The Melissa Anelli Interview

Hey! Last night I wrote about Project Runway for the LAT and the Saturday Night Live Thursday edition for the AV Club.

OK so it's been a few weeks since my last one but in light of my publishing a Young Adult novel, I wanted to talk to some other writers who also write for (but not exclusively) young people. I actually met today's interviewee way back when we were in college and then about ten years later we both realized that we are wildly celebrated and internationally renowned authors (maybe one of us is more renowned than the other but I will let you guess which is which. Hint: it's the one with her own Wikipedia entry.) She is author of the New York Times bestseller Harry, A History, which chronicles the Harry Potter phenomenon with a forward written by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. She is also the full-time webmistress of The Leaky Cauldron, a commercial fansite devoted to the Harry Potter franchise and also is one of the hosts of the podcast PotterCast, which talks about various aspects of the Harry Potter books, movies, video games and more.

We met at Georgetown -- did you have any experiences while you were there that you felt influenced where you are today?
We not only met at Georgetown but through the place that I still consider the crucible of my entire college experience - The Hoya, the newspaper, where I spent far too many nights hunched over a keyboard or napping on that diseased sofa. I spent the large majority of my junior and senior year there, and remember spell-checking and placing your columns.

The act of going to Georgetown itself changed everything; who knows, if I had gone to NYU as originally planned, if I would have veered off the pre-med path. I might have kept my head down, continued with science, and ended up a vaguely unhappy doctor. Also, being a reporter for the paper kicked me out of my comfort zone and made me start talking to people I didn't know, just approaching them out of nowhere for an interview. That's something I struggled with throughout college and my first year at the Staten Island Advance and at times still have trouble with now. Georgetown felt like a place where you eventually found your internal compass, and that's something I didn't know I needed to find until I did.

I don't think the writing class we took together influenced me much. Because of my newspaper schedule I usually only wrote each week's assignment 45 minutes before class began, so it was always terrible. That professor was 487 years old and it seemed like each word needed a running start to launch itself out of his mouth; he must have sensed I was overdrawn that year because he wrote on my final paper that he hoped I would take time to appreciate the "vagaries" as they traipsed across my lawn or something. I had no idea what that meant then, and don't now.

However, two of the three in our group are now published authors! Do you remember who the third was? Maybe we have a trifecta.

Based on your high level in Harry Potter fandom, do you ever feel like people make certain assumptions about you?
Yeah, though I think today it's getting a lot easier to be thought of as a fantasy geek or a member of a fandom, don't you? I can't think of one person I know who isn't part of some fandom in some way, even if that's not what they call it. My sister is part of the Designer Shoes Fandom (as am I, although from a far economic distance). You look at a guy bathed in blue paint, screaming at the top of his lungs in -5-degree weather at a football game, and tell me he's not in a fandom, I dare you.

Either way, if there's one thing I didn't expect to be bringing to the ol' college reunion it was, "Yes, I am big in the Harry Potter fandom." I'm less self-conscious about it than I used to be -- in the first few years it was like a little secret. Now I tell everyone I can find. "Look what I can do, look what I'm allowed to do, because I reveled in something I loved. Are you saying the same at your 9-5?" Some are, and I'm happy for them, but a lot aren't. Anyone who can find it in them to be judgmental about it isn't someone with whom I want to associate myself.

And speaking of reunions and The Hoya: When I went to the Hoya's 85th anniversary in 2005, a few people there knew the site before they knew I worked on it, and were carrying some assumptions but also knew I was doing productive things with it. There was one attendee -- I think he was someone's date -- who kept running up to me and shouting "WINGARDIUM LEVIOSAAAA!" every time I saw him. At F. Scott's, in the middle of campus, at our reception. There was another attendee who he rather resembled, however. At the reception, a couple of glasses of wine into the evening, I decided to one-up this rowdy gentleman -- I'm sure you can see what's coming -- and shouted it to him before he got the chance. Only I got the wrong guy. This person I'd never seen or met before was then standing in front of me, blinking, while my real Wingardium Leviosa-er had heard it and was on the floor laughing behind me, along with several of my old Hoya colleagues. Basically I had just shouted a spell, apropos of nothing, in the middle of a crowded black-tie-clad room. Talk about playing into assumptions.

Hit me with a funny/weird/scary anecdote about the people you've met at readings and conventions.
Most are funny; I will never forget the moment at our first live podcast when I looked into the front row and saw the man there was wearing a T-shirt with an iron-on picture of my cat on the back. My cat, Moochka, has a following. Seriously.

Once before a live event at a conference, I was "kidnapped" by "Death Eaters." They locked me in a meeting room, where, dressed as Draco, Lucius, Bellatrix, Snape, and other nameless dark figures in the HP books, they played Spin the Bottle and took turns touching "Snape"'s prosthetic, hooked nose. (The person, by the way, who played Snape is seen in a picture in the center of my book.) They were great; I laughed a lot with them. Then they marched out into the live podcast and had a duel with the Aurors, and I got my freedom back.

My favorite story is about one of my Leaky staffers, who spent an entire conference (Terminus in 2008, in Chicago) walking around dressed as Dolores Umbridge, giving people detentions for things like "looking too happy" and "enjoying themselves." She would write on their hand in red marker. Then on the final day she became "Kicked Around by Centaurs Umbridge," a la the end of book five, and her whole costume was dirt-streaked. She had leaves in her hair. She walked around like she didn't know where she was and ran if someone made hoof noises. It was hilarious.

I feel like the phenomenon of being obsessed with a part of pop culture is starting to be examined as much as what we are obsessed with: was there anything pre-Harry that you were nearly as devoted to?
I have always had an obsessive personality. When I was little I wouldn't rest until I gobbled up every Nancy Drew, Babysitter's Club, and Sweet Valley High (though today I am majorly ticked at the SVH creators, who decided to downgrade the twins from "perfect size six" to "perfect size four" -- that's absolutely disgusting in something young girls read, and needs to be called such more often; there's nothing perfect about either size, and that I didn't even realize that phrase was there when I was little, I think, says a lot about how insidious it is. And to indicate that today, smaller is better? Gross).

Two years before Harry Potter it was the musical Rent. Harry Potter gave me an outlet to work in and really expand creatively; had it not, I probably wouldn't be starting my 10th year inside this phenomenon. Rent was very different, as well, because it was something you could only do in person, and it had its apex right before the Internet had one (I was on Juno free email at the time). It was a much smaller, in-person community as opposed to the massive abyss of online avenues of communication that came with the Harry Potter evolution.

I remember back at GU and I think you still are today a major theater buff--what have been some of your most favorite recent shows?
Major. I haven't been to theater in a few months because the summer has been so wild and I'm getting back into a normal schedule but next on my list is definitely Next to Normal. Enough people I respect have now recommended this to me that it's a must-see. I also saw Spring Awakening a few times, and [title of show] during the last week of its run. [title of show] has one of my favorite songs of all time in it - "Die, Vampire, Die," which is about, of all things, the creative process. It's "Finishing the Hat" for normal people. "Finishing the Hat" is about that perfect creative moment that that only jerks -- I mean geniuses -- like Sondheim get to have with any kind of frequency, but which everyone likes to pretend they understand. "Die, Vampire, Die," is about the real process of creation. The kind that makes you feel like a grade-F-moron and as though anyone who has ever paid you money to write deserves a refund immediately. Pretending that side of it doesn't exist is just bad public service, and that song captures that feeling wonderfully.

Because of my theater love, however, I am falling hard, very, very hard, for the new show Glee. Kristin Chenoweth, Victor Garber and Debra Monk are all going to be on future episodes, and I'm having myself little aneurysms thinking about it.

Why do you think Harry, A History took off whereas other Potter-related books may have floundered more?

I can't pretend I don't owe an enormous debt to the large, loyal fanbase of Leaky, and to the J.K. Rowling foreword, for selling my book, but I also constantly get emails from people who say things like, "This is about my life! I gave it to my husband/friend/mother/child/dog/barber/psychiatrist to explain to them why this phenomenon means this much to me!" That is not only the highest compliment I can get, it's exactly what I wanted to happen - it's why I used my personal story to tell the narrative. Honestly, no one does or should care about what I was going through when I was unemployed and living in my mother's house (and no one less than me wanted it in a book) -- except if it is used as a tool allow them entry into the narrative. I used my life to get people remembering or sympathizing or empathizing, because being emotionally involved in this phenomenon is the only way to say you had some idea of what it was like. I wanted the book to be like a key you could always use to re-enter that time, or a window that opens on it for someone who wasn't there. I think people recommend it to each other because of that.

There's been plenty of useful criticism, too, but sometimes people say, "Well, this book is about just her, not the phenomenon," and it confuses me. I don't know why anyone would willingly admit they think that. I think it exposes them as a bit of a thin reader. The idea of using one personal story as a vehicle to tell a universal one isn't at all original, and I was not subtle about what I was doing. I chose my life to discuss because I have been fortunate enough to have unique experiences that touch upon almost all of the major elements of the phenomenon, so it accomplished a lot of goals at once. Of course, the facts are there, and they need to be, but it would have been so dry without a personal narrative. The book is by no means perfect, but of the things I'd change about the book or improve if I were writing it now, that's not one of them.

So, I am positive it's the personal narrative that has made the difference between this book and one people just flick through or with which they never make a connection. I don't think any writer would prefer the latter. Any time you go away from that neutral territory more people dislike it, too. It has finally made me understand why Jo looked very comfortable with a statement she made to me once, about it being the nature of Deathly Hallows that some people will dislike it.

To make a very long answer short, I think the closer you get to a human narrative, to the human experience, the more dear it becomes to the reader -- and the more likely they are to want to share it.

How do you know when it's time to get off the computer? What do you do when it is?
There's a time to get off the computer? I've been here since 1993.

What podcasts do you listen to?
I force myself to listen to mine (PotterCast) about once a month (you never get over hating your voice); right now on my subscription list are This American Life (I find it funny that NPR makes you sound cool and snobby at the same time, but I really like that show), This Week in Tech, and Jay and Jack's "Lost" podcast.

What have you read lately that you're raving about?

I squawked for weeks about The Hunger Games when I read it, and I feel less inclined to do so with the second book, now that it's out and enjoying massive popularity. The one I just read that I love is Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter, by R.J. Anderson. I've never read a fairy book before in my life, except for that famous picture book about fairies (and I can't remember the name of it now). I was attempting to read this book and DRIVE at the same time (only for about a second, at a stoplight, then stayed outside my gym for an hour and a half, reading). You can't fake that. I was captivated by it and its tough, human, flawed lead characters. It put me in mind of Harry Potter, and that's not easy to do.

Before Harry Potter I read mostly nonfiction, and that's often true now (and I think Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is not a book you can rave about, even if it did win a Pulitzer). However, I've lately been reading young adult lit voraciously. I loved The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks. I could go on all day about those crazy/brilliant usual-suspects YA guys: John Green, Maureen Johnson, E. Lockhart, etc.

I've also just started an excellent book by an author named Claire Zulkey...

Do you ever get exhausted talking about Potter? When that happens do you just power through or admit it? 
I don't get exhausted talking about it when it relates to Leaky, or at a fan event, or in that atmosphere - I get exhausted in my non-Potter life, because well-meaning and really nice people say the most uninteresting things to you about it. "Dan Radclife's so cute!" "Wow they're making two movies from the last book?" "Did you hear Dumbledore was gay?" I don't blame these people nor am I ridiculing them -- they legitimately feel like they might be either informing me about something, or they see me as someone with whom they can talk Potter, and I can understand why: sometimes they don't feel they can talk about it with anyone else, or they feel it's the only thing they can talk to me about. But sometimes wading in those conversations can be tiring when you've had them sixteen times already, have recorded a podcast about them, have talked in forums about them, have e-mailed about them, and have even written a book about them. I can go twelve rounds on how Dumbledore's homosexuality might affect his actions throughout the books, at any given time with an interested and active party -- I can barely go one when someone says, "Wow, that's cool, huh?" and stares at you.

But, mostly, even after about a decade, if a good topic comes up you can't stop me from expounding loudly and with energy. I don't think it's possible to get truly tired of Harry.

What are you working on now other than the Leaky Cauldron and the PotterCast and book promotion stuff?
This interview. I've spent three weeks on it. How did it go?

But seriously folks: a lot. Leaky and PotterCast are at a simmer level, and book promotion is at a constant low-level boil (I've been doing a lot of speeches about Harry thanks to an excellent agent at Greater Talent), but I've been working on a couple of new things. One of them is book number two, about which I'm really excited, the topic of which I will announce if I ever give it the kick it needs to get off the ground. The second is LeakyCon 2011, the conference my web site is throwing in Florida the weekend of the last movie. There are also a couple of other things that lay unannounced. In other words, a lot, but that's how I stupidly always insist it is. If I'm getting a lot of sleep, I don't get a lot of sleep.

How does it feel to be the 240th person interviewed for

You've made me sound much cooler than I am just by putting me on the list. I'm honored. Thanks Claire!