Graphic novels: Why No 1 New York Times best-selling fantasy author VE Schwab swapped Nashville for Edinburgh's Portobello
Swapping California’s climate and Nashville’s music scene for Portobello in winter might leave those who crave the sun bemused, yet that's what No 1 New York Times best-selling author VE Schwab did having fallen in love with Edinburgh at the age of 23.
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Now 34-year-old, the fantasy author who won the NY Times accolade for her novel, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, is well and truly at home here, and has even started 'sea swimming' in the Forth, but more of that later.
Schwab, her first name is Victoria but, like JK Rowling, she opted for initials to counteract reader bias, is in chatty form when we discuss her latest release, a graphic novel called ExtraOrdinary, set in the five years between her novels Vicious and Vengeful, both part of The Villains Series, which will shortly see a third novel, Victorious, added to the collection.
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"I'm a dual citizen, born in California and raised in Nashville, but I never really felt at home in the States. Sure the weather can be nice and the music is great but the history here is something I find way more inspiring. The States are just so young, there's history but no antiquity," says the writer, addressing her transatlantic flit.
Victoria first visited the Capital aged just 23, a day trip that began an ongoing love affair with the city she finally settled in four years ago.
She recalls, "I was living in a garden shed in an ex-prison warden's backyard in Liverpool, writing my second book, and it was quite miserable. I had almost no money but had saved up to get the train to Edinburgh for one night, just to get a change of scenery.
"The moment I got off the train it was as if all the silt inside me settled. It was the first time I ever didn't want to leave a place.
"The best thing was, I’d saved all my money for one of those tiny little studio rooms at The Scotsman Hotel but when I got there they had randomly upgraded me to one of the largest suites. I had a sitting area and a turret... it was the most ridiculous comedy of errors and it kicked off this weird and wonderful night that I spent in Edinburgh.
"It was such a rose-coloured, idyllic experience that I had to come back just to make sure it wasn't just the intoxication of that one night. It wasn't, I'd fallen madly in love with the city. I felt that I had been here before. Every step I took I felt I had taken before.
"It was a very uncanny sense of deja vu but it wasn't unnerving, it was like coming home. I fell in love with it so much I ended up coming back to get a graduate degree at the University of Edinburgh just so I could spend more time.
"Then, when I started touring heavily as my career took off, I realised that going on vacation for other people would be going home for me. I didn't want to go anywhere, I wanted to be in one place and Edinburgh was that place."
A prolific author, it's Victoria’s work that has brought us together today and there's much to talk about. A look at her CV reveals The Archived series, comprising two novels and a short story; The Everyday Angel series, another three novels; Monsters of Verity series, two novels; Cassidy Blake series, three novels; as well as Spirit Animals: Fall of the Beasts - Broken Ground.
And let's not forget her Villains series, which started with the 2013 short story Warm Up and will shortly see the aforementioned Victorious, joining Vicious and Vengeful on bookshelves.
Right now, however, the spotlight is on ExtraOrdinary, drawn by Mexican artist Enid Balam, which follows the tale of a teenage girl named Charlotte Tills who, after a fatal bus crash, seemingly dies only to wake up to discover she has become an EO - a person with ExtraOrdinary abilities.
In Charlotte’s case, it’s the power to see people’s deaths, but when she looks into her own future, she sees her own murder at the hands of self-proclaimed hero and notorious EO killer, Eli Ever.
Victoria takes up the tale, "Vicious was the first in The Villians series and I wanted to introduce a new character who will appear in the third novel. Charlotte Tills, the teenage heroine of the ExtraOrdinary was, essentially, in a bus crash, and came out of it with the ability to see other peoples' deaths in reflective surfaces... but when she looks at her own reflection, she sees the man who will murder her. So she sets out to confront him."
The beauty of the graphic novel and the first two novels, she says, is that they can be read in any order, but how does she feel seeing her characters coming to life through the illustrations of Balam?
"I love it. Coming from novel writing, my favourite part of interacting with readers is their fan art, getting to see what my ideas look like in someone else's head because, when I'm writing it's like I'm playing a movie in my head.
"Then, when the reader reads it, they're playing the same movie in their head. So I find it exciting to work with a comic artist and cede a bit of control in exchange for watching the movie that is in their head.
“It's so deeply cool and such a delightful collaboration; you're writing a script, a living document, that will be interpreted by another creative. I love the idea of creating the shape of something others will bring to life."
Which brings our conversation back to the use of initials when writing.
"There's a huge amount of expectation of what a female writer should be writing, especially in the fantasy world where there's a very weird sense of, 'If a woman is writing it, it must have romance and must be softer', which is so peculiar.”
Incredulously, she adds, "The number of so-called fans who have come up to me and said, 'I'm so glad I didn't know you were a woman or I'd never have picked up your book'.
"I want it to believe it's getting better and that by using my initials, I’m maybe part of breaking down the idea that all fantasy authors have to be old white men with beards."
When not writing, Victoria finds happiness walking along the Portobello seafront and, more daringly, sea-swimming in the middle of a Scottish winter,
“I took up sea swimming earlier this year and it is getting quite cold now but I have never found a better analogy to writing books,” she says, explaining, “the brutality of forcing yourself into that water and then, once you're in, it's like, 'Wow! I guess I should stay in now as I've done the hard part’.”
She continues, “I have always preferred winter to summer, I prefer the ancient and the wild, as writers we are drawn to extremes, we are drawn to things which mirror the tumult we feel or things that make us feel small, like looking up at the night sky and feeling comforted.
"As creators, things can feel very big, but we're just making things up for a living, telling stories, however, when you’re stuck 300 pages into a 700 page novel, it can feel cosmic and daunting and vast. So I really enjoy environments that remind me I am small; I look up at the night sky and feel relief at how small it makes me feel."
Prolific as Victoria is, she admits lock down didn't prove conducive to writing and she is glad her local cafe on Portobello High Street is open again.
"I write in my coffee shop everyday. I never wrote at home before the pandemic because there is no separation of church and state, doing so drove me crazy. So I write in my coffee shop every day, they know my order. I have a different order in the morning and in the afternoon.
She smiles, "It's always been my dream to be a 'regular' but I always travelled too much to be that anywhere. Now I am, in Miro's Pantry. It's such a lovely little nook and they're so kind to me."
ExtraOrdinary, by VE Schwab, is on sale now