In the final installment of Minerva’s fan fiction Q&A series, we sat down with Katya Kolmakov to talk about original characters and instant feedback.
MM: What led you to fanfiction?
I had read a bit of BBC Merlin fanfiction before writing my own, so I was familiar with the lingo and different genres in it, such as modern AU and so on, but I have never been a systematic fanfiction reader.
I wrote my first piece after they had already released the second film of The Hobbit trilogy. I love my ‘first time’ story, to be honest. I was on a plane to Russia, going to a family reunion, and I was endlessly stressed. My family is quite a posh, overbearing lot, and I was desperately grasping for some sort of self-actualization. I needed something of my own. It’s a funny thought when you are 30, but going back to the place you grew up in can do it to you. My head was full of Thorin Oakenshield portrayed by Richard Armitage, and I just sat there on the plane and wrote my first drabble. It was only 300 words or so.
MM: How would you describe the fanfiction community to a friend who’s unfamiliar with it?
I would say that fanfiction is just like any group of people united by a common goal or activity. Some are having fun, some are here to vent. Some come to start a fight. All the rules that one has at a workplace or in a community apply here. There are purists that will argue with you till the last breath about the original; some will cheerfully read anything and write supportive comments.
There are writers who write themselves into the story to escape reality; there are those who industriously work through Myers-Briggs typology to build their characters. Tinkers, tailors, candlestick makers. There are all sorts of people.
MM: What was the first piece of fanfiction you ever created? What did you ever learn from it?
That would be that first drabble on the plane. And then I wrote the second one right away. They are just little glimpses. The second one, I believe, is the discussion of Thorin Oakenshield’s hair.
It was an amazing experience. I had written before, in Russian. I have a novel hidden somewhere on my hard drive that will never see the light of day because it is absolutely horrid. But that very first drabble was a revelation. I realized I could do it, that it came to me easily. Most of all, I think I was astonished by the physicality of the experience of writing. Whatever came from under my fingers seemed to go through my whole body. I was warm describing a shared bath, I could just feel the aforementioned hair under my fingers. I could smell the food I described. It’s still this way now.
MM: How long have you been writing Lord of the Rings fanfiction?
I read The Hobbit when I was 6. It is a very vivid childhood memory, sitting in my Nana’s armchair and reading it. Thorin Oakenshield, whom I center my writing around these days, has always been one of the favourite characters. Funnily enough, I refused to watch the first film of The Hobbit Trilogy because I thought Richard Armitage was too attractive to play my beloved grumpy, old Thorin. I fell in love with him after I was cajoled by a friend to watch the first two films together.
So, I have been writing for a year and a half. I have never written anything without Thorin and my original character, Wren. Sometimes I write crossovers, I feature Marvel or Star Trek or Doctor Who in my stories, but it’s always about Thorin and Wren.
MM: How did Wren come about? How has she grown since you first created her?
The first few stories were so-called ‘reader inserts.’ They were written from the second person. I was purposefully avoiding specifying the gender or the race of the protagonist. And then Wren just sort of stepped out of the shadows.
From the start I was trying to avoid writing a Mary Sue. I wanted to write a woman with flaws, with distinct personality, but she was never supposed to be bigger than life. I didn’t want her to be attractive to every passing male, and she was to be stubborn and difficult sometimes. I wanted someone real, but I also wanted her to work as a pairing for Thorin, to be able to become his partner, his wife, his friend.
By now I have written more than a hundred of different versions of Wren and Thorin (his modern AU alias is John Thorington). There is a WWII story, and a parody to Edwardian romance novel. I love exploring these two characters. I always try to keep their core traits, but I am constantly playing with their past and background to see how they change. It is a writing exercise that has been going on for a year and a half, and will probably continue for a while.
MM: How does the instant feedback you receive from reviewers affect your writing? Have comments ever changed what you planned for a story?
Reviews definitely change a lot. That is why now that I am writing my first independent fantasy novel I am posting it on JukePop as a web serial. The feedback is addictive, it’s an instant gratification after all. It turns writing into a social activity; it makes it a living process. You are not marinating in your mind. It is rewarding.
Sometimes it’s also frustrating, but I keep on reminding myself that the whole point of reviews is to show what readers take out of a certain chapter. Sometimes you try to get a thought through, and it just doesn’t happen. Then you change the next one, try to underline what you think is important and the readers seems to be missing.
The feedback mostly changes small details; but I have changed where a story would be going altogether several times as well. My current story Me Without You on fanfiction.net is a great example of it. I had a certain ending for it in my mind from the very start but once the characters got to that point, I realized that just letting them live happily ever after would go against my feminist values. Now the story is continuing. Both Thorin and Wren have a lot of growing up to do.
MM: How is writing within the fanfiction community different from writing for traditional publications?
I feel that writing fanfiction is easier because you know that your readers come to your story with a certain degree of love for your characters already. You are sort of united in ogling them. I love it.
And comparing writing fiction to an independent story, I have to definitely say that having the world the characters live in already ‘pre-cooked’ for you is so much easier. I’m currently working on a map of the world in my story Ani on JukePop; I have come up with the language for the characters; I have to constantly remember to create different cultures, with different values, different views on death, women’s rights, etc. It isn’t less or more fun; it’s different. I wouldn’t be able to say what I enjoy more: creating my own universe or honoring Tolkien’s.
MM: How did you know Convince Me the Winter is Over would be a full-fledged novel?
When I started writing the story that later became my book Convince Me the Winter Is Over, it was just another of my short stories, with another version of John and Wren. But it became clear very soon that this one was different. Wren has a childhood abuse history in it, and for them to even attempt to be together John had to be different. And I quickly realized that in this story, I was much more interested in writing about her issues and her healing than their love story.
And then I got that first personal message. A reader told me they were the survivor of childhood abuse, and my story was important for them. They told me that every day, at least once (or a dozen times) they felt there was no way out, that the life they had built would fall apart any moment, and my daily updates made them see that there was hope.
Other messages came, more and more. A woman told me that she didn’t know that what I described in my story were common symptoms and she thought she was just crazy. She wrote me later and told me that she sought therapy after reading my story, and she felt she was getting better. There were others, different stories, different people, those readers that were new, and those I had talked to many times before. I cried, I agonized over my answers for days. I felt honoured and awed.
And then I thought I’d turn it into a book.
MM: How has writing for fanfiction affected your other writing?
It definitely expanded my vocabulary. I have done tons of very interesting research. I have pursued my previous interest in psychology. Fanfiction was where I started. I feel I owe whatever skill I have to it.
Most importantly, fanfiction taught me that writing is work. You need to sit down and write. Sometimes you don’t feel like it, but you turn on the right music and you try. I have no trouble setting a schedule for my updates now.
MM: What fanfiction story (other than one you created) would you recommend?
There is an author sneechstar who writes wonderful BBC Merlin and Sleepy Hollow fanfiction. I believe this author has independent novels as well.
lauraxtennant is amazing in her writing of Doctor Who, Tenth Doctor era stuff.
ArianaFandoms writes wonderful Thorin centered stories.
I am currently reading a story titled Say Anything… Except That by Cortexikid, which is a great example how quality of writing matters. I knew very little about Deadpool and Spiderman; I’ve only seen the newest films with Andrew Garfield, but the story is so well written that it prompted me to do some research and I’m waiting for updates in anticipation. It’s hilarious, and heart-wrenching, and true to the canon.
Katya Kolmakov was born and raised in the turbulent post-Soviet Saint Petersburg, Russia, in a posh but whimsical family of a professor of the Russian language and one of the first bankers in the former USSR. Two Master’s degrees, sixteen years of teaching languages, literature and translation, and two tattoos later, Katya lives in an odd rented house in Winnipeg, Canada, with her husband, her five-year old, and a mad assortment of house plants. A baker in a local organic bakery and an aspiring arborist, Katya grows vegetables and herbs in her garden, takes her kid to the zoo, and writes every evening.
Featured image via Joel Montes de Oca. Author photo courtesy of Katya Kolmakov.