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  J.K. Rowling: Alert as an alley cat, but engulfed by a movie franchise 

J.K. Rowling's first novel written officially for adults, The Casual Vacancy (Little, Brown, £20), has been trailed by such a fanfare that it is easy to forget she did not always have it easy when it came to getting publicity. 

As the children's books reviewer for The Times I was sent the first Harry Potter book, to my mind still by far the best, in the summer of 1997. I fished it out of the pile of 100 or so books sent to me every month and took it on holiday. It was so delightful that I made up endless excuses — pregnancy, heat exhaustion, back trouble — to escape from my family and hide away reading it. 

In my enthusiastic review, I noted that the book had the makings of a cult and guessed that "in years to come 30-somethings will swap secret references to Quidditch". When the second book arrived I asked Rowling's then publishers Bloomsbury if I could have lunch with her next time she was in London. The answer came back that she had loved my review and would be delighted to meet; but she would have her young daughter with her, so could she come to my house instead of a restaurant? 

As I had a toddler in tow this suited us both. We could talk while supervising jigsaw puzzles in the living room. Jo Rowling and little Jessica arrived by taxi, we had a pleasant natter over smoked salmon, and I covered for Jo while she had a furtive fag in the garden "because I don't want Jessica to see me smoking". She was clever, sharp, passionate; modest yet inquisitive; alert as an alley-cat, yet appealingly vulnerable. I felt that if I had been at school with her I would have longed to be her friend. I certainly would not have wanted to be her enemy.

She told me she had the whole plot of seven books worked out in advance, and that Ginny Weasley would turn out to be the most magical of all Harry's friends, being the seventh child of a seventh child. "But you must not tell anyone that," she said fiercely. 

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