Victoria V.E. Schwab, GALLANT

Victoria V.E. Schwab, GALLANT

#1 New York Times bestselling author Victoria “V.E.” Schwab joins Zibby to discuss her most recent two novels, Gallant and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. The two talk about why Victoria writes under the moniker V.E., what her traumatic response to creativity looks like, and which of her projects have been optioned to be adapted. They also connect over the ups and downs that come with being an artist, as well as why Victoria finds the fantasy genre so fascinating (despite being a voracious memoir reader).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Victoria. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” We’re going to discuss Gallant and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and everything you do and you, so there you go.

V.E. Schwab: Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: It’s a pleasure. First of all, V.E. Schwab versus Victoria Schwab, explain.

Victoria: The answer has changed a little bit over the years. Basically, I started out as Victoria Schwab. I was writing primarily YA and middle grade, so for younger audiences. Then when my very first novel for adults came out, called Vicious, it had an illustrated cover. I just thought to myself, oh, my god, I don’t want my eight-year-old readers accidentally picking up Vicious. It’s fine if they do it with intention or if it’s a family choice, but I just didn’t want them stumbling across it. I was like, it’s good to have a little bit of separation of church and state. What I didn’t realize at the time when I made that decision was that I was saving myself some grief in creating other griefs because the adult genre industry, which is now primarily where I write, especially ten years ago but still to this point, is extremely sexist, shockingly sexist. The number of times fans have come up to me at events and said, oh, my god, I’m so glad I didn’t know you were a woman. I never would’ve picked this up.

Zibby: What?

Victoria: I know. It’s shocking to hear. Then I became very grateful for the fact that I had this division. As I went on and I wrote more books, to be honest, I felt more like V.E. It seemed to embody my brand and my identity. It also gave me a little bit of protection because the more public you become as a figure, the more people begin to conflate the name on the cover with the person behind the book. I was seeing people talking about author me as if it was person me, as if they knew me. I realized that I wanted a little bit of separation, a little bit of armor. I’m Victoria to my friends. I’m Victoria in conversation. V.E. on the books is what, going forward, it will only be regardless of the age that I’m writing for because I feel like it both represents me, but also, it gives me a chance to have that slight difference between person and persona that always exists, but it’s really hard to remember when people are talking about you as if they know you.

Zibby: Interesting. I like that. I find that fascinating. I actually recently interviewed a man named Jeff Hoffmann. For the hardcover — it’s called Other People’s Children — they had him be J.R. Hoffmann. Then for the paperback, they made him Jeff Hoffmann, which I found fascinating also. People couldn’t believe he was a man. You just never know.

Victoria: You just never ever know. It really speaks to a lot of the presumptions that we make as readers about what kinds of people write what kinds of books.

Zibby: Yes. First of all, shame on whoever’s saying those things to you or thinking those things. What the heck? That is interesting. I also find it super fascinating, this idea that people feel like they know everything about you because they’ve read some of your books and what you put in the book. You’re not even writing memoir. How could they possibly know?

Victoria: Also, I do think it’s when critique takes a personal bent, which I just think is the nature of having an online identity these days and also the nature of the forums for readers. Ninety-nine percent of the time, people are very respectful. If they take issue with a book or if there’s something they don’t like, they confine it to the books. Because of the time in which we live, sometimes it’ll just become slagging off on the writer of those books. I feel like it’s a little easier for me to remember that there’s a fictional version of me that lives in those people’s heads, not a real version. Look, I have a social media profile. I’m very large on Instagram. That’s where I live. I try to be as honest and transparent as possible. I think, again, that probably feeds into the idea that people know the totality of me instead of a curated portion of my life.

Zibby: Interesting. I ran into a man I don’t really know very well at all. I’ve met him in passing once. I was at this PEN America event. He stopped me and was like, “You know, I know everything about you because I follow you. I feel like there’s this one-sided intimacy here, so let’s just keep talking.” I was like, I’m just trying to get to the bathroom.

Victoria: That’s so perfectly put, one-sided intimacy. It’s really difficult because the industry tells us to cultivate it. I want that level of accessibility because I found that over the last ten to twelve years of being in publishing, when my readers are involved and included in the process and are really seeing what goes into making the book, they feel even more of a desire to champion that work and me because they were there as it was being built, as it was being made. I like that sense of community and inclusion, but it is a one-sided intimacy. Even though I’m being authentic, I’m very much choosing which pieces of myself to share.

Zibby: Yes. When I interviewed Mary Laura Philpott — sorry, I don’t know why I keep talking about other authors. We are focusing on you.

Victoria: No, I love it. I much prefer.

Zibby: When I was just interviewing her about her latest book, Bomb Shelter, she was like, “Look, there are twenty-eight chapters. There are basically twenty-eight stories. Those are the ones I picked. That is not a person. That is not a lifetime.” I just found that so compelling because you forget as a reader that what you’re reading is a subsection. It’s a tiny portion of what could be shared.

Victoria: I think about it a lot. This comes up as a theme in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. I appropriated a conversation that I had with one my best friends, with their permission. They’re a professional photographer. I came up in fine arts, not in photography. We were talking about the presumption that a photograph has more veracity just like a memoir would over fiction. There’s a greater sense of honesty to it. My friend was breaking it down for me. She goes, “Absolutely not. It’s entirely fiction because I’m choosing what to include and what to exclude. I’m curating the frame. I’m lying, essentially, just as much as a painting would in that you can’t trust what you see.” I feel like with memoir versus fiction — we’re going down a very philosophical .

Zibby: I know.

Victoria: I feel like there’s an illusion of veracity where what you have to understand is, yes, while the stories are probably, hopefully, all true, they are being compiled and curated to present a specific image.

Zibby: Or a particular truth designed to make a point or something.

Victoria: Also, let’s not get away from the fact that memoirs are entirely subjective to their own creators. There is no such thing as the truth or the history as it happens, only as it was perceived by those who are writing about it.

Zibby: Yeah, kind of a shortcut. I have a memoir coming out soon. In the beginning, I wrote, “If you were involved in any of these scenes and remember it completely differently, you’re probably right. I don’t know. This is just how I remembered it.” People are always correcting me. I have a terrible memory. I do my best. This is literally how I remember it clearly, but what if I’m wrong?

Victoria: I could literally never do memoir because — this goes on with my friends and family all the time. I have this traumatic response to creativity where I have short-term memory loss about the creative process. I’m twenty-four books in now at this point. Yet every single time I sit down to write, I go through the exact same version of psychosis. Everyone in my life has receipts. They’re like, “Here’s an email you sent me nine months ago where you, word for word, said the same thing about your last book.” It’s not a pretention. I don’t remember it. I talked to a therapist about it recently. She’s like, “It’s a traumatic response that we block out things.” It’s the same thing that people will say about pregnancy often. If you remembered it accurately, you’d probably never repeat it. I feel like in so many ways, creativity mirrors that same kind of trauma response where if we could accurately remember everything that we felt while going through it, we probably wouldn’t be as keen to repeat the process.

Zibby: I have four kids. My little guys, who are now seven and eight, were asking me questions about them when they were little. They showed me some video we found on my phone. I was like, “You guys, I literally don’t really remember any of these entire years.” I can’t even admit this to myself. It’s too embarrassing. Obviously, I was there. Sometimes a picture drums up the memory for me. When I just try to think of the memories, I’m like, I know I was there.

Victoria: I wonder if it’s something unique to artists and writers where there’s a piece of our brain that is always occupied elsewhere. I think about it with the drafting process especially. Even when I’m present, there’s probably about twenty-five percent of me that’s not, that’s trying to keep the plate spinning in my head, so afraid that if I turn my attention fully away from the draft that I’m writing, something will fall apart.

Zibby: Interesting. I actually, a couple years ago, maybe ten years ago, really thought I might have some sort of brain disorder because I was forgetting so much stuff. I was even starting to get lost. I talked to a neurologist about it. He was like, “If you’re not paying attention to begin with, your brain cannot imprint something as a memory. You’re not even fully experiencing because you’re not attending to it.” It’s why you can shampoo your hair and then two minutes later be like, did I even do that? I don’t know because I wasn’t thinking about it. I wasn’t paying any attention. If you’re literally doing something and paying no attention to it, then it can’t be stored away for later.

Victoria: That is so helpful to think about, too, because I make that joke of, I can keep a thousand pages of story in my mind, but I can’t remember what I ate yesterday. It’s because I’m not actually present for a lot of the task. I’m working on it. I feel like if the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s presence. Brains are weird. In summation, brains are real strange.

Zibby: I have the same thing. I could tell you about so many plots and characters in these books. I’m like, why do I choose to remember stories and books that I read years ago and not this kid’s friend’s birthday party something or other? Why? Why am I prioritizing that?

Victoria: I don’t know what day of the week it is. I’ll forget things. I won’t remember if I’ve already done a task. It’s because my brain is always — I always say, lately, I’ve felt like butter spread on too many pieces of bread.

Zibby: That is such a great analogy. I’m going to attribute this to you and use it because that is exactly how I feel.

Victoria: There’s not enough butter or there’s too much bread. One of these two things is true.

Zibby: Just keep waiting for some shoe to drop or whatever, some piece of bread to — I don’t know. I love that you’re attributing that to creative people because that’s putting a positive spin on this issue.

Victoria: I think it’s a deal with the devil, not to thematically bring it back to Addie. I absolutely feel like there are pros and cons. It’s a choice. I don’t feel like I could maintain a measure of sanity if I didn’t write. It’s a way in which I take the snarl of yarn that is my head and make straight lines. At the same time, I am also that writer who tells people, if there’s anything else that will make you feel satisfied, do that instead. I’m somebody who doesn’t really like to sugarcoat the creative process. I think it’s so lonely and it’s so arduous that unless you go with eyes open as to what it’s going to claim from you — I know why, as a society, we romanticize artists. Artists, obviously, that’s an umbrella term I’m using for all of us that are creating. At the same time, I think sometimes the romanticization of it can make it even lonelier when you’re struggling because you start to think, well, everyone else seems to just be having a grand old time. If I’m really struggling, is that a reflection of me, then, and my abilities instead of the fact that art is hard?

Zibby: What piece of it makes you struggle the most? Is it the idea generation? Is it the sentences? At your loneliest, what exactly are you struggling with?

Victoria: The imperfection. I love brainstorming. I love the final polish that I put on my words. The imperfection of a first draft, knowing that — it’s one of the reasons Addie took so long to write. For five or six years, I just didn’t want to ruin it by putting it on paper. I had this idea in my head. As long as it was in my head, it was perfect. It was flawless because it was not real. It was just all potential energy. Then the act of writing something down translates it to kinetic energy, and something’s lost. I am so averse to the inevitable failure that is a first draft. First draft is a controlled failure. It is losing something between your brain and the page. Then over the course of revision, you hopefully gain that back. I struggle so much with my own sense that I’m ruining it by writing it in the first place. It’s having to come to terms with the fact that I would rather have something exist and be flawed than not exist and be perfect.

Zibby: That’s fascinating. That is really fascinating.

Victoria: It’s way unhealthy.

Zibby: No, I don’t think it’s unhealthy. It’s just really interesting, as is the idea that it already lives fully formed, that we are scribes trying to transport something from one place to another as if we’re FedEx messengers or something.

Victoria: I have the proof on paper that I’m capable of doing the thing. I have the proof that if I go back and look at it, it doesn’t seem like I wrote it, but I’ll remember that I didn’t like it in the beginning. That’s the main fight I have with everyone in my life. They’ll be like, “You felt this way about Addie.” I’m like, “No, I didn’t. I loved Addie the whole time.” They’re like, “Excuse me, you hated Addie for nine years. You didn’t want to do it.” I retcon my relationship to the first draft. That’s the thing I wish I wouldn’t do. If I just had a little bit more sense of presence and awareness as to how difficult the first draft is for me — I also don’t know if you do this. I’m sure you do. Everyone I’ve met does it to some degree. I’ll even look at something that I wrote — sure, you never want to look at the finished product versus a first draft. I’ll look at something I wrote a week ago or a day ago, and I’ll be like, wow, past me was much better at this than present me. We’re the same person. In my brain, it’s like, oh, I can’t do this anymore. I did it a week ago, but that was a different version of me. I’m not capable of doing that anymore.

Zibby: Yes, I totally understand that. I’m like, I don’t know if I could do that again. Someone read a sentence I wrote in some random essay. They’re like, “This particular sentence, this is it for me. It unlocked this, that, or the other thing.” I’m like, “First of all, I don’t remember writing that sentence. It doesn’t even sound familiar as you read it back to me.” Of course, I did in that moment where I was just like — second of all, it’s almost like a dissociative response.

Victoria: It is. It is. That’s what I’m getting to. It is complete dissociation. It can be magical if you’re not as anxious as I am. My friends who are more able to just lean in and trust-fall into the creative process are also the friends who are very willing to delete fifty thousand words if it goes in the wrong direction. My anxiety, it feels like my determination to not quit stems from having an end point in mind, having roadmaps along the way that will stop me from abandoning it because I will always be the harshest critic. I’m always the one that’s like, it’s not good enough. I’m like, of course, it’s not good enough. You’ve written 15,000 words of a book that doesn’t exist. In my mind, I’m like, it’s not good enough. No one’s going to like this.

Zibby: I have also noticed, having interviewed over a thousand authors and having anxiety myself and everything, the prevalence of anxiety disorders among authors is something I find very welcome and familiar. It’s, I think, very widespread. I think there is a high correlation, very high.

Victoria: I will tell you, it’s also one of the reasons I love memoirs. I specifically gravitate towards memoirs and interviews, in terms of as a listener, with creative people, but especially with creative people in different fields. I just listened to an hour-long interview with Harry Styles about his new album. I feel like, what an education in the universality of the artistic experience of us all. He talks about just basically being in that place where you’ve had a massive success. How do you become liberated by that instead of paralyzed by it? It’s the same thing Elizabeth Gilbert talked about in her interview after Eat, Pray, Love. I don’t find comfort from my own past experience because I don’t trust it. I find comfort from knowing that other creatives in vastly different walks and levels of experience are all, on the minute level, just struggling with the same neuroses.

Zibby: Yep, really interesting. I’m in my head spinning around on this thought. Take an athlete who practices the same thing over and over. The body remembers it. They could still make mistakes. They could slip off the beam. They could foot-fault or whatever it is they’re doing. Their body also helps them out and remembers it, whereas I feel like with more creative things, the body is completely useless.

Victoria: No muscle memory. I also wonder if athletes are just far better at being present and mindful because they have to be. I envy that. I used to be an athlete. I was a soccer player for thirteen years. I was a competitive fencer for seven. The only times I ever messed up were the ones when I was in my own head instead of in the moment. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t go further with it as a fencer specifically. I was nationally ranked in things, but I couldn’t get out of my head. I couldn’t just be there. Some part of me was always already analyzing it. I think I’d be good at other things. This is the only thing I’ve ever found that actually makes me feel crazier than I already am. I have mental health issues, but it is something that definitely doesn’t make me feel less crazy.

Zibby: You are not crazy. I don’t know what mental health issues you purportedly have, but I don’t feel like you are actually — I’m just going to go on a limb and say that.

Victoria: The creative process certainly augments all of it, doesn’t it? But also weirdly, rewards us for it. That’s the problem. It’s like, well, we’re being rewarded for our process.

Zibby: My husband used to play competitive tennis. I ask him, “What are you thinking about when you play?” Every shot, I’m like, knees down, racquet back. I’m always reminding myself. I have a constant dialogue. He’s like, “Oh, I think about nothing. I’m right there.” I’m like, “What do you mean?” That’s why I keep interrupting. I’m like, “So that flight we were going to take…” He’s like, “What?” That’s why I can’t play golf. No, no, no. I can’t do these things.

Victoria: It’s too neurotic.

Zibby: Gosh, I feel so understood. Amazing. Thank you.

Victoria: I don’t need a therapist. I just need a creative support circle at least once a week for people to weigh in on what their creative struggle was that week.

Zibby: Totally. So helpful, and free. You could save all this time and money. Maybe we should at least discuss what your latest book is about.

Victoria: My publicist is going to listen to this. She’s going to be like, damnit, Victoria.

Zibby: I’m sorry. I know. It’s me too. Although, to be honest, as you were saying, that ownership readers feel, I believe it extends to, just knowing the author more makes you more invested in the work. For me, this conversation where now I understand a little more where you’re coming from is much more interesting than just hearing about how much time you spend writing or what your writing process is. This is fascinating to me. I’m hoping listeners care. Ultimately, I’m doing this because I want to be intellectually stimulated and find things interesting. I’m sorry, listeners, if this is boring. I guarantee people are finding this interesting, and more willing to read Gallant. Tell me about this book.

Victoria: Gallant, really a great way to measure the pandemic because it’s the first novel that I wrote during the pandemic. Then it came out. We were still in the pandemic. Gallant is my first all-ages read. I’ve written middle grade, YA, and adult. This is the first one that kind of defied the boundaries of those shelving tactics, which we can talk about in a second. As far as the story, I like to say it’s The Secret Garden meets Crimson Peak. It is a story of a teenage girl named Olivia Prior who has spent the vast majority of her short life in an orphanage with nothing of her family’s except for a journal that was found with her. The journal has entries from her mother that seems to devolve into madness and illustrations that make no sense. At the back of it is a letter from Olivia’s mother to Olivia that warns her she will always be safe as long as she stays away from Gallant. For years, Olivia has no idea what that means until she receives a note from an uncle she’s never met inviting her to come home to the family estate, which is called Gallant. She gets there. She finds no uncle and a house falling into disrepair and a garden with a wall with a locked door that seems to lead nowhere. That’s all I’ll say about that.

Zibby: I loved your introductory letter where you talk about doors and the fascination, how books themselves are doors, but also just how enticing it is to stumble upon a door and how you found one once in a garden. You were so excited that you couldn’t even ruin it by trying to open it and finding out what was there.

Victoria: I just didn’t want to be let down. To find a door standing alone in the middle of an empty lot, I just wanted to believe that if I opened it, it would lead somewhere else. I wanted to live in the mystery of that. I think that’s probably why I write fiction, is just to concoct what’s on the other side of that door, but also to kind of inspire the doubt of the real. Those are the stories I loved most when I was younger, the ones where the magic and the supernatural is layered so closely over reality that you start looking around at your own world and wondering where the cracks are and if there might be — one of the best examples I can ever give is that I wrote a novel called Vicious, which is about supervillains. Their powers are generated by near-death experiences. I’ll never forget that at three AM one morning, I got a fan letter, an email from a man who clearly was awake because he just needed to know that that’s not a real thing. He had a very long-winded way of being like, I just want to make sure, this isn’t a documented — I was like, that’s what I want to do. I want to make you wonder and doubt because that cracks open the door into much more interesting places.

Zibby: There’s almost a Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe vibe to it as well.

Victoria: I’ve always responded more to something like C.S. Lewis than to Tolkien for that exact reason. Tolkien is a land that you will only ever access through the pages of that book. There is no train from here to there. Whereas portal fiction, like C.S. Lewis, like Gallant, like Shades of Magic, another one of mine, is offering you a literal doorway and saying, you just have to find it. If you can just go into your world and find the right door, you’ll get there.

Zibby: Phantom Tollbooth, maybe that’s another — portal fiction, I’ve never even thought to describe it that way.

Victoria: Oh, yeah, portal fantasy.

Zibby: Is that a whole genre?

Victoria: Yeah, portal fantasy would be an entire subgenre that just literally creates a doorway. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a perfect example. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman is a perfect example, even Stardust by Neil Gaiman. It’s a boundary. Really, it’s a boundary. You have a physical boundary that needs to be crossed. Stranger Things, Upside Down. Any place where a secondary world sits up against our world is portal fiction. Your character can go from here to there.

Zibby: Do you feel like that helps you make sense of the current world?

Victoria: I think all fantasy, in some way, plays with the current world and how far you want to depart from it. What I love about fantasy is that because you’re controlling the rules, you get to control what’s normal. There’s fantasy that takes one step away from normal. There’s fantasy that takes twenty-five steps. I love that all of that is fantasy. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a fantasy novel. A lot of people don’t think of it as that way because it’s set in our world. It seems to behave like our world. I brought the magic into our world instead of taking the reality out of our world, but it’s still fantasy. I would say it’s probably one to two steps fantasy, whereas something like Shades of Magic, another one of mine, is ten steps fantasy. I think Gallant is three. It’s a doorway and a mirror-verse, basically. So much of me trying to write this novel was trying to figure out for myself what was on the other side of the door. For the first three or four years, I thought I was writing a fairy tale. A fairy tale is a classic portal fantasy, borderline world, here and there. It’s usually the line between the domestic and the wild, the here and the there, the cultivated land and the forest. There tends to be very specific tropes in fairy tales. I just kept staring at this locked door in the wall at the back of the garden in the house that I wrote. I just thought, it’s not fairy tale. Then one day, I realized I was writing an underworld tale. I was like, oh, that’s the difference. That’s the difference. It’s not here and there as in domestic and wild. It’s here and there as in life and death. Once I figured that out, everything just clicked like tumblers in a lock into place. I’m always asking myself, how many steps do I want to take away from the world as it exists in this moment?

Zibby: Wow, fascinating. You’re turning it into a movie, right, the Netflix something?

Victoria: Oh, no, that’s a different one. That’s different. My first Netflix show actually comes out in two and a half weeks. It’s called First Kill. It’s based on a short story that I wrote. It was basically because I’m gay. When you grow up in any form of marginalization, you are looking, obviously, for your avatars in entertainment, and you usually don’t get very many of them. My lesbian friends and I will be like, we’re just going for crumbs. We’re just picking up whatever crumbs there are. That’ll often be subtext. It won’t end well. You’ll be a side character. I essentially wrote the Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I wish I had had when I was sixteen. I jokingly say that if I’d had it, it might not have taken me until twenty-six to come out. It’s basically a short story that I wrote about a teenage Vampire named Juliette who needs to make her first kill in order to fully come into her vampire power. She has a crush on a new girl at her school named Calliope. She decides that Calliope will be her first kill because it’s better if it’s somebody that you like. They end up in a closet at a house party. She goes to bite Calliope, and Calliope goes to stake her in the heart because Calliope is a budding monster hunter who needs to make her first kill to be accepted by her family.

Zibby: Whoa.

Victoria: It’s campy. It’s fun. It’s not about the queerness. That’s the whole point. There’s a lot going on in the show. There’s a lot of taboo because it’s monster-hunter taboo and families against each other, but the taboo isn’t that they’re both girls. It comes out on Netflix on June 10th, which is terrifying. It’s eight episodes. It was my first one.

Zibby: So exciting.

Victoria: Addie is in development. I should be getting a script for Addie as a film any day now.

Zibby: Wow. You’re doing that with Belletrist, right, or with Emma Roberts?

Victoria: Belletrist and Emma are for the Netflix show.

Zibby: Sorry. Got it. Okay.

Victoria: Then Addie is with Augustine Frizzell and David Lowery. Augustine Frizzell did the pilot of Euphoria. David Lowery had just finished the new Peter Pan. He did The Green Knight and A Ghost Story. They’re both incredibly talented.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Now I have my plans for June 10th, so that’s very exciting.

Victoria: Pour a glass of wine and watch some very campy vampires.

Zibby: I’m excited. I’m totally excited. This has been so interesting. Thank you so much, Victoria. This is so fun and really, honestly, thought-provoking. Will require some further introspection afterwards. Thank you so much. I’m excited for all your exciting new projects.

Victoria: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for the chat. That was much, much better than the therapy that I pay so much for.

Zibby: Anytime. I’ll be right here at this desk. You just let me know. Take care.

Victoria: Have a good day. Bye.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

GALLANT by Victoria V.E. Schwab

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