Victoria Schwab was once afraid to write a book.
“I have . . . a really adversarial relationship with fear,” she said in a video interview. As soon as she realized she was afraid of writing a book, Schwab confessed, “I had to do it.”
That was 10 years ago. This month, Schwab released her 11th book, “This Savage Song,” a dystopian tale set in Verity, a divided city plagued by monsters born of human acts of violence. On one side of town, teen Kate Harker strives to prove that she is worthy of being her father’s heir to his portion of the city. Meanwhile, August Flynn, heir to the other side of the city, wants to resist his violent nature and be a gentler man.
The pair were partially conceived as teenage versions of two characters from Schwab’s best-known series, “Shades of Magic,” which so far consists of two books, “A Darker Shade of Magic” and “A Gathering of Shadows.” The series follows Kell, a feared sorcerer and the last of his kind, as he travels across several Londons, layered on top of one another. When a magical object is pickpocketed by Delilah Bard, a cutthroat thief, the two become tied inexorably as they Kell tries to protect his London and the people he cares about.
Schwab said she tries to take the typical gender characteristics of strong men and emotional women and flip them.
“I always say that my female characters are the Lannisters and the Slytherins, and my male characters are all Hufflepuff with just a touch of Gryffindor,” she said, laughing.
Schwab talked to The Washington Post about swapping gender archetypes in fantasy, inappropriate kiss scenes and why literature needs more cutthroat female characters.
This interview is part of “It’s Lit,” a digital Q & A series about women who write books. It has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to build the world in the Shades of Magic series?
When you write second world fantasy [a world that’s not our own], you are in full control of what is normal and so if you choose to write a largely white, heterosexual fantasy as an author, that is on you. It’s like the “Game of Thrones” effect where people are like, “That would’ve been unrealistic” and you’re like, “There are dragons!” Part of the reason I wanted to write a second world fantasy is I wanted to have main characters in positions of power who were not white, who were not heterosexual, who had their own models of power that didn’t resemble ours, and it was very, very freeing in that way to have full control over the construct of the world.
Your male and female characters in your books defy gender expectations. Why did you decide to do that?
I think it’s because I really just have no interest in weak females and dominating men. I want my females to be extremely empowered. They tend to be less classically feminine by our standards of what feminine looks like. They are extremely self-sufficient and they tend to be pretty cutthroat.
How does this affect the relationships between your characters?
My books start out very [non-romantic] because I think that there’s a lot of relationships to explore and straight-up romance is not as interesting to me as adversaries, friends and siblings. They’re so compelling and there’s no reason that adversaries and friends can’t become other things, but I really don’t have any spoons for things that just jump straight into boring romance.
It’s always weird to read books where they have to orchestrate why people would instantly want to slam each other into walls and make out.
I tease that every now and then the [young-adult fiction] trope is: The world is ending, literally your whole life is falling apart around you, your family is dying, your friends are dying and you’re like, “Time out, let’s kiss,” and sometimes sure, there are circumstances in which you’re like, “Well, everything has gone to hell so we might as well,” but I just have trouble when the priorities don’t feel like they’re set right because it interrupts the stakes in a story.
Were you ever worried of falling into another common fantasy/YA trope where women are considered better than others because they have masculine traits?
The simplest truth of my female characters is that I am a fairly masculine girl. I wear pants, I wear all black, I like weapons and monsters, and I’m not afraid of the dark. I’ll never understand vocal fry for the sake of vocal fry. I just write characters I want to look up to and that I want my teen readers and my adult readers to look up to.
Someone called Delilah Bard [from “A Darker Shade of Magic”] a trope the other day, and she’s basically a gender-fluid, cross-dressing, aspiring pirate thief obsessed with knives. The day she becomes a trope, I’ll be so happy. But until that moment, I need more Delilah Bards.
Everdeen Mason is an audience editor at The Washington Post and Book World contributor. You can follow her on Twitter @EvMason.