If you don’t read fanfiction, it’s hard to really understand the purpose it serves. At its worst fanfiction is self indulgent, but at its best, fanfiction transforms the work it’s based on, and gives small moments in the canon more depth. A great example of how a derivative work can add to a piece of media is the incredibly popular Harry Potter fanfiction, The Shoebox Project.
Harry Potter was one of the largest fandoms in the early 2000s, which makes sense, because the Harry Potter books were an international phenomenon. Its fandom was preoccupied with shipping, the act of writing fanfiction about, or just generally liking a romantic pairing of two characters. Most fandoms were pretty ship heavy in a post X-Files, Scully/Mulder world, and the Harry Potter books did tease a little “will they, won’t they,” with pairings like Ron and Hermione, which would only add fuel to the shipping fire. While Ron/Hermione is an easy ship to explain—they get together in the books after all—Sirius/Remus as a pairing wasn’t as embedded in the text. These were two adult characters in the books that were friends with Harry’s dad James when they were at Hogwarts with each other, and based on what readers knew about their history, it was a popular fan theory that they were lovers. The Shoebox Project was set during those school days at Hogwarts, and depicted Remus and Sirius first falling for each other.
The Shoebox Project was an ambitious, multimedia project, co-written by livejournal users Jaida and Rave. The fanfiction was meant to be a collection of letters and photos that one might keep in a shoebox under their bed. Its chapters varied from letters between Sirius and Remus, to a collection of handwritten notes, to more traditional fiction scenes, albeit ones that traded points of view between the characters every few paragraphs. To understand why this fic exploded, you need to know the context for the Sirius/Remus ship.
From what readers knew about Sirius and Remus’s school days, they seemed quite dramatic. In the books, Sirius Black, who comes from an aristocratic family of Slytherins, is sorted as a Gryffindor on his first day of school. At sixteen, he runs away and is taken in by the Potters. Remus Lupin’s upbringing wasn’t much better. He was attacked by a werewolf at five years old, and Dumbledore makes special accommodations for him to attend school by locking him in a creepy shack once a month. Sirius and Remus become the inseparable friends of James Potter and Peter Pettigrew. In the books, James, Peter, Remus and Sirius are portrayed as huge assholes—Sirius plays a prank on Severus Snape that almost gets him killed—but they all love each other deeply.
After graduation, during Voldemort’s reign of terror, James and Lily Potter learn that their child is the subject of a prophecy, and Voldemort is out to murder him. The Potters are able to hide their location and give the key to finding them to their trusted friend Sirius Black. Sirius, paranoid and thinking that Remus may be a spy, passes this duty to Peter Pettigrew. Turns out the spy was Peter, and he betrays the Potters, fakes his own death and frames Sirius. When we learn of the two characters in Azkaban, Sirius has just escaped prison, on the hunt for Pettigrew, and Remus has begun teaching at Hogwarts, and is seemingly friendless. When Sirius and Remus reunite, they embrace deeply. Shippers thought, “if Harry Potter is about prejudice against marginalized people, and there aren’t any gay characters yet, wouldn’t these two, with their history and intimacy, make sense?”
Two books later, Sirius Black fucking dies. Now, go back and reread the above two paragraphs, but imagine you are a person who thinks that Sirius and Remus were in love. This was brutal. It still hurts.
When The Shoebox Project fic started in 2004, a year after the book in which Sirius dies was released, it was immensely popular, at the level that it had its own fandom. People not only made fanart, they wrote Shoebox Project fanfiction. There were livejournal communities dedicated to sharing moments in people’s lives that reminded them of The Shoebox Project. If you shipped Remus/Sirius, this was the tentpole fic you recommended to other people. Some fans even endeavoured to make an audio book version of it. It was a fic that was synonymous with the definition of fanfiction, to the point that when CNN and The Wall Street Journal wrote articles on what fanfiction was, they interviewed Jaida. But by 2005, updates slowed down and in 2008, the Shoebox website was hacked and all their original posts were lost. Luckily, a fan had archived their fic, but it seems in 2016 Jaida and Rave both decided that the fic has been completed.
The sheer ambition of this project still boggles my mind. The fic begins during summer vacation in 1975, when Sirius, Remus and the gang is sixteen, and was intended to continue up until the deaths of James and Lily Potter. The fanfiction depicts not only depict Sirius and Remus falling for each other, but shows James turning from a rich kid asshole into the courageous leader of a resistance. It gave Lily Evans, Harry’s mother, depth, and gave context to Peter Pettigrew’s eventual betrayal. In my mind, the fic wasn’t just a derivative work. Reading The Shoebox Project made more sense than Harry Potter’s actual canon at times. It healed a wound in my thirteen year old heart.
This might sound like nostalgia, but actually, the fanfiction holds up in 2018. The fic isn’t just touching and well-written written, it’s also incredibly funny. When I read it in the office recently, I held my breath to stop myself from laughing out loud. In The Shoebox Project, the two authors split the characters between them, with Rave writing as Sirius and Jaida writing as Remus. This structure gives the characters very distinct voices that show the differences between them, and also their love for each other. Reading the letters and notes they write each other feels intimate, and because each author handles their own character, authentic. You can see the underlying jealousy when Remus asks Sirius in a letter if he’s having fun with the attractive American Sirius mentioned in a previous letter. You understand the confused jealousy of Sirius’s increasingly erratic handwriting when he writes Remus a note, demanding to know why he’d get tutored in Potions by Snape when Remus could have just asked him instead. These feel like two real, whole people—teenagers that don’t know they’re in love yet.
It also helps that at times, it’s incredibly funny. Early in the very first chapter, which is presented as a series of letters between Sirius and Remus, Remus scolds Sirius for his poor grammar, writing, “Repeat after me, Mr. Black: I do believe in commas. I do, I do.” In the next letter, Sirius writes a gargantuan run on sentence, adding afterward, “That sentence had five of them. I WIN, MESSR. OBSESSED WITH SMALL DOTS.”
Although the love story between these two characters is heartfelt and touching, it’s the development of James, Lily and Peter that make this fic shine. JK Rowling never really explains why Peter betrayed the Potters, or how Lily went from hating James to marrying him. I was always curious about the years between Hogwarts and the Potters’ deaths. In the fanfic, you see Peter grow apart from his friends who begin to start romantic relationships, and watch him grow insecure, and they nail how bitter and isolated he feels as James and Lily shack up and Sirius and Remus start spending more time alone with each other. As for James and Lily, in this fic, Lily is headstrong and fierce and much more confident than James. While James puts up a front, he’s nervous, and is the kind of man who once thinks, “I love you so much I spend all day wanting to flush myself down the toilet,” as he gazes at Lily. These crucial details are missing in Harry Potter. Understanding the lives of Harry’s parents and the man who would betray them makes Harry’s plight and prophetic destiny more interesting.
Thanks to the hacking incident, The Shoebox Project ended abruptly, stopping well short of Harry’s birth and the Potters deaths. In the end, I think it’s better that way. Where the fic leaves off, James and Lily have gotten together and moved in with each other. Sirius and Remus have finally started dating, although in secret. It’s the summer of 1978, anti-muggle sentiment is rumbling, and Voldemort is beginning his rise. Peter, who finds himself distanced from his friends, is slowly being radicalized. We don’t need to see what happens next, as it’s mostly a lot of pain. The things you keep in a shoebox under your bed aren’t the memories of betrayal, heartbreak or the events of your friends deaths. This was meant to be Remus Lupin’s secret cache of memories. I imagine that he’d like to remember his friend—and according to the fic, lover—in their happiest times. So would I.