In Conversation with #1 NYTimes author V.E. Schwab '05
by Brianna Bjordahl ’15
Victoria “V.E.” Schwab, Class of 2005, moved to Nashville from California two weeks before the start of her freshman year. She recalls it being an extremely positive though difficult experience. The new environment, and particularly the academics, took about two years to adjust to. Helping her find her stride was her advisor, Scottie Girgus, who after recognizing Victoria’s love for writing, connected her with “Hallmarks” and helped her find an outlet for her creativity. Victoria credits Ms. Girgus as the first teacher to truly believe in her, and as an educator who helped sculpt her into who she is today.
In her early 20s, after graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Washington University, Victoria decided to live abroad in the Liverpool suburbs, finding a place to rent in the garden shed of an ex-prison warden. With a second novel in the works and looking for a place to be inspired, she pooled her money for a train ticket to Edinburgh, and immediately “felt like all the silt in [her] settled to the ground.” A couple years later, she would return to the city to complete her master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh, where her love of the city grew. Victoria now lives full-time in Edinburgh with her dog, Riley, and her cats, Chauncey and Thomas. Since 2011, she has published over 20 books, including several short stories and graphic novels, and she was the creator and executive producer of Netflix’s “First Kill,” based on her short story of the same name. Victoria credits Harpeth Hall for giving her the discipline and the belief in herself to become an author as early as she did.
I spoke with Victoria over Zoom about her creative process and her time at Harpeth Hall. (Note: This interview has been edited and condensed).
You have published multiple novels, from adults to YA to middle grade, spanning and blending multiple genres. Knowing the diversity of that work, how does a new project start for you?
I think we often talk about where ideas come from as if ideas are a single entity, when the truth is it’s more like preparing a meal. The ideas are the ingredients. So when I look at any project, what I see are the ingredients coming together into something cohesive. It’s hard to pinpoint one place where ideas come from. Instead, I’m constantly gathering these ingredients for meals I haven’t figured out how to make yet.
Do you find there are some ingredients that tend to come earlier in the process?
For me, it’s almost always setting. There’s something about setting as character and place as personality. I never want my characters to feel like they’re floating over the top of their world. My “Shades of Magic” series was about: “Can I create alternate versions of the same place with different relationships to magic?” “Gallant” is about a garden wall and a locked door. “Near Witch” is about a village. There are exceptions like “The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” and “Vicious,” which are driven by the characters, but even in those, there’s a “what if” of the world. “Vicious”: what if a near death experience could lead to super powers? “Addie LaRue”: what if you made a deal with the devil? I think those are the kind of initial
ingredients I’m looking for. The “what if” and the “where.”
When you describe gathering these different ingredients over time, are there some ideas that will simmer for a long time before you end up bringing them to the page?
Almost all of them. They all have a cook time, and I love that you used the word “simmer” because I use a metaphor of a six-burner stove. I always have one project on high heat and four or five projects simmering on low heat. Sometimes that simmer can be months, but more often it’s years. People think that I’m a very quick writer, but I’m not. I’m a relentless writer. I always have the next thing simmering. Often, it’s simmering because it’s missing something. Sometimes that’s the voice. Often the ingredient that’s missing is the ending. I never start writing a book unless I know how it ends. To me, the ending is the thing that excites me and propels me through the narrative.
Do you find with these projects that set aside for a while that a story will significantly change from the original concept you thought it would be?
Oh, always. What’s interesting is that by the time I actually start writing it, it won’t change anymore. Certain little pieces will change, but I’m a planner, so by the time I actually put that pot onto high heat, that meal is pretty much set. So for me, the act of writing the story down is an act of executing a plan. The planning
is the creative part.
Knowing you’ve written middle grade, YA, and adult novels, do you find you approach your storytelling process differently depending on your audience?
No, I don’t believe in that. The only thing that changes is I am writing to a different version of myself. So when I write adult novels, I am writing as I am now. When I write my children’s series like “City of Ghosts,” I’m writing for 12-year-old me. When I write my YA series, I’m writing to 17-year-old me. I can’t anticipate who anyone else was at those ages, but I can know who I was. But I try to hold myself to the same standard no matter who I’m writing for, in part because I’ve discovered over the last eight to 10 years that my audience will read whatever they want. I have 10-year-old kids who bring me “Vicious,” which is a very dark adult novel. I have 80-year-old grandparents who bring me “City of Ghosts.” So I don’t want to make assumptions about who’s reading my books.
What do you do in cases of writer’s block? How do you manage it?
I don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe we get stuck, but writer’s block makes it sound bigger than it is. Whenever someone says, “I have writer’s block,” the trick is figuring out why. There are times when I am daunted by what I have to write, there are times when I am afraid that I will fail to write it, and there are times when I don’t know what I need to write. All three of those can parade as writer’s block. But knowing why you’re failing to move forward can help you move forward. If you’re stuck because you don’t know what happens next, that is the easiest one to fix. Pull back, get pen and paper, and ask, “What are five things that could happen to get this character from A to B?” If you’re stuck because you’re afraid of failing or making it imperfect, that’s probably to me the hardest one, because then you have to get into an exercise of understanding that perfection doesn’t exist. If you’re stuck because you’re daunted, you have to break it down into small bites. So figure out what it is that’s stopping you, whether it’s fear or anticipation or just not knowing. Once you figure out why, you can figure out how to fix it.
To shift gears, you’ve also dabbled in graphic novels with the “Steel Prince” series and the “ExtraOrdinary” series, and as of this year, in television with “First Kill.” How are those more collaborative creative processes of TV and graphic novels different than the more solitary process of writing a novel?
So, I want to separate graphic novels from visual medium, the reason being that a graphic novel is the most pure form of collaboration, because it’s you and the artist working together to create a story. When you’re talking about TV and film, it is 200 people, all with an opinion. You have so many cooks. But I like having all of them because they give me different
relationships to creativity. I love writing novels because I am god. I like graphic novels because I basically get professionally commissioned fan art of the things living inside my head. I love TV and film because of the actors. As an author, if something about a character’s not on paper, it doesn’t exist. But with a character that’s played by an actor, the actor brings so much depth and dimension that make it such an additive experience. At the end of the day though, I really am trying to center on the books because that is the realm in which I have the most creative control.
As a final question about writing before shifting back to your time at Harpeth Hall, of all your projects, do you have one you’re most proud of?
I’m very tempted to say “Addie LaRue,” only because it took 10 years, and so I’m proud that it exists and I didn’t give up on it. But a more honest answer is that I don’t feel pride so much as relief when I finish a story. My books are time capsules of who I was when I was writing them. That’s just the nature of creativity, right? But I think it will be very hard for anything to mean quite as much to me as Addie did, just because for 10 years, that was a friend in my life.
Now that we’re coming towards the end of the hour, I want to bring it back to Harpeth Hall. You touched on this before, but are there any skills you acquired while you were at Harpeth Hall that became valuable to your career as a writer?
One hundred percent. There’s a difference between writing and being an author, right? Because you can write, and if you never publish, you’re still a writer. Writing for publication requires a level of belief in yourself and your ability. You believe that you deserve to be read. You believe that you deserve to be seen. That level of confidence, of belief, not unfounded because it’s paired with discipline, that came from Harpeth Hall. Harpeth Hall taught me that I have a voice, and I deserve to use it. The reason I sat down and wrote a novel when I was 19 is because no one was telling me I couldn’t. I was telling
myself I couldn’t, and I needed to prove myself wrong.
As a final question, knowing there is a thriving community of aspiring writers among the current students and alumnae, is there any advice from your own experiences you would want to share with them?
Two things: take yourself seriously before anyone else does. Treat it as a job before anyone else will. From a craft perspective, find an ending that excites you, because a vast majority of people who start writing a novel never finish it. Once you finish it, you can make it better, but you have to finish it first. So develop the skill and the discipline to finish what you start.
Read books by V.E. Schwab
• “Warm Up” (2013) (short story)
• Vicious (2013)
• Vengeful (2018)
Villains graphic novels
• ExtraOrdinary (2021)
Shades of Magic series
• A Darker Shade of Magic (2015)
• A Gathering of Shadows (2016)
• A Conjuring of Light (2017)
Shades of Magic graphic novels
• Shades of Magic Vol. 1: The Steel Prince (2019)
• Shades of Magic Vol. 2: Night of Knives (2019)
• Shades of Magic Vol. 3: The Rebel Army (2020)
• “First Kill,” a short story within the anthology Vampires Never Get Old: Tales With Fresh Bite (2020)
• The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020)
• Gallant (2022)
As Victoria Schwab
The Near Witch Series
• “The Ash-Born Boy” (2012) (short story)
• The Near Witch (2011) (republished in 2019 under V.E. Schwab)
The Dark Vault series
• The Archived (2013)
• The Unbound (2014)
• “Leave the Window Open” (2015) (short story)
Everyday Angel series
• New Beginnings (2014)
• Second Chances (2014)
• Last Wishes (2014)
Monsters of Verity series
• This Savage Song (2016)
• Our Dark Duet (2017)
Cassidy Blake series
• City of Ghosts (2018)
• Tunnel of Bones (2019)
• Bridge of Souls (2021)
• Spirit Animals: Fall of the Beasts — Broken Ground (2015)
• Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy (2017) (contributing writer)
• (Don't) Call Me Crazy (2018) (contributing writer)