I was born in Chipping Sodbury General Hospital, which I think is appropriate for someone who collects funny names. My sister, Di, was born just under two years later, and she was the person who suffered my first efforts at story-telling (I was much bigger than her and could hold her down). Rabbits loomed large in our early story-telling sessions; we badly wanted a rabbit.
Di can still remember me telling her a story in which she fell down a rabbit hole and was fed strawberries by the rabbit family inside it. Certainly 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. And ever since Rabbit and Miss Bee, I have wanted to be a writer, though I rarely told anyone so. I was afraid they’d tell me I didn’t have a hope.
We moved house twice when I was growing up. The first move was from Yate (just outside Bristol) to Winterbourne (on the other side of Bristol). A gang of children including myself and my sister used to play together up and down our street in Winterbourne. Two of the gang members were a brother and sister whose surname was Potter. I always liked the name, but then I was always keener on my friends’ surnames than my own (‘Rowling’ is pronounced like ‘rolling’, which used to lead to annoying children’s jokes about rolling pins).
When I was nine we moved to Tutshill near Chepstow in the Forest of Dean. We were finally out in the countryside, which had always been my parents’ dream, both being Londoners, and my sister and I spent most of our times wandering unsupervised across fields and along the river Wye. The only fly in the ointment was the fact that I hated my new school. It was a very small, very old-fashioned place where the roll-top desks still had ink-wells. My new teacher, Mrs Morgan, scared the life out of me. She gave me an arithmetic test on the very first morning and after a huge effort I managed to get zero out of ten – I had never done fractions before. So she sat me in the row of desks on her far right. It took me a few days to realise I was in the ‘stupid’ row. Mrs Morgan positioned everyone in the class according to how clever she thought they were; the brightest sat on her left, and everyone she thought was dim sat on the right. I was as far right as you could get without sitting in the playground. By the end of the year, I had been promoted to second left – but at a cost. Mrs Morgan made me swap seats with my best friend, so that in one short walk across the room I became clever but unpopular.
From Tutshill Primary I went to Wyedean Comprehensive. I heard the same rumour about Wyedean that Harry hears from Dudley about Stonewall High (see page of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). But it wasn’t true – at least, it never happened to me. I was quiet, freckly, short-sighted and rubbish at sports (I am the only person I know who managed to break their arm playing netball). My favourite subject by far was English, but I quite liked languages too. I used to tell my equally quiet and studious friends long serial stories at lunch-times. They usually involved us all doing heroic and daring deeds we certainly wouldn’t have done in real life; we were all too swotty. I did once have a fight with the toughest girl in my year, but I didn’t have a choice, she started hitting me and it was hit back or lie down and play dead. For a few days I was quite famous because she hadn’t managed to flatten me. The truth was that my locker was right behind me and held me up. I spent weeks afterwards peering nervously around corners in case she was waiting to ambush me.
I became less quiet as I got older. For one thing I started wearing contact lenses, which made me less scared of being hit in the face. I wrote a lot in my teens, but I never showed any of it to my friends, except for funny stories that again featured us all in thinly disguised characters. I was made Head Girl in my final year, and I can only think of two things I had to do; one was to show Lady Somebody around the school fair, and the other was give an assembly to the whole school. I decided to play them a record to cut down on the time I had to speak to them. The record was scratched and played the same line of the song over and over again until the Deputy Headmistress kicked it.
I went to Exeter University straight after school, where I studied French. This was a big mistake. I had listened too hard to my parents, who thought languages would lead to a great career as a bilingual secretary. Unfortunately I am one of the most disorganised people in the world and, as I later proved, the worst secretary ever. All I ever liked about working in offices was being able to type up stories on the computer when no-one was looking. I was never paying much attention in meetings because I was usually scribbling bits of my latest stories in the margins of the pad, or choosing excellent names for the characters. This is a problem when you are supposed to be taking the minutes of the meeting.
When I was twenty six I gave up on offices completely and went abroad to teach English as a Foreign Language. My students used to make jokes about my name; it was like being back in Winterbourne, except that the Portuguese children said ‘Rolling Stone’ instead of rolling pin. I loved teaching English, and as I worked afternoons and evenings, I had mornings free for writing. This was particularly good news as I had now started my third novel (the first two had been abandoned when I realised how very bad they were). The new book was about a boy who found out he was a wizard and was sent off to wizard school. When I came back from Portugal half a suitcase was full of papers covered with stories about Harry Potter. I came to live in Edinburgh with my very small daughter, and set myself a deadline; I would finish the Harry novel before starting work as a French teacher, and try to get it published.
It was a year after finishing the book before a publisher bought it. The moment when I found out that Harry would be published was one of the best of my life. By this time I was working as a French teacher and being serenaded down the corridors with the first line of the theme from Rawhide (‘Rolling, rolling, rolling, keep those wagons rolling…’). A few months after ‘Harry’ was taken for publication in Britain, an American publisher bought the rights for enough money to enable me to give up teaching and write full time – my life’s ambition.
And I’ve got a real rabbit now. She is large and black and scratches me ferociously every time I try and pick her up. Some things are best left in the imagination.
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