EDINBURGH, Scotland - Harry Potter's life hangs in the balance. Millions of fans are holding their breath. Meanwhile, his creator is baking a cake - and keeping her secret.
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On Saturday, readers around the globe will learn the schoolboy wizard's fate with the publication of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling's fantasy series. Will Harry defeat his evil nemesis, Lord Voldemort, and restore order to the wizarding world? Will he die in the attempt, as many fans fear - and as Rowling, an expert narrative tease, has hinted?
"Harry's story comes to a definite end in book seven," is all she will say a few days before publication, serving up tea and home-baked sponge cake in her comfortable Edinburgh house. Writing the final words of the saga felt "like a bereavement."
That sounds ominously final. So have we really seen the last of the staff and students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?
"Because the world is so big, there would be room to do other stuff," Rowling says carefully. "I am not planning to do that, but I'm not going to say I'm never going to do it."
Rowling (her name rhymes with bowling, rather than howling), looking relaxed in jeans and a sweater, shoulder-length blonde hair stylishly cut, has wildly mixed emotions at leaving behind the character she conjured up during a train journey across England in 1990: a neglected, bespectacled orphan who learns on his 11th birthday that he is a wizard.
She's enjoying the absence of pressure from publishers and fans clamoring for the next installment in Harry's adventures. And she's reveling in the chance to focus on normal life with her husband and three children.
But after finishing the last book, "I felt terrible for a week."
"The first two days in particular, it was like a bereavement, even though I was pleased with the book. And then after a week that cloud lifted and I felt quite lighthearted, quite liberated," she says.
"Finishing is emotional because the books have been so wrapped up with my life. It's almost impossible not to finish and look back to where I was when I started."
It has been an extraordinary journey. When Rowling created Harry Potter, she was a struggling single mother, writing in cafes to save on the heating bill at home. Now, at 41, she is the richest woman in Britain - worth $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine - with houses in Edinburgh, London and the Scottish countryside.
Her first book, "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," was published in 1997, with a print run of less than 1,000. Rowling's publisher suggested she use gender-neutral initials rather than her first name, Joanne, to give the book a better chance with boys. Lacking a middle name, she took the K from her paternal grandmother, Kathleen.
By the time the book appeared in the United States in 1998 - as "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" - Harry was on his way to becoming a publishing phenomenon.
The six Potter books have sold some 325 million copies in 64 languages, including Latin and Ancient Greek. "Deathly Hallows" has an initial print run of 12 million in the United States alone; more than 2 million copies have been ordered from Internet retailer Amazon.
The novels have produced five movies, mountains of toys, a riot of Internet fan sites and scores of companion books - from academic studies to parodies to pop psychology. A theme park, complete with Hogwarts castle and Forbidden Forest, is to open in Orlando, Fla., in 2009.
The launch of each new book is now accompanied by choreographed chaos and military-level security. No book is sold until a minute past midnight on Saturday.
The series' success has been "a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon," said Joel Rickett, news editor of trade magazine The Bookseller. "It has brought a new generation to reading - got kids absorbed in huge hefty hardbacks the way they wouldn't have been," he said.
While some critics have dismissed the books as lightweight kiddie fare, others have been impressed by their moral complexity and darkening tone. Death haunts Harry Potter, who was orphaned at the age of 1 when Voldemort killed his parents. He loses his godfather Sirius Black in the fifth book and his beloved headmaster Dumbledore in the sixth. No wonder fans fear for Harry's future.
Rowling was profoundly affected by the death of her own mother from multiple sclerosis in 1990 at the age of 45.
"My mum died six months into writing (the books), and I think that set the central theme - this boy dealing with loss," Rowling says.
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