I was thirteen when I first read Harry Potter, and that was when I knew, beyond anything, that I wanted to write novels the way J.K. Rowling did: stories of the power of friendship against a gathering evil, of a young hero growing up at boarding school with peril lurking around every corner.
It was the summer of 2003, a summer spent studying for the SATs, when I attended my first Harry Potter midnight release party. I'd gone with friends, but only I had worn Gryffindor robes. As we wandered the bookstore, I paused in front of a shelf containing the first four volumes of Harry Potter. Two rows below, I thought, was where my own fantasy series would someday sit.
Four years later, I hadn't lost that ambition. It had just gotten buried somewhere beneath my pile of pre-med textbooks, pushed aside by the snarky gossip tidbits I wrote for IvyGate. When the seventh and final Harry Potter book was published, I bought my copy at midnight in a crowded Manhattan store. My friends and I rode the subway home in our wizarding robes.
As the Hogwarts Express left without me in that very last chapter, I realized that I had never written a fantasy novel because I wouldn't know what to do. For my whole life, magic worked the way JK Rowling said it did. To write it any other way was impossible.
But . . .what if I could write a fantasy story without magic? I spent the rest of that year ignoring my physics problem sets and sitting in a cramped café, writing the beginnings of a tale about a boarding school for knights.
When I gave the first five chapters to my agent, he went silent. And then, with a worried expression on his face, asked, "How do you feel about using a pen name?" He cited the curse words in my teen chick lit books, my articles about sex scandals, my stint on a stand up comedy tour. He was right, I realized.
I chose the most absurd pen name I could think of--Violet Haberdasher--and we got to work on the proposal. I'd originally called the manuscript Midsummer Knight's Dream Academy by Robyn Schneider. When the series sold in December 2008, in a pre-empt to Simon & Schuster, it had become Knightley Academy by Violet Haberdasher.
I moved to London to write, staying in a falling-apart townhouse with five other girls, where the kitchen sink threw frequent temper tantrums and we were often forced to eat dinner by candlelight. One weekend, I took the train to Edinburgh and spent two days writing in the same cafes where JK Rowling had penned the early chapters of Harry Potter, fulfilling a truly geeky childhood dream.
When I moved back to the states for grad school, leaving my friends behind in England, I began to spend my free time on the internet. Under my real name, I posted silly YouTube videos and Twitter updates, and hosted a weekly live show on BlogTV. Knightley Academy Fan websites and communities sprang up, wizard rockers decided to write "knight rock," Harry Potter and Twilight fans came together to audition for a Knightley collab channel. We were all nostalgic for Harry Potter, and midnight release parties were no longer wizard but vampire themed. Through celebrating Knightley, it was almost like we had Harry back, just for a moment.
When my book came out, author Kaleb Nation and I threw a midnight release party on the internet. We didn't have a copy of the book to hold up, so we just goofed around on a webcam. Almost 5000 tweets about Knightley Academy flooded in within the hour.
My publicist threw up his hands when a group of Penn students planned an all night reading of my book, and shook his head when Columbia students wanted to sponsor a costume party in a children's bookshop. "It's for ages 9 and up!" he kept mumbling. I was invited to sign my books at a Harry Potter conference. Slash fiction appeared. Youtubers posted video reviews, gleefully pointing out references to Harry Potter, Shakespeare, Dickens, Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes and Twilight, referring sardonically to the author as "Robyn--I mean, Violet." My pen name had become an internet in-joke.
And then offers started coming in for audio and foreign rights. Hollywood producers began to take notice, and so did the press. I was the girl who had ripped off Harry Potter under a pseudonym, and did I want to write a piece about it?
Naturally, I was horrified. Did it really appear that way? I was a 23-year-old videoblogger in a Gryffindor scarf, part of the generation that grew up along with a certain boy wizard. We didn't need another forgettable Harry Potter rip off, and I certainly hadn't written one. JK Rowling had taught me about magic, but, for me, that wasn't what had made Harry Potter magical.
My own novel is set in a wonderfully strange school filled with secret passageways and eccentric professors, best friends and horrible rivals, and a whole host of mysteries. It follows the misadventures of the first three commoners who train to become knights at an all boys' school in dystopian Victorian England, with swordfights and chivalry--but no magic. And yet...there is something undeniably Potterish about Knightley Academy.
Harry Potter defeated the Dark Lord a long time ago, but he isn't the only boy hero who will capture the imagination of the kids who spend their free time listening to YouTube musicians and following the tweets of their favorite authors.
The Potter generation is growing up, and going to work at the publishing houses and film studios that gave us our own childhood hero. And we're cheering each other on, as though Hogwarts truly is our alma mater. These days, that shelf beneath JK Rowling's books, where my last name fits alphabetically, is empty of my novels. They're sitting under H, for Harry--I mean, Haberdasher.