The start of the HBO series based off George R.R.Martin’s books led to something unexpected for Hilary Rhodes. A contributor to Salon praised Rhodes’s 600,000+-word fanfic, The North Remembers in an article about the best of Game of Thrones fanfiction. A literary agent contacted her, and Rhodes began publishing fiction. The fourth book in her Lion and the Rose series, The Conqueror’s Bane is due out in September.
MM: Did you know you were going to be featured in Salon? What was your reaction to seeing the published piece? What was the fallout from that article?
I had no idea that [The North Remembers] was going to be mentioned in Salon, and didn’t even learn about it until one of my readers left me a comment on Archive of our Own congratulating me for the “great review in Salon!” I was confused, flabbergasted, and flattered to do some digging and find out that indeed, it had been. The very next day, I was contacted by a literary agent who wanted to read some of my original projects due to his admiration of TNR, and ended up working with him for quite some time. I have had seventy-year-old fans thank me for finishing the [A Song of Ice and Fire] story because they were afraid they might not live to see the official version of it, discovered that there is a TV Tropes page dedicated to it, and many other surprising things.
I am sensitive to this attention because George R.R. Martin is well known to dislike fanfiction, and I certainly don’t want to place myself into competition with him or act as if I am trying to one-up him. But I also happen to know that he is aware of it and didn’t send his team of lawyers after me, for which I am grateful. [The North Remembers] was supposed to be a way to pass the time waiting for The Winds of Winter and writing some about the Starks, and instead I grew so involved in telling the story and exploring the characters that it ended up becoming the monster that it is. It’s still one of the best things I have ever written, fanfiction or otherwise, and I am very proud of it.
MM: What led you to fanfiction?
I was a bookish, introverted teenage girl without many real-life friends and who had always been a writer (I started reading at the age of 4, and writing at the age of 7). I was given a lot of freedom to do whatever I liked on the Internet, and my first fandom, at the age of 13-14, was Lord of the Rings. I discovered the books through watching the first film with my father when it was released in 2001. I joined some Tolkien fan forums, read some of the posted fanfiction pieces, and soon began writing my own.
MM: What was the first piece of fanfiction you ever created? What did you learn from it?
I wrote quite a bit of Lord of the Rings stories as a young teenager… I preferred to investigate the backstories of characters whom we knew little about, or to explore their lives after the conclusion of the books and films. For a fourteen-year-old, I think they were rather good, although I would doubtless cringe if I re-read them today. Then I essentially left fandom for several years, working on original projects, graduating from college, and so forth. I eventually re-entered it due to my love for A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as the Game of Thrones TV show (at least in the days when it wasn’t wildly terrible) and searching out Tumblr blogs for it. That in turn led me to the TV show Once Upon a Time in late 2012, and I was done for!
MM: Are there “rules” for writing for fanfiction? What are the standards that you like to follow?
I have always been careful to play essentially within the rules that the author has established. While many fanfiction writers like to pair characters together who are not in a relationship in the canon universe, for example, I generally avoid doing that. I gravitate toward canon and then write explorations and expansions of it. I don’t think there are rules per se, which is one of the enjoyable things about fandom; it can cater to all tastes and imaginations. Some of that is stuff I personally prefer to stay far away from, alas, but with the advent of social media, the previously private activity of watching a TV show or movie, or reading a book, has become an interactive, creative, responsive experience where you can share and comment on content with hundreds or thousands of fellow fans.
MM: How would you describe the fanfiction community to a friend who’s unfamiliar with it?
I think that insofar as fanfiction is something the general public is aware of, it is either as 50 Shades of Grey, or the hobby of weird, reclusive nerds who do things like write explicit sex between the purple Teletubby and Professor Snape. While strange (and horrifying!) crossovers of that nature certainly do exist (it’s the Internet, after all) my experience with fanfiction is with the people that I regularly interact with on Tumblr, when we write anything from short missing scenes to full-length stories with our favorite characters and couples. I’ve read plenty of fanfiction that was better written than many published novels (although I don’t read it much these days due to a combination of no time and preferring to focus on my own work).
Fanfiction authors develop background characters, fill in aspects of main characters that we might not have thought of, create intricate plots, and yes, do write plenty of sex. Since the overwhelming majority of the fanfiction community is female, that means this is a forum where we can prize women’s activity, agency, interests, perspective, and pleasure, and where we can value ourselves and the characters we see ourselves represented in. I personally learned about sex from fanfiction – sad, perhaps, but true! All the smut fanfiction that I have read with my current favorite fictional couple (Hook and Emma from Once Upon a Time) focuses intensely on Emma’s pleasure, on Emma’s enjoyment and control of the sexual activity, Emma’s choices and empowerment, and I think that is just wonderful. Women prefer to read their porn and enjoy it within the framework of a story, and again, fanfiction offers a feminist alternative to mainstream male-gaze porn… We need to get over the idea that the stories women create and enjoy in great depth are something weird, immature, wrong, or simply all about sex because we are shallow and silly creatures.
MM: How does the instant feedback you receive from reviewers affect your writing? Have comments ever changed what you planned for a story?
I admit that it can sometimes be hard to post a chapter that you’ve worked on intensely and are very proud of, either to have someone harp on a small detail that you didn’t think was important – or worse, get no reviews and feel as if you just launched it into the void. Luckily, the vast majority of my reviews have always been very positive and supportive, and I’ve learned to ignore the not-so-nice ones. I was amazed at the fact that when I was writing The North Remembers, people would sometimes instruct me what to write so it matched THEIR version of the story – sorry, when you’re doing this kind of project for yourself and not just grousing from the sidelines, you can write what you please. In the meantime, it’s my version of the story and that alone, certainly not a canon or official replacement.
Sometimes reviewers ask questions that I make sure to answer or clarify in subsequent chapters, because I am aware that what is clear to me and planned out in my head does not always translate as brilliantly as I think, but I have never changed my work because of a comment (especially a rude one).
MM: How has writing for fanfiction affected your other writing (nonfiction, fiction, etc.)?
As noted above, I left the fandom world more or less completely between the ages of about 17-24, and worked on numerous original projects. I have published three historical novels (The Lion and the Rose: William Rising, The Lion and the Rose: The Gathering Storm, and most recently, The Outlander King; the fourth book to complete the quadrilogy, The Conqueror’s Bane, is due out in September). I have never seen fanfiction as a “cheap” way to practice writing; it’s something that I do purely for fun and out of my love of the stories that my works are based on.
I am also a doctoral student in medieval history, so I spend a lot of time doing formal academic research and writing, all of which obviously takes priority over working on fanfiction in my free time. I have had many people express surprise that I am a well-educated, well-spoken adult woman who happily and openly participates in fandom – as I’ve said, there is a stigma around it that I am hoping to dispel, mostly because it’s seen as something that “teenage girls do.” After all, most classical art is fanfiction – Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is fanart of the Bible!
But in our culture, anything that teenage girls like is probably “lame.” I was once a teenage girl, and while I certainly might have been lame, I can assure you I was reading voraciously, thinking critically, and enjoying stories, and have only learned how to do that in more complex and nuanced ways as I have grown up.
MM: What’s your take on the E.L. James phenomenon? What do you think the success of 50 Shades did for the fanfiction world?
I am not a fan of 50 Shades or Twilight, mainly for the reason that many fellow feminist critics have brought up… One of my least favorite romantic tropes in all of fiction, whether original or fanfic, is the “he only hurts you/controls your life/puts you down because he loves you, and you should be grateful that such a handsome, powerful, rich man is taking this interest in you.” It needs to be killed with fire. I also know that members of the BDSM community were furious that this abusive relationship was taken to represent their lifestyle, and while I’m sure the film made plenty of money as a Valentine’s Day “date film,” not to mention the success of the book series, it’s not something I endorse or want to be part of. The sex certainly isn’t my problem with 50 Shades; it’s its presentation, its copying of a problematic original, its poor writing, and perpetuation of inaccurate ideas about the women who read, write, and enjoy fanfiction.
MM: You’re at a bus stop alone with George R.R. Martin. The bus is down the block, and you have the nerve to say anything you want to him. What do you say?
I honestly don’t know that I WOULD have the nerve! I would likely be tongue-tied and afraid of embarrassing myself. If anything, I would thank him for creating A Song of Ice and Fire, which is a world and a story that has given me so much pleasure (I first read it at the age of 14, and I am now about to turn 27 – it has been part of me for almost half my life). And perhaps, give him a gentle nudge or two to get the next book out.
MM: What fanfiction story of yours would you like us to highlight?
The North Remembers is certainly my longest and most in-depth fanfiction piece, as well as the one that I am the most proud of and which has changed my life.
I am also currently working on The Lightbearers, which is a retelling of the Once Upon a Time television show in a magical Victorian-era alternate universe, and am planning to start Days of Summer, Nights of War, which will be a story set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and featuring a time-travel, “what could have been” romance between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Peggy Carter, one of my other favorite fictional couples.
Hilary Rhodes’s fanfiction career began with hobbits and one powerful ring, in her teenage years. One book led to another, as from Tolkien she started reading George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, as well as many more. Most recently, she’s joined the fandom for the television show Once Upon a Time. She writes fanfiction under the penname Silverblood on An Archive of their Own, and under SilverRavenStar on Fanfiction.net.
Rhodes is the author of several books, including the Lion and Rose series, and is an incoming doctoral student in medieval history at the University of Leeds, England. Her fourth novel, The Conqueror’s Bane, is due out in September. Follow her on Tumblr at http://qqueenofhades.tumblr.com
Note: this Q&A has been edited for length.
Featured image via Joel Montes de Oca. Body images courtesy of Hilary Rhodes.