Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles ... NARRATOR: It's November, 2006. J. K. Rowling is working in secret... ...on the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows... ...in a hotel room in Edinburgh. Yeah, I've helpfully made the note for myself: "This will need very serious planning." [LAUGHING] I don't know when I wrote that. And I was quite right in that. NARRATOR: The Harry Potter series has taken 17 years to write. It's an epic saga of childhood confusion, danger and adventure. But it's more than just a children's story. Behind the witchcraft and the wizardry lies an intensely moral fable... ...about good and evil, love and hatred, life and death. My name is James Runcie. I'm a writer and a filmmaker. And I want to find out the secret of J. K. Rowling's success. How has she done it? And where has it all come from? WOMAN: You look really nice, Jo. -Oh. Thank you. This is J. K. Rowling's country house in Perthshire. Once inside, I decided to start the film by asking a few direct questions. RUNCIE: What's your favorite virtue? -Courage. -What vice to do you most despise? -Bigotry. -What are you most willing to forgive? -Gluttony. -What's your most marked characteristic? -I'm a trier. -What are you most afraid of? -Losing someone I love. What's the quality you most like in a man? Morals. What's the quality you most like in a woman? Generosity. What do you most value about your friends? Tolerance. What's your principal defect? Short fuse. What's your favorite occupation? -Writing. -What's your dream of happiness? Happy family. NARRATOR: The desire for a happy family comes, in part, from a difficult childhood. Like her orphaned hero, Harry Potter... ...Joanne Rowling was brought up on a suburban British street. First in Уate, just outside Bristol... ...and then a few miles down the road, in Winterbourne. The house even had a cupboard under the stairs. But unlike Harry Potter, Jo wasn't made to sleep there. She shares the same birthday as Harry Potter, the 31st of July. And together with her sister, Di, endured similar childhood economies. RUNCIE: What were your haircuts like? ROWLING: Oh. That's-- That's just not-- That's just wrong. They were terrible. -Honestly. This is child abuse. -They were terrible. -I don't wanna show it, though. -They were terrible. There were-- RUNCIE: I've got it here. -That's not-- That-- Look at my fringe. -But I was-- [CHUCKLING] I don't think anyone can stomach that for long. NARRATOR: If you're wondering, Jo is the one on the right. DI: If you weren't used to cutting hair... ...wouldn't you approach it in a gentle, slow manner? -Wouldn't you go to a hairdresser? -Well, maybe they couldn't-- Wouldn't you just cut it slowly and not attack it like a hatchet? I do think you've-- Mine was always crooked, always. RUNCIE: Did you wear similar clothes? ROWLING: Oh, God, yes. -Different colors, but.... -Yeah, you always had pink. And I always had blue. RUNCIE: Because you were the boy, Jo? -Yeah. RUNCIE: Because you were the eldest? -Yeah, and I was supposed to be a boy. -So-- DI: Simon John. I was supposed to be Simon John. I even know who I was supposed to be. RUNCIE: Had they told you? -Oh, yeah. -She was a massive disappointment. -Yeah. And so then I said quite hopefully: "And when Di came along, were you disappointed too?" "No." I said, "Was that because you found out it was quite nice to have a girl?" "No." So then I just went upstairs and wept. NARRATOR: When Jo was 9 years old... ...the family moved to a village outside Chepstow... ...on the edge of the Forest of Dean. Here was a location that offered a whole range of imaginative possibilities... ...magical creatures, mystery and intrigue. ROWLING: I'm very drawn to forests. And it's my favorite part of the Hogwarts grounds. The advantage of a forest is it can be so many things. It can be a place of enchantment. You never imagine a crowd in a forest. It's a solitary place. Is it because it used to be a place of shelter and safety to us, I suppose. So I think-- I'm very drawn to them. Even though they can be spooky. Jo wrote stories from an early age. There was resonant material all around her. She even lived next door to a graveyard. The family lived in this house. Jo and her sister, Di, earned extra pocket money... ...as part-time cleaners of St. Luke's church. ROWLING: I cannot overstate how cold it got... ...in this church in winter when we were cleaning it. It was freezing. For a pound each. It's tragic, really. We must be in here loads. Because we used to sign this book all the time. Oh, God, I know-- Oh, look, it's me. There I am. [ROWLING CHUCKLES] Me and Di together. "Joanne Rowling, age 12. Dianne Rowling, age 10." Ah. There's a name I stole for Harry Potter. For an unpleasant character as well. Hide the book. Lock it away. Heh, hen. Forgotten about that. Yes. NARRATOR: Jo was the only member of the family... ...to attend church services regularly... ...and was baptized here at the age of 11. RUNCIE: Do you believe in God? Yes. I do-- I do struggle with it. I couldn't pretend that I'm not doubt-ridden about a lot of things... ...and that would be one of them. But I would say yes. RUNCIE: Do you think there's a life beyond this of some kind? ROWLING: Yes, I think I do. Jo's religious belief... ...and her thoughts about love, death and the afterlife were severely tested... ...when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1980. ROWLING: I was 15 when she was diagnosed. But we now know that she was showing signs... ...probably from when I was about 10 or 11. She would have odd losses of feeling in limbs. Her balance-- Her balance actually was poor for a long time. And then it just got worse and worse and she decided it was time to visit the doctor... ...but she wasn't expecting to hear anything. And then, you know, a year of tests and there we were. She had a very virulent form of the illness. And at that time there were no drug treatments at all. They said, "Well, you've got multiple sclerosis. See you." The illness was to have a devastating impact on the two girls. Particularly as they found their father difficult. One of the reasons Harry Potter is so full of idealized father figures... ...Hagrid, Dumbledore and Sirius Black... ...is that Jo's relationship with her own father was far from ideal. I was very frightened of my father for a very long time. And-- But also tried-- Well, it's a common combination, isn't it? I also tried desperately to get his approval... ...and make him happy, I suppose. And then there came a point, quite shamingly late in life... ...where I couldn't do that anymore. And so I haven't had any contact with my father now for a few years. The absence of any meaningful relationship with her father... ...and the long, slow loss of her mother... ...are two of the most important influences on Jo's writing. Ann Rowling died in 1990. She never knew about Harry Potter... ...or the phenomenal success her daughter was about to enjoy. The death of Joanne Rowling's mother was to have a profound effect on her writing. In many ways, the whole of Harry Potter is one giant attempt to reclaim a childhood. MAN: You think the dead we have loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don't recall them more clearly then ever in times of great trouble? ROWLING: I'd been writing for six months before she died. The weird thing is the essential plot didn't change after my mother died. But everything deepened and darkened. Harry was always going to lose his parents. And it was always going to be a quest, really... ...to avenge them, but to avenge everyone against this creature... ...this being who believes that he can make himself immortal... ...by killing other people. So that's something I created before she died... ...but, yes, it seeped into every part of the books. I think, in retrospect, now I've finished, I see just how much it informed everything. RUNCIE: Was she the first person you saw dead? ROWLING: No. Because I didn't see her dead. Which was in deference to my father's wishes. I wanted to see her and he didn't want me to see her... ...and I, mistakenly, as I look back... ...I agreed not too. And I really, deeply regret that. I really, really, really wish I'd seen her. It didn't matter what she looked like. I would have made it easier. Because I do believe that the truth-- Which is another theme in the books and certainly stems from my own past. I think that the truth is always easier than a lie or an evasion. Easier to deal with. And easier to live with. After her mother's death... ...Jo moved to Portugal to teach English as a Foreign Language. She married Jorge Arantes, a television journalist. Together they had a daughter, Jessica. But the marriage failed after two years. Jo succumbed to depression. ROWLING: I'd had a short and really quite catastrophic marriage... ...and I'm left with this baby and I've got to get this baby back to Britain... ...and I've got to rebuild us a life. And adrenalin kept me going through that, and it was only when I came to rest... ...that it hit me what a complete mess I had made of my life. And that hit me quite hard. We were as skint as you can be without being homeless. In other words, we were existing entirely on benefits. And at that point I was definitely clinically depressed. And that's just characterized for me by a numbness, a coldness... ...and an inability to believe that you will feel happy again... ...or that you could feel lighthearted again. It was just all the color drained out of life, really. And I loved Jessica very, very much... ...and was terrified something was going to happen to her. Because I think I got into that very depressive mindset... ...where everything's gone wrong... ...so this one good thing in my life will now go wrong as well. So it was almost a surprise to me every morning that she was still alive. I kept expecting her to die or-- It was a bad, bad time. Jo's depression inspired her creation of the Dementors in the Harry Potter series. MAN: Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places. They glory in decay and despair. They drain peace, hope and happiness out of the air around them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory... ...will be sucked out of you. NARRATOR: The Harry Potter books may be located in an alternative fantasy world... ...but they're filled with the pain and dilemmas of real life. They address serious moral questions about the nature of trust... ...loyalty, integrity, and the need to make a stand against evil. Through the series Harry Potter has to learn... ...what it means to be a force for good... ...against the dark arts of Lord Voldemort. ROWLING: I think we all understand what an act of evil is. And Voldemort qualifies extravagantly for acts of evil. He has killed not out of self-defense, not to protect... ...not for any of the reasons that we might all be able to envisage... ...or most of us could envisage ourselves killing... ...in certain extreme situations. If people we loved were threatened or in war. He'd killed cold-bloodedly, sometimes for enjoyment... ...and for his own personal gain. I call that evil. And, yes, at the end of the book you have a clash of two utterly, utterly different... ...again, for want of a better word, souls. One that has been maimed and has become less than human... ...because to me "human" includes the capacity to love. And Voldemort has deliberately dehumanized himself. And this very-- This flawed, vulnerable, damaged... ...and yet still fighting, still loving... ...still daring to love and daring to hope, soul, which is Harry.