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Creator of the most famous and best-loved character in contemporary fiction, J.K. Rowling is also the author of her own escape from a depressing existence on the verge of destitution. The tale of the quiet woman writing away at a café table, making a solitary cup of coffee and a glass of water last for hours while her baby daughter slept peacefully in her pram may have become a cliché, but it has also served as an inspiration for, literally, millions of people.

J.K.Rowling

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On the one hand there is J.K. Rowling, writer of Harry Potter, a modern day phenomenon. On the other, there is Joanne Rowling, a dreamy, rather shy but surprisingly passionate woman whose brilliance in translating her dreams into prose changed her life. In January 1994 she was broke and jobless, struggling to bring up a young child in a small rented flat in Edinburgh. Just six years later her fortune was estimated at £65 million.

In this first major biography, Sean Smith tells the compelling story of both worlds.

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“A small advertisement in the Guardian newspaper caught Joanne’s eye: ‘Qualified English teachers required for a school in Porto’. Joanne had little relevant experience for a teaching job other than her year in Paris but Porto sounded just the sort of place where Jessica Mitford would have ended up. So she sent off her CV, a covering letter explaining her enthusiasm for teaching in Portugal and a contact phone number. The advertisement had been placed by Steve Cassidy, principal of the Encounter English Schools in Porto. The turnover of staff teaching English abroad was quite high, so every year he would seek to employ three or four new teachers, sifted from forty or so replies.

On a trip to England to visit his family in Darlington he would contact half a dozen applicants and arrange to see them. He met Joanne at a hotel close to the railway station in Leeds. ‘We had coffee and chatted,’ he recalls. ‘She was a bit gothic-looking with very dark eye-shadow. She looked like Morticia from the Addams family. She wasn’t an outstanding candidate but I thought she would be OK. She was a bit shy and I remember she looked a bit sad at the station. I think her mother had recently died.’

Joanne got the job. She was thrilled to be starting her own new adventure. Her father had begun to rebuild his life and moved from Church Cottage, Tutshill, into a new home in Chepstow. Her sister Di was working as a nurse in Edinburgh. Joanne was leaving without regrets. She did not have many belongings to pack although the Harry Potter work-in-progress was not forgotten. “

what sean says

Sometimes I feel like I could give Inspector Morse a run for his money. The dedication to the third Harry Potter book is: ‘To Jill Prewett and Anne Kiely, the Godmothers of Swing.’ I thought when I read it that these two women were probably old friends of Joanne who shared a love of swing music. I discovered the truth about the inscription when I followed Rowling’s path to Oporto in Portugal where, as a young woman, she taught English at the Encounter English School.

At the school I met a fiery, dark haired woman called Marie Inês Aguiar who graciously asked me to join her family for dinner at a restaurant by the Douro River. It was a bustling, friendly place where I never saw a menu but where Marie Inês and her husband ordered a succession of tasty dishes which just arrived in front of me. I had the biggest, freshest sardines I have ever eaten.

Marie Ines told me that Jill Prewett and Aine Kiely had been teachers at the school as well and that the three women had been firm friends and used to go out to a local nightclub together. She gave me directions to the club and I made my way there to take a look. I stood outside and smiled – the club was called Swing.