Thank you very much for giving us the chance of interviewing you. We know you’re in the final stretch of a long, exhaustive tour that took you to Australia, Uruguay, Finland… Spain is your thirteenth and last stop before home, a number we find intriguing for an author like yourself, who is drawn to oddities and ghoulish things.
I feel so bad because people are like ‘Do you just want to go home?’ and I’m like ‘I’m so happy to be in Spain, this is my ever time in Spain, but it’s also hard because it’s the last stop before home, it’s so close’... I want to drink tea and go to the beach, because I live along the seaside, and just have a kitchen. You don’t think about these things but not getting to eat home cooked food for three months it’s hard. I left on march 8th. And I see thirteen as a good number, so for me it’s not an unlucky number, it’s a lucky number.
We’d like for you to tell us about the good, and the not-so-good parts, of course, if you want to, of this experience. Besides promoting your books, has travelling and meeting readers from around the world brought anything to your writing process? Ideas, inspiration...
Of course, you know. Travel brings a huge amount of fatigue. That’s the difficult thing. As an introverted person who struggles with anxiety and depression, the absence of a routine is really hard, when you can’t have a slight amount of control over anything. But I don’t want that to overshadow at any way what an extraordinary tour this has been. To have the opportunity to be published was my dream, and then to have my work published in different countries was above and beyond what I had ever hoped for. To have the opportunity to have readers in other countries, let alone to get to go to those countries and meet readers… If I could tell 20 year old me that 30 year old me would do that I wouldn’t believe it. There’s something so powerful about getting to have a face to face experience with your readers. The greatest challenge when I travel internationally is the language barrier, because it’s so surreal to me the idea of having fans in a language I don’t speak. If you follow me online you know that engaging with my community, with my readers, is incredibly important to me, and anything that hinders that, I get frustrated with myself about it, ‘why can’t I speak this language too?’. But my books are in twenty five countries and I speak French and English, those are the only two languages, so it’s the only downside I can really project, the inability to speak with my own readers, to communicate all of my feelings and my joy and my happiness with getting to have an engagement. But on the flip side, this has been an incredible tour, because I have been from Scotland to Australia to Buenos Aires… and I’ve learnt so much about each country. For me, in my novels, setting is a character, place is a character, so I do get inspired. When I went to Buenos Aires I got a private tour of the cemeteries, I got to hear stories from people on each place… I would never write about Madrid before, because I didn’t have a contact, and my number one rule is ‘If I’m going to write about a real place, I need to spend time there’. I don’t ever want to disservice to a place. It’s very exciting, I feel like I’m adding all of these pieces to my repertoire.
While you were writing City of Ghosts, you lived in Edinburgh, the place the novel is set in. How much of you and your experiencie do you include in your stories? Did you get any idea for your scenarios from this tour?
Yeah, I collect little things. As much as I don’t build characters out of real people, I build characters out of tiny, tiny, tiny fragments of real people, so you’d never see their resemblance, I build places the same way. So it is not even just ‘oh I picked out some ghost stories along the way’. I will be writing a book five years from now and there will be a detail of that train station that has an entire botanical garden inside of it. That is the kind of thing that will permeate a world-building idea several years from now. But I can never predict, there is no direct one to one correlation between ‘I went on the ferry to Montevideo’ and will put that in a book, it’s more I have a vivid memory of being on the ferry to Montevideo and of being overwhelmed by how unsteady it was and by the fact that I was trying to distract myself from sea sickness by being in the shopping area. Details like that will stick with me when I am writing.
As you just mentioned, the city ends up becoming another one of the characters. This seems to be a constant in your work: the multiple Londons in Shades of Magic, Verity in the Monsters of Verity series… in the City of Ghosts series its importance is even reflected in the title. What weight does the setting, the ambience, hold when you’re creating stories?
Absolutely. I knew I wanted to write a story about a girl who was neither alive nor dead. I knew I wanted to write a story about a girl who could see ghosts but I put that away for five or six years because I didn’t have the right plot, the right conflict, and then I was living in Edinburgh and Edinburgh is extremely haunted, you don’t have to spend very much time there to realize that is very haunted, but the thing that i loved is that everywhere you go, and everyone you talk to, someone has a ghost story. So you climbed into a cab and the driver of the cab tolds you a ghost story, you are sitting in a pub drinking a beer and the person behind the bar has a ghost story. Everyone you meet has a ghost story but it is not just that they have a ghost story, everyone you meet has a ghost story that they will tell you the same way they will tell you a story about their uncle’s dog. It is told with this mundane, grounded feeling of real. For a lot of people in Scotland the supernatural is just another version of the real and that is told in the same way you would tell any story. That is what excited me, so I knew I had to write the story in Edimburgh with a girl for whom ghosts were real and in a city that treated them as real. Each book in the City of Ghosts series takes place in a different city and engages with this idea of how does the city approach magic. The second book, Tunnel of Bones, is set in Paris, and what is so exciting about Paris is that on the surface Paris seems less haunted than Edinburgh, it is because all of Paris’ ghosts, metaphorical or real, are buried beneath the surface, not even just the Catacombs, which are the most obvious ones in the city (the Empire of the Death, six million bodies buried under the streets of Paris). Someone told me ‘I have wanted to go into the Catacombs but I have always been too scared’, well you’ve been to the Catacombs, you’ve just walked on top of them because they are everywhere, you’ve walked on the bones of the Paris’ dead. The more digging I did , because all of the stories in these books are real, all of the stories are local legends. When I was doing Paris I didn’t want to make Paris more haunted than it was, I just wanted to tell you Paris’ ghosts stories. I haven’t revealed the location of the third book but it is… so haunted!
Your predilection for fantasy gives a twist to some of this settings, as you transform well-known places into magical universes. We already know a bit about your love for stranger worlds and about the reasons why you choose fantasy, how it decomposes reality and serves as a metaphor for complex, deep ideas, but listening to you talk about it it’s just so interesting that we wanted to ask you to elaborate on it.
I was doing an interview earlier and they basically said ‘Have you ever considered writing reality? Because realism is really in right now’ but the thing is, for me, I do write about reality. I just write about the intersection between fantasy and reality. Fantasy is reality plus ‘what if…’. It is reality plus one change, you are asking ‘What if my reality were different in this way?’. I believe in magic, I believe in the strange, the idea that there’s a ‘something more’ and that that more is here, is something that is in the same world we are, I simply haven’t found a way to access it, we haven’t found a way to reach through across that line or open that door. So I’m intensely interested in the intersection of magic and reality. I don’t want one without the other. But I’ve tried to write realism and I’m five or six pages in and I think ‘You know what would make this better? Ghosts’. I’m just really interested in that something more.
Another identity sign of your work is the presence of death. Your characters explore the limits of life, they play with them, jumping in and out of the lines, either by will or unknowingly… and they suffer the consequences. We’ve particularly noted that close-to-death experiences grant some your characters extraordinary qualities (Cassidy in City of Ghosts, EO’s creation in Vicious, some monsters of Verity are born because of it). In these universes, death and what it implies… is it more of a powerful gift or a curse?
Yes: so much death, lots of death. I write about death a lot, I explore death a lot. Growing up I was extremely afraid of it and the thing that scared me so much was the idea of the permanence, the idea that you have spent your entire life living, and experiencing, and acquiring language and memories and all of these things end potencially, it just goes away. The one way street of it scared me. So for me, the way I write about death is a little bit of a wish fulfillment. I make death porous, I make death into a dotted line instead of a solid one so really what my stories are is not about death as a dead end or a termination point, is about the fluidity back and forth between life and death. That is how you have the Villains, you go to the point of death and return. That’s how you have Cassidy, who can cross the line of death cleanly. That’s how you have Shades of Magic spoiler Rhy and Kell, how now Rhy cannot die without Kell dying end of spoiler. So I think that I treat death the way I do because it brings me comfort. The very first book for me that really explored that was my second novel, The Archived, in which I wanted to create a version of the Afterlife which made me feel safe. Because I was so afraid of erasure, I was so afraid of just ceasing to exist, I designed a library of the Death, essentially a place where our entire life was kept in a body instead of a book, a dopplegänger which entire purpose was to just possess our memories and keep them safe. It is something that I have explored in every single one of my books and that I will explore in my next book, Addie. I think I find comfort in the idea that it is not forever.
Sadly, as of today, there’s still a big amount of authors that shield themselves behind ‘classical/historical fantasy canons’ to justify lack of diversity in their works. But there’s also a wave of writers who are giving a lot of importance to representation. It’s the case of Lila Bard, you explained on Instagram that if she were a 2019 character, she or they would have identified as non-binary, but because of the time and context where she grew, she wouldn’t use the word itself. There’s also a very natural approach in Everyday Angel, the first book of your middle-grade trilogy, as a family with hispanic origins appears. Do you think there’s space for representation in fantasy literature?
In Everyday Angel, the first family is hispanic and the third one is African American. In Shades of Magic, Red London is primarily non-white: Rhy, the whole royal family, is black. Kell is seen as unattractive and strange because he’s white and has red hair. Also Lila certainly has little attachment to their gender. Of course. I’m trying to write worlds that represent our world better. That’s what I never understand of all of this. And specifically when it comes to fantasy, I find it quite unforgivable when an author has the opportunity to rewrite the rules of society, to redefine social norms and gender norms and racial norms and sexuality norms and all of this norms, and they create a fantasy that looks exactly like the world we are already living. Because what that says is that they already feel represented. The only reason for an author to create a fantasy, like Shades of Magic, and create a white heteronormative monarchy is because they already see themselves. For me, representation is about making sure that as many readers as possible get to see themselves centralized. It’s not about erasing white straight men from the narrative, it’s about teaching them that they don’t have to be at center of every single narrative to be relevant. In fact, that they’re far more interesting as characters when they’re in the context of a greater narrative, of a cast, an ensemble. So yeah, I get really frustrated when I read a modern fantasy novel and… I read one that came out in 2016 where they were two female characters, neither one of them named, and one was a princess and one was a whore. Because of course those are the only two things a woman can be in a book. That, I would have forgiven it in 1975. I wouldn’t have been happy about it, but I would have seen it in the context of time. It has no place. It has no place here. Because what that shows is that you are completely out of touch with the actual demographics of readers.
You’ve been asked about this a lot. Your pseudonym. So we’re not going to ask again, but we’d like to approach it differently. You sign as Victoria Schwab for Young Adult literature and V. E. Schwab for adult readers. Do you think that in YA, specially in fantasy, being a female author is more normalized than in adult literature?
The vast majority of Young Adult authors are female. There are far fewer male authors, but they are given much more accolades like they are held up as like unicorns, they are given extra attention for the fact that there is few of them, whereas there are fewer, not far fewer actually, female fantasy authors than male and they are not given those accolades. Basically there is a reason that many of us write under gender neutral pseudonym, because there’s this pervasive belief that you know… but I think it gets back to the belief that YA is illegitimate, or not as legitimate as adult novels. It is all deeply, deeply problematic. I tweeted something last night about having ambition, about being excited, and a male (I am gonna assume they were male, because I actually have a very hard time believing that a female or non-binary person would say this to me) said that saying that I have big dreams came as a humble brag, that I was bragging. And I thought in what world is having aspirations and ambitions the absence of gratitude? Within thirty minutes of me tweeting that, before I tweeted it, a male author tweeted something very similar and was given complete support as like ‘dream your dreams’. Female authors, non-binary authors and minority authors are treated like you should be grateful for what you have and never seek for more. Like you are just lucky to be in the room. And I have a massive problem with that. The thing is every genre has its insecurities, which is what they are reflecting: adult genre gets looked down on by adult literary, and adult genre turns around and looks down on YA genre. And I just think ‘God, I don’t care’, I just want my stories to find the people who want them, I just truly cannot get that, a good story is a good story. Every genre has very bad stories and really good stories. The idea that adult literary is going to look down on YA… and I can point out so many adult literary novels that are terrible, and self-serving and disinteresting… There is good and bad in every genre.
And also, Vicious was published in Spain as Young Adult, while it originally was meant to be categorized as adult. We know that these mismatches happen frequently to you. Where do you put the frontiers to decide the audience that your stories are oriented towards?
I am surprised [laughs]. But again I didn’t know that but I also don’t really care because I think my readers are gonna find what they wanna find. It depends on the reader. A Darker Shade of Magic I think is much more appropiate for younger audiences than Vicious. Though I did get a 10 year old boy that came to me in a book festival last fall and I assumed he was bringing me City of Ghosts and he held up Vicious and he was like ‘It is my favorite book of all time’ and I thought ‘Aho gave you that? Are you serious?!’ Again I am not here the police readership. Also I subscribe to the idea that books have a lower age threshold but not upper age threshold, so I have a lot of fifty, sixty, seventy year old people reading City of Ghosts and a lot of young teenagers reading these. I consider Vicious and Vengeful to be adult only because it is not coming of age themes in any way, but they are true young adult themes, college-ish themes, so it depends on what your definition of young adult is. If Young Adult is fifteen, I don’t think Villians series is young adult. If young adult is first year of college, and when we are learning to be adults, to redefine ourselves as individuals, and not in relation to our family, then it is young adult. I think the problem is that different countries have different rules for what is young adult. In the UK, This Savage Song and Our Dark Duet are adult, in France, A Darker Shade of Magic is Young Adult, because there are different thresholds for what defines a category but we have to remember that it is a construct of the industry, it is a category made so they can shelf things in a specific place in a bookstore. I do not care where my books are shelved as long as the people who wants and needs those stories have access to them.
In your social media (where you are pretty active, by the way, we love that) we see that you’re not only an author but a voracious reader. You’ve hinted some direct references in your books: Harry Potter in City of Ghosts, Blake in A Gathering of Shadows… What novels, or poetry, or authors in general do you consider to be your biggest inspirations?
I grew up with J. K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman. The two of them together are kind of my literary lineage, my parentage, if you will? I also grew up with William Blake, and Shel Silverstein, I grew up with a lot of very strange books, but I wasn’t a huge reader before J. K. Rowling. She marks the beginning for me. I would say Oscar Wilde, T. H. White, Susanna Clarke, William Blake, Shel Silverstein, J. K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman make my…
Yes, exactly! These are the people you would have in my summoning circle. It’s a perfect way to put it. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, because I’m writing something that’s fairly mentally intense. To give you young adult in the way that Vicious would be young adult, in that liminal space… There’s a book that hasn’t been translated yet to Spanish, but it’s called If We Were Villains, by M. L. Rio. It’s like The Secret History meets Shakespeare conservatory school. It’s so good. And I think, if you like Vicious, that you will really really like that.
We’d like to peek at the future: June 2019’s Victoria has published more than fifteen books (if we count, apart from novels, comics, collaborations..), the rights of some of them have been sold and the audiovisual adaptations seem to be on their way and even her first ever published novel, The Near Witch, has been re-edited after years. What would this Victoria tell to the one that had her first book in shelves in stores back in 2011?
Hmm… I was really impatient when I was young, I was a teenager when I got my first agent, I was 21 when The Near Witch sold. I am an only child so there’s this ambition and this need to be taken seriously… I was so desperate to be taken seriously. And I wish I could go back and tell that version of myself to just breath. And to know that you are not one novel, you are not how any of your books is going to be received. You cannot determine which of your books will be succesful, you can’t determine anything with the words on the page. I think I was so fixated on the idea that my early novels needed to be the ones that shaped my entire career when the truth is that Vicious is my fourth, ADSOM my eighth, Addie Larue would be my seventh… Just look at the big picture, look at the long time, not the now. Always look ahead. I’m a Slytherin so I can look at the big picture and plan ahead. When I first was getting started I sat down with my agent because my books were far apart —I had a two year window between when my book sold and when it hit the shelves— and I was impatient and I said I am bored, I can’t do this, I need to do more work. This is not enough, I cannot put out a book every two years, I’ll go mad. So she made me come up with a one year plan, a five year plan and a ten year plan. Now every year we will sit down and discuss the one, the five and the ten. I think of things in that way, like ‘okay, I might not be able to achieve this goal in the next year, can I achieve it in ten years? And what do I need to do to get to that point?’, I like having a strategy.
Well, that was our last question, thank you so much for your time.
Oh, those were such good questions, wonderful!