Victoria Schwab’s work spans divides: In over a dozen books written for children, teens, and adults, she’s blended fantasy, science fiction and superhero genres using characters that explore various identities and historical eras — described in tart yet generous prose. Schwab’s protagonists don’t really slot easily into gender or sexual roles and their fluidity extends to morality: villains are sympathetic, her heroes do terrible things — yet their actions make sense. Her most recent book, Vengeful, is a sequel to the first book she wrote specifically for adult readers, Vicious. Vicious revolved around frenemies and newly-enhanced “ExtraOrdinary” humans Victor and Eli; Vengeful adds an indelible female force: Marcella. Schwab is a lively presence on Twitter (where she came out on National Coming Out Day) and was generous enough to answer a few questions about writing and politics.
Vengeful is “about taking control when the world tries to strip it from you,” specifically, strip it from women. Witchery is a historic response to that but it’s not an option for most of us. If you could use magic to exact vengeance on someone for stripping women of power, who would it be and how would you do it?
Wow, way to open with a hard one. I mean, there seem to be a wealth of options in modern-day USA. I think I would probably start with the council of older white men who got to make decisions about how a woman's body should be managed. I think I'd make each of them pregnant, and force them to carry to term, despite any harm it would certainly do to their bodies, seeing as they aren't designed for such a burden. I wonder how long it would take them to change the policies, then.
In the Vicious series, humans become “ExtraOrdinaries” via a near-death experience. I read in another interview you confirming there’s a parallel between the drive to become an EO and the real-world drive to become successful or famous. Do you think that one reason there are so many straight/white/male/cis people in power in this world is because, for many of them, defying death is a privilege of sorts? Meaning, they don’t face as much real-life peril, so they can take these risks and not worry too much about failing? After all, if they take the risk and succeed, they’ll become IRL ExtraOrdinary (rich and famous).
It's funny, [Vicious] started out so white and male because I was playing inside the world of comic book archetypes, but I definitely think ego plays a vital role. I've said that every person who becomes an EO is also probably Slytherin because it takes a certain kind of person to not only survive the near-death experience but to have the stubborn mindset that you can overcome anything, even death, which absolutely rewards those who've had a privileged life. That said, there are definitely characters from the opposite end of the spectrum, those who've had to fight for every inch, and aren't willing to lose it to something as simple as death.
You grew up in the religious South. How did religion shape your view of magic?
Hahaha, well, I grew up in the South, but my father is Jewish, and my mother, though raised Jewish, is agnostic, and I was always more drawn to Eastern philosophy than Western religion, the emphasis on change within one's self instead of reliance on an outside force. I will never forget one Hannukah, there was a Christmas tree in the other room, and my parents gave me a little Buddhist altar, and I thought, this is all so weird. I loved the overlaps between religions, the idea that it was really a number of masks for one face. But as I grew up, I became more interested in Paganism and Shinto, and more frustrated with the trappings of organized religion (especially living in the South, where so much of the Christianity is performative, social, but not permeative), and that maelstrom of feelings definitely informed my take on magic and power in my narratives.
You’ve also said you believe that people are all products of their environments and that we should care about and understand these villainous characters even if we don’t love them. Are you able to do that in your own life? Does writing about villains help you empathize with bad guys outside of novels? Who do you have the most trouble empathizing with?
I work very hard to humanize people, both in my writing and in my life. I probably do a better job of it in the former, but hey, books are static, and writers are works in constant progress. I will say, in life, I've always been terrified of people who do things without reason. People who kill randomly, or who lack any personal compass. I find the most compelling villains are those that have their own motive, not the ones who simply want to rule the world, but those who want to take the world from someone else. Villainy becomes antagonism when it's personal.
You came out last year. How did that impact on your writing?
It...didn't really? I mean, I was gay and writing before I realized I was gay. And then I was gay and writing before I talked about being gay. And then I was gay and writing and people knew I was gay. Being out has impacted my life, of course, and the more and better I understand myself, the better I will write. But it's also important for me that my being gay doesn't define me or my work.
How does queerness show up in your books in ways we may not notice? Maybe in ways that YOU didn’t notice until after you’d written?
Because I came to terms with that part of my identity later than most, I'm still processing pieces of it, looking back at the way I was drawn to outsider narratives before I'd grasped how I fit into that. I knew I didn't belong, it just took a long time to define how/why. I think, or at least hope, the most prominent way it shows up is that 1) the romantic element in my books is rarely the most important (this is true in my personal life and identity as well) and 2) the characters in my book rarely fit into the binary of straight/gay. I prefer to think that, for most of them, they would fall for a person first and a gender/identity second. Take Lila Bard for instance, from the Shades of Magic series. She's with Kell, yes, but she could just as easily have ended up with Kisimyr, the last champion of the tournament. What she's attracted to in a person is conviction, and yes, power.
There’s a long history of queer people identifying with characters who are somehow born different or have access to a different kind of knowledge. When you were reading fantasy as a kid, is that something the resonated with you?
Here's the thing—I identified with outsiders long, long before I consciously came to terms with my own identity. Something in them spoke to something in me, even if for the longest time I didn't understand why I felt so at odds with my environment, my friends, my family my life. I was drawn to any character who didn't fit cleanly into the box of a narrative, whether they were the hero or the villain.
In general, whose writing made you feel seen?
I saw pieces of myself in different books, from Shel Silverstein to Sabriel, but the truth is, I never saw all of myself. That's a major aspect of why I write. I write specifically what I want to read. I write a story in which I see myself.
Whose writing made you want to write?
It's a two-part answer, really, because before you become a writer, you become a reader. I owe JK Rowling for that—and before anyone rolls their eyes at the triteness of that answer, I know it's low-hanging fruit, but remember that I was 11 when the first book came out. I had the luxury of growing with Harry, and that had an indelible impact on my young, creative brain. It was the first time I lost myself in a story, the first time I learned such a thing was possible. So JK Rowling made me a reader, and then Neil Gaiman made me a writer. I was just beginning to dabble in short fiction and poetry when I discovered his work, and I was enamored with not only his stories but the fact that no matter what shape his stories took—comics, novels, screenplays, poems—his voice came through. It was a powerful revelation, as a teenager, that I didn't have to commit to a single form, that if I worked hard enough, my own voice might transcend the medium.
You identify as “whimsical Slytherin”! Why?
My friends constantly insist that I have a Hufflepuff core, but I maintain that you can be ambitious and cunning and still like to have fun, bake cookies, watch cartoons. I love animals, love travel, love seeing new things. I also love the pursuit of success, the constant discomfort with contentment that pushes me to reach for more.
I was stunned to read that you deleted your first draft of Vengeful. What did that feel like?
I mean, it certainly didn't feel great at the time. But part of being an author is understanding that it's not just about making something good, but about being willing to make it better. I've become really good at listening to my gut, and my editor, and both convinced me that the story I originally put down on paper wasn't actually the right one. It was the hardest decision of my career thus far, and there were several long dark months, but I can honestly say, it's also the best decision I've ever made. And hopefully, knowing that, knowing I'm capable of doing that, will only help me moving forward.
You have a future book described as a “female Blade Runner” — your first venture into the science fiction genre. What are you most excited about playing within that?
Well, technically Vicious and Vengeful are sci-fi, not fantasy, they're simply near-future alternate worlds instead of far-future ones. But yes, that upcoming project is far more in the vein of high-tech, science-driven, anime-inspired future play, and I am really, really excited to dive into that space, not only because I love the cinematic aspects of writing something that fuses Blade Runner with, say, Psycho Pass, but also because I love the challenge of taking a genre and making it mainstream in my own weird way. Plus, fight scenes. I loooove fight scenes.