Q & A with Cecilia Aragon
Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth and New Forms of Mentoring
1. Where did you grow up/live now?
I was a shy, nerdy girl who was too smart — and, as the daughter of immigrants from Chile and the Philippines, a complete oddity in the Indiana town where I grew up. So I left early and headed for college in California. Then I spent 20 years in the California Bay Area, and today I live in Seattle, where I’m a professor at the University of Washington.
2. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An astronaut, a dancer, an actor, a professor, a mathematician, a scientist, a writer — maybe all at once. Oh, and most of all, a magical person who could fly without wings. 🙂
3. What is your education/career background?
As a child, I was torn between a love of math and science and a fascination for reading and writing. So, in college, I double-majored in math and English literature. At that time, I really wanted to study computer science because I thought it was so cool, like having a bionic brain, but my undergraduate school didn’t offer it as a major. Then when I started graduate school in computer science, a professor told me that women didn’t have the intellectual capability for the field. I got discouraged and dropped out. Then I worked for many years as a software developer. Twenty years after getting my BS, after overcoming my fears and lack of confidence by learning to fly upside down (and by winning a medal for the US in international competition as a pilot on the US Unlimited Aerobatic Team), I returned to school, finally completed my PhD in computer science, started a career in scientific research and became a professor, my dream job.
4. Do you have kids and/or pets?
I have a daughter and a son, and my daughter has a pet spider named Marinette. When I was a child, I had a dog named Luna. Building on a true story about our friendship, I’m currently writing a middle-grade novel called The Algebra of Dogs and Silence about a lonely Latina girl and a dog nobody wanted.
5. When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? Or what first inspired you to write?
I wrote and illustrated my first picture book when I was four years old, with the immortal title Wasting Kleenex. By the time I was ten I was writing lots of stories, including a lengthy fanfiction based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I wrote an original novel when I was nineteen that I have sworn no one will ever see. But I didn’t seriously start working on writing as a career until ten years ago. Since then I’ve written over a million words. Maybe about 1/3 of that is fanfiction, 1/3 original fiction, and 1/3 nonfiction.
6. Where/When do you best like to write?
I have hand injuries and can’t type, so I write using voice recognition software in my home office.
7. Do you have any interesting writing habits or superstitions?
I like to get up early and write first thing in the morning.
8. When you are struggling to write/have writer’s block, what are some ways that help you find your creative muse again?
I work on a new project. I have way too many ideas, so if I’m stuck on one, I can always find another that excites me.
9. What do you think makes a good book?
Something that immediately makes me curious about what happens next, or how something happened. When I read the first chapter of a book and it gives me chills of delight, I know I’m in for a wonderful experience.
10. What inspired your book?
Katie Davis and I met by chance over lunch at an event at the University of Washington. She’s a professor at UW’s Information School who specializes in digital youth, child development, and education; her interests dovetailed well with my expertise in human-centered data science and the study of very large text data sets. Over lunch, we happened to discuss recent news stories in which “experts” claimed that young people couldn’t write – and agreed that we didn’t believe it. My teenage children and Katie’s young sister all defied this stereotype, writing lengthy stories, sophisticated essays, and actively participating in fan communities. This contradiction struck us as fertile ground for research, and so our collaboration began.
Over the next several years, we extensively studied what was happening on fanfiction websites from both education and human-centered data science perspectives. What we found was eye-opening and also very encouraging.
About the book-
1. The findings discussed in our new book include:
• Most adults either have a negative view or are unaware of fanfiction, and the impact it is having on the lives of many young people today.
• On Fanfiction.net alone, 1.5 million authors have published over 7 million stories and shared over 177 million reviews of those stories.
• The median age of authors on the site is 15 1/2, with over 82% between the ages of 13 and 21.
• 73% of authors on the site are female; and more fanfiction authors identify as gender-nonconforming (13%) than male (11%).
• Young people are teaching each other how to write through the feedback they give. This new type of mentoring is unique to networked communities. Called distributed mentoring, it is described in detail in the book.
• The quality of the writing improves in response to the amount of distributed mentoring the author received. (650 reviews predicts as much growth as one year of maturation).
• Despite the fact that readers post reviews anonymously, comments are overwhelmingly positive, with less than one percent gratuitously negative.
2. How does a new story idea come to you?
Is it an event that sparks the plot or a character speaking to you?
I have so many ideas; the problem is finding time to write them all out. When I’m walking, or riding the bus, or reading an interesting news article, I’ll often come up with a new story or research idea. I usually get several of them every day. My files contain so many story ideas that I won’t have enough years in my life to write them all.
With fanfiction, what often sparks an idea is a plot hole in canon, or a missing explanation as to why the characters behave the way they do, or simply a desire to put two interesting characters together and see what happens. The most fun part about writing fanfiction is I can get a story idea, post the first chapter online, and get immediate feedback on whether I should continue or not.
I have tons of first chapters of original fiction languishing in my file cabinets or on my hard drive that I’ve never shown to anyone, and so I have no idea whether they might appeal to readers. But with fanfiction, I can post a chapter and if it gets an enthusiastic response with dozens of reviews in the first day or two, I know it’s worth continuing.
That kind of instant and voluminous feedback is characteristic of distributed mentoring online, and is extremely valuable for a writer. As a matter of fact, many published authors who’ve written both fanfiction and original fiction have commented on the sheer abundance of fanfiction feedback, and how much they love it.
3. Is there a message/theme in your book that you want readers to grasp?
We should trust young people more. They are teaching each other how to write on their own. Maybe we should support them and provide them guidance with learning rather than creating artificial structures and standardized tests.
Also, fanfiction doesn’t deserve its bad rap! We talk in Writers in the Secret Garden about the important role fanfiction can play in society.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned when writing?
First, the breadth and depth of the fanfiction community. We had no idea that millions of young people were writing and reading fanfiction, and what’s more, that they were finding their identities and teaching each other how to write.
It also surprised us to find a new type of mentoring among young people in online communities, what we ended up calling distributed mentoring. Rather than traditional one-on-one mentoring, young people are mentoring each other in small pieces that all together make up much more than the sum of the whole. We describe distributed mentoring, how it arises, and why it works in detail in the book.
4. What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
I have a demanding full-time job, a family, and take care of special-needs family members. My husband is sick and unable to work, so my job provides our only income. My father has Alzheimer’s, and I’m his primary caregiver. It’s always difficult to carve out enough time to write.
6. Who are some of your favorite authors?
Ursula Le Guin, Henry Jenkins, Rebecca Black, JK Rowling, Lloyd Alexander, James Schmitz, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Zenna Henderson, Roger Zelazny, Sally Watson, Ruth Nichols, Dorothy Gilman and many, many more.
7. Have you won any awards or honors (not just for writing)?
I’ve won multiple poetry and essay contests, was named one of the Top 25 Women of the Year (2009) by Hispanic Business Magazine, won the Vaunda Micheaux Nelson Award from Lerner Publishing Group in 2017, and was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contest in 2019.
Other than for writing, I’ve won many scientific research and teaching awards, including multiple Best Paper awards at academic conferences, a Fulbright Fellowship, the Distinguished Alumni Award from UC Berkeley, and the student-nominated Faculty Innovator in Teaching Award from my department at UW. But the one that made me the most proud was the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (“the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on outstanding scientists and engineers in the early stages of their independent research careers”) — when I received it, I got to shake President Obama’s hand!
Also, I won many trophies in my flying career. I first won a slot on the United States Aerobatic Team in 1991, and I hold the record for shortest time from first solo in an airplane to membership on the US Team. I was also the first Latina to win a slot on the US Team. I was a bronze medalist at both the 1993 U.S. National Aerobatic Championships and the 1994 World Aerobatic Championships. I also won over 70 trophies in regional aerobatic competitions at the Unlimited level and was California State Unlimited Aerobatic Champion in 1990.
8. What person(s) has/have helped you the most in your career?
When I was a child, my father encouraged me to believe in myself despite repeated discouragement from peers and teachers. As I got older, just like in distributed mentoring, no one single person has helped me: instead, I owe deep gratitude to a multitude of mentors, from peers to professors, from friends and family to random strangers who gave me feedback.
9. What’s the best writing advice you have ever received?
Believe in yourself.
10. What was your favorite book as a child?
So many… The Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin, the Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien, books by James Schmitz, Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Zenna Henderson, Roger Zelazny, Sally Watson, Ruth Nichols, Dorothy Gilman…
11. What is the one book no writer should be without?
Impossible to choose — I’ve collected over three thousand books during my lifetime, one paperback at a time!
12. What are you working on now?
My memoir: Flying Free: How I Used Math to Overcome Fear and Achieve my Wildest Dreams, about my journey from fearful, bullied child to champion pilot and beyond. It’ll be out from Blackstone Publishing in fall 2020.