Fanfiction Friday is back with another pinnacle of Catradora fics: Upper West Side by Ceruleanstorm, aka Savannah. This story is almost 200,000 words of hurt and comfort, angst and introspection, romance, and awkward Uber rides. Upper West Side was first published in December 2018 and completed over the course of nine months, gaining a large following of dedicated readers and fanfiction authors alike. Author Malachi Walker references Upper West Side in her Catradora story Rhythm and Blues (check out the interview here) and, in case you haven’t noticed a trend, author Jo aka JMI (find her on A03) beta read for Upper West Side as well.
If you’re new to Upper West Side, here’s a quick synopsis: Catra and Adora grew up together in foster care, but were separated at a young age, causing a deep rift in their relationship. Now in her mid-twenties, Catra is happy to never speak to Adora again. She’s definitely moved on, holds no grudges, and doesn’t think about Adora at all. Needing steady income, Catra starts driving for Uber and who else would she pick up on her first night on the job than Adora?
There’s a LOT more to the story than that, but now I’ll turn it over to Savannah to tell you about her fanfiction Upper West Side.
Jem (JM): To start off, can you tell me a bit about your interest in She-Ra? What about the series inspired you and what drew you to these characters?
Savannah (SH): I heard about [She-Ra] in the months before the Season One release and was intrigued, but I wasn’t a part of the pre-release fandom. I was really drawn to a newer take on the eighties show. Also I was really hooked on the idea of canon LGBTQ characters, rep, and relationships. I started the show not expecting to be so sucked in, but I was hooked in the first ten minutes! I was also drawn to the show because of the many diverse female characters!
JM: That’s what drew me in, too! And then I saw Catra and I was hooked. Sad cat girl is my favorite. In your story, you focus primarily on Catra and Adora, who are arguably the main characters in the show as well, though I think you really hone in on their relationship. What about their relationship interests you?
SH: Their relationship was what sucked me into the show, actually! I really relate to both characters and their issues. I was very drawn though to the way they had survived together. The representation was a big part of it, too. There is also that aspect of “almost”. They almost were together, but Shadow Weaver, so they try to overcome that the best way they can by saying they’ll get out. They almost get out together, but then She-ra happens. Catra almost joins Adora, but Light Hope and Shadow Weaver. And that dynamic just had so much appeal to me compared to other ships that I’d encountered and even written. It’s so messy, and that feels so real to me. There’s so much pressure on femslash ships and femslash writers to paint such a flowery picture, but this was raw and real and relatable. I love both girls so much, and want to see them happy, and so I kind of tried to figure out what that would look like if they could just get past the “almost” part.
JM: In UWS, both of these characters are highly introspective. You explore their mental states more than many fics I’ve read. Your writing reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s “stream of consciousness” style, exploring through characters’ thoughts more than their actions. With Adora, her thoughts were layered with anxiety. And Catra struggled with anger, depression, self-loathing, intrusive thoughts, and internal voices. In her mind, Catra was volatile and conflicted. Can you tell me about how/why you explored the characters this way?
SH: I think I just have a natural overthinking problem that bleeds into everything, and so that’s where those layers of introspection come from. Plus I think that’s the one thing we don’t really fully get from the show, how the characters think and how those thoughts (and emotions) influence the decisions they make. I felt like if I could try and put myself in their shoes enough I could find a way to work backwards, and find the thoughts and emotions that had themselves make those choices. Plus, (this time around) there were not a lot of events driving the story, at least not as many as what I have planned for the universe in the future. So that presented me this really cool opportunity to open up about what they were thinking. Plus, inserting their thoughts in actual italics helped me break up the balance of exposition and dialogue! For the last ten years of my life, the biggest focus personally was my struggle with mental illness, and that’s something I saw in both Adora and in Catra. And at the same time She-Ra came out, I switched my major to psychology and have been studying it. I think we talk a lot about how Adora and Catra really struggle with complex PTSD but in my opinion there’s more going on. Of course, it’s all rooted in trauma that started at such a young age. I believe Adora struggles with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and I believe Catra struggles with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) like in terms of diagnostic material she hits like everything even in canon. Those are both things I’ve wrestled with for a really long time and having these characters [with the same] problems in canon was a huge deal to me. So not only was I exploring them, but also myself. To explore it, I combined what I knew about psychopathology, my own issues, and what was happening in canon!
JM: I don’t have much knowledge when it comes to BPD. If you’re comfortable talking about it, is that where Catra’s anger and intrusive thoughts stem from?
SH: BPD can best be summed up by an inability to regulate or control one’s emotions and to almost kind of be ruled by them. It can also include self harm, suicidal ideation and attempts, chronic feelings of emptiness and dissociation. And I think, for Catra, this is how her trauma presents. Catra has focused for so long on surviving that this part of her has become neglected. She has no way of riding the wave because she just never learned, and I think that’s where the intensity comes from in her.
JM: I admire how you write Catra’s struggle with BPD. Emotionally, it’s tough to read because I want to help her and I don’t want her to be feeling all those difficult feelings, but at the same time, I think it’s valuableto show that experience, even if it hurts. Especially for folks like me who might not know a lot about it.
SH: Yeah, something that’s really special is hearing from people with BPD who feel seen by the fic. That’s something I hold close to my heart.
JM: Can you tell me a bit more about the reader response to your story?
SH: Reader response has BLOWN. MY. MIND. I’ve written for several fandoms, even really popular ones, but the response has never been anything like this. I never really expected people to get attached to the universe, but it’s because of the readers and their support that the universe even exists. I was so worried I wouldn’t have the energy to finish the initial story, but people came and backed me up. They ran with me to the finish line. And I’ve met some really incredible people and made some amazing friends because of it!
JM: When you started writing, did you intend to educate readers about mental health? Did you have a message you wanted to get across, and if so, how has that message developed as you reached the end of your story and expanded into the extended universe?
SH: Mental health is one of the main things I want to just be in everything I write. In each one of my stories, I want it to be a main theme. So it’s not so much as an intent to educate as it is to put pieces of myself in the story and connect to other people who are like me, and normalize our experiences and existence. I think that’s what stories do best. As I’ve continued to write the universe, I’ve gotten [Catra and Adora] in a place where they recognize they can’t continue neglecting their mental health because their lives are moving forward and they actually want to be a part of that. So I want to start looking at what it takes within ourselves to go to therapy, and look at medication, and start practicing self care. To me, that’s just as important as exploring the illness itself, because I also want to normalize recovery as a bumpy but worthy road. I want to explore two different paths for Adora and Catra, and maybe that’ll help normalize how we all need different things for our mental health.
JM: Another thing that stuck out to me, as someone with a history of them myself, is Catra’s migraines. The poor girl gets some intense migraines in this story. Why did you include this part of her character? And maybe there’s no reason! But damn those can hurt.
SH: There is a reason! (Almost every detail is placed within the story on purpose ;D) I struggle with some pretty bad chronic pain. Not migraines, but fibromyalgia. I wanted to transfer that into the story without making it too much of me. I also went and came up with all this backstory for her birth mother Selena, and Selena had chronic migraines, so I wanted to have that connection between them, that maybe Catra wouldn’t dig too much and would kind of clue the reader into how she misses her mother but also resents her.
JM: Can you tell me a bit more about how you developed Catra’s backstory, with her mother Selena and her “guardians” Hordak and Shadow Weaver? Also, love the bit where one of Hordak’s girlfriends, who Catra had a crush on (so cute) helped her with her hair. As a POC kid who didn’t understand their hair growing up (still don’t get it), that part resonated with me.
SH: Catra’s backstory almost wrote itself. Part of this was because there just is very little in canon about where she came from. I started [writing] right after Season 1, so all we knew was that [Catra] grew up in the Horde. The idea of Catra and Adora having been apart for a while invited more tragedy into their lives, and Catra feeling abandoned by more than just Adora would amplify and separate her pain from just being left behind by Adora. It was a way of developing [Catra] and villanising Shadow Weaver and Hordak. I wanted Hordak to be the “Big Bad” and I wanted everything that we had seen in canon between him and Catra to have already happened, so Adora could rework it into the book. I also wanted to focus on Hordak and Catra’s relationship because I didn’t really see anyone else talking about it at the time, but I knew they had to be going in that direction after Season 1.
Catra’s hair! I’m very attached to Catra’s hair and it being curls. I’m white, but have curls and just could never find anyone to help me and so I hated this part of me. Catra receiving kindness throughout the years she lived with Hordak was important to me because I didn’t want to completely harden her heart. It’s so cool that it resonated with you!!! That makes me very happy and now I’m even more glad I put that in there!
JM: I like how you incorporate the canon world into your story via Adora writing a children’s book. How did you come about that premise? And the premise of Catra as an Uber driver, for that matter? It’s so different in all the best ways. I don’t know if I’d want to get in a car with Catra driving…
SH: Catra as an Uber driver was just a funny idea at first, which is ironic giving how angsty the story became. After watching the show, I was looking for an idea I really wanted to write and I just kind of stumbled upon it. So many aspects of the story followed naturally after that and one of those ideas was Adora being a writer and Catra wanting to be a tattoo artist. There were several ideas in the work (and it’s been so long that I can’t remember the original format) but these fell into place almost perfectly. They brought canon in as well as fanfic tropes, so two different things to explore!
Yeah, [Catra’s] reviews are iffy. Adora’s is her highest one. But she’s actually the gay that can drive in their relationship! Adora is not much of a driver compared to her, lol.
JM: That’s interesting to note, that Catra is the “gay that can drive their relationship”. It’s so true, but ironic considering Catra seemed to be the more conflicted of the two about developing a relationship. Mentally, she went back and forth around the idea, but she’s the one who instigated it and really brought them together. Nice job Catra!
SH: Yes! She took the leap! I was proud of her 🙂
JM: Big transition–Adora faces a lot of misogyny, sexual harassment, and anti-LGBTQ harassment at her office job. It was frustrating, but so believable, to see her pushed to the point of just working in the women’s restroom. Can you tell me about including these elements in your story?
SH: Yes! I’m pretty sure it was a purposeful decision to take those elements of misogyny and LGBTQ-phobia out of the canon world by the crew, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to bring the characters to the modern world without them facing those things that so many of us face every day. It was also important to me that Adora’s life was not going perfectly just because she was living in Bright Moon, like Catra wanted to believe. It’s tough, but I felt that those elements needed to be there to make the universe more real but not the central focus of the story. And Adora getting the win of being able to quit and walk out of that terrible job and all those terrible bigoted people was important to me. I want the universe to feel real, but also to have that satisfying win we all so badly want, you know?
JM: Definitely! I appreciate how those difficulties were present, without the story revolving around them singularly. That’s a common trope when writing queer characters, where their story revolves around the hardships of being queer, when a lot of the time that’s just a small part of who we are. And it was so satisfying to see Adora get out of there. I would’ve punched Chad in the face.
SH: Exactly! And yes, it was satisfying to write too! Too bad she didn’t get to punch him in his stupid face.
JM: If Noelle, the cast, and the crew-ra were to read your story, what would you like them to take away from it? Is there anything you’d want to say to them, or hope they knew about you, your writing, or your feelings about She-Ra?
SH: Oh that is such a wild thing to think about. I hope that their major take away would be that their work inspired the major project that has changed my life and introduced me to people that have also changed my life. I hope that they would know how deeply the show touched me and helped me feel seen in a way that a show never really has, and motivated me to start thinking about writing my own original works that would incorporate all the things I’ve learned about representation and storytelling. And I hope they would agree with the characterization! It takes a lot of inspiration to create a work like that and it was only because I love the show so much!
JM: Is there anything you’d like to share with other She-Ra fans, fanfic readers, and intersections there-in? Or do you have upcoming projects you want to share?
SH: Upcoming I have some more oneshots in the mini tie-over series “she’s god and I found her” and then I have the Upper West Side sequel called Cruel Summer! Which I am SUPER excited about!
Lastly I just wanted to say that it’s been super cool to be a part of the community and to come together to create and support all types of content for She-Ra! There are so many talented, unique and kind people in this fandom and I am honored to be making them!