On the train home from work a few months ago, I glanced up from writing in my notebook to see a young man staring at me. “Are you writing for school?” He asked.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Just for fun.”
He nodded. “Cool. Nice to see.” I smiled, serene, imagining myself as the mysterious young novelist on the brown line. Joke’s on you, I thought, I’m writing Harry Potter fanfiction.
I consider myself a “serious writer,” whatever that means. I have a fiction degree, and most months I pay my rent freelancing. Many prestigious literary magazines have honored me with rejections. Last month, I put the finishing touches on the longest work I’ve ever finished: a 30,000 word Harry Potter fanfiction. Whoops.
I’m torn between pride and shame, here: Do I hoist my accomplishment in the air like the Quidditch World Cup, or do I make my roommate swear on an unbreakable vow to never reveal what I’ve been writing for six months? Fanfiction is delicate territory. At best, people ask why I’m not spending time on my own stories—something I can actually publish for money and credit. At worst, they think I’m the sort of mouth-breathing nerd mocked on late night talk shows and "The Big Bang Theory."
When I tell people I like Harry Potter, I’m never sure they understand what I mean. And for some reason, I always want to make sure we’re clear. “No, but I really like Harry Potter,” I might say on a first date or a job interview, desperate gleam in my eye. “Like, I think about it every night when I’m falling asleep. Do. You. Understand.”
I mostly obsess over the Marauders era, when Harry’s parents and their friends studied at Hogwarts while Voldemort rose to power. My story, “This Last Golden Age,” follows James Potter, Sirius Black, Remus Lupin and Peter Pettigrew in their last four years of school. In a lot of ways, it’s a typical coming of age story. I could probably just tell people I wrote a novella about friendships forged during wartime at a British boarding school—but if they asked too many questions, I’d have to reveal it was the First Wizarding War.
I’m not alone in my Marauders fascination. On fanfiction.net there are 13,976 stories under the Marauders tag alone. J.K. Rowling provides the framework for that era, and fans jump at the chance to fill in the gaps. Like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, the series provides muggles a massive universe to navigate. As a writer, there’s something relieving about stepping into someone else’s creation. Following another author’s rules can be oddly freeing, and there is no satisfaction like penning the perfect metaphor about teenage romance and unstoppered potions. It’s a challenge, too, sticking as close to the source material as possible while crafting something unique.
The truth, though, is I never planned to pen such an epic ode to my love of witchcraft and wizardry. Originally, I wanted to write my own novel.
Every November since sophomore year of college, I participate in National Novel Writing Month, a 30-day word sprint with the end goal of 50,000 words. In 2011, I had a grand, sweeping idea for an urban fantasy set in Chicago. I started strong, hitting all my word quotas: 5,000, then 10,000. But the further I got, the less excited I became. My novel just wasn’t working, and every day’s word count felt like a chore.
So I thought—innocently, naively—that a day’s break for Marauders fanfiction would help me recharge. Just a quick side trip, I reasoned. A way to stretch my typing fingers and get back in the groove of things.
I blinked. 20 days had passed. I’d written 30,000 words about werewolves, secret passageways, and bewitched maps. On the last day of November, I wrapped up the month’s word count, saved the file and figured that was the end. I didn’t really regret my choice, because I’d had a lot of fun, but I wasn’t exactly bragging about my accomplishment.
This January, I found the story when I was cleaning out some files on my computer. I read the first chapter idly, remembering my wasted month—but the more I read, the more I appreciated my accidental lapse into the wizarding world. Three years had passed since I finished the story; a lot of the writing needed work, but most of it was pretty good. I set about revising and posting chapters online, week by week. When I told my friends about the project, I played it off as a joke—but in truth, I felt entirely re-invested in my work.
Of course, a lucky few have earned major book deals based on their illustrious fanfiction careers. "Fifty Shades of Grey" started as a smutty "Twilight" fic, and the author of teen supernatural series "The Mortal Instruments," Cassandra Clare, got her chops shipping Draco Malfoy with, well, everybody. On Tumblr, nerd lord Neil Gaiman winkingly referred to his Doctor Who episodes as fanfic. (Hate to argue with you, Neil, technically they’re canon—but thanks for the sentiment.)
Anyway, hi, I’m still waiting for my book deal.
Still, most “serious writers” I know don’t get the allure. In college when I made a joke about my hobby, my writing mentor told me to stop wasting my time. For a long time, I kept those sides of my persona separate: ambitious English major upfront, glorified Rita Skeeter undercover. But I’m tired of hiding projects I’m proud of—and projects that have actively improved my craft. Why can’t I write big, serious novels of my own design and epic fanfiction about teenage wizards?
Fanfic reminds me of when I was a kid, writing about talking dragons, or rebellious girls who tame wild stallions, or whatever else I wrote about before puberty. Before I worried about contrived plots, prestigious lit mags, or writing something “important.” Back when writing felt a lot more like playing.
I engage with the Harry Potter community in a ton of ways, from Harry and the Potters shows to fandom message boards, and I love fitting into a community so much larger than myself. But the beginning was simple: just me and a book. And when I write fanfiction, it’s still just me and the story. I guess I have this small, stubborn insistence that Harry Potter belongs to me.
These days, I’m trying to sit more comfortably with all these parts of myself. I’m always going to plan over-the-top Triwizard parties and brew bootleg Butterbeer. I’ll constantly get too drunk and explain to you, again and again, that Remus and Sirius could be in love, and it could be canon.
And no matter who I pretend to be in quiet moments with my notebook on the train, I’m always going to write fanfic on the side. Because in writing “This Last Golden Age,” I learned a lot about wizards, sure. But I also learned something I’m trying hard to always remember, like a memory immortalized in Dumbledore’s stone pensieve: no time spent writing is ever wasted.