Victoria/V.E. Schwab talks girl bands, minorities in YA, ‘Vicious’ and ‘Our Dark Duet’

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If you ever want to brighten bestselling author Victoria Schwab’s day, make sure you pack plenty of dark chocolate. A narwhal would do, too, but your best bet would be 80% dark chocolate, preferably in bar form.

“Or,” Schwab said, “a surprise cool breeze.” Nashville, Tenn., gets absurdly hot, and Schwab delights in unexpected breezes. That is, unless she’s visiting San Diego.

“I never get angry about cool breezes until I go to San Diego and realize it’s just always like that, and I’m like, ‘how dare you.’ San Diego is so obnoxiously nice.”

Schwab has had plenty of opportunities to experience San Diego’s obnoxiously nice weather during her world-wide travels. She even splits her time between her home in Nashville, Tenn., and Edinburgh, Scotland – that is, when she isn’t on tour or satisfying her wanderlust.

“My favorite city in the world is Edinburgh, Scotland,” Schwab told Fictionist in a recent interview. “I used to live there for graduate school and now I spend as much of the year as I’m able to there. It’s in my bones – my family is Scottish, so it’s literally in my bones, but it’s the only place I don’t feel wanderlust. It’s the only place I don’t want to leave when I’m there.”

Schwab’s recent tour celebrating the release of A Conjuring of Light, the last installment in Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, ended March 12. Her next scheduled appearance is at New York’s BookCon on June 3 and 4. In the meantime, Schwab will be busy with her current projects, most of which she can’t even talk about.

“I’m working on a bunch of things, but Vengeful is the only thing I’m really allowed to talk about right now,” Schwab said. “At any given time, I have three or four things I can’t talk about…I just got a piece of news that I might be able to talk about in, like, a year and a half.”

Schwab’s admission that she’s no good at keeping secrets didn’t get us any more information on the projects that will be keeping her busy for the next four to five years, but her readers will find out about those projects in time.

In the meantime, enjoy a full-length Q&A from Fictionist’s interview with Victoria Schwab:


How does it feel to have your own Wikipedia page?

Surreal. A bit strange – it’s always interesting to see what information they get and what information they don’t, and how often it’s updated… but, you know, it’s flattering. It’s so random. I have no idea why I do (have one).

What was your very first job?

Author.

Well, I did have a summer job. I worked at a dog daycare. I got bitten really badly, I have scars all down my leg. I do still love dogs. I worked at a dog daycare and then one summer in college I worked in the Macy’s lingerie department, and it was the most soul-sucking experience of my life. And right then and there, I was like, ‘No. I’ve got to make this author thing work.’ People don’t put bras back on hangers, they try on like 40 bras and leave them on the floor, and then the store closes but the employees don’t get to leave until all the bras get put away, and the bras go on those really weird hangers… it’s awful. It was the worst job of my life, and I say that only having had like three jobs.

Dog or cat person?

I’m a both person! Right now I have a cat. Look over at my cat, can you see the cat? He’s obnoxiously fluffy. I have dogs, too, but they live in France with my family. I’m mostly a dog person, I’d say, but my cat will, like, kill me in my sleep. I prefer big dogs – like, dogs I can wrap my arms around. If I have to bend down to pet it I think it’s a cat, not a dog, regardless of what it is.

What’s the easiest way to brighten your day?

A bar of dark chocolate. Like 80% – I like my chocolate dark. Or, a surprise cool breeze. I live in the South, so most of the summer is so ungodly hot, and then on a day I go outside and there’s actually a cool breeze, that’s really good. I never get angry about cool breezes until I go to San Diego and realize it’s just always like that, and I’m like, ‘How dare you?’ San Diego is so obnoxiously nice.

I’ve heard about this narwhal thing. How does one collect narwhals?

I don’t intentionally (collect narwhals) anymore, but people still give them to me. In 2011, I started collecting – well, collecting may be the wrong word. People started giving me narwhals because I thought they were really, really cool, and then I found out they were real. I didn’t know for the first six months that I thought they were cool, and talked about how I thought they were cool, and then the internet tried to shame me when I discovered that they were real. And I was like no, I’m not embarrassed by this, I think it’s even cooler that these mythical creatures happen to be real creatures. So, people have been giving me narwhals for like seven years, almost. And now I can’t seem to get them to stop giving me narwhals. I’d rather have bars of dark chocolate, but if you’re going to give me a narwhal that’s okay too.

What is your strangest hobby/interest?

I’m not sure what counts as strange anymore, my whole life is pretty peculiar. I’m a competitive fencer. I’m just getting back into competition shape – I was a competitive fencer for seven years in my teens, and now as I near 30, I’m getting back into it. I’ve been doing it for the last year again. I have constant bruises.

Have you ever played D&D?

I have not. I don’t play things like that and I don’t play video games. A huge amount of authors play video games and I’m very happy for them, but the reason I don’t is because I lack self-control. I’m a full-time author, so in order to make that work I write two to three books a year. If I had access to a D&D club, or to video games, I’d never write. I know myself well enough to not trust myself with those kinds of things, so I don’t do them. And I wouldn’t get paid for (playing), so I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills and I wouldn’t be able to feed the cat, so it’s a slippery slope.

What’s your most fail-safe way to get writing inspiration?

Either travel or music. I do a lot of traveling, but if I’m in one place and I can’t travel, music. It’s less that I’m taking ideas from anything, and more that I’m just relying on it to fill the creative well and trigger ideas in myself. Usually, a lack of ideas isn’t my problem, a lack of discipline and a lack of hours in the day is my problem.

With over 43,000 followers on Twitter (and a whole bunch elsewhere, too), how do you stay so connected with your followers/readers?

I clearly spend too much time online. My publishers would like me to spend slightly less time so as to make my deadlines. Um, I miss a lot. I try very hard and I know things will always slip through the gaps. I try not to make a habit of it, though. I keep my Twitter most of the time – this is going to sound terrible – on the “@” replies so that I can see most of the messages that come in. I usually don’t respond to things unless it’s a direct question. If you ask me a question on Twitter more than once, and I don’t respond, it’s not that I didn’t see it. It’s that, for one reason or another, I can’t respond. Either it’s not something I can answer or not something I feel comfortable answering, or… whatever it is, sometimes people think that if they keep asking the question I will answer it, but I’m pretty good about seeing those questions. It’s a conscientious effort…to actually get to most of the messages.

I almost never answer questions on Tumblr, because that’s where hate-mail lives for some reason. The only place I get hate-mail is in the Tumblr inbox, and so a lot of days I’ll just ask myself, ‘Do I feel like rolling the roulette game of hate-mail or love-mail today?’ And I decide I don’t, so a lot of times I won’t answer messages or won’t even look at my Tumblr inbox because I’m like, ‘Eh, I’m not in the mood for hate mail today.’

There’s always people who are going to be disrespectful about (social media). I opened up my direct messages this one time, and I said it was for a very specific reason, and still within 10 minutes I got people in the direct messages, scores of them, who were like, ‘I know this isn’t what you were asking about, but…’ And I’m like, ‘No! Don’t do that! That’s why we can’t have nice things!’ For the most part, my readers are incredibly respectful.

I also just don’t have a lot of patience for (hate) and I don’t engage with it when I see it.

Do you enjoy going to conventions like BookCon?

I’m really excited about BookCon – I’ve done B.E.A. but I’ve never done BookCon before. I love things like that, but it depends on the size. Like, I find San Diego Comic Con extremely tiring because I’m a pretty hardcore introvert, and that’s like, 130,000 people. That’s too many people. I like them for a specific period of time, but things which are specifically book-oriented, I love. Because I get to go through life with a fair amount of anonymity, and you get to be like a rockstar for a very short period of time, and then you get to go back to being anonymous. I love it, I don’t know, I mean writing is a very solitary pursuit, and so I look forward to times I get to connect with readers.

I love Laini Taylor, I love Holly Black… you have to understand, for most authors, we can fangirl (over other authors), but we’re also friends. So it’s sometimes really nice to see your friends. I think of Roshani Chokshi and Zoraida Cordova, like I never see them unless we’re traveling for work. You know, Dhonielle Clayton, I never get to see her unless we’re travelling for work, so it’s kind of really nice, you know? Or on the adult side, Chuck Wendig and John Scalzi. It’s nice to cross paths with people you’re friends with, or with colleagues. I don’t fangirl so much over other authors – I admire them, but I don’t really geek out on the outside.

When did you first see writing as a career choice? Did you always have writing in mind as a full-time career, or did you have your mind set on another career?

When I made enough money to pay my bills and buy groceries. I set out for this goal, I was like, ‘I just want to be able to buy groceries!’ And I did, and for the first several years I was super, super broke, but then I got to the point where I could buy groceries. I’ve been a full-time writer since I graduated college. But it wasn’t smooth, it wasn’t like I got a six-figure deal out of the gate and was set. It’s hard work, and I don’t think I felt comfortable calling myself an author until like, two or three years ago. I don’t know what it is, but I hit book number 10 and I was like, ‘Screw it! Call it what it is!’ I still have times when I’m not sure what to call myself, but these days I’m pretty comfortable calling myself an author. It wasn’t a specific milestone, like hitting the New York Times list or something like that, it was just an internal feeling. Still, about once a day I hate my job, and then about once a day I think, ‘Holy crap! I get to do this for a living.’ But I also make a point of being very transparent online about how difficult it is. I don’t think (authors) do any favors to people when we downplay that it is a job.

I wanted to be an interrogator. That’s all I really wanted. It’s random, but it’s honest. I originally went to school for astrophysics – I just really liked science and space. But this is the only thing that stuck. Because the nice thing about writing is that you get to be an expert on something for a short period of time, so I get to be a spy, or I get to be a pirate, or I get to be whatever it is I want to be for the length of time it takes me to write the book.

A lot of people mistakenly assume A Darker Shade of Magic is YA. Would you say the line between YA and adult fantasy is getting more and more blurred?

Yeah, I mean I just don’t really care where something is shelved, I just want to make sure the readers who want it or need it will find it. It’s not that I take personal offense; I am also a YA author, it’s more that it’s amazing to me how I get knocked from both sides. Like, YA will be like, ‘This isn’t a YA-enough book! This book doesn’t have XYZ that I wanted in my YA book!’ And I’m like, ‘That’s because it’s not YA!’ And then people on the other side will be like, ‘Ugh, I don’t read YA novels!’ And I’m like, ‘It’s not YA!’ It loses on both sides because of it for some reason, which… I don’t really care as long as people are liking it. I have readers at events who are reading these books as young as 12 or 13, and then I have people in their 60s or 70s. So, it’s not arbitrary, there are reasons for delineation, but I think when it comes to fantasy more than contemporary, it can feel kind of arbitrary. The only argument I can’t abide is when people try to be like, ‘It’s new adult!’ And no, it’s not. Because the vast majority of adult fantasy deals with protagonists who are 19 to 25 already, so it is adult fantasy, but I’m so glad it has a crossover audience and it appeals to my YA readers.

At this point, the Darker Shades of Magic books were like my 8th to 11th (books), and Savage Song (books) were my 12th and 13th (books)… at this point I’m not writing for a spot on the shelf, I’m writing for my existing audience, and my existing audience reads both. I’m not worried about where it sits on the shelf. In the U.K., my Savage Song series is adult. The U.K. YA market skews much younger, toward lower (age) YA, so a lot of upper (age) YA goes into adult. For me, that’s kind of pointed out the arbitrary-ness of the market.

What would you say to someone who thinks adults shouldn’t read YA?

I will never agree with that audience. Honestly, I have nothing to say to them. It’s just a waste of conversational time. It’s unfortunate that they feel that way, but I feel this way toward all things, whether it’s art, religion, society — like, that’s your opinion, congratulations. If it’s your opinion and you apply it to yourself, and yourself alone, then you’re not hurting anyone. When you try and dictate what other people should read, or what other people should study, or what other people should enjoy, that’s when I take issue, you know? And I’d say that they’re just missing out on a lot of really incredible books.

Author’s Note: Victoria stopped here and brought her laptop across the room. “Hang on,” she said, “I’m taking something out of the oven, but I’m taking you with me.”

What would you say is missing from YA as a genre? LGBT+ and multicultural representation, for example?

I think it’s a constant work. We’re doing better, but we need to do a lot more. In some ways, YA is trying and improving, but we’re still extremely lacking. I think it’s publishing, too, in a lot of ways. Publishing needs to have more diversity so that the books can have more diversity. I think there’s some really great talent out there, and it’s just not getting the platform. So, it’s the industry as a whole; you can’t assign blame to the lowest part of it, you have to go to the top. I’m happy to see more diversity, but obviously we still have a long way to go. We still have tokenizing happening, where you see, ‘Oh, we already have a book with X character.’ And, yeah, but if they were straight and white, you could have a dozen of them, you wouldn’t stop. Like, how many angel books did we have in 2011, when my angel book came out? You weren’t like ‘Oh, we already have an angel book.’ You were like, ‘Oh, we already have an angel book, let’s get six more angel books.’
Unfortunately what happens when you don’t have enough of something is that the one example you do have gets fetishized; it gets put on a pedestal. So, for instance, with LGBTQ: You’re not allowed to have LGBT characters who have flaws. They have to be put on a pedestal, they have to behave like these idealized characters instead of people. So, in the Shades of Magic series, Rhy Maresh has a lot of flaws, and I got a lot of flak for giving a bisexual character actual human flaws, because it’s read as a judgement on bisexual people. I think it happens because we have a dearth of diversity, so when you don’t have enough of certain kinds of people in books, then all of the weight and all of the responsibility falls onto one character, and that’s not fair. So we have a long way to go. We’re better, but we’re not there yet.

Did you ever get comments about Lila’s crossdressing tendencies?

No, actually. The only questions I get about people asking if she’s gender-fluid. Which is a difficult question, because she’s the only character who is based in historical London, and so it’s an impossible question to answer. It’s something I could easily answer had I written her in 2017, but that’s not a piece of a lexicon that she would have, culturally or semantically, so while she doesn’t have a huge amount of attachment to her gender, it’s just not a societal indoctrination she would have. But no, no one ever gives me sh*t for Lila crossdressing. Maybe I just have the right readers.

Do you ever get homesick for your fictional worlds?

I mean, I’m homesick for the Shades of Magic series right now. I just finished four short stories that are going in the back of the collectors’ edition. Getting to revisit the world after Conjuring of Light made me very sad. I don’t usually get terribly homesick for other people’s worlds, because I can just reread their books, but the first time I’ve ever been homesick is for the Shades of Magic series.

You’ve mentioned your wanderlust a lot. Do you have a favorite place in the world?

My favorite city in the world is Edinburgh, Scotland – I used to live there for graduate school and now I spend as much of the year as I’m able to there. It’s just my happiest place in the world. It’s in my bones – my family is Scottish, so it’s literally in my bones, but it’s the only place where I don’t feel wanderlust. It’s the only place I don’t want to leave when I’m there.

Do you have a favorite place to go on tour?

I’m quite partial to my local bookstore. We have an amazing bookstore here in Nashville called Parnassus, which was opened by an author. It has shop dogs – it has puppies and dogs who work in the bookstore. They currently have a tiny, tiny cockapoo puppy, like seven weeks old, named Merriweather Louis. I go to a lot of bookstores, but at the end of the day I always come home.

Is there anything you have to bring with you, no matter where in the world you are, that makes you feel at home?

A blank notebook and some packets of tea. I love English breakfast tea and I hate Earl Grey, and every now and then you travel someplace and they think Earl Grey qualifies as black tea, and you’re like, ‘No it doesn’t,’ so I bring tea with me just in case, and a notebook. And, like, way more pens than you would ever need for that notebook, but I’m so scared I’m going to run out of pens for some reason that for every notebook I have, like, five pens. I don’t even lend my pens, my friends ask to borrow pens and I’m like, ‘no,’ and yet I still lose the pens. I’m left-handed, so pens that write fluidly and don’t smudge on my hands are nice—like Pilots and Uniballs and that kind of thing.

If you had to pick only one adjective to describe Our Dark Duet, what would it be?

Complicated. It’s a very complicated book emotionally and psychologically. Not just the plot – the plot has a lot of complexities to it, but what I had to do with Kate and August was complicated.

How does it feel to delve back into the world of Vicious with Vengeful?

I’ve been tinkering with Vengeful ever since Vicious came out, so it’s like I never let go. It has been a little while and it’s fun to get back into it, but Vicious has Victor Vale, and Victor Vale is the closest thing to an autobiographical character that I ever wrote, so to me it’s like coming back to a friend. Plus, I have so much fun in that world. I love writing dark, violent sh*t, and it’s just my favorite. So I’m looking forward to going back to Victor.

Has there been fanart or fanfiction that’s really affected you?

I mean, all fanart really affects me. I don’t read fanfiction, because I’m not allowed to. Authors are highly discouraged from reading fanfiction of their works for legal reasons, but I love fanart. I think fanart is one of the coolest ways to tell if you as the author have done a good job picturing and portraying your characters. Because if I got 100 pieces of fanart for Kell and they all looked super different, I’d be like, ‘Maybe I didn’t do a good job describing this person.’ But I’m always amazed when I get fanart that just nails exactly what the character looks like in my head. That, to me, is the most affecting thing. Because it means I truly found a way to get this thing out of my head and on paper.

What book, or books, are you reading now?

I’m reading a book called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, which is really, really good. I’m looking at my stacks… I read a lot of things. I’m really on a nonfiction kick though, because when I’m writing it’s hard for me to read in the same vein of whatever I’m writing. I’m just about to start Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor.

What projects are you working on right now?

I’m working on a bunch of things, but Vengeful is the only thing I’m really allowed to talk about right now. But I am busy for the next 4 to 5 years.

When you found out about the possible A Darker Shade of Magic film, what was your very first thought?

“Thank God.”

So, the thing is, you make these announcements and it seems like these things happen very quickly, but a lot of the time it’s a huge amount of work behind the scenes and then you finally get to announce it. So, this was the process of like, two years, because we were originally going to adapt it for television, and I wrote a pilot, and then I went out to LA to work on something else and took a couple of meetings while I was there and things went from there. But this, out of all of my projects, is the one I’d like to see as a movie, or in a visual format. So I was really happy. I will never believe anything is going to be a movie until I sit in a theater with a bucket of popcorn and watch it, but it’s really cool to have one of those primary doors open. There’s still, like, a dozen doors, but you got through one of the crucial ones.

Is it hard to keep all of these secrets?

Oh yeah, it’s hard, especially because the wait time on telling can range from a month to, like, a year. I’m continually working on things. At any given time, I have three or four things I can’t talk about. For instance, even when those film things happen, I find out about them and they come to fruition and I close the deals, and then it’s a week to months before I can talk about it. I just got a piece of news that I might be able to talk about in, like, a year and a half. So, it’s hard. I am not good at keeping secrets.

Author’s note: Victoria stopped in the middle of this answer to show her fluffy cat on the Skype call. “I’m sorry,” she said. “My cat is so freakishly cute right now. Do you see that? What on earth? That’s just obnoxious. Sorry, he’s not normally that cute, which is why it distracted me.”

If you had to start a badass girl band with three other female authors who would you choose?

Oh, that’s hard. Um… Leigh Bardugo, Holly Black, and Dhonielle Clayton. Dhonielle is just delightful and we travel the world together and get along. I feel like she has such great style, she would make sure we all looked fabulous at all time. She has amazing lipstick game. Holly Black is one of my original author heroes, and I love the way she writes. Leigh and I get along really well, we both write antiheroes and really badass girls, and she’s got that amazing aesthetic going on, too. I can’t say if we’d be able to play anything, but we would all look pretty fly while we were doing it. We would make it work.

How much work did the bookshelf behind you take to organize? I see a lot of photos of it on Instagram.

Days. It’s a constant process. I’m continually rearranging it. I’m continually being like, ‘Hmm. The mustard green section isn’t doing what I want it to do.’ It’s a process. If I spend that much time on it, you’d better believe I’m going to put a lot of photos of it on Instagram!

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