At the age of 24, Victoria Aveyard has finished work on a screenplay project attached to comic-book legend Stan Lee and penned her debut YA novel, Red Queen. In the latter, those who bleed red are the impoverished underclass, meant to serve the upper echelon silver-bloods who boast supernatural gifts that have helped them exert control over their dystopian world. But when 17-year-old Red narrator Mare Barrow discovers her own superpower — she can summon lightning from her fingertips — she becomes the reluctant poster child for the Scarlet Guard’s rebel uprising. In the first of a trilogy, Aveyard explores Mare’s journey from commoner to royal captive, setting the scene for an epic class war to come. The author spoke with PW just before a San Francisco book signing about her dystopian take on the “typical teenage identity crisis,” her fervent Harry Potter fandom, and what to expect in the next installment.
It's ambitious to tackle a series with your debut not knowing how people will respond. What made you decide to launch your writing career with a trilogy?
That’s a good question and one I haven’t gotten before, so, thank you! I’m a very indulgent writer and I always want more than a standalone, so I came into the novel knowing I wanted to write a series but I didn't know that I would get a chance to. All my favorite books and movies are franchises like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, so that was always the dream, that maybe I’ll get to write a series of my own. And it happened!
Did you feel like you were under any different kinds of pressure than an author writing a one-off?
The first manuscript I wrote on spec so there was no pressure besides the fact that I had better make this good enough to sell. The second one is almost done, and in writing that I found it was more about being aware that you have to interject things that previously happened. Like when you read the fifth Harry Potter book and they have those obligatory chapters about “Here’s what’s happened to Harry so far...”
So you had the entire trilogy plotted out from the beginning knowing that you wanted this to be a series?
You would think that! (laughs) If you ask the people that created Lost or if you ask George Lucas about Star Wars, they’re going to lie to you and say they knew where it was going to end from the beginning. I just knew it was going to take more than one story. It wasn’t until I was about halfway through the second one that I thought, “Now I know where it’s going.” And you start interweaving things that are going to come into play in the third.
Somewhere online you can find a copy of the handwritten sort of spreadsheet/outline J.K. Rowling came up with for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Yes! Actually I started using that format. I’m just gonna steal from her. (laughs)
Dystopian settings have really been de rigeur in YA lately. What got you interested in the genre?
I think because I created the story to service the visual image I had – a teenage girl who could control lightning – I selected the world around that. I was inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire and I wanted to play with a modern Dark Ages, where technology existed yet you don’t exactly know what happened to get to this point. I don’t know if the readers really see much of that, but just as a tonal reference in my head it helped to build this world that felt like a dystopia but leaves it open to interpretation: is this our actual world or a completely new fantasy world?
Several of your characters are grappling with their identities and struggling with power in every sense of the word. Why did you choose those as the central themes?
Both of them, to me, are very, very intertwined. The power allows these very young characters to have more control over their lives than a reader of their age. I wanted to blow up the typical teenage identity crisis into something a little more weighty. It’s something everyone goes through at 17, but these characters aren’t just choosing a college major or a career.
Have you gotten feedback from teenage readers about whether or not that translated for them?
I have sort of weaned myself off of reading my own reviews, which is a constant struggle. (laughs) I have heard from some readers at a couple of signings who said they could identify with it but it’s also escapist. My number one job at the end of the day is to entertain.
And your style seems very cinematic, maybe because of your training in screenwriting.
Yes! I write having seen what’s happening already in my head. I see it as a movie and I’m just writing down what’s happening in front of me.
Were you inspired by any dystopian books or authors while you were writing?
One of the authors and stories that I really drew on, not necessarily for direct influence but in terms of cast, was the Game of Thrones series. I am totally enamored with how George R.R. Martin bends and twists the tropes of fantasy. I tried to do a little bit of that on my own with YA books and fairy tale tropes as well, immediately knowing where my twists would be.
Can you give an example of a trope that you twisted?
Nothing too spoilery, but the idea of the poor common girl becoming betrothed to a prince and it being the ultimate fairytale dream. There’s literally a point where Mare’s like: “This is a nightmare.”
Red Queen also seems to share some traits with classic superhero tropes, perhaps most notably the X-Men. You’ve been busy between the books and writing and selling a screenplay, Eternal, a project with Marvel mastermind Stan Lee. Were you a big fan of his comic books growing up?
I’ve always been a huge fan of the movies. I unfortunately never got into the comic books. I was such a Harry Potter freak so those I was just mainlining those at all times, but I was definitely inspired by the X-Men and it was a kick-starter. I thought, okay, 100 years into a war with people and superheroes, there’s no way they’re going to be running from the government. They’re going to be the government. If you have a mind controller, they’re not going to sit at home and twiddle their thumbs.
You're almost done with the second Red Queen book. Without giving too much away, or being too spoilery, what can readers expect from the next installment in the trilogy?
This is sort of the road movie where we move around a lot in this one and home in on the core group established in the first book. You’re going to meet some new characters, some of my favorites, real game-changer people. In the first book, Mare doesn’t really have a foil, it’s just kind of her against the whole world and she doesn’t have anyone to challenge her much. In the second half of the second book, you meet someone and she’s the one to tell Mare what’s what. The second is also much more about the idea that power corrupts you and exploring both what powers those abilities give them and the strength from who they are as people. For some of them there’s a point where maybe they feel like “I’m becoming someone I don’t like and how can I stop it?” And of course book two is a whole different sphere of influence that we’re looking at.
Red Queen has been optioned by Universal, with Gennifer Hutchinson (Breaking Bad) adapting the story for the screen. As a trained screenwriter yourself, is it difficult to take this world and these characters you created and entrust them with another writer?
Me not writing the screenplay I’m very happy with, honestly. I see it as a novel and I’m so close to the work that I wouldn’t have been able to do it justice. The screenwriter is going to have to be able to cut things and switch things around so if it had been left up to me, I would have had a 200-page screenplay. [Hutchinson is] like a dream-come-true-writer.
That’s a lot to have accomplished at only 24. What advice would you give to aspiring authors and screenwriters?
I’m going to knock off all the great quotes that my screenwriting professors told me. “Just finish.” Even if it’s just a note to end a chapter, by the time you get there you will have figured out how to fix that one problem. A little distance does wonders in terms of writing and this is really helpful in screenplays in particular. “The spider doesn’t know what part of the web will catch the fly.” Write whatever you want all over the place because something will hit. And “try to get the audience to believe one unbelievable thing.” So I tried my best just to change one thing and make the rest of the world work with that.
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. HarperTeen, $17.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-06-231063-7