On lockdown at her parents’ 500-year-old stone farmhouse in the Sarthe region of France, Victoria Schwab is, like many of us, stressed out. “I landed here an hour after lockdown, and I feel safe, from a very privileged perspective. It’s like I’m in a medieval village,” says the Nashville-raised author, who now calls Edinburgh, Scotland, home.
“I feel like the whole world is burning, and I can’t do anything,” says Schwab. She’s taken these feelings of helplessness and decided to focus on work. And Schwab, 33, is nothing if not a good worker.
Now a frequent bestseller, Schwab, who’s notably prolific, is known for successful fantasy series like the Darker Shade of Magic trilogy and the Villains duology. She has published 17 titles (plus comics and graphic novels) since making her YA debut with 2011’s The Near Witch (Disney).
A decade into her career and about to launch her next book, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (Oct. 6, Tor), the publishing process should be old hat for Schwab. But this one feels different. “I’m coming up on my 10-year anniversary of my first book,” she says, “but in some form I’ve been working on Addie since then.”
Addie LaRue centers on a woman who makes a Faustian bargain to live forever, but soon realizes her deal with the devil comes with a curse—she can never be remembered. It’s an ambitious historical fantasy that shimmers with shades of The Picture of Dorian Grey and Peter Pan, while covering 300 years and spanning from medieval France—not far from where Schwab is now—to modern-day New York City.
The idea for the novel first struck when Schwab was 24 and living in “a literal Home Depot shed” in an ex–prison warden’s yard in Liverpool, England. “Those were the three most formative months of my life,” she says, shaking her head at the memory. It was February and freezing, she recounts, and her grandmother had dementia. While hiking in England’s Lake District one day, she recounts, she began thinking about immortality. “I started thinking about the heinously sad ending of Peter Pan. He’s already forgetting all of it, the magic, the people.”
Given her grandmother’s condition, “I had very close-range experience, watching my mom being erased from my grandmother’s mind. Forgetting is sad, but being forgotten is truly horrible. That really started the whole idea. An immortality tale, sort of an inverted Peter Pan—instead of a boy who forgets, I wanted to write a girl who is forgotten.”
The idea simmered for a decade, Schwab says, because she knew she wasn’t ready. “I checked in with myself about it every few years,” she explains. “By the time I hit 30, I started thinking to myself, I’m going to die without finishing it. It became like this huge white whale. I knew it was going to be a monstrous process and I knew there was going to be more fear than joy in it.”
Despite her fear about the difficulty of writing the novel, Schwab finally felt, at 30, ready to tackle it. Part of her readiness can be attributed to the empathy she began feeling for Addie. With years in publishing under her belt, Schwab felt like she, too, had made her own difficult bargains. “We’re all just trying to leave our mark, in some way or another,” she says. “Especially the artists and writers among us. It can be a really lonely, isolating business, especially when you only hear about the triumphs, never about the failures. At least that was how it was for me.”
Schwab started her career off with a bang, selling her 2011 debut, The Near Witch, to Disney before she’d even graduated from Washington University, in St. Louis. Witch, which didn’t make much of a showing commercially, was followed by the YA fantasy duology The Archived (Disney, 2013). The duology was also released to little fanfare. “I earned out, but was told I’d failed to meet some arbitrary expectations,” Schwab says. “It was really rough, and I felt really alone. I was 21 when I debuted, and I remember feeling like I was washed up at 24.”
“Writing has always been my full-time job,” she says. “So I figured, just take it to the next step. If your career is going well, you’re going to have to write another book. If your career is going poorly, you’re going to have to write another book. The only proactive thing you can do in publishing is write another book.”
Broke and living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, she decided to move back to her parents’ home in Nashville. Her parents told her she could stay for three months; she wound up there for nine. “That’s the only way I could make this career work,” she says. “I could always go home to them, and that’s a huge privilege.”
She also decided to shift gears. “I figured, if I can’t control the mechanisms of publishing, if I can’t control whether or not my books are successful, at least I can control what I want to write.” She started working on Vicious, “a very weird supervillain bromance.” According to Schwab, Miriam Weinberg at Tor bought Vicious with an eye toward “what I would write next.”
That next book, even then, was supposed to be Addie LaRue. “Every so often, Miriam would ask, ‘Hey, when are you going to get back to that project?’ ” Schwab says. “But I wasn’t ready yet, voicewise, timewise, agewise.”
While she was working on Vicious and its follow-up, Vengeful, Scholastic reached out with a work-for-hire middle grade series about guardian angels. The series, Schwab recalls, laughing, “was like the least on-brand thing ever.” Nonetheless, she took the job. “I ended up pitching this really Dr. Who-esque adaptation of it and said, ‘What if I do this?’ The Everyday Angel series became the darling of the [Scholastic] book club and fair scene and sold almost a million copies.”
Her next project was the Shades of Magic trilogy, centered on misfits, magic, and mayhem in four alternate versions of London. Looking back at these books, Schwab says, “I think so much of my work has been about the fact that I didn’t come out ’til I was 28, even to myself,” Schwab says. “For me, it’s like the throughline of all my books: ‘This is a book about a person who doesn’t feel at home in their skin and in their community.’ And then when I finally came out, I was like, ‘Shit, that’s what it is.’ ”
While the Shades series made her a bestseller, it didn’t make her rich. “I got paid $15,000 for A Darker Shade of Magic,” she says. Her smaller advance checks required her to juggle multiple projects; while working on A Darker Shade of Magic, for example, she was also writing the YA fantasy This Savage Song. “Like a lot of writers, I was constantly working, and constantly underpaid, and always scrambling.”
That’s why she feels the constant need to remind writers that publishing is not a meritocracy. “We assume that we are at fault for our own experiences,” she says. “We assume that if we are feeling sad or lonely or unheard, that it’s on us, not on the publisher or on our team. It’s so difficult to feel like equals in this game. It’s so important to find relationships—with an agent, an editor, a team—that make you feel like you’re on equal footing. We’re gaslit by this business every day, when it wouldn’t function without us, the creators.”
Next up for Schwab is the recently announced five-issue Extraordinary graphic novel series with Titan, set in the world of her Villains titles. Then she makes a return to the Shades world, with the three-book Threads of Power series. “I’m terrified,” she confesses. “I mean, 33-year-old me is going to write a different book. I’m gayer, I’m louder, I’m weirder, and I care about different things. I just hope my readership gives me the space. I think they will, because I try never to do the same thing twice. I unfortunately have this complex where I need to challenge myself every book. I have to, because I live with the story for so much longer than anybody else does.”
That’s certainly the case for Addie LaRue, whose time has come, for better or worse. “It’s crazy to have a book out this year,” Schwab says. “But what guarantee is there that the world will be better in 2021? I’ve lived with this story in my head for a decade. I’d rather people just read the damn book before the end of the world.”
She also thinks the book can serve as an escape—with a relevant message. “It’s about survival and defiant joy, and I’m hoping whoever does get around to reading it in this flaming hellscape will at least enjoy that,” she says. “The irony of me starting to write something considered hope-punk, though, is hysterical. Looking at my canon, which is so dark, and it’s like, ‘I guess I write hope now?’ But I have to. Because I can’t compete with reality at the moment.”