Jeff Jensen
July 27, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Here’s the legend, mythologized by the media and unauthorized biographers and memorized by Potterphiles across the planet: Once upon a time, J.K. Rowling found herself on a delayed commuter train in the middle of the English countryside. As she stared out the window at some cows chewing cud in the field, inspiration struck like the proverbial thunderbolt. Harry Potter materialized almost fully formed in her mind’s eye, and she started writing that night. Eventually unemployed and penniless and determined to get off the dole, the plucky single mom dedicated herself to putting her vision on paper, scribbling away through the night at a café down the street while her infant daughter slept in her pram. More than a feat of raw imagination, savvy fantasy recycling, and preternatural storytelling chops, Harry Potter was a product of desperation — a last-chance rub on a magic lamp that miraculously produced a scarred, bespectacled, shabbily attired teenage genie who granted her wishes of personal fulfillment, financial security, and a happily-ever-after ending.

The truth, of course, is far more complex. Born near Bristol in 1965, Joanne Kathleen Rowling grew up dreamy. She was sharp and smart, though she wished she was pretty and had a cool last name like her neighbors: Potter. She fought bitterly with her younger sister, Di — and once threw a battery at her face that left a scar on her forehead. She loved mythology, fantasy literature, and adventure yarns. She dug making up stories, putting on plays, brandishing plastic swords.

Basically, the girl was a nerd. Is it any surprise she grew up to be queen of our geek-pop era?

Yes. Because not long after her stuck-on-a-train epiphany in 1990 following a weekend of apartment hunting in Manchester, a storm of life stuff swept her up and bashed her around like Dorothy’s tornado. On Dec. 30 of that year, her mom died after a painful battle with multiple sclerosis, and the memory of her deterioration left a deep impression; surely it’s no coincidence that a major theme in the Harry Potter series is the process of coming to grips with death.

Wanting to escape the U.K., she took a job teaching English in Portugal. Within three years, she was married, pregnant, divorced, and depressed. At her sister’s encouragement, she and daughter Jessica moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1994. Humiliated to be a college graduate living on public assistance, she buckled down and focused on getting Potter out of her head. She spent a lean, hungry year writing, often working out of a local café hile her daughter slept at her side in a stroller. ”I used to fight to get time to write,” she told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY in 2000.

The fight came to an end in 1996, when she sold Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Bloomsbury. ”I screamed and jumped into the air,” she wrote on her website. ”Jessica, who was sitting in her high-chair enjoying tea, looked thoroughly scared.”

For Rowling, the Potterverse was a means to express her wide range of personal, real-world interests. That was never more apparent than in her fourth book, Goblet of Fire, a monumental turning point in the series as well as her own creative development. A subplot in which she turned Hermione into an idealistic and self-righteous social activist, crusading to improve the downtrodden lives of Hogwarts house elves, was steeped in her personal politics (”I’m left-wing,” she said) and also her wise, pragmatic views on human nature. The ongoing concern about the intractable, deeply ingrained hatred that exists between magical purebloods and non-magical Muggles — an ugliness that touches even her most likable characters, including Ron — was also no small bit of whimsy. ”Bigotry is the thing I detest most,” Rowling said. ”All forms of intolerance, actually. The whole idea of ‘That which is different from me is necessarily evil.’ I really like to explore the idea that difference is equal and good.”

It’s easy to forget now that during the early years of Pottermania, Rowling was constantly asked if her blockbuster books were maybe too dark, too violent, and too adult for their (presumed) target audience: children. She sharply disagreed. Her obligation, she felt, was to be painfully honest about The Way Things Are, at least as she saw them. In Goblet of Fire, when she stunned her readers by killing brave Cedric Diggory, she said she agreed with Dumbledore’s choice to flatly explain the situation to the students of Hogwarts despite intense opposition from parents and political figures. ”Dumbledore’s decision is 100 percent me,” she said. ”It would have been an insult to not tell the truth about it.” But the beauty of her vision is how she saw the truth as a morally ambiguous matter, even when it came to painting her embodiment of darkness, Voldemort. ”I’m writing about shades of evil,” she said. ”There is a strong moral base to my books. You will get scared, but you have to trust me — I’m not scaring you just for the fun of it.”

Not that she wasn’t sensitive to her readers’ needs. She felt kids should begin reading Potter at age 7 — with their parents. As for her own daughter, Rowling finally let her crack open a book when she started grade school. ”Kids were surrounding her and asking her about Quidditch and things — and it was a mystery to her,” she said. ”So I read them to her and she became completely Harry Potter-obsessed. Sometimes it’s wearying, living with a very obsessive fan.” Rowling dedicated Deathly Hallows to her family — her new husband, physician Neil Murray, whom she married in 2001; their two children, David, 4, and Mackenzie, 2; and Jessica, now 14. On her website, she elaborated: ”If I had decided to stop before the seventh book, it would have been Jessica’s disappointment that I would have feared the most.”

The legend of the making of Harry Potter includes the myth that she had the grand arc and almost every detail of the entire series mapped out from the very beginning. Even Rowling admitted that this isn’t completely accurate; on her website, she revealed that she often wonders how much of her original vision she lost after that fateful four-hour train ride. But in her 2000 EW interview, she made it crystal-ball clear that these books were the result of hard, heart-wrenching, gutsy work. What she wanted more than anything when it was finally all written was the pure, clear joy of a job well done. ”When I finish book 7,” she said, ”I want to be able to look in the mirror and think, ‘I did it the way I meant to do it. I couldn’t have written it any better. Forget the hype, forget the pressures on me, I know I wrote what I set out to write.’ I want to be able to look in the mirror and say that.” And now, she can.

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