NEAL CONAN, host: Spoiler alert: Harry Potter vanquished Voldemort. He did it in the pages of J.K. Rowling's beloved books, and he's just finished up the job again in 3D. But wait. There's more, probably not from Ms. Rowling, but most certainly from legions of fans who have already come up with more than half a million stories set in the Potterverse. That's right. Half a million.
If that's you, if you write your own "Harry Potter" stories or "Star Trek" stories or "X-Men" stories or any other fan fiction, call and tell us why. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Lev Grossman reviews books for Time magazine. He also writes them. He's the author of "The Magicians" and the forthcoming sequel, "The Magician King." His piece on "Harry Potter" and the history of fan fiction is called "The Boy Who Lived Forever." You can find a link to it at our website, npr.org. And he joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.
LEV GROSSMAN: Nice to be here.
CONAN: And fan fiction did not begin with Harry Potter.
GROSSMAN: It has a long and distinguished history, but you can - the sort of modern era of fan fiction began in the '60s with TV shows like "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." and, of course, "Star Trek."
CONAN: "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." David McCallum, still on TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSSMAN: He'll live forever too.
CONAN: And live forever too. And, of course, "Star Trek." And what people do is starting to write stories that were set in that world, but, of course, never dramatized by Gene Roddenberry.
GROSSMAN: Well, you know, the fans sort of had a hunger not only for more "Star Trek," more of the same, but they also wanted to sort of play with that universe and play with the characters and do things with those characters that they couldn't do on a regular show. They wanted to sort of break boundaries and sort of push the envelope in ways that Roddenberry wouldn't and couldn't.
CONAN: And couldn't because a fair amount of the writing - well, you're interesting on this. You say outsiders believe it's all pornography.
GROSSMAN: Well, when you hear about - on rare occasions, when you hear about fan fiction in the sort of mainstream media, there's a lot of focus on erotica, pornography, so-called slash fiction, which, of course, is a real thing, and it's a part of fan fiction. It's a part of the picture, and it probably gets a disproportionate amount of attention.
But, you know, there's also things like - one of the early - earliest fan fictions about "Star Trek" had the characters from the show being transported to the set of the television show, where it was being filmed. They - and they meet the actors who play them, and they meet Roddenberry. So you can see what I mean by breaking boundaries. You couldn't do that on TV. But somebody decided to have some fun with that, and why not?
CONAN: And there can also be, yes, "Star Trek's" cast was amazingly diverse for a time, but not diverse enough for a lot of people.
GROSSMAN: Right. Well, you know, one of the things that fan fiction does is it goes after the sort of hidden subtext of a show and sort of brings them to light. So, for example, there's this very intense friendship between Spock and Kirk. And an early fan fiction decided to explore the idea that there was sexual tension between them and sort of staged a love scene between the two of them.
And that became a very popular premise not only in "Star Trek," but in all kinds of other shows, not even only in science fiction. You know, you get "Starsky & Hutch." A love scene between the two of those, what if it happened? Well, you could find out what if, if you check out some fan fiction online.
CONAN: So what if is the key to it. There's also a lot of plot points that people want to explore.
GROSSMAN: That's true. You know, even a story that is as detailed and densely plotted as, for example, the "Harry Potter" stories, there's always going to be bits that you don't see. You know, what does the scene look like from Neville Longbottom's point of view? What happens between this chapter and that chapter with a little elapsed time? Fan - one of the games that fan fiction writers play is what happened when, you know, the camera wasn't looking? What happened when Roland turned the page? They'll fill in these little blanks in very interesting, entertaining ways.
CONAN: We're talking with Lev Grossman, a book reviewer for Time magazine, an author himself and writer of a recent piece in Time magazine called "The Boy Who Lived Forever," about fan fiction. If that describes you, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll star with Tocia(ph), I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, in Richmond California.
CONAN: Go ahead, please. Are you a fan fiction writer?
TOCIA: I am a fan fiction writer, actually. I use the website harrypotterfanficion.com, where there are like 60,000 — I think 60,000 stories now. And I personally love exploring the missing moments.
CONAN: Such as?
TOCIA: Well, for example when Ron and Hermione go down to the Chamber of Secrets. That is in the film, but that isn't in the book. So it's great exploring what could have happened down there.
CONAN: And what did happen down there that we never found out about except in the movie?
TOCIA: Well, apparently they went down there to destroy Hufflepuff's cup, another Horcrux. But that's all we know. They went down into the Chamber of Secrets, somehow destroyed the Horcrux and came back out alive and well.
CONAN: And what did you have them do to do that?
TOCIA: Well, I mean, you just really have to think about the characters' relationship and how they would interact in a stressful situation. And I guess what I did was I just had them struggling with a piece of the (unintelligible) that was in it, and it told them horrible things and made them go through a lot of pain and suffering, but eventually their love for each other won over.
CONAN: Well - and was it fun to write?
TOCIA: It was fun to write.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Tocia.
TOCIA: Thank you. You're welcome.
CONAN: Appreciate it. And, Lev Grossman, she illustrates a point you make in your piece: A lot of these fan fiction writers are women.
GROSSMAN: Yeah, that's true. There's all kinds of stereotypes about fan fiction and who writes them. And, of course, there's no sort of hard data, but anecdotally I would say my impression is that a majority of fan fiction is written by women, and people, also, of all ages. You know, this stereotype of I don't know what, the sort of couch-bound nerd in his parents' basement, it's largely, I think, without foundation.
CONAN: And it does have precedents. I mean, after Ian Fleming died some years later, official writers were designated to write new James Bond novels.
GROSSMAN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, and it goes back much further than that. I don't think 10 years had gone by after Sherlock Holmes was introduced by Arthur Conan Doyle than fans were writing their own Sherlock Homes adventures. There just wasn't enough Holmes to satisfy the hunger. Readers demanded more. And if Conan Doyle couldn't supply them, they'd do it themselves and they did.
CONAN: And you also point out a Roman writer took a minor character in "The Iliad" and built it into an epic of his own.
GROSSMAN: We forget that, you know, this idea, this tradition of borrowing a character from a work of fiction and giving him or her the stage and then writing his or her further adventures is a - more than a legitimate sort of literary form. It has - it's a grand tradition, and it's been going on for a millennia. And fan fiction, you know, it's part of that. It's not some sort of weird pop culture ghetto. It's part of a great tradition.
CONAN: Let's go next to Cameron, Cameron with us from Norman, Oklahoma.
CAMERON: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Very good. Thanks.
CAMERON: I do a little bit of fictional writing, although it's not really fan fiction. I do historical fiction. I like to write about possibilities that could have occurred in history. My favorite story that's dear to my heart, I wrote a story about Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister under Joseph Stalin...
CONAN: Inventor of a famous cocktail.
CAMERON: Yes, yes. Of course.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CAMERON: And I wrote a story, just a fictional story where he takes over the Soviet Union after Stalin dies as opposed to Khrushchev (unintelligible) and what impact it would have on, like, various countries and workers (unintelligible) the world. Or, like, could we have seen Africa becoming independent through a Soviet-backed or a Chinese-backed communist revolution? And like - anyway, it's true that it's history in effect but with what if you can turn it into a playground and you can make your own reality. I think it's kind of fun to twist it like that.
CONAN: Lev Grossman, would you counterfactual history as part of this movement?
GROSSMAN: I would. I believe there's even a term in the fan fiction tradition for stories like that. I've heard them referred to as RPF, which stands for real person fiction. So yes, as far as fan fiction is concerned, nothing is safe.
CONAN: Cameron, do you enjoy it?
CAMERON: I love it. I get to make history the way that I wish it were.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
END SOUNDBITE: Cameron, thanks very much for the phone call.
CAMERON: Thank you for taking it.
CONAN: Here's an email from Nick: I think one thing that bears discussion is when fan fiction and, much more frequently, speculation become elevated to actual canon by the original author. He doesn't give us an example of that, but Lev Grossman, would you accept that that happens?
GROSSMAN: Oh, I think - it's funny, the feedback loop there, that does sometimes get closed. I'm hard put to come up with an example, although I think the TV show "Supernatural" plays with this a lot. I think, you know, creators often take great interest in, you know, you get - it's sort of an open line right to what readers want. You get to see, you know, if the audience could...
CONAN: Or directly into their veins, if you will.
GROSSMAN: If the inmates took over the asylum, if the audience took over the production, what would they want? Well, that readerly id sort of becomes unconstrained. And it is really fascinating for fans and creators alike to see where it goes.
CONAN: Yet you point out, there are plenty of people, writers, who say wait a minute, this is my world, I invented it, it's mine. Stay out.
GROSSMAN: There's a strong sort of counter-tradition, yes, of, you know, very popular, significant writers who just say, I'm not having it, you know. The characters that I created, they're mine. They're like my children. I'll say what they will and won't do. And really, nobody else has any business messing around with them, which, you know, I think that's - there's a lot of feeling, a lot of passion behind that feeling. And I - and some people dismiss it. I don't. I think it's legitimate in its way.
CONAN: We're talking with Lev Grossman about fan fiction. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News. And let's get Tom on the line. Tom with us from Rochester, Minnesota.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
TOM: I'm a fan fiction writer. And one thing I really enjoy in fan fiction is crossovers, when you mix characters from vastly different stories into a single a story.
CONAN: Give us an example.
TOM: Well, I mixed up "Harry Potter" and "Big Trouble in Little China" and took the main character from there and help - has him helping Harry.
CONAN: And it worked out, I assume. Good triumphed over evil yet again?
TOM: Yes, mm-hmm.
CONAN: And where did they go? And was this in Little China?
TOM: No. No, this was in England. I had to move the Kurt Russell character to England to accidentally run into Harry during a battle and helped him out.
CONAN: And, well, that's interesting. Thank you, Tom.
CONAN: And, Lev Grossman, this is, as you say, one of the accepted forms of fan fiction, the crossover?
GROSSMAN: Oh, it's very common. Very common. And again, you know, I find it incredibly interesting, the ability of these writers to take not just two characters, but you know, two worlds and two sort of points of view and makes them kind of talk to each other, break through not the fourth wall but whatever number wall that is that separates one fiction from another and merge the two universes. It takes, among other things, a lot of writerly skill. And a lot of these people can really pull it off.
CONAN: And as you say in the piece, this is an interactive world. People not only write this, they read it. They talk to each other. It's a place to hang out.
GROSSMAN: Yes. It's - there's a lot of socializing, a very, very strong and mutually supportive community around fan fiction. They talk about each other's work. They critique it. They proofread it for each other. You know, these are people who sort of are united by this urge that they have not to just sit on a couch and consume entertainment passively, but to speak back to the screen. And it creates these sort of strong bonds between them.
CONAN: Lev Grossman, in his piece, cites a writer named Kelly Joyce. I've been in fandom since early 2005, when I was getting ready to turn 12. For me, starting so young, fan fic became my English teacher, my sex-ed class, my favorite hobby and the source of some of my dearest friends. It also provided me with a crash course in social justice and how to respect and celebrate diversity both of characters and fic writers. It sounds like it became her university.
GROSSMAN: Well, it really can. You know, writing of any kind is very intellectually demanding. And I think it's amazing these people, you know, do it for fun. Most people don't think of writing as something they do for fun. You know, they think of a letter or a paper or a memo or something - sometimes just taking words and having a great time with them, that is entertainment. And - but, really, you know, just an instructive and intellectually demanding form of it.
CONAN: Let's get Laura on the line. Laura with us from Middletown, Ohio.
CONAN: Hi, Laura. You're on the air.
LAURA: I just called in because I have been in fandom as a writer for more than 10 years now. And I wanted to comment on the fact that a lot of writers that I know, and myself, write because - in order to subvert what we see in mainstream shows. Of course we enjoy these shows, but we're also - a lot of us are minorities. And we want to see something in these shows that reflects who we are. So for example, I'm a lesbian, so I will, you know, subvert characters or maybe subtext that the show plays with into something more solid.
And this has been happening since "Star Trek" fan fiction started pairing Kirk and Spock off. And it used to be not a very popular thing to do in fandom, but it's more accepted now. And subversion is something, I think, is very important, the freedom that fans have to take something that is maybe not so accepted by mainstream media and express our desires, and the fact that we do exist and we want our stories to be told using these characters that we see every day.
CONAN: Laura, thanks very much. It sounds like fun.
LAURA: Sure. Thanks.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Lev Grossman, that is something - a major theme of your piece, that people want some stories that speak to them.
GROSSMAN: Right. Well, the name fan fiction kind of skips over a big part of it. It makes you think, oh, these people are just, you know, there's so just insanely in love with "Star Trek," and they just want more of it. A lot of times, it is a very sophisticated form of media criticism. It almost has a punk feel about it, like, you know, seizing them. And if they're not going to get it right, we're going to do it for them.
CONAN: Lev Grossman, thanks very much for your time today.
GROSSMAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Lev Grossman reviews books for Time magazine. And his own novel, "The Magician King," the sequel to "The Magicians," will be out in two weeks. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, nearly a million teens simply stop going to school every year, putting their futures at risk. NPR's Claudio Sanchez will join guest host Laura Sullivan to talk about his series on the futures of high school dropouts.
I'm going on vacation and I won't be here next week, but I'll be back with you on August - I think it's the 8th, but I'm losing track of time already. Have a good time while I'm away, everybody. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.