Transcribed by Jo Moses and Marissa Osman
Jo Moses: Tell me your story. How did you get involved in the Harry Potter fandom in the first place?
Hillnerd: I got into the books around the time the fourth book had come out. I was babysitting, and I had nothing to do, so I decided to go ahead and pick up this book. I got really hooked after the third one and went online to see what was going on there. That's when I found Fiction Alley. Have you heard of Fiction Alley?
Jo: I don't think I've heard of that, no.
Hillnerd: Okay, it's an old one. This is back when there wasn't a lot of social media all over the place. This is probably back in the early 2000s, [maybe] 2002. It was a forum [similar to] Reddit, and you [would] go in there and there were all these different threads. It finally went away about a year ago. No one had been on there for about five years [at that point]. But back then? Oh, it was thriving! People were posting all sorts of stuff. There were all sorts of debates happening and different threads where people would go off about things. There was a post limit as well. I wrote fan fiction, [but] I was more known as being a fan artist. That's where I got started, I guess.
Jo: How'd you start drawing?
Hillnerd: I've always been an artist at heart. I have just been a professional artist for the past 12 years, actually. Back when I was a teenager, I loved to draw characters. I had a giant binder of all the different characters [from] Harry Potter, [including] the animals from it. I have not really stopped drawing those things, to be honest.
Jo: That is amazing. It's pretty special. I'm someone who also really loves to draw. We draw the way we imagine a character, and we carry that image with us into adulthood, you know? It's what makes every fan artist unique in a way.
Hillnerd: I love being able to do that and portray the characters at different ages, but still have it be the same character. That's one of my favorite things about Harry Potter. When it comes to fan artists, you get to explore so many different emotions, as well as just the breadth of ages there. You can draw anyone from when they're a kid or when they're older. And then there are all [the] headcanons you can do. What if Ron decided to grow a beard, and he and Hermione have the cutest kids in the world? Let's draw this stuff! It's really fun. And people love to interact with them as well.
Jo: You were saying earlier about how [Fiction Alley] would have threads with different ships. When did you make the jump from reading the books to getting interested in it to finding ships that you're invested in? What was your first ship?
Hillnerd: Lots of people thought, "Harry and Ginny? That would never happen. That's ridiculous. It's gonna be Harry and Hermione."
Jo: It's definitely really interesting to get the hear the perspective from someone who was in a position to really see the long game with the plot. Where did you think things were going with the Harry Potter ships? You can go broader [with your answer], I just feel like a lot of the main fandom conflict is about ships. Where did you think everything was going?
Hillnerd: I thought endgame was basically what we saw. I thought it was going to be Ron and Hermione. I felt that was pretty obvious from the first book. From about the second book, I was like, "Oh, it'd be Harry and Ginny. Eventually. They're doing this narrative thing, the fairy tale of the man [saving] the damsel in distress - only they’re 12 - and then flipping it on its head." That's how I saw it happening. I didn't know exactly how it happened. I definitely thought Ron and Hermione would get together sooner, as did everyone else. When the sixth book came out, [we were] like, "Really? The whole Ron/Lavender thing? We have to wait for a whole other book?" But at least they really got together. Man, there was a huge meltdown [about] that. It was intense, but that was the speculation. And I was very satisfied with it. It was nice.
Jo: I want to go back to something you said about Ron and Lavender. I feel like in the fandom spaces - at least that I'm in - the view towards Lavender has become a lot more favorable. People are even shipping her with Pavarti. What was the attitude towards Lavender [when the book came out]? Were people pissed?
Hillnerd: Yes. A lot of people were highly irritated that it happened at all. A lot of people were not very kind toward her character. I was just annoyed that the plot twist happened, that Ron and Lavender got together. But I never had anything against Lavender. I actually thought she was a pretty supportive girlfriend and really nice to Ron. I liked her and [so did] a few people. But she was eviscerated as a character for nothing, which was pretty unfair. I think she was just a teenage girl trying to have her first boyfriend and getting a little silly [about] things. It was one of the things that made me write a fan fiction a while back because I was like, "You know what? We need something that shows Lavender as a good girlfriend." People were not very kind.
Jo: What was your experience with female characters in the [early years of the] fandom? Because, obviously, I don't know a lot about it. But it seems to me that the way they have been treated has changed a lot. What would you say are some examples of that, or how has that gone?
Hillnerd: In some ways, things have changed [but in other ways, things have] stayed the same. Hermione used to be much more put on a pedestal. Now there's a bit of a shift there, where she is more humanized. There's even some discernment and criticism about what she's done. But back in the day, Hermione was the one everyone wanted to ship with everybody. She was a self-insert character for a lot of people because so many of us who are invested in Harry Potter are nerdy girls who love to read and have strong opinions. It was very easy for that to happen. And then the movies and later books accentuated that as well. Ginny was a nonentity for most people until the fifth book, when people started realizing, "Oh, she's changed a little. She's more open." And suddenly, "This is ridiculous." Then, [after] the sixth book [came] the meltdown. Poor Ginny has been drug through the mud and called a Mary Sue, which, to me, never made sense. Ginny got bashed pretty harshly. And that happens still; a lot of people just don't much care for her, which I don't get. I love her. She was always a great character; one of my favorites. Luna, for the most part, has always been beloved. I don't think that changed much. Molly Weasley got bashed a lot. The Weasleys, in general, get the short end of the stick with the fandom. As ships would get exploded by a Weasley, People would get pretty bad.
Jo: How, if at all, has the view on Snape changed? Because I feel like now, he's very polarizing, there are a lot of people who think, "He's a terrible teacher. He's a bully." And then there's a lot of people who are like, "He's just misunderstood." And then [there are the people who] think he's really hot. What was it like back in the day?
Hillnerd: Alan Rickman made more and more people think Snape was hot. There was something about the way he would say his lines that would draw people in, and Snape has always been a character that had people [disagreeing]. What are his motives? Is he actually evil? We are a little bit more nuanced, sometimes, with our analysis of his childhood. But he's always been one that people never seem to be neutral about. When it comes to Snape, people have strong emotions, which I get. He is a character that is controversial in the way that he treats his students. I'm a teacher and I just cannot imagine having that kind of vitriol towards a child, ever. But back in the day, his bullying wasn't as much of an issue.
Jo: I guess this is a little along the same lines: Were people still more people skeptical of Dumbledore as you kept learning more information? Because I know a lot of the discourse now is like, "He was such a bad guy - a selfish guy - for not revealing these things to Harry." And some people think he was just doing his best, he didn't know... I feel like when I first read the books, I was very enamored and taken in.
Hillnerd: There's more vitriol towards Dumbledore as an authority figure and as a teacher than there ever was back in the day. Some of the things that people were trying to figure out were [interesting]. There was even one speculation that maybe Dumbledore and Ron are the same person. It wasn't until after the seventh book had come out and people had marinated on it for a long time that we started seeing more of that interpretation of Dumbledore as a shady guy in some ways. It took a while for that to come in. But for the longest time, Dumbledore was pretty much beloved by almost everybody.
Jo: What were your favorite fan theories from when the books were coming out?
Hillnerd: Favorite fan theories? Oh, my goodness. I'm going to have to think back. Let's see... Well, I remember back before the fifth book came out that almost no one really realized that Sirius was pure-blood. I don't know if this was really a fan theory or not, but it was interesting. We were all trying to figure out how he would get his freedom. There were some great ideas. [One was that] there will be a trial, he's going to get his day in court, it's going to be amazing. And the fifth book exploded a lot of cannon ideas. That one was a heartbreaker. There was a lot of speculation that somehow Harry had some sort of superpower that was going to [defeat Voldemort], that it would be his green eyes [and] that somehow his green eyes are special. This is before we knew about Horcruxes.
Jo: Yeah! This isn't related to the books per se, but I feel like a lot of people today just think the movies are crap. What [was the attitude] back then? I imagine there was a lot of excitement about the movies, to see these characters come to life on screen. But were expectations met when the movies came out?
Hillnerd: For the first movie? Most definitely. Everybody was so pleased with the first one. Then the second one came out and people were a little bit less pleased. And the third one? I personally love that movie [but] after that, the fandom got angrier with each film. Sometimes they would be excited about certain things, but then the casting of certain characters would come out and there'd be a lot of controversies. Some of it was really pointed and horribly unfair, especially whenever a new woman was cast. Basically, every time a new woman was cast in the movies - like Cho Chang - she got a lot of flack from random people on the internet. So sometimes it could be not so great. But in general, people were excited every time. They were like, "This time they're going to get it. I just know." And then if it didn't happen, they [would be] like, "Next time, guys! We're gonna get it next time!" [There was] a lot of that.
Jo: What would you say were the biggest conflicts in fandom when you entered into it?
Hillnerd: It was shipping. It was always shipping. It was called "shipping wars" for a reason, and it was intense. Harry and Hermione [was called] "Harmony." It had a special ship name. Each ship had its own special name. "Orange Crush" was Harry and Ginny. "Harmony" was Harry and Hermione, because they get along so well. Have you ever heard of "Sugar Quill?" "Sugar Quill" was specifically a Romione-centric place. There was another one called "Checkmated". There were all sorts of things. And back then Harry and Draco weren’t shipped quite as hard. That didn't really happen till the LiveJournal days in general, but yes, it's shipping, it’s shipping. Everyone wanted it to be a romance even though the books are not about romance.
Jo: Could you take us on a journey of "Drarry?" What happened?
Hillnerd: Back in the day, Harry and Draco were shipped in some places, but the big ship with Draco was actually "Dramione." Hermione was the one that people were shipping with everybody. ["Dramione"] was an incredibly popular ship. Then there was that meme [with] Draco and leather pants. Like, "Oh, he's a sexy bad boy." And [people would discuss how he] would have a dungeon where he'll take Hermione. There were all sorts of things like that. It was the thing [to put] Draco on a pedestal.
Jo: With "Drarry," how has that developed?
Hillnerd: In general, queer ships weren't as popular then as they are now. "Slash fiction" is what it used to be called. It did not have as many safe places, just because different places would associate anything queer with being more mature. Over time, as more queer spaces were more open to [fan fiction], you'd see a little bit more of it as well. So over time, we see Harry and Draco become a more popular thing with LiveJournal. That’s when it really took off. And then Sirius and Remus became really popular. That was a popular one. But over time, it became very popular. Then LiveJournal went and cut away a lot of queer content. Did you see how on Tumblr they did that for a little bit, where they banned a lot of different tags? It was very similar to that with LiveJournal, only it was much more extreme. That's when you saw the founding of AO3. AO3, at first, when it was founded, was almost entirely queer content because [it was] all the content that hadn't been able to safely stay on LiveJournal. Some journals were just literally deleted off the Internet without any warning whatsoever, just because they had queer content. And people were like, "This is really good content," and they would ship it more and more. Now it's hugely popular.
Jo: What do you think are the most important ways that the fandom has changed since the books were written?
Hillnerd: I think that the emphasis on diversity has been much stronger over the years, and I love that about it. I feel like we're so much more nuanced now when it comes to how we interpret our characters. It's not just about what's going to happen in the books; we know now what happens in the books. Now it's more about building our own ideas and making sure different identities are represented in our fiction and our work. And that, to me, was such an important and good thing about how our fandom changed. In some ways, the fandom has become more global, in general. We used to [only] have this forum. Iy was the main one, [as well as] those couple of websites, and that's about it. It was all about the books. But then, as the movies came out and [then] the plays and everything else in the world of Harry Potter expanded, we saw how there were just so many different interpretations of, "What should Hermione actually look like," for example. "How do you see yourself in these characters?" It's been incredible to watch it grow from speculating about things like, "Who's going to date who? What's going to happen? How will Harry defeat Voldemort," to, "How do we feel like queer identity intersects with this? How does disability work within the Harry Potter world?" We're also a lot [more] hurt now by [J. K. Rowling] and with all [that] she's been doing. So in some ways, it's hard to be in the fandom. It's something that meant so much to you and you created so many community memories and so much content about this series. In some ways, it's a little bit difficult to be part of the fandom. But in other ways, it's pretty incredible. You can’t come across almost anybody who hasn't had at least a little bit of knowledge about it. [You can say,] "I'm totally a Hufflepuff," and they’re like, "Oh, that's so cool." I've had students that are like, "I love Harry Potter," and they've only seen the movies. It can be such a great connector for people. So I think that's my favorite thing about fandom that hasn't changed. It's that it connects people. And I've gotten to meet so many people in real life. I went to a Harry Potter convention with people from LiveJournal ten years ago. And then this last year, with the pandemic, I [went on Zoom] and started a Harry Potter book club [where] I would have people from all over the world come in, and we'd get to talk and be brought together. That's the best thing about this, even if the author might do things that are just so disappointing and so hurtful. It does not take away how many beautiful relationships we've been able to form.