Earlier this year, V.E. Schwab’s debut novel The Near Witch was republished with a brand new cover and bonus short story. For the readers who have flocked to Schwab’s Shades of Magic and Villians series, it’s been an exciting opportunity to visit their favorite author’s first book after falling in love with her other work. For Schwab, it’s been a time to reflect on The Near Witch’s initial run and how it ultimately impacted the way she told stories. Here, Schwab opens up about finding her readership, writing for herself, and the advice she gives to all debut authors.
Bookish: Your debut novel The Near Witch was recently rereleased with a brand new cover. What’s the rerelease been like for you?
V.E. Schwab: It has definitely made me more introspective. I’m proud of how far I’ve come. A decade has passed between writing that book and my work on my next novel, The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue.
I assumed that The Near Witch was going to roll out very quietly back into the world. Instead, Titan, my UK publisher, took a book that never really had a fair chance and they’ve given it everything debut me would’ve dreamed of. They treated it like a new release and gave it so much attention and fanfare. I’m elated.
This is, of course, the great paradox. Debut me never would’ve gotten any of these things.
I’m very honest about that to aspiring writers. Nothing about this book changed. Everything about the way this book was treated changed.
Bookish: In the book, the Near Witch rises up after being buried. It seems to mirror this book’s journey.
VS: I’m calling this book tour the resurrection tour. It’s very weird and surreal. It’s hard for me to talk about with any objectivity. I’m so grateful.
I’ve come a long way but it wasn’t a straight line. The Near Witch is a quiet book that originally came out at a time in publishing when everything that was being touted was very loud and it wasn’t finding an audience. I now have a weird, dark, morbid audience and I’m very fortunate to have found it, but it took time.
Readerships take time to build and publishing isn’t always great at the long con. After The Near Witch and the two books in The Archived came out, I was very jaded. I was falling out of love with writing because writing is beautiful and publishing is not. I said, “I’m doing everything I can to make other people happy and it’s not working. I don’t know if I have a future in publishing but I’m not going to go down on someone else’s ship. I’m going to write what I want to read. Audience of one.” What happened was Vicious, a book that was never supposed to be read by anyone. Because of that I didn’t pull any punches. I made it weird, mildly sadistic, and as morally complicated as I wanted… and that book found its readers. What I discovered is that in writing for myself I found my readership, my dark, devoted readership. My rule from then on was I write for an audience of one first, I write what I want to read. If I do that and it appeals to other people, that’s wonderful. It it doesn’t, I will not feel like I wasted any time. I never looked back after Vicious.
Bookish: Are there any elements of The Near Witch that you now recognize as a hallmark of your work?
VS: In The Near Witch, you can see the motifs I would go on to explore a decade later. I was on a panel several years ago with Melissa de la Cruz and she said that she had been told that writers tell one story. That no matter how many books you write, you as a writer are exploring one story. If you look at all of my books, they’re about insider/outsider culture and feeling like you don’t belong. That motif is in every single one of my stories. It’s interesting to look back at something like The Near Witch and see that 21-year-old me had a very tentative touch. I was just starting to learn and just starting to push. The difference between Lexie in The Near Witch and Marcella in Vengeful is the difference between 21-year-old me pushing back against society and 31-year-old me burning society down.
Bookish: This rerelease of The Near Witch is going to introduce some of your readership to your debut novel, while other readers may be picking it up without having read your other work. For new readers, where do you recommend they go next?
VS: It’s so hard. There’s the Marvel velocity where I’m like go in order: The Near Witch is the first one and none of the other books would have happened without it. I also have a tweet that says if these are things that appeal to you read this—it’s like a choose your own adventure game.
It’s also hard because books are static and people are not. If someone reads my work at 20 versus 30 they’re going to come to it with a different set of life experiences. I have to be the right version of myself to write a book, someone has to be the right version of themselves when they read it. As a writer, I will only ever bring half of the equation, the reader brings the other half. Everything the reader brings will determine if they enjoy one of my books. I want everyone to try everything knowing they’re not going to love everything and equally that something might surprise them.
Bookish: You have some stellar first lines. What do you think makes a good first line and how do you go about crafting yours?
VS: I spend a lot of time on first lines. I think it goes back to my poetry background. I don’t judge books by their covers, their titles, or their jacket copy because authors usually don’t have a say in any of those. As a reader, the first thing you encounter that an author has complete control over is the first line. I judge books very strongly by their first page because I want to get a sense of the voice. The first line needs to tell me not only something interesting, kind of like the opening line of a joke, but it also needs to tell me the tone of the book.
I will agonize over a first line. I’ve tried very hard to make the first line in each of my books be a microcosm of the first page in that I want them to tell you what kind of book you’re stepping into. The first line of Addie La Rue is “This is how it starts” and that becomes the first line for each of the sections of that book until we reach “This is how it ends.” I’ve always really wanted to begin a book with that line.
Bookish: Out of all of the characters in your other books, who do you think The Near Witch‘s Lexi would get along best with? What about Cole?
VS: Oh god. Let me think. I always joke that I make female Slytherins and male Hufflepuffs.
I tend to write this female transition: You watch Lexi become Mackenzie from The Archived and Mackenzie grows up a little bit and becomes Kate from This Savage Song, Kate evolves into Delilah Bard from Shades of Magic. I’d like to put Lexi with Delilah Bard. I feel like Delilah Bard would show Lexi her next evolution.
In the same way, This Savage Song’s August is the Super Saiyan version of Cole. He’s the glow up. But not in a pretty way, he’s a glow up of feelings. Cole was my first shot at the very emotionally aware boy and August takes that to 11.
Bookish: Is there any piece of advice that you don’t see being given to debut authors that you wish you could give them?
VS: My advice is to work on your next book and remember that for the vast majority of us, careers are not made by a single novel but by a body of work. The more pressure you put on a single novel, a debut especially, the worse it is going to be for you. You can’t predict which book is going to blow up. Shades of Magic, my most popular series, starts with my eighth novel. The seven books that came before that were instrumental in building my career. Every single one of those books was a brick in the wall.
Publishing has a really high mortality rate and you need to develop healthy habits. I’m an ancient veteran now. My debut year had 196 young adult and middle grade debuts, and there are fewer than a dozen of us publishing now. Only three of us are bestsellers. The curve is not in your favor as a creative. I think it’s best for everyone to have more information, more balance, more support across publishing generations.
You have to go in armed with knowledge. Publishing is very short-term minded and that’s very often to the detriment of books. It’s the nature of the industry to only be interested in the shiny and the new. As a reader, I find things that are five, ten, 20 years old. I don’t come to them when they’re brand new. We’re missing out on a lot of really great things in the interest of always trying to chase the new. It’s unfair because nine times out of ten the books that don’t get a chance are by diverse authors. It’s becoming even more vital to have passionate bloggers, reviews, and sites that are devoted to finding really good stories whether that story is a day old or a decade.
Bookish: On social media, you’re open about the challenges of being a writer and the demands of the industry. How did you get to a place where you felt comfortable sharing that?
VS: I’m very fortunate that I’m still in this industry and can have that kind of retrospective. Transparency and openness have always been my policies because I started out so young. When I wrote The Near Witch at 21, it was a time when no one was being honest. The problem with not being honest and open in a creative industry is that when you begin to struggle, and we all do, you take it as a reflection of you, not of the fact that creating is hard.
That’s what was happening very early on when The Near Witch wasn’t going well. I thought it must be me. Then I went to a writing retreat and all of these authors who were only talking about the positives online were sitting around talking about how hard everything was. I remember thinking that if I had known these other authors were also struggling, I would have felt so much less alone.
I meet a huge number of aspiring authors and authors new to the industry who come up to me and say thank you for making me feel less alone in how hard this is. And that’s really the only reason that I do it. There’s this pressure to romanticize the creative process. I didn’t want to perpetuate this myth. I wasn’t going to let anyone else come up feeling as alone as I felt.
Bookish: You’re currently working on a book called The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue. How’s it going?
VS: It’s trying to kill me on a daily basis. I hit this point in every single one of my book processes where I want to delete the book and move to Iceland to raise goats. But Addie is a really specific beast in that I’ve been working on it for so long and it’s lived in my head for so long. I needed to wait to write it until I was emotionally and craft ready, and I am those things now, but it’s the longest a story has ever sat with me. When you’ve had the first draft in your head for eight years, you want to do it right the first time which is not possible.
The internal pressure to do it right is way higher than with any of my other books. I’m trying to smooth the concrete before I pour it. As a writer, I revise as I go. I will work on each chapter until it’s ready. As a result, what I turn in to an editor looks very polished, but the story isn’t flawless. I’m very fortunate to have editors who can see past the polish, and while it sucks to have to tear things down to studs even when there’s really nice wallpaper, I think it is important to have strong editors who can see through that.
Bookish: Are there any books you’ve read that were quietly released into the world that you wish received more attention?
Victoria “V.E.” Schwab is the #1 NYT, USA, and Indie bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including Vicious, the Shades of Magic series, and This Savage Song. Her work has received critical acclaim, been featured by EW and The New York Times, been translated into more than a dozen languages, and been optioned for TV and Film. The Independent calls her the “natural successor to Diana Wynne Jones” and touts her “enviable, almost Gaimanesque ability to switch between styles, genres, and tones.”