By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 21, 2005
Jennie Levine lives two lives. At the University of Maryland, she's a curator of historical manuscripts. On the Internet, she opines as Headmistress Zsenya.
Levine, 33, is a big Harry Potter fan. Her love of the J.K. Rowling series chronicling the adventures of a boy in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has blossomed since she read the first book in late 1999 -- so much so that the university lists her as its resident Harry Potter expert.
"Probably 'expert' should just be termed 'excessive fan,' " she said. "I have read all the books. I've spent a lot of time -- probably too much time -- discussing the books with other people, thinking about the books, trying to figure out what's going to happen next."
Online, Levine imparts what she knows about Harry. She and a friend, Megan Morrison, created a Web site, http://sugarquill.net , dedicated to the popular children's series. They launched the site in 2001 as a home page featuring an archive of fan fiction called "Flourish and Blotts," the name of a bookstore in the series. In addition to publishing such stories inspired by Rowling's books, the site also hosts discussion forums about general writing as well as about Harry Potter.
The Sugar Quill has swelled into one of the more popular Potter sites, with more than 5,000 registered members. On Sunday, the day after the sixth book, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," was released, traffic on the site peaked with about 350 users logged on at once.
"It sort of ballooned," Levine said. "We didn't think anybody would even visit it, and somehow word got around and people found us, and suddenly we've got this huge Web site."
Levine and Morrison met through the Internet at a Jane Austen fan site. Morrison wrote a piece of fan fiction based on Austen's novels, and Levine liked it so much that she reviewed it. They decided to meet to talk about Austen and settled on a date in the summer of 2000, the day the fourth Potter book came out.
"That's how we discovered that we were both Harry Potter fans," Levine said. "We just talked about Harry Potter the whole time."
They decided to start a Potter fan site. It costs about $85 per month to run. About a third of that figure is paid for with donations; they pay the rest.
The site is named after candies that are the Hogwarts students' writing utensil of choice. (In "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," Ron Weasley mentions "really excellent sugar quills, which you can suck in class and just look like you're thinking what to write next.")
The Sugar Quill has attracted children in addition to adults. Some kids have spent so much time at the site that their parents have begun restricting it.
"They're treating the Sugar Quill as another of their extracurricular activities, like soccer and softball," Levine said.
Levine, who grew up in Ellicott City and now lives in Baltimore, works at the Hornbake Library on the College Park campus. She said she gets few queries from the university about the Potter series but wishes students would write term papers about the books and come to her for research help.
She said she views the fan fiction portion of the site as a forum for readers interested in becoming writers. Two dozen volunteers help edit the fiction.
Levine said she likes the latest Potter book and went as far as to rank it a close second to her favorite, the third installment, "Prisoner of Azkaban." The new book leaves many questions unanswered, she said, and builds suspense before Rowling releases the final Potter book.
"People sort of read the last chapter of this book, put it down and say, 'Where's the next one?' It really sort of ends on a cliffhanger," she said.
Levine said the Potter series is appealing to adults as well as children, especially because Rowling so closely chronicles Harry's adolescence.
"Me at 30 or 33 was sort of like, 'Oh, wow, I remember what that was like,' " Levine said.