VENGEFUL: V.E. Schwab on Female Anger & Ambition
Speculative fiction author V.E. Schwab (Victoria, depending on the novel and its intended readership) has been on a rapid ascent.
After some early career bumps in the road, Schwab’s 2015–17 breakthrough fantasy series Shades of Magic turned the tables. Alongside the series’ growth, her first adult novel Vicious (2013) emerged as a sleeper hit, as well.
Along the way, she has become beloved by fans for her elaborate worlds, accessible language, and leap-off-the-page characters who are anything but typical.
Which is a long-winded way to say that 2018 is the year of V.E. Schwab.
With three novels dropping in quick succession this year, the author graciously made time to talk with me at the end of her 15-day, 13-city release tour for the middle release Vengeful—a sequel to Vicious in which toxic masculinity loses control, and rageful women seize it.
(This was also, as it happened, the day after both New York Comic Con and Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.)
Schwab’s first 2018 release, the dark middle grade tale City of Ghosts, released in August, and her third release of this year, the Shades of Magic comic book spinoff series The Steel Prince, releasing this week.
How was New York Comic Con?
Exhausting. I think Comic Con is exhausting when you’re starting from 100 percent battery. Starting from like, 20 percent…but I mean it’s an embarrassment of riches, it has been such an amazing tour. I can’t really complain. I’m just also a huge introvert, and I feel like I need to go home and be very quiet for a week and just recharge my batteries.
Do you have any tricks that you use when you’re on the road to protect your sanity, or your creative process?
One, I’ve accepted I don’t really write very much on the road. I can do a lot of thinking, I can do a lot of note taking, but I don’t do any active drafting while on tour. I need a little bit of time to get in and out of that headspace, and there’s no time for it. So I end up with these 20- to 30-minute windows, which you’re like, yay, that’s great for Pomodoro, but time and energy are not the same thing. So I mostly focused on self-care, to be honest. I’m very lucky if I do 10 minutes of yoga on my hotel room floor at the end of the day.
I do little things for anxiety, though, because I also have anxiety. So one of the things that I do—it sounds so small and so silly—is that I keep a jar of peanut butter with me, because I eat peanut butter and banana for breakfast when I’m home. And so by also having that for breakfast when I’m on the road, it helps start my day with a little piece of normalcy. So it’s a very small thing that really helps me establish a nice low baseline for my stress and anxiety levels.
Vicious was first released in 2013, and then you had about two years before you were really to start on Vengeful.
And, you have to remember that entire Shades of Magic series came between Vicious and Vengeful. So it was two years when I was told that I could write Vengeful, but it wasn’t when I actually got to sit down and write it, because Tor said “you can do Vengeful after A Conjuring [of Light].”
So I knew that Vengeful was going to be my next adult project after Conjuring, but I also still had Conjuring of Light to finish. So I didn’t actively get to start writing Vengeful until Conjuring of Light hit shelves.
Was it hard to get back into that world?
It was really difficult.
Here’s the thing: books are static and creators are not.
And so, coming back to a book, a series, a world five years later, I’ve changed a lot.
In that period of time, the world has obviously changed a huge amount, but I’ve also moved to a foreign country. I’ve come out. I’ve had a huge number of personal and professional changes. My career has taken off in ways that I never anticipated—obviously I dreamed of, but never anticipated. And our world is kinda shitty.
So coming back to this world and these narratives, obviously there are ways I anticipated the story was going to go, and then it simply didn’t work because I had changed a lot, and my interests had shifted, and my alignments had shifted.
So it was harder than I thought it would be, because Vicious was such a joyful experience. And I’m so proud of Vengeful, but I would be lying to call it a joyful experience.
Vicious was a book I wrote in secret, and so it was very escapist, a creative affair. And Vengeful was a book written in the spotlight with a huge amount of attention and pressure. And so I leaned into that a little bit. I decided to be very open and transparent with the entire creative process with Vengeful, because it started in the spotlight. It started on display. There was really never going to be any protective shell on that creative process.
We’re going to circle back on that “the world is really shitty,” thing. But first I want to talk a little bit about Eli and Victor. These characters are both antiheroes at very best, and really more—
They’re villains. They’re bad people.
—Yeah, they’re villains. Is there anyone in the world of Merit who you would consider more of a hero, or at least maybe a protagonist?
Mitch is the only human in the main cast, and he has no desire to be an EO. He crosses paths with Victor when they’re both in prison. Everyone in this book is Slytherin except for Mitch, who’s a Hufflepuff, he’s a nurturer. He’s a really lovely well-meaning protective human being, and I’d argue that he’s the only hero.
“Protagonist” obviously becomes a weird thing, because my protagonists are villains, but I would also say—I would warn people who usually note that Sydney is also good, because they should wait until they finish reading Vengeful. Because the thing to remember about Sydney, the child in book one, is that she’s growing up. And meeting her at 12, 13, when we come back to her in Vengeful and she’s 18—a lot of change happens in a person’s life between 13 and 18.
And also she is dealing with a lot. A lot of secrets, and a lot of things people are infantilizing her with, and that kind of overly protective aspect. And so I think what we might take to be perhaps a more Gryffindor person, is simply that she was not fully formed as a person yet. She is definitely aging into her Slytherinness.
Then if Mitch is the only real hero in this world, is there a connection, then, between becoming super, EO, and developing into this type of evil?
I think so. People are always like, why are they also there so many Slytherins, do only Slytherins get to be EOs? And I think in large part, yes, because there’s a qualitative and quantitative aspect to it.
The quantitative aspect is the near-death experience. You have to have a near-death experience to even be a contender. But not everyone though who has a near-death experience comes back with a superpower.
The ones who tend to approach that precipice and return with an ability are Slytherin. They are ambitious, hugely focused, will-power-driven people who really have a compulsive need to survive, and that level of self-interest, and that compulsion, and that drive is something we see in sociopaths and serial killers. It’s something we see often in bad people because they’re able to be single-minded about it. They’re able to have almost no peripheral vision when it comes to the survival of others. Their vision is simply forward.
So I actually think that it’s completely intentional, from my perspective anyway, that we see a very specific personality type that tends to come back with powers.
It’s kind of like in the real world, when reaching a certain level of success or celebrity.
Absolutely. I mean there’s a reason we see so many evil politicians. There’s a book that says the sociopath percentage is like, one in ten among CEOs, like the people who reach the top rungs of success, especially economic success, are very rarely Hufflepuffs. They’re very rarely altruistic.
They tend to be able to put themselves front and center in their scenarios of life, and so I do think it’s definitely meant as an analog to that. Good people do not usually en masse get far. Like individual good people can change the world, but like good people en masse don’t tend to excel. Which is of course hugely depressing, but also it’s statistically accurate.
It’s a hard thing to do. You have to be focused on it.
I mean, I’d argue it’s the same thing in authorship. I think there’s a difference between somebody who writes a book and somebody who builds a career as an author. I think there’s a level of intention. I’m not saying that all authors are evil or that all authors—I think there’s a lot of us that are Slytherins though; Slytherins and Ravenclaws.
But you have to be able to look at your life and your career and your world in a really specific way, and to be very intentional about the way you move through this industry and this space, and I do think there’s a reason that Slytherins tend to excel in it. For better or worse.
In Vicious, if you’re in that world and don’t know what the reader knows about Eli, he has that appearance of being the hero, but really underneath all of that, essentially he’s a psychopath.
Yeah. He’s terrible.
Do you think that type of like God complex, or psychopathology, is that evil inherent to the superhero archetype, or is that something that you were really dialing to an extreme here?
Oh, for him, I was dialing it to an extreme. I grew up in the religious South, and I’m not trying to make an analog between religion and evil. I’m trying to make an analog between the extremity of his ideology and evil. The idea that he’s not a Christian. He is somebody is warped. He is somebody who has taken it to a religious fervor, to a level that we see unfortunately all around us across ideologies.
They’re always religious extremists that perpetrate horrible crimes.
I think it’s going to be really interesting to watch people’s impression of him change over the course of Vengeful. Not to say that—I don’t strip away his religion. In fact, I simply show you that we are all a product of our environments and that his upbringing was one of essentially, an anvil on hot iron. He was beat into shape, into the shape that he occupies in Vicious and Vengeful. He was forcefully formed.
And so I like it because, I think what I’m trying to say in that is that even when we see people or characters who are embodying some problematic ideals, sometimes it’s not as simple as to say they’re bad. It’s a matter of, what happened to them? What made them like that?
And I’m not an apologist for many of the things going on in the world, right now, or many of the ideologies going on in the world right now, but I do think that it’s interesting to take a character like Eli, who becomes really easy to hate, really easy to draw very simple conclusions about, and then create a complexity which allows people, not to love him, but to understand him.
Because I think what books are meant to do is be empathy engines.
They’re meant to help you understand people whose lives look and behave differently from your own.
And opposite Eli, we’ve got Victor, of course.
Yeah. Just as bad! But a very different kind of bad.
That’s exactly my question—in the first book he’s headed up against Eli and trying to stop him, so he comes off as a very pragmatic in a cold-hearted way, but ultimately, as the hero of the book if we’re going to really divide it up. But by the time we get into Vengeful, it seems to be more, simply, a lesser evil.
He is. He’s a pragmatic—I mean on that nine-point grid of like neutral-evil, pragmatic-evil, anarchic evil or chaotic evil, I think it’s Dungeons and Dragons, however these things fall out. Obviously I am someone who’s never played Dungeons and Dragons before, unfortunately.
But I think that the thing to remember is, when I was writing Vicious, I was writing it for myself and I wanted to do an exercise. And the exercise I was trying was to challenge myself as a writer to do is to see if I could write two characters who were equally bad in their actions, but had different motivations, and see if the difference in their motivations is what caused you to root for one of them.
Because really that’s what it is, what I’m saying in the end, it’s not what we do. They’re both murderers, they’re both really bad people on the paper side. But their motivations for acting the way they do are different. And I think that it’s easier to root for Victor.
I love watching people have a moral crisis when they read Vicious because he’s really easy to root for.
You hate them on the same level, and then as you get deeper into each character’s motivations, you realize that it’s much more comfortable rooting for Victor over Eli, even though they’re both on paper mass murderers.
Victor doesn’t kill as many people as Eli does, but Eli has in his mind a good reason for killing them. Whereas in Victor, he simply kills them if there are obstacles.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about categorizing Victor, on the chaotic/ordered good/evil scale. I always saw him as an INTJ, which is my personality—
—And we mostly see them as evil characters in fiction, and so it was interesting to see this type of depiction.
You go in and you assume essentially that what you have here is the line between a sociopath and a psychopath, right?
Eli is psychopathic. He’s highly emotional, and you have Victor who seems emotionally devoid. But as the series goes on, you start to realize that Victor wants to be a sociopath. Victor is essentially a performative sociopath, and so you have these guiding principles that he has, these mantras and ethics, these codes that guide his life.
And when he is put among people that he begins to care about, those codes begin to break, and that’s like if the in the opening in Vengeful, you see Victor in a position where he has no reason for staying. Logic-driven Victor knows that he should be alone. This is all he needs to do. He needs to walk out the door, and he needs to leave these three people behind because they are useless to him now. They are a burden.
And he can’t do it, and that’s the very first time we start to really see the cracks in his self-identity. Because there’s the identity that other people impose on us—so there’s the identity that we embody ourselves.
Victor’s own self-image is not the way that—he’s performative, he’s lying to himself.
I was absolutely a performative person growing up. There’s a reason that Victor is largely autobiographical. I am not a supervillain serial killer, but I have always had a performative nature. I’ve always had an idea of how I wanted people to see me and then try to hold myself to that. Victor’s protecting himself. It’s an absolutely a defense mechanism of what he’s doing.
Now, does that justified his actions? Of course not. Is Victor definitely troubled? Yes. But I don’t think that he is actually a sociopath.
Let’s talk about angry women.
Yes, please, please. I have so much.
It feels so timely. And there’s several angry women in Vengeful.
Vengeful is a book about angry women.
It’s so cathartic to read. Was it cathartic to write?
It was very cathartic to write at the time as well.
Vicious was a really aggressively male book, and I totally admit to that. When I wrote it in 2011, 2012, 2013, I was still not out. I was still dealing with a lot of my own identity and sexuality. I’d always grown up really, really masculine, very de-feminized, and I wanted to write these Magneto and Professor X archetypes, and look at depictions of obsession and toxic masculinity and the way that these things get automatically eroticized, things like that. So I stand by the fact that I wrote it as male as I did.
Vengeful is a 2018 reaction to a 2013 novel, in a lot of ways.
Vicious is a book about male characters taking control, right? It’s a book about control. If that’s the case, then Vengeful is a book about those same male characters losing control.
One of them is imprisoned, the other one’s power is fracturing, and so for the men in the series, it becomes about losing control. And Mitch is worried that he can feel the world spiraling out around him.
But for the women in Vengeful, it becomes a book about taking control when the world tries to strip it from you—taking power back. I think that’s how you end up with these three female characters who are all, in some ways, different embodiments of autonomy, of agency, of power. They’ve all been slighted in different ways.
As I said, Sydney is being perpetually infantilized, even by the people that care about her, and she’s chafing about that and her bodily boundaries here. June is someone who has literally given up their entire identity to guarantee that they’re never hurt again, and isn’t vulnerable as long as they never be themselves. And Marcella, obviously, my ruination incarnate. The woman that we all need right now, who’s literally the embodiment of “Hell hath no fury.” The embodiment of what happens when you have a lifetime of men not seeing past your body, not being able to like take into account that you might have any form of power to offer that is not physical.
They’re very intentional characters. They have a lot of anger, and I know we all have a lot of anger, and it was extraordinarily cathartic to write them.
It’s so weird to be like, “what a timely book,” but at the same time when would it have not been timely?
It would have been timely in 2017 when it was very “Grab them by the pussy.” It would’ve been would have been timely in 2016, 15, 14. The fact is that these crimes against women are not new.
This level of visibility and the performative shock that men are offering right now is new, but the things that are happening to women is not. I mean the direct parallels between Ford and Anita Hill, none of it’s new, and none of it changes.
There have definitely been some quotes from the book that I feel have been very important over the last week—because this is my job.
My job is not to find new things. My job is to put into words what so many of us are feeling.
For me that’s the catharsis in this. Not that I’m shedding any light on anything we don’t already know, but that I can give phrase, I can power through language, hopefully, to people who feel like they want to scream, you know?
Vengeful is also full of ambitious women.
It is, it is.
Marcella is full of ambition in Vengeful, and it’s just really fun to watch.
There’s a joy, there’s an absolute joy, to watching Marcella turn a man to ash, because he doesn’t understand that she’s the centerpiece, he thinks that they need different flower arrangements—or, it’s a microaggression though. The fact is, in that moment, he’s still not listening to what she says she wants. Nobody in the book ever listens to her, and that’s the thing—Marcella is someone who has just had enough, she’s just done.
June is still in a lot of ways compartmentalizing, is still fitting herself into the world, and so she is operating with a lot of trauma and fear. Marcella just fucking done. God, she is just done. The moment she turns her husband to ash is the moment it’s just over. She feels like she has nothing to lose and everything to gain, and she’s really, really just tipped the scale.
I feel like that’s something we’re all responding to right now, is that we have tipped the emotional scales of this thing.
Speaking of ambition, you’ve described yourself as ambitious before, and you identify as a Slytherin. Is there a connection for you to Marcella or drawing some of these themes out?
There is a connection to all of my ambitious characters, regardless of their gender. I think in fact Marcella was one of the more difficult characters for me to write.
I align with Delilah Bard from the Shades of Magic series, that was my aspirational character. But Delilah Bard is also super de-feminized. And so she was aspirational character for me, personally, because I want it to be able to see a strong woman that really looked and acted more like me. Someone who, if they were a 2018 character, would very likely be gender fluid. Obviously she’s a historical character and doesn’t have that vocabulary and that environment to really foster that kind of awareness.
But I wrote Marcella specifically because I wanted to see if I could write a character as powerful and as strong as Lila in a totally different manifestation. Someone who was sex positive, someone who was very feminine, someone who enjoyed her body and likes it, and wants it to be as feminine possible.
She just also wants people to respect her—because God forbid you be beautiful and want someone to acknowledge that you have a brain as well. I did want to write a character that was my exact opposite, in every possible way.
I wanted to write a character that I felt moved through the world in a way I never will. And was still just as strong of a woman.
She’s the flip side of the coin of Delilah Bard. But I feel like they both belong on that metal though. They both belong on that coin.
They are very similar. People are always like, “Which one of them would survive?” And I’m like, Marcella would try to recruit her.
Marcella is not someone who automatically kills people just because they are powerful as she is. She comments on that in the book—that’s a very male thing to do, to see power and automatically see a threat instead of potential. I think that she would try to get to work with her. I’m not sure if Lila would agree, but I think that there would be a lot of respect between the two of them.
They’re very different, but I think they would see a very like calls to like, here.
How has your ambition and your Slytherinness played into your career as an author?
It kept me alive. I had a really rough start in this business. I’ve been pretty public about that. Things did not go my way for quite a long time. And I think that there’s a version of me who would’ve quit five or six years ago, and there is the version of me that would’ve quit three years ago. There were all of these times when I could, but I am a person who is able to use anger and frustration in a creative way.
I think that most of my books have been written as reactions or as responses to things I’m seeing or not seeing in other books. So I definitely am coming from an antagonistic place with the creative industry. But I’m coming from an aggressive place. I’m coming from an ambitious place. I’m trying to write some things that are perpendicular to what I’m seeing.
I’ve always been ambitious. I heard when I was very young, from somebody, they thought I would either be a novelist or a cult leader. And so I’ve chosen novelist.
I think that ambition is a thing that women are told not to have. I think that when women have power in books and in life, they’re told to be self-sacrificing. They’re told that it’s only acceptable for a woman to have power if she’s willing to give it up for the greater good, which is a thing which is never sent to men.
Women are not allowed to be ambitious for the sake of ambition. They’re not allowed to want in that way for themselves.
They are automatically called selfish in a way that men aren’t. I’m absolutely an ambitious woman and I’m ambitious for ambition’s sake, as well.
You’re closing up this tour for Vengeful and then launching the Shades of Magic comic Steel Prince in a matter of days.
This has been such a cool experience, really wonderful and humbling, but it feels like whiplash this fall because City of Ghosts came out less than a month before Vengeful, which came out less than a month before the comics. The comics runs October, November, December, January. And then the bind-up, the paperback, is in February.
I want to touch on that a little bit more, but first I want to ask: You haven’t worked in comics before. Why this story in this medium?
It was really interesting timing. The Threads of Power had just sold—Threads of Power being the next three books in the Shade of Magic world—and those move forward. Those are set seven years after the end of Conjuring of Light.
And my UK publisher, who also has a comics division, came to me and said, have you ever wanted to write a comic? And I said, I have. I love comics. I grew up reading them. But I don’t want to play in somebody else’s pool. I have really hard time dealing with the communal ownership principles, and I find it very onerous and really toxic, and it seems like no matter what you do, somebody hates you a lot at all times. And so I said, I have my hands full with my own work.
And they were like, yeah, but that’s what we’re talking about. We would do a Shades of Magic comic. And I was like, oh, but I also don’t want to just adapt the books into a comic form. And they’re like, no, no, no, like a new comic. And I was like, are you sure? And they were like, yeah, what do you think? I was like, I don’t think anyone’s going to read that. And they’re like, we think it will be okay. We think that people will read it.
And so they’re like, do you have any stories you’d like to tell? And you know, the thing about writing books is, you are constantly unable to tell tangents. There are tangential stories, which are really great and important, but you have to be very careful how many of them you tell because it can be very diluting.
And I had one of those in Conjuring of Light. I had this offhand mention, and I think it’s actually at the beginning of the ashcan. In Conjuring of Light, Sol-in-Ar, who’s another character, is talking to Maxim, and says:
The Steel Prince said Sol-in-Ar, and then, reading Maxim’s expression: “It surprises you, that the tales of your exploits reach beyond your own borders?” The Faroan’s fingers grazed the edge of the map. The Steel Prince, who tore the heart from the rebel army. The Steel Prince, who survived the night of knives. The Steel Prince who slayed the pirate queen.
These are the stories that formed the king’s reputation across the world before he ever became king. And it was those three stories that I really desperately wanted to look into. And those stories move backwards. They’re set 30 years before the start of A Darker Shade of Magic.
So it was a perfect thing to explore in comics because the book side was going to be moving forward. I didn’t want to move forward and backward at the same time.
The first four comics in this series are The Steel Prince who Slays the Pirate Queen. And then there’s going to be two more four issue comics, The Steel Prince and the Night of Knives, and lastly The Steel Prince and the Rebel Army. So 12 comics in total, three bind-ups.
But yeah, I’m having so much fun.
You’ve spoken before about your admiration for Neil Gaiman and what it’s been like to have some touchpoints with him in your career, and what it meant to you to have him say he was proud of you. Are there any up-and-coming writers that you’re rooting for, that readers should check out?
There’s an author named Emily Suvata whose first book came out last year. Her second one, I believe, comes out this month. The first one is called This Mortal Coil, and then the second one is called This Cruel Design. I was so impressed with This Mortal Coil. It’s a really, really beautiful book, but her writing is just—she plunges you in. She is absolutely stellar and really charismatic and is taking a lot of chances.
The other one—whose second book is coming out soon as well—her name is Sarah Maria Griffin. She wrote Spare and Found Parts, her first book, but she has a new one called Other Words for Smoke coming out, I believe, this winter.
She is an Irish writer, Dublin-based. I’ve only ever gotten to see her on my UK tours, but I am mesmerized by her writing
And both of them I would like to see get a lot more attention.