Sometime in 1999, probably around March and not even two years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published in the UK, Jo (we were on a first-name basis) was pretty happy. Although she was still relatively unknown in Australia, her book about a boy wizard had won a number of awards in the UK and been published in the US. She was well on her way to completing book number three.
Half a world away, I was living in Brisbane and working for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, running various events in Queensland, including the much-loved MS READ-a-thon. I’d done the READ-a-thon many times as a kid and was passionate about children’s literacy. I was also keen to work out how to get more boys involved.
The people at Angus & Robertson, a bookstore that sponsored the MS READ-a-thon, invited me to periodically read a few children’s books and review them for their printed catalogue. They didn’t have to ask twice. Every few weeks or so, I would visit my local Angus & Robertson and wander around the store with the manager, choosing a few books that were selling well, were written by prominent authors or just sounded interesting.
“This one’s been moving lately: might be a good read,” the manager said as she tilted the cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone toward me so I could see. I took it, along with a few other books, I read it, I loved it and I reviewed it.
Over the next few weeks I would visit many primary schools to promote the MS READ-a-thon at assemblies. I noticed the kids were talking about this new book and I started opening my presentations by yelling “Who wants to play Quidditch?”. The roar is response grew louder and louder with each school visit. Most interesting of all, the roars were coming from the girls AND the boys.
I don’t remember how I found out. Maybe it was written in the author’s bio inside the back cover but I had a moment when I read that Jo Rowling’s mother suffered from Multiple Sclerosis. I was already in touch with the publishers of a few authors specifically writing for pre-teen boys and I was eager to make contact with Rowling. If she ever decided to do a book tour of Australia, I wanted to make sure the MS READ-a-thon and the Multiple Sclerosis Society was at the top of her list.
Somehow I got her number. I stayed back at work one night, calling and chatting to a number of people in the UK, following a trail that eventually led to Jo’s own personal number. Maybe they took pity on the Australian girl calling from the other side of the world or perhaps the link with MS got me through the gatekeepers. At any rate, someone gave me her number and I rang it.
So, what did we talk about? Her mum, obviously. And multiple sclerosis. How much I loved the book. The fact that Australian releases were so far behind. It was morning in the UK, early evening in Brisbane. She asked about the weather. “Hot. It’s always hot,” I said. “Even in the winter.” That obviously appealed to her and, although she had no immediate plans to visit Australia, she did say she’d love to have a warm winter one day.
She gave me an email address for her publisher and we left it at that. I got a response from the publisher – a maybe, one day, fobbing-off type of email. Oh well. I let it go. As interesting as the MS connection was, there were other authors I could contact. Remember… it was still early days in the Potter craze!
Months later, once the MS READ-a-thon was done-and-dusted for the year and planning had started for the next, I rang her number. Book number three Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban would soon be released and things were getting quite frenzied. It was clear Harry Potter was a thing. The Philosopher’s Stone regularly appeared on submitted reading lists and there had been a noticeable increase in the number of boys taking part in the MS READ-a-thon which I attributed in no small part to J K Rowling’s wizarding tale. I wanted to let her know and, hopefully, get her interested in the 2000 program.
The number was disconnected. I tried contacting her agent and the publisher. I sent some emails. I got no replies. The Harry horse with my good friend Jo perched atop it had bolted.
Needless to say, the 2000 MS READ-a-thon in Australia had no guest appearance by J K Rowling and I never again got the chance to chat to her about anything at all. I live in hope though: perhaps one day she’ll track me down to ask if she can come and visit in one of our warm winters. I’ll have to immediately move from Canberra back to Brisbane. No biggie: I’ll do anything for a good friend!
In case you’re reading this Jo, you can find me at Quizzic Alley in Pirie St, Fyshwick, Canberra, Australia.