The J.K. Rowling Index

List of all J.K. Rowling's writings.

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Contribution: A love letter to Europe

Index ID: LLEU — Publication date: October 31st, 2019

Note: Contribution for the book "A love letter to Europe", published by Coronet Books.

The letter was written on thin, pale blue paper. The handwriting was neat and rounded. My brand-new German pen friend, Hanna, introduced herself in excellent English. Our schools had decided that Hanna and I would be a good fit as pen pals because we were both, not to put too fine a point on it, swots. In a matter of months, I’d be going to stay with her Stuttgart-based family for a week, and shortly after that, she’d come and stay on the Welsh border, with me. I was 13. The whole thing was thrilling.

Her house was warm, spotless and deliciously different. I remember ornamental candles, and rugs on a tiled floor, the furniture sleek and well-designed, and a shining upright piano in the corner, which Hanna, of course, played very well. On arrival, Hanna’s mother asked me what I wanted for breakfast, and when I didn’t immediately answer, she began listing all the foodstuffs she had available. Around about item six or seven, I recognised the German for cake, so I said, “Cake, please.”

Hanna’s mother was a magnificent cook. I particularly remember the clear soup with dumplings and the sausage with lentils, and every morning of my visit, presumably because she thought that’s what I was used to, she gave me cake for breakfast. It was glorious.

I kept in touch with Hanna for years, and when I was 15, the family invited me, with incredible generosity, to accompany them on a month-long trip to Italy. So, it was with Hanna and her family that I first saw the Mediterranean and first tasted shellfish.

I came home from Italy thirsty for more European adventures. I got myself a French pen pal called Adele, with whom in due course I went to stay in Brittany. There I watched her mother make crêpes, the region’s speciality, on the bilig, a large, circular griddle: they were the most delicious things I’d ever eaten, even including the Italian lobster. When out of sight of adults, I took advantage of the cheapness of French cigarettes and practised my nascent smoking habit, trying really hard to like Gitanes, and almost succeeding.

When I turned 16, my best friend and I cooked up the idea of going backpacking in Austria for a couple of weeks. Looking back, I do slightly wonder what our parents were thinking, letting us go: two schoolgirls with a smattering of German heading off on a coach with no fixed plans and no accommodation booked. We emerged from the experience unscathed: we successfully read the foreign train timetables, always managed to find accommodation, swam in ice-cold mountain lakes under brilliant sunlight and travelled from town to town as the fancy took us.

As I grew older, my determination to cross the Channel, even if alone or with insufficient funds, grew. If you had an Interrail ticket, surely one of the best inventions of all time, you could simply catch another train if you couldn’t find a room, or else doze in the station until the next one arrived. I took off alone at 19 to wander around France, a jaunt that ended abruptly with the theft of my wallet.

However, I was soon back again, because I spent a year in Paris as part of my French degree. My mother, a quiet Francophile with a half-French father, was delighted to visit me there; my father, possibly less so, given my perennially unsuccessful pleas to waiters to understand that bien cuit in his case meant there must be no pink at all in the middle of the steak.

I was 25 when my mother died, at which point I stopped pretending I wanted any kind of office job. Now I did what came most naturally: grabbed the dog-eared manuscript of the children’s book I’d been writing for a few months and took off across the Channel again. Disorientated with grief, I’d chosen one of the three teaching jobs offered to me almost at random. It was in Portugal, a country I didn’t know, and where I couldn’t speak a word of the language.

Teaching English abroad is a perfectly respectable profession, but nobody who has done it can deny that it attracts its fair share of misfits and runaways. I was both. Nevertheless, I fell in love with Porto and I love it still. I was enchanted by fado, the melancholy folk music that reflects the Portuguese themselves, who in my experience had a quietness and gentleness unique among Latin peoples I’d encountered so far. The city’s spectacular bridges, its vertiginous riverbanks, steep with ancient buildings, the old port houses, the wide squares: I was entranced by them all.

We all have shining memories of our youth, made poignant because they’re freighted with knowledge of what happened later to companions, and what lay ahead for ourselves. Back then we were allowed to roam freely across Europe in a way that shaped and enriched us, while benefiting from the longest uninterrupted spell of peace this continent has ever known. Lifelong friendships, love affairs and marriages could never have happened. Several children of my acquaintance, including my own eldest daughter, wouldn’t have been born without the frictionless travel the EU gave us.

At the time of writing, it’s uncertain whether the next generation will enjoy the freedoms we had. Those of us who know exactly how deep a loss that is, are experiencing a vicarious sense of bereavement, on top of our own dismay at the threatened rupture of old ties.

I think again of my teenage pen friend Hanna, as I reach for a quotation by Voltaire. She rarely let me get away with anything, so she’d probably have accused me of choosing a French philosopher in a spirit of pure provocation.

Well, Hanna was right about many things, but on this she’d be wrong. The truth is that I’m thinking of her now because she was my first friend from continental Europe, and because the words of Voltaire that hold so much meaning for me now are these: “L’amitié est la patrie.” “Where there is friendship, there is our homeland.” And Hanna, I really don’t want to lose my homeland.

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Contribution: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self

Index ID: LETDM — Publication date: October 15th, 2009

Note: Contribution for the book "Dear Me: A Letter to My Sixteen-Year-Old Self" by Joseph Galliano, published by Simon & Schuster.

Dear Jo (16),

I’m forty five. We’re forty five! And, believe me, that is far from the strangest thing that has happened to us.

This must be a lot weirder for you than it is for me; after all, I know you. I also really like you, which you will find impossible to believe, given that you are racked with insecurity and self-loathing. Jo, give yourself a break. You’re not the only one who feels smll and inadequate; you’ll realise eventually that everyone is the wizard of Oz. Time spent dreading and regretting realy is time wasted (whereas time spent daydreaming, inventing words and writing stories is time very well spent. Keep that up.)

There’s so much I could say to try and prepare you for hat I know is coming, oth the wonderful and the not-so-wonderful. The trouble is that the more I think about it, the more I realise that you need to just plough straight ahead and make all the big mistakes, because out of them will come some of your greatest blessings. Just know that there has never yet been a situation so awful that we haven’t been able to wring some good out of it (and that is about the proudest statement I’ve ever made in my – sorry, our – life.) Everything you most want will come to you; some of what you most fear will also happen, but the world will keep turning, and you will be fine.

A few pieces of advice that I think I can give, without upsetting the cosmic balance:

– Bright red, baggy dungarees from Miss Selfridge will be a bad idea, even in 1983.
– White-blonde hair, while a fantastic look on Debbie Harry, will not work on you.
– Do not have your ears pierced by a hippy at a music festival. That was one nasty infection.
– Never bother trying to impress anyone who thinks that other people ought to try and impress them.
– Stop smoking NOW.
– Stick up yourself a bit more.
– Forgive yourself a lot more.
– Avoid bass players. All of them.

In a year’s time, one o the best friends of your life will arrive in that porta-cabin they use for the sixth form. You will know him by his Ford Anglia, his love of Elvis and his ability to make you laught until you are unable to breathe. You might want to persuade him to hang onto the car. It could come in handy for, say, a film.

Never cut short a phone call with your mother. Never forget to say ‘I love you.’

One last thing.

One day, you will not only meet Morrissey, but he will know who you are.


With lots of love,

Jo (45)

{Deathly Hallows symbol} ← One day that will make sense to you.

The following images are related to this writing

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Contribution: The Birthday Book

Index ID: TBB — Publication date: October 1st, 2008

Note: This is an edited extract from The Birthday Book, published by Jonathan Cape to mark the 60th birthday of the Prince of Wales.

I admit that, at first glance, the extract I’ve chosen for The Birthday Book might not seem particularly celebratory, given that it has for its subject my hero walking to what he believes will be certain death. But when Harry takes his last, long walk into the heart of the Dark Forest, he is choosing to accept a burden that fell on him when still a tiny child, in spite of the fact that he never sought the role for which he has been cast, never wanted the scar with which he has been marked. As his mentor, Albus Dumbledore, has tried to make clear to Harry, he could have refused to follow the path marked out for him. In spite of the weight of opinion and expectation that singles him out as the “Chosen One”, it is Harry’s own will that takes him into the Forest to meet Voldemort, prepared to suffer the fate that he escaped sixteen years before.

The destinies of wizards and princes might seem more certain than those carved out for the rest of us, yet we all have to choose the manner in which we meet life: whether to live up (or down) to the expectations placed upon us; whether to act selfishly, or for the common good; whether to steer the course of our lives ourselves, or to allow ourselves to be buffeted around by chance and circumstance. Birthdays are often moments for reflection, moments when we pause, look around, and take stock of where we are; children gleefully contemplate how far they have come, whereas adults look forwards into the trees, wondering how much further they have to go. This extract from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is my favourite part of the seventh book; it might even be my favourite part of the entire series, and in it, Harry demonstrates his truly heroic nature, because he overcomes his own terror to protect the people he loves from death, and the whole of his society from tyranny.

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Contribution: Over 70 tried and tested great books to be read aloud

Index ID: 70BKS — Publication date: May 2006

Note: Contribution for the book "Over 70 Tried and Tested Great Books to Read Aloud" published by Corgi Books.

One of my fondest memories of my eldest daughter at age five involved ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ by C.S. Lewis. I used to balance the book on top of a very tall standard lamp to prevent her reading on before the next bedtime. One day, while I was safely in the kitchen, she clambered up a set of shelves to reach the book, gulped down the next two chapters and then, hearing my footsteps, hastily returned it to its perch on top of the lamp. I only rumbled her because she showed absolutely no surprise when, during that night’s reading, Eustace, the hero, turned into a dragon.

My two younger children are still immersed in picture books, although my son’s most recent favourite is ‘Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham’, which quite apart from increasing his vocabulary, can also be used to persuade him to eat omelettes. I think we own the complete works of Sandra Boynton, which are so witty and well-written; my personal favourite is ‘Hippos Go Berserk’, but my husband and I both know ‘The Going to Bed Book’ off by heart and have often recited it in the dark to soothe a fractious toddler. The ‘Hairy Maclary’ and ‘Slinky Malinki’ books by Lynley Dodd are some of the most satisfying books to read aloud, with their rhymes building into funny stories. Finally, ‘The Snail and the Whale’ and ‘The Gruffalo’, both by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, have given literally hours of pleasure to the whole family.

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