When the last battle was over and the last secrets of the seven-book, 17-year journey were spilled, Jo Rowling did what grieving, grateful and emotionally exhausted people do: she ransacked the minibar.
She'd known from the start that Harry Potter would survive his ordeal; the question was how she would handle her own. This time a year ago, she was holed up on deadline in the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh to escape the bedlam at home, writing the climactic chapter in which her hero walks into the dark forest to give his life for those he loves. And while she knew that all would be well in the end, "I really was walking him to his death, because I was about to finish writing about him," she says. It's her favorite chapter in her favorite book but when she finished, "I just burst into tears and couldn't stop crying. I opened up the minibar and drank down one of those pathetic little bottles of champagne."
Rowling calls her time with Harry "one of the longest relationships of my adult life," her rock through bereavement, a turbulent marriage and divorce, single motherhood, changes of country, fear of failure and transcendent joy, on the day a wise man at Bloomsbury offered her $2,250 and agreed to print 1,000 books. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows went on sale last July, it sold 15 million copies worldwide in 24 hours, breaking the record that had been held by each of the previous three books. (To put that in perspective, 2005's Half-Blood Prince moved more copies on its first day than The Da Vinci Code did in an entire year.) Meanwhile, the movie version of Book 5 Order of the Phoenix made $645 million, and plans for an Orlando, Fla., theme park were unveiled. Forbes magazine put Rowling second only to Oprah as the richest woman in entertainment, ahead of Martha Stewart and Madonna and as the first person to become a billionaire by writing books.
So the journey that began in 1990 finally ended in 2007, leaving Rowling a little more margin to savor ballet recitals and grocery shopping and intensive, often ingenious charitable work. A woman of high energy and a short fuse, she looks almost serene now, dressed in black with a long gray belted sweater, dark red nails and a funky black ring the size of a walnut. But as we sit and talk over coffee, you hear the longing when the conversation shifts back to Hogwarts, as though we've retreated to a safe place but can't stay there long. "I can only say, and many of my more militant fans will find this almost impossible to believe," she says, "but I don't think anyone has mourned more than I have. It's left the most enormous gaping hole in my life."
You can tell that she still doesn't give many interviews. She's funny and self-mocking and earnest by turns but always unguarded and unrehearsed, especially since now, after all this time, she can talk about the things she had to keep secret because her readers did not want their pleasure spoiled by knowing how things would turn out. "It's a massive, massive sense of release," she says, to be able to answer any question, tell the backstory in Web chats with obsessive fans who want to know the middle names of characters down to the third generation. She doesn't actually need to talk to Barbara Walters (who named her the most fascinating person of the year), because her fans know where to find her: her website, which includes news, a diary, a rubbish bin for addressing the more idiotic rumors, and answers to both the frequently and the never asked questions. She has them all in her head or her notebooks, with nothing to hide anymore.
It's not just Harry's secrets that can now be revealed. It is hers as well. The biggest mystery, appropriately, had to do with Rowling's own soul. As soon as her tales achieved fame, they were denounced by fundamentalist clerics from the U.S. to Russia to the Muslim world. The Pope warned about their "subtle seductions" that might "distort Christianity in the soul." One day when Rowling was shopping for toys in New York City, a man recognized her. Her voice gets hard as she recalls how he brought his face very close to hers. "He says, 'I'm praying for you,' in tones that were more appropriate to saying, 'Burn in hell,'" she says, "and I didn't like that 'cause I was with my kids. It was unnerving. If ever I expected to come face to face with an angry Christian fundamentalist, it wasn't in FAO Schwarz."
Through it all, Rowling didn't really fight back. Talk too much about her faith, she feared, and it would become clear who would live and who would die and who might actually do both. After six books with no mention of God or Scripture, in the last book Harry discovers on his parents' graves a Bible verse that, Rowling says, is the theme for the entire series. It's a passage from I Corinthians in which Paul discusses Jesus' Resurrection: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."
It turns out that Rowling, like her hero, is a Seeker. She talks about having a great religious curiosity, going back to childhood. "No one in my family was a believer. But I was very drawn to faith, even while doubting," she says. "I certainly had this need for something that I wasn't getting at home, so I was the one who went out looking for religion." As a girl, she would go to church by herself. She still attends regularly, and her children were all christened. Her Christian defenders always thought her faith shined through her stories. One called the books the "greatest evangelistic opportunity the church has ever missed." But Rowling notes that there was always another side to the holy war. "At least as much as they've been attacked from a theological point of view," she says, the books "have been lauded and taken into pulpit, and most interesting and satisfying for me, it's been by several different faiths." The values in the books, she observes, are by no means exclusively Christian, and she is wary of appearing to promote one faith over another rather than inviting people to explore and struggle with the hard questions.
Rowling's religious agenda is very clear: she does not have one. "I did not set out to convert anyone to Christianity. I wasn't trying to do what C.S. Lewis did. It is perfectly possible to live a very moral life without a belief in God, and I think it's perfectly possible to live a life peppered with ill-doing and believe in God." And now she climbs into a pulpit of her own, and you can tell how much this all matters to her, if it weren't already clear from her 4,100-page treatise on tolerance. "I'm opposed to fundamentalism in any form," she says. "And that includes in my own religion."
She has certainly found her disciples. Critics can dismiss Rowling's grownup fans as "kidults," but especially as the series unfolded, her audience expanded far beyond children and her impact well beyond entertainment. In addition to some 300 wizard rock bands, reams of fan fiction and countless websites, the books have inspired outfits like the Harry Potter Alliance, an online group founded by Andrew Slack, 28, a consultant in Boston, around the rallying cry "The weapon we have is love." When Deathly Hallows was released, the group organized house parties from Australia to South America and coast to coast in the U.S. to raise awareness of genocide in Darfur, in a kind of "What Would Harry Do?" campaign. The parties featured performances by such bands as the Remus Lupins and the Moaning Myrtles and a podcast by Africa experts, including Joe Wilson, a.k.a. Mr. Valerie Plame. "We can be like Dumbledore's army, who woke the world up to Voldemort's return, and wake our ministries and our world to ending the genocide in Darfur," Slack urged Harry Potter Alliance members in tones of earnest camaraderie. In the days that followed, the student antigenocide coalition stand saw a 40% increase in sign-ups for high school chapters and a 52% increase in calls to its hotline, 1-800-GENOCIDE.
When asked about the group, Rowling practically levitates off the couch, spilling her coffee along the way. "It's incredible, it's humbling, and it's uplifting to see people going out there and doing that in the name of your character," she says. She's especially pleased by the group's choice of mission, and the old Amnesty International worker in her surfaces. "What did my books preach against throughout? Bigotry, violence, struggles for power, no matter what. All of these things are happening in Darfur. So they really couldn't have chosen a better cause."
But it's also one more example of how she will never really be in control of Harry again. She knows he's bigger than she is now and not always in ways she likes. Parents may need to let go of their children, but artists want eternal ownership, and you can feel her ambivalence or even something more fierce and protective at the prospect of legions of writers who want to take up Harry's story as their own. One declared at last summer's biggest Potterfest that, as Rowling had left the sandbox, it was open for all to play in. But this is no game to her. She can tell you exactly which character she was sketching on New Year's Eve 1990 at the moment her mother died. (It was Professor Sprout, McGonagall's "pragmatic foil," she says. "I was six months in, and I was finalizing the composition of the head table.") Knowing where you were when you first read Harry Potter, she says, is not the same as knowing where you were when you created him. If you can solve the puzzles and break the codes on her website, you can see her earliest drawings and edited manuscript pages and glimpse just how deep her devotion goes. "He's still mine," she says. "Many people may feel that they own him. But he's a very real character to me, and no one's thought about him more than I have."
He is also a billion-dollar media property and a global cultural figure. Now translated into 65 languages, the books have joined a canon that stretches from Cinderella to Star Wars, giving people a way to discuss culture and commerce, politics and values. Princeton English professor William Gleason compares the series' impact to the frenzy that surrounded Uncle Tom's Cabin before the Civil War. "That book penetrated all levels of society," he says. "It's remarkable how similar the two moments are." And he does not see this as a passing fad or some triumph of clever marketing. "They've spoken profoundly to enough readers that they will be read and reread by children and by adults for a long time," he says. Feminist scholars write papers on Hermione's road to self-determination. Law professors cite Dobby's tale to teach contract law and civil rights. University of Tennessee law professor Benjamin Barton published "Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy," in the Michigan Law Review, which examined Rowling's view of the legitimacy of government. His conclusion? "Rowling may do more for libertarianism than anyone since John Stuart Mill." A Rutgers researcher named a rare rain-forest plant in Ecuador apparata after her verb apparate because it seemed to appear out of nowhere. French intellectuals debate whether the stories indoctrinate kids into free-market capitalism. In Turkey, the books were absorbed into the argument over Turkey's cultural geography: Is Harry a symbol of Western imperialism or of lost Eastern traditions of mysticism and alchemy? A seventh-grade teacher in Pakistan in November invited her class to compare the country's crisis to Harry Potter. The class immediately cast Pervez Musharraf as Voldemort and Benazir Bhutto as Bellatrix. "Potter is like a Rorschach blot," says Georgetown government professor Daniel Nexon, "for people articulating concerns about globalization in their cultural setting. It's incredibly significant that Potter even enters these debates."
And that is on top of the impact, even her critics acknowledge, of inspiring a generation of obsessive readers unafraid of fat books and complex plots. "They're easy to underestimate because of what I call the three Deathly Hallows for academics," says James Thomas, a professor of English at Pepperdine University. "They couldn't possibly be good because they're too recent, they're too popular, and they're too juvenile." But he argues that the books do more than entertain. "They've made millions of kids smarter, more sensitive, certainly more literate and probably more ethical and aware of hypocrisy and lust for power. They've made children better adults, I think. I don't know of any books that have worked that kind of magic on so many millions of readers in so short a time in the history of publications."
It was the end of a long January day when the last page of the last chapter was complete. Rowling had finished putting on the page numbers and found herself alone in her suite at the Balmoral feeling, she recalls, some "end-of-epic euphoria." So she danced around the room a bit and then in a fit of creative destruction took out her pen and wrote on the base of the bust of Hermes that stood in the window alcove, "J.K. Rowling finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in this room (552) on 11th Jan 2007."
The ending, naturally, was the most controversial part of the book. It would have been so much neater just to kill Harry. "I've known that all along," she says, but that was never her plan. To her, the most noble thing, the real bravery, is to rebuild after a trauma. Some fans were disappointed that after all his adventures, Harry's greatest concern in the end is whether his son will fit in at Hogwarts. "It's a bittersweet ending," she says. "But that's perfect, because that is what happens to our heroes. We're human. I kept arguing that 'love is the most important force, love is the most important force.' So I wanted to show him loving. Sometimes it's dramatic: it means you lay down your life. But sometimes it means making sure someone's trunk is packed and hoping they'll be O.K. at school."
Rowling has some rebuilding of her own to do. Her time, she says, will be divided among her children, her charities and her writing. But she has only to look at George Lucas to appreciate that the pressure to return to Hogwarts will be ferocious and some of it self-inflicted. She's already had to cope with the pressure of not disappointing the fan closest to her: her daughter Jessica, 14. What will happen when her two younger children a decade from now discover the stories for themselves and know that Mom has the power to make more of them? "There have been times since finishing, weak moments," she says, "when I've said, 'Yeah, all right,' to the eighth novel." But she's convinced she's doing the right thing to take some time away, do something else. She's working on two projects now, an adult novel and a "political fairy tale." "If, and it's a big if, I ever write an eighth book about the [wizarding ] world, I doubt that Harry would be the central character," she says. "I feel like I've already told his story. But these are big ifs. Let's give it 10 years and see how we feel then." It's a pretty safe bet how her audience will feel. But we'll just have to wait and prepare to be surprised.
with reporting by Gina Elliott and Laura Fitzpatrick/New York and Laura Blue/London