great determination, she finished Harry Potter and the Philospher’s  Stone, Book One in the series.

J. K. Rowling

No one knew then that the Harry Potter books would become the bestselling book series in history. Or that in just five years, Jo would go from a life of struggle and poverty to being one of the richest women in Britain.

And like so many other great adventure stories, it all began on a train.

1 comment:

  1. A real-life fantasy story! Wow. The sound of a train in the night brings up memories of spending the night at my grandma and grandpa's house. There was a train track just up the street. I know what you mean about that wistful sound...