A year in the life of J. K. Rowling


I should state up-front that I’m

not a Harry Potter expert. I’ve seen all of the films, and

I’ve read one of the books, which I enjoyed — but I’m not the person

to go to if you want a detailed exposition as to what makes a Slytherin

different from a Hufflepuff. (Are those the right names?)

Consequently, I’ve never been an

expert on J. K. Rowling. I mean, I know what she looks like, and

I vaguely knew the parts of her story that have filtered through to

the general public consciousness — the fact that she wrote the first

Harry Potter book as a single mother living in Scotland, the fact

that she’s now married and has more children. If you’d asked me

to describe her, though, the first thing that would have sprung to my

mind would probably have been this funny, but as it turns out very unfair,

parody that Brit comedian Jennifer Saunders did of her for a

French and Saunders Potter parody in 2003 (Jennifer first appears

in Rowling-drag at 0:44):

The documentary A Year in the Life … J. K. Rowling

first aired in the U.K. on December 30, and during its 60

minutes, it did quite a lot to dispel my ignorance. It

also did quite a lot to make me like its subject matter. Following the

author over a year as she completed the last book in the Harry Potter

series, it showed her talking in an open, matter-of-fact way about her

Christian faith (and religious doubts), as well as her ideas about courage,

heroism and evil. It showed her in school photos as a child with brown

hair and freckles, and it discussed her difficult upbringing (her mother

was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, while she had a tense relationship

with her father, whom she no longer speaks to).

It gave an idea of the public demands

of her current life — from live book-readings to hundreds of expectant

children, to press launches, to supervising plans for a Harry Potter

theme park (where she confessed it felt very odd, as a former secretary,

to have other people looking to her as the most important person in

the room), to running her own charity and sifting through a constant

influx of letters asking for money. The most moving part of the documentary took Rowling back

to the flat in Leith where she lived after the breakup of her first

marriage, having returned from Portugal with a baby daughter, and, in

her words, “made such a mess of things.”

Standing in the flat, through floods

of tears, she says:

"This is really where I turned my life

around completely. My life really changed in this flat. […] Because

it’s such a well-worn part of my story now, it’s a big yawn to hear

how I wrote it, as though it was all some kind of publicity stunt for

a year. But it was my life and it was very hard and I didn’t know that

there was going to be this fairy-tale resolution — and coming back here

is just full of ghosts. […] For years now, I’ve felt that if it all

disappeared — and some days I do feel like ‘is it real?’ — then this

is where I’d come back to, this would be my base line, I’d be back in


Prior to seeing this documentary,

the one “beef” that I’d always had with J. K. Rowling

was the fact that her huge, multiracial, multispecies world didn’t

seem to include any gay characters. It was all very well to hear Harry

and Hermione banging on about discrimination against elves and giants,

but what about the discrimination that exists in the real world?

Of course, Rowling then went on to

make her revelation about Dumbledore, and so Hogwarts is officially

no longer a heterosexuals-only universe. One of the interesting moments

in this documentary (which was obviously filmed before Rowling made

her big revelation in NYC in October 2007) comes when the interviewer

asks her if Charlie is gay (Harry experts, you may know who Charlie

is). Rowling replies no, but says that

“Dumbledore’s gay. I told a reader

that once and I thought she was gonna slap me. But I always saw Dumbledore

as gay.”

You can view the relevant clip here,

starting at about 7:35:

She is shown drawing up a detailed

family tree for the futures of the Potters and the Weasleys. Watching

her blithely marrying off Harry and his classmates, I couldn’t help

hoping that the children’s writers after Rowling will go further than

she has done, and acknowledge that somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the

kids at Hogwarts would have been dealing with homosexuality — not just

their one ancient headmaster. But making Dumbledore gay was unquestionably

a huge step, and, combined with her thoughtful, down-to-earth demeanor

in interviews, it left me feeling that J. K. Rowling is an unusually

likeable person, as well as a hugely successful writer.

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