During the Melbourne Writers Festival I spend a day dressed in costume talking about Harry Potter. We drink beers and lie in the sun and I think about how many friends I have made by talking about Harry Potter. When I have been lonely, people who love these books have found me. I like Harry Potter but I like its fans even more.
I go home at the end of that day, sleepy and nostalgic, and decide to reawaken my long dormant fan fiction habit. Harry Potter fan fiction was my first foray into fandom and diving back in feels like regressing. It feels like standing face-to-face with a fifteen-year-old me. For two weeks, I neglect the stack of blocks on the floor beside my bed, pouring my energy into a single very long piece of fan fiction called The Life and Times. It is more than six hundred thousand words long—shorter than the entire Harry Potter series by not by much. I lose myself in it.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of reading really good fan fiction. Your imagination can bleed into the messy edges. Your mind can get lost in this world where there aren’t any hard borders to rein it in. Fan fiction is gentler than canon. It’s the bits in between, the slow parts that canon leaves out. There’s less epic battles and more relaxed walks. It’s exploring outside the frame of the picture. Reading fan fiction feels like day dreaming.
When I read fan fiction I read the same story over and over. It’s the story of how Lily Evans and James Potter got together in their final years of school. It’s tangled up in stories about James’ friendship with Sirius Black, Remus Lupin and Peter Pettigrew—collectively The Marauders. There are often other characters too—sometimes they are approaching canon, sometimes they are completely invented. Details change, different people kiss on the Astronomy Tower, the Griffindor Quidditch team has a different line-up. It’s the same story but it isn’t. There are always different voices, different perspectives, different angles. There are moments that the canon has made into fixed points but even those are hazy. This story doesn’t have a lot of rules. I’ve got my own versions, patch worked from bits and pieces. I sew new bits on all the time, adding and trimming. The story is the process, of creating a narrative without ever pinning it down.
The last time I read this much fan fiction I was fifteen. We used to pay for our dialup internet by the minute so I would download whole chapters to read offline. Once, I went online twice in one day, desperate for the next chapter, and got in trouble from my dad. I used to go to a site called Fiction Alley, devoted entirely to Harry Potter fan fiction. You could search by genre or by era or by ship—which two characters you wanted to see kissing. A lot of fan fiction is about making different combinations of people kiss. The fics were never explicit (they were mostly written by teenagers) but some were hidden behind an age lock. When the site asked if I was seventeen, I would lie and click YES.
There was this one version of the story that I stumbled on, not long after Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince came out. It was called The Phoenix Effect and was written by someone called Lathana. It was that same story—about the Maurauders and Lily and James—but there were new ideas, new characters. I watched diligently for updates, my best friend and I would rush to tell each other when a new one appeared. Chapters were bookended by metatext. I used to comment on every chapter, posting my thoughts and asking questions. I’d get a thrill out of getting responses and seeing my username in the little paragraphs at the beginning and end of chapters.
A couple of months before Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released, chapter twenty-six of The Phoenix Effect was posted. It wasn’t the end of the story but it was the last chapter. Lathana went quiet. That was a full decade ago now, but I still think about it. The Life and Times doesn’t have an ending either. Its author went quiet too. The difference is that this story still exists, for people to discover even in it’s dormant state. The metatext is an archive of when it was a living, breathing thing. The Phoenix Effect is gone. They say nothing ever really disappears on the internet but it doesn’t take that many years of being online to see foundations crumble.
Fiction Alley is a blog page now. Bits of it have survived but they’re fragmented, full of glitches and dead links. Updates from the moderators tell me that the site has endured multiple server crashes. I type in the usernames that I remember by heart, having searched them over and over for updates, but they’re all gone. I plug the few dead URLs I can find into WayBack Machine. I manage to recover the index page of The Phoenix Effect. There is the list of chapters, the dates that each was posted. I try and map those dates against my life. I click on a chapter, hopeful for a moment. ‘Are you over seventeen years old?’ this echo of a webpage asks. ‘Please select the correct choice.’ I click YES over and over. But nothing happens.