Cecilia Tan is a fantasy and erotica writer who has written original novels and short stories as well as fanfiction. She sat down with Minerva to talk about being introduced to the Harry Potter fan community on LiveJournal, the similarities between writing original and fan fiction, and what E.L. James’ success has done for erotic fanfic communities.
Minerva Mag: Where do you find inspiration to write?
I have no idea. I’ve always had way more things I want to write than there is time to write them. Even if I did nothing but eat, sleep, and write, I doubt I’d ever get through all the ideas I have popping up in my mind constantly.
MM: How would you describe fanfiction writing to a new friend?
Fanfiction writing is the most fun “hobby” writing ever. It’s like riffing on popular songs on your piano in your living room for your friends, except instead of music it’s fiction writing.
MM: What was the first piece of FF you ever created? What did you learn from it?
Technically, the first fanfiction I ever wrote was when I was a teenager, and I wrote erotic romance stories starring my friends and the pop singers they idolized. I learned that I could make my friends squeal with delight with my writing. Now that I’m a professional erotica and romance writer, it’s very much the same! After I started publishing in the early 1990s, I dabbled in fanfic from time to time for fun, mostly in the form of erotic parodies. I wrote a Batgirl/Catwoman, for example, that was somewhat infamous back in the day. A couple years later I did a Wonder Woman bondage story. But I didn’t start writing fanfiction “seriously” until 2006.
MM: What drew you into fanfiction? What kept you interested?
When I got really hooked on writing fanfiction was in 2006 when I started posting Harry Potter fanfiction on LiveJournal. My pro fiction career was in a slump and it was at that moment when I was feeling really beaten down and ignored as a writer that I discovered this amazing supportive online community in the Harry Potter fanfic world. The HP slash community in particular really welcomed both erotic fiction and experimentation. I was quickly sucked into writing dozens and dozens of slashy Harry Potter stories (even a novel), and I was receiving tons of great feedback from readers. I experimented with my style and learned a hell of a lot about creating emotional experiences for readers. I had been writing fiction professionally for almost 15 years at that point but learned more about writing from fanfic than I did from my MFA program. Plus, the feedback from readers was validating in a way that professional publication wasn’t.
MM: What did you learn from fanfic that you didn’t learn in your MFA program?
Tons of things that are useful to a professional fiction writer, including: how to really move a reader with words, how to be emotionally effective at the fiction craft not merely “polished,” how to connect with an audience and build a readership, how to actually incorporate feedback into drafts, how to produce under deadline pressure, how to respond to a call for submissions with a piece that both fits the call and is satisfying to write.
MM: How did the slashy Harry Potter novel come about? What was your experience writing it?
It was a challenge given in a fanfic community where they took common clichés of Harry Potter fanfic but introduced a twist to each of them. The challenge was to write a time travel story with Harry/Draco as the pairing instead of one of the ones where time travel is really common (like Harry/Snape). I started writing it and about 6 weeks later I had a finished romance novel with a fully fleshed out three-act structure and a happy ending. Basically I had never written that fast, that well, or that easily before. I went on to write 8 or 9 original fiction romance novels after that which came just as fast, flowed just as easily, and were just as good, and that was how I established myself all of a sudden, after 15+ years as a professional erotica and science fiction/fantasy writer, as a romance writer.
MM: How is writing fanfiction different than writing for other mediums (nonfiction, fiction, etc.)? Has any of your fanfiction writing led to other types of publications, books or essays?
I do not find fanfiction and pro fiction to be all that different. Maybe that’s because I had been writing professionally for so many years before I started writing fanfiction, so I approach them the same way.
MM: What have you learned about fanfiction by studying it academically?
I’ve learned that the recesses of the human libido will express themselves in sometimes surprising places. Also that fanfiction is very self-aware. For the most part the writers have very deep knowledge not only of the canon they are using, but also of literary tropes and conventions.
MM: How have you seen the genre evolve in the last 10 years?
We’ve seen it explode in popularity, thanks to the expansion of the Internet and also a new generation of fans and writers who can easily find fan communities. Many tropes have been coined (sex pollen, fuck or die, forced marriage) and memes like the Omegaverse have spread from one fandom to the other to the other the way memes do. (I’m using meme in the original sense of an idea that travels virally, not a graphic that is shared widely on the Internet.)
What’s your take on the E.L. James phenomenon? What do you think the success of 50 Shades did for the fanfiction world?
E.L. James didn’t happen in a vacuum. 50 Shades was incubated in a community that included several book publishers that specialized in re-publishing all-human/non-vampire Twilight AU romances, and many of the other books that grew out of that same community, like Beautiful Bastard, bore almost no resemblance to the Twilight source material. Even if 50 Shades hadn’t become this gigantic worldwide phenomenon, many of those books would have become bestsellers anyway. At last count I think there were over 100 professionally published romance novels, many of which became NY Times bestsellers, that all were originally sourced from Twific. Savvy publishers have been cherry picking the best fanfic writers for a while now, not only for their talent, but for their online followings.
The two best things to come out of the 50 Shades phenomenon though are that BDSM suddenly lost its taboo status, allowing many many people to explore it in real life for the first time, and that writing fanfiction AND erotic fiction was suddenly legitimized as a pursuit. All those people who used to say writing fanfic was a “waste of time,” very suddenly shut up.
MM: What fanfiction story of yours would you like us to highlight? What fanfiction story (other than one you created) would you recommend?
My most popular fanfic by far is a dirty humorous short story called “Draco the Wonder Ferret.”
I just went through all my memories and bookmarks and I find I can’t pick just one fic by another writer to recommend! There are so many!
I do highly recommend this essay by Heidi Tandy, though, if you haven’t read it: “How Harry Potter Fanfiction Changed the World” from the nonfiction anthology “fic” by Anne Jamison.
MM: You’re in an elevator alone with the creator of the book/movie/television show that you wrote your first fanfic on. You have 20 floors until the creator gets off. You’re remarkably calm and confident. What do you say?
Assuming it’s J.K. Rowling: “I think you and Walt Disney have two huge things in common. One, you both have transformed the childhoods of the entire English speaking world for the better, and two, you both have given unrelenting support to the creativity and imagination of your fans. That generosity of spirit and belief in the power of imagination is the true force of good and positive change in our world, and I can’t thank you enough for that.”
Cecilia Tan is “simply one of the most important writers, editors, and innovators in contemporary American erotic literature,” according to Susie Bright. RT Magazine awarded her Career Achievement in Erotic Romance in 2015 and their prestigious Pioneer Award. Tan’s BDSM romance novel Slow Surrender (Hachette/Forever, 2013) also won the RT Reviewers Choice Award in Erotic Romance and the Maggie Award for Excellence from the Georgia Romance Writers chapter of RWA.
Tan is the author of many books, including the ground-breaking erotic short story collections Black Feathers(HarperCollins), White Flames (Running Press), and Edge Plays (Circlet Press), and the erotic romances Slow Surrender, Slow Seduction, and Slow Satisfaction (Hachette/Forever), The Prince’s Boy (Circlet Press), The Hot Streak (Riverdale Avenue Books), and the Magic University series (Riverdale Avenue Books). Her short stories have appeared in Ms. Magazine, Nerve, Best American Erotica, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and tons of other places. She was inducted into the Saints & Sinners Hall of Fame for GLBT writers in 2010, was a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Leather Association in 2004, and won the inaugural Rose & Bay Awards for Best Fiction in 2010 for her crowdfunded web fiction serial Daron’s Guitar Chronicles.
She lives in the Boston area with her lifelong partner corwin and three cats. Find out more at www.ceciliatan.com or sign up to receive her personal newsletter via email.
Notes: This Q&A has been edited for length.
Featured image via Joel Montes de Oca. Body images courtesy of Ms. Tan.