A Q&A with V.E. Schwab: On Creativity and Transparency

Victoria (V.E.) Schwab never stops working. A prolific author, she has written the Shades of Magic series, two YA duologies, the Villains duology, and is in the midst of a middle grade series as well as a comic book series. Through all of this, she has moved to Scotland, gone on several book tours, and cultivated a rich social media presence.

In the next few years, Schwab is looking forward to the continuation of the Steel Prince comics series, the release of middle grade Tunnel of Bones this fall, and her novel The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, currently slated for 2020 release from Tor Books—and those are just the projects that are already public.

This March, Schwab’s 2011 debut The Near Witch rereleased and hit the New York Times bestseller list two weeks in a row.

V.E. Schwab, Photography Credit: Jenna Maurice

I talked to Schwab about transparency in publishing, seeing The Near Witch in print once again, and looking ahead to new projects.

Writers are often encouraged to only write about the sunny side of publishing and to downplay their struggles. But you’ve been very open about this difficulty. What propelled you to start opening up?

I got my first agent when I was 19, my first book deal when I was 21, and what I noticed at the time is that nobody was telling me about any of the negatives—there was this pressure to only present the positive.

Then I went to a writer’s retreat, and all the authors could talk about were the struggles. And I thought to myself: it’s so nice to know you’re not alone, but for those of us who are not usually in the company of other writers, it can be so lonely when all you hear is positives. Because then when you do struggle, it feels like you’re an island. It feels like you’re struggling because you’re not good enough, instead of that you’re struggling because it’s hard.

So I decided I was going to be as honest as I could be, and I’ve been really, really surprised, in a good way, by the response. So many aspiring writers follow and engage with me online, and so many say to me at events, ‘I love the way you talk about publishing, because it makes me feel less alone.’

How can talking about The Near Witch and its re-publication also serve as a lesson for young writers about the undue emphasis that’s placed on debuts, or the realities of building readership?

I think it says: you can do everything great, and it can still not work. It’s so much a matter of context. I didn’t go back and rewrite or revise this book—it didn’t change. But all of the support surrounding the book—the size of my readership, the nature of the industry, the people willing to give me a chance, the publisher willing to make investments—those were in a very different space.

The Near Witch by SchwabIt’s extraordinary to me. This book came out with no fanfare and disappeared very quietly. It was a very quiet, strange book at a time when the more popular books were very loud. But now that I have an expanded audience, now that I’ve found my people, now that I have my readers to know what to expect from my book—now it’s getting this huge amount of attention. I think it can exist as an example both of the pressure we put on baby authors, and of the fickleness of the industry—how much of it really is out of the writer’s control.

How did The Near Witch serve as a jumping-off point for your other books?

I look back at it, now that I’ve been on tour for it, and I see so many themes in their early stage of development that have then gone on to be massive  for me and my other books. The Near Witch is a time capsule to who I was when I was creating it, and I see so much of 21-year-old me in that book. I was beginning to chafe against my boundaries, I was beginning to feel unsettled. I hadn’t really found the strength to push back as hard as I wanted to, and there were themes that I wanted to explore but I still had a bit of hesitation towards, and I hadn’t yet figured out to flex and be as strange and dark and magical as I wanted to be.

So readers who have read more of my books will see a huge number of early, very familiar elements: the importance of names, the relationship with magic, the insider-outsider culture—all of these things show up in The Near Witch. They’re just in a younger, quieter form.

How have you felt that your work developed with you, or that you have grown alongside your work?

I’ve never had a comfortable relationship with creativity. I always feel inadequate to the task—but I’ve seen myself grow into my voice with validation of my readers. I’ve discovered that the more I leaned into my authentic narrative, the more readers I found to enjoy that as well. It’s incredibly validating to say, ‘I’m going to be my truest self,’ and to have people say, ‘We like it. We like this a lot.’ Because then, each time I write a book, I know a segment of my readership will embrace it even if it isn’t their favorite—will embrace that I am always challenging myself. I am always trying to grow as a writer with every story.

How are you growing writing Addie LaRue?

I issue myself a challenge with each book. With Vicious, I wanted to see if I could write a book with no heroes, and still make the reader root for somebody. With A Gathering of Shadows, the second book in the Shades of Magic series, I wanted to see if I could write a sequel that didn’t feel like a bridge book between one and three, but had its own challenges and narrative structure.

With Addie LaRue, it’s a little bit of everything. It is probably the hardest thematic stuff I’ve ever written. It’s one of the more ambitious structural books I’ve ever written. It’s a book that I wasn’t ready to write for a very long time, because I wanted to make sure I was creatively, ambitiously, mentally in the right headspace. The core of the idea of this book came to me eight years ago, and I waited almost six of those eight years to ever put pen to paper on it because I knew I wasn’t quite there yet.

So now that I’m writing it, it’s pushing me in a lot of ways, but I’m also feeling ready in a lot of ways that I wasn’t two or three years ago.

Is there something intimidating to returning to that idea that you’ve been saving?

Oh, yes. It is incredibly intimidating. Addie is really unlike a lot of my other books. I feel like it’s one of those books that an author gets to do once in a lifetime, and I want to do it right. So it’s a little bit paralyzing. A little—very—scary.

But it’s also incredibly satisfying. Every time I finish a chapter, it feels like setting a very heavy weight down that I’ve been holding for a long time.

Now for a fun one. You can invite three fictional characters over to dinner—who would you want to meet?

Vicious by VE SchwabSee, this is where I get in trouble because I love villains so much. I feel like the people I’m most likely to invite are really horrible and would probably end the world. My brain goes immediately to like the Darkling and Dolores Umbridge, and all of these really terrible people who are my favorite characters.

Okay. I would probably invite Kaz Brekker from Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. I would invite my own Victor Vale because I think he would make things interesting against Kaz. And then I would invite Katsa from Graceling by Kristin Cashore.

There’s no way that dinner won’t end in a fight.

No, murder. Just like, lots of murder.

What’s one thing you haven’t been asked in interviews that you’ve always wanted to talk about?

If I had to live alone, on an island for the rest of my life, with nobody else and with no one to be accountable to, what would I do?

Because I think writing is solitary but publishing is public, and so much of what we do creatively becomes a conversation with other people—with readers. I would have to do a lot of thinking about what I would do if I was only ever accountable to myself again. I would write, but to be honest, I’d like to live on a farm in the north of Scotland, and just be a person who dreams.

For more on V.E. Schwab, see an interview about the Villains series from 2018, or dig into fandom with a list of great gifts for Schwab fans.