Inside the Magical World of 'Harry Potter' Author

PHOTO: JK Rowling

The heart-pounding, often harrowing tales of a young wizard and his friends battling the forces of evil have introduced a generation to reading. And with more than 400 million copies of the "Harry Potter" books sold around the world and earnings for the first five movies reaching $4 billion, Harry Potter has become a multi-billion dollar brand.

But before becoming a worldwide phenomenon, Harry Potter existed only in the mind of Joanne, better known to the world as author J.K. Rowling, who was a struggling, out-of-work single mom when she decided one day to write a book.

VIDEO: J.K. Rowling Reflects on Childhood Events
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Though the series has taken her 17 years to write, when Rowling began putting words to paper, it was magic.

Watch "J.K. Rowling: A Year in the Life," Thursday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

An epic saga of childhood confusion, danger and adventure, Harry Potter is more than just a children's story. Behind the witchcraft and the wizardry lie an intensely moral fable about good and evil, love and hatred, life and death. Yet Rowling, a slender, down-to-earth woman, still seems surprised at her success.

Like her orphaned hero, Joanne Rowling was brought up on suburban British streets like the one the Dursleys live on, in the books, in the south of England, outside Bristol. Her house even had a cupboard under the stairs; but unlike Potter, Rowling didn't have to sleep there.

Rowling and Potter share the same birthday -- July 31 -- and Rowling, with her sister Di, endured similar childhood traumas and massive disappointments, as the novels' protagonist.

At the impressionable age of nine, Rowling's family moved from the suburbs to the country, near the Forest of Dean -- a location that offered a range of imaginative possibilities: magical creatures, mystery and intrigue for Rowling.

"I'm very drawn to, to a forest and it's my favorite part of the Hogwarts grounds," Rowling said in a November 2006 interview with James Runcie, which has been obtained by ABC News. "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. But there's just something, is it because it used to be a place of shelter and safety to us I suppose, so I think, I, I am very drawn to them, even though they can be spooky."

Mother's Illness Tests Rowling

Rowling delved into writing at an early age, but her thoughts about love, death, heaven and hell were tested when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1980.

"She had a very virulent form of the illness and at that time there were no drug treatments at all," Rowling said. "And they said 'well you've got multiple sclerosis, see you.'"

The illness devastated Rowling and her sister, and strained her relationship with her father.

"I was very frightened of my father for a very long time," she said in the 2006 interview. "...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."

Rowling's far from ideal relationship with her father inspired idealized father figures, like Hagrid, Dumbledore, and Sirius Black, in the series. She says the absence of any meaningful relationship with her father and the loss of her mother have been the two of the most important influences on her writing.

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