Not even a decade ago she was unknown and poor, a single mom on welfare who sometimes pretended to browse in maternity stores so she could cadge a free diaper in the changing room. Now, after four Harry Potter books, two movies and an armada of related merchandise, J.K. Rowling has a fortune estimated at $450 million, according to the London Sunday Times rich list, making her $50 million wealthier than the Queen of England. Her personal life has picked up too. She has bought multimillion-dollar houses in London, Edinburgh and the Scottish hills near Perth. And at the end of 2001, Rowling, 37, married Neil Murray, 31, a steady, brainy anesthetist she had met through a mutual friend. Last March they had a son David, who joins Jessica, 11, the daughter from her brief first marriage. Rowling has admitted that--no surprise--Harry is her favorite boy's name, but she wisely avoided saddling her son with that lifelong invitation to teasing.
In fact, Rowling has tried to throw a cloak of invisibility around her family so they can live almost normal lives. But simple pleasures like strolling to the supermarket at home in Edinburgh or attending Jessica's Christmas pageant require constant vigilance against an army of tabloid reporters and the occasional stalker.
The intrusions are only part of the reason Rowling is uneasy with fame. "I never set out to make a mark," she tells TIME. "I set out to do the thing I love best in the world and find out whether I was any good at it." She's so good at it that her lawyers are constantly swatting down copycats trying to cash in on Pottermania. Her legal team recently won victories against a Chinese knock-off, Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon, and a Russian novel about Tanya Grotter, an orphan with magical powers who attends a boarding school. Rowling was badly shaken when an American writer named Nancy Stouffer claimed she had stolen the word muggle and otherwise plagiarized Stouffer's work. A New York City federal judge found that Stouffer had "perpetrated a fraud." It felt, Rowling says, "as if some strange woman had come out of nowhere saying she was my children's mother ... It was like a punch in the stomach. People think that if you have been successful, you are insulated from normal feelings of hurt, but you aren't."
Rowling appreciates that she can use her name and money to support worthy charities, including those for one-parent families and victims of multiple sclerosis. (Her mother first showed symptoms when Rowling was 12, and suffered painfully for the five years before her death, when Rowling was 25.) "One of the few upsides of being famous is being able to do something meaningful for causes in which you believe," she tells TIME.
Obliged to do some publicity for Order of the Phoenix, she plans to appear before 4,000 children in London on June 26, to answer their questions and read from the book. The event is scheduled to be webcast around the world. Then Rowling will retreat from the spotlight to write book No. 6 and care for her family. She hopes to be remembered "as someone who did the best she could with the talent she was given. And I wouldn't mind being remembered as a good parent," she says. "But we won't know whether I've achieved that until my daughter writes J.K. Dearest." --By J.F.O. McAllister. With reporting by Jeff Chu/London