In 2015, V.E. Schwab rocked the fantasy world with her complex and thrilling novel A Darker Shade of Magic, following it up a year later with A Gathering of Shadows. Readers have absorbed the adventures of Kell, Lila, and Rhy as the alternate worlds of Grey London and Red London have been threatened by the possible rise of Black London. On February 21, 2017, Schwab released the series-ender, A Conjuring of Light, in which the darkness that has grown over the course of two books finally breaks free to wreak havoc...and possibly end the world as our characters know it.
We spoke with Schwab over the phone at her home in Tennessee to talk about her thoughts on ending this series, writing under her other nom de plume, and what's next for her.
Amazon Book Review: You ended A Gathering of Shadows with your characters in pretty perilous situations. Did you get any passionate feedback from readers about that?
V.E Schwab: A Gathering of Shadows was my ninth book on the shelves, and it was my very first cliffhanger. So I felt zero guilt. For eight straight books I had not pulled out a cliffhanger; I had been extremely conscientious about not leaving people hanging. And then, because of how the book shook out, I knew that Gathering was going to end on a cliffhanger. It simply became [a question of] how steep.
The original cliffhanger was so much worse. I was getting a graduate degree at the same time, and I had three books due, and I was getting no sleep. I wrote the original ending of A Gathering of Shadows, and my editor called me and she was like, “Heyyyy, um, when's the last time you took a nap or something? I want you to take a couple of days off, and then I want you to delete the last ten thousand words of this book and do it again.” So, whenever anyone has a problem with the cliffhanger, I just tell them that it used to be worse. [Laughs] It could have been so much worse.
Yes, Holland is my favorite to write. If people have only read the first book, they don't really understand that. But I think that once they've gotten through the full series, they'll understand. I have a thing for antagonists. They are usually my favorite characters. Lila was the easiest to write because I knew exactly how she would react to things. And Rhy was the most difficult to write because he's truly an onion. He's one of those characters that have a lot of layers and puts on a lot of airs, depending on who he's around, which can make it really difficult as a writer to make sure that you know who he really is underneath the act. But Holland...just hurt. It was painful to write him. And when I know I'm enjoying it is when something is a gut punch to me.
You've ended a lot of books. But how do you feel about ending this trilogy?
I've ended a lot of books but this will be my first series ending. That has been such an experience. It's been a journey. I can honestly say I've never been prouder of anything I've done in my entire life than I am of A Conjuring of Light, and I don't say that lightly. I am critic number-one of myself. I turned in a book last night, and immediately emailed all my friends and was like, "Oh, that was crap. Everything is wrong, everything is broken, people are going to hate me." So I am not a person who says self-praise lightly. I know how much went into Conjuring, and I wanted it to be a satisfying ending. I wanted the pieces to land where I had planned them. I had set up a lot of threads in book one, and I had woven them in book two, and now it was time to knot them. And it was an incredibly difficult process but I'm so proud of where it ended up. I just hope that readers enjoy it.
When you were writing book one, A Darker Shade of Magic, how much of the whole series did you have planned out in your head or on paper?
I know the endings before I start. I knew both the end of Darker Shade and the end of Conjuring when I started [the series]. For me, the way that I get to know who my characters are is I figure out who they need to be on the last page. And then I rewind them to figure out where I want them to be in the very beginning. So I knew exactly where everyone was going to end up except for one character...and I can't say who it is, because it's a spoiler. They are the only character that did not end up exactly...well, it was exactly where they were supposed to end up, but I resisted it. I didn't want to do it. And that was me as a reader, not me as a writer. But ninety-nine percent of the time, when I sit down to start a book, I do it with the ending either actually written or pretty solid in my mind. The whole series becomes about sticking the landing. I'm a firm believer that the ending is the taste left in your mouth. You put a book down and you walk away, and even if it was a great book, if the ending flopped or faltered, that's what you think about. So for me, nailing the ending of a book or of a series is the most important thing that I can do.
That makes sense, because as a writer, you also want to be emotionally satisfied at the end, right?
Oh, exactly….If I am writing and I'm having a bad day, I am much less likely to quit a project if I have the ending. If I have a good day, I look forward to reaching the ending. So the ending is a self-preservation tool for me when I'm [writing my first draft] because it keeps me from abandoning ship.
The more books I write, the less I enjoy the first draft, because the more glaring the flaws are to me. But the thing is, regardless of whether you're writing your first book or your twentieth book, you have to put something on paper before you can make it better. I become a better writer over the course of the book, but I still have to write a crappy first draft.
Your revision process is geared toward reducing the gap between the story in your mind and the story on the page. And so first drafts are the largest gap. I plan them fairly extensively but I still hate them while I'm writing them. It's over the course of revision that I hate a book less and less and less. [Laughs] And then at some point, ideally in revision—and I always know when this happens—I am reading through my book, doing my final changes, and I start reading it as a reader instead of as a writer. And that's when I know that the book is on course.
You write YA novels as well under the name Victoria Schwab. Do you have to get yourself into a different mind-set when you switch between the two genres?
In some ways. I write books for middle grade and YA novels, both under Victoria Schwab. And then I write the adult fantasy under V.E. Schwab. People used to assume that my adult books were somehow darker than my children's and YA books, which is not the case at all: My YA novels are so much darker than my adult novels. It's just a difference in which version of me I'm writing to. I try to write every book to a version of myself. So my children's books are written to ten-year-old Victoria, my YA novels are written to seventeen-year-old Victoria, and my adult fantasy are written to present-day, twenty-nine-year-old Victoria. I was a weird kid, and I was a weird teenager, and I am a weird adult. But honestly, I think the exact same themes are in all of my books. Yeah, I have to change, but I would have to change between any two books. If I were shifting between the Shades of Magic series and my next adult fantasy novel, it would require a change of perspective. And the perspective is no greater shifting between YA and adult, or middle grade and adult, than it is between two different adult novels. For me, every book is its own perspective shift.
What are you reading now that you enjoy or that you have been recommending to readers?
I read about 100 books a year, but I also go through massive slices of time when I can't read fiction because I'm editing and writing, and the voices...they get cluttered up in my brain. So right now I'm in a bit of a nonfiction swell. The nonfiction book I've been recommending to everyone lately is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. I loved it intensely. And whenever I try to describe it to people, I'm like, "Well, it's about a biologist, and it's her essays on the nature of the world but also mental illness." I never do it enough justice, but it's honestly one of the most impactful books that I've read in recent memory. I recommend it to everyone. I buy copies of it for everyone. I'm currently reading a book called Nemesis by Brendan Reichs, which comes out [March 21] that's really, really good. And the moment that I finish this book that I'm editing, I'm going to binge, like, sixty books. I have to refill my creative well.
We picked Lab Girl as our best book of the year so far last June, actually.
Oh, God, I love that book. She has an incredible voice.
Do you know what you're going to do next for adult fantasy?
I do. I'm not allowed to talk about it, but I do. [Laughs] I'm contracted up through 2020, and so I have a game plan across all three [genres] actually. I know what I'm doing for my next children's books, I know what I'm doing for my next YA novel, and I know what I'm doing for the next four or five years in fantasy. So I'm extremely excited, and I'm not allowed to say anything except that I do have two projects that are known. I have a project called Vengeful, which is the sequel to Vicious, which is my super-villains novel. And I have a standalone that's probably the love of my life, called The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue, which is a story about a French girl and her relationship with the devil over 300 years. I try to jump around. My goal, when I first started writing, is that I would never do the same thing twice. One of my favorite authors and someone who is just an absolute inspiration to me in lots of ways is Neil Gaiman. And Neil Gaiman once famously said that the only thing he wanted his books to have in common was his name on the cover. And I think that's a philosophy that I subscribe to.
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