SALT LAKE CITY — Although she's now a No. 1 New York Times best-selling fantasy author, at one point Victoria (V.E.) Schwab had her first published book going out of print.
Meanwhile, her second book had turned into a series she was struggling to complete. She'd hit a point, she said, where she was falling out of love with writing.
"It's a really hard learning curve when you start writing books under contract," Schwab said in an interview. "This thing which has been an escape, a passion, becomes a job, an occupation. There are time constraints that weren't there before. There's a lot of pressure that you begin to feel and it's really disheartening."
So, she decided to take publishing out of writing. Schwab asked herself what she would write if no one else was ever going to read it, and this resulted in her first novel for adults, the science fiction super villain origin story "Vicious."
Five years later, that side project Schwab stole away and "had little affairs with" finally has a sequel — "Vengeful" (Tor, 402 pages), which is scheduled to hit shelves Sept. 25.
Schwab, who earlier this year spoke at the J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Oxford University, is most known for her adult fantasy "Shades of Magic" series. But, she began her career in young adult fantasy, which includes her popular "Monsters of Verity" series. Now, she's venturing into middle grade fiction for the first time with "City of Ghosts" (Scholastic, 272 pages, ages 9-12), which debuted Aug. 28 and hit No. 5 on the New York Times best-seller list in its first week.
"I have never wanted to do only one thing," Schwab said, explaining why she likes to switch between age groups and genres in her writing. "I get bored very easily; I get stagnant very easily. I need a constant challenge, and so I like the distribution in having opportunities in more than one place."
Adding variety to her writing life is how Schwab still manages to keep her love for the art form alive and thriving to this day.
Schwab wrote "Vengeful's" predecessor, "Vicious," as an exercise to see if a book could be written without any heroes, she said. It's a unique take on a super villain origin story where a pair of ambitious college roommates, Eli and Victor, prove through a series of scientific experiments that near-death experiences can bring out supernatural abilities.
The sequel continues the stories of Eli and Victor and adds new characters to thread through the plot, including Marcella, who, after her own near-death experience, plans to use her newfound power to pit Eli and Victor against each other so she can conquer the mythical city of Merit, which Schwab said she based on Batman's Gotham.
Schwab had always intended for "Vicious" to be the first in a series, but since it was her debut adult novel, she had to write a book that could stand on its own until her publisher saw how well it sold.
"Vicious" was the "little engine that could," Schwab said, and its readership grew by a steady margin over the course of several years. Two years after its release, she was finally told the book was doing well enough to merit a sequel. Then, it took her two and a half years to write and rewrite it.
After turning in her first version of "Vengeful," Schwab's editor at Tor, Miriam Weinberg, sent it back. Weinberg told Schwab the book was good and she was willing to publish it as it was, but she knew Schwab could do better.
"I have a really strong philosophy that sequels should feel like new stories unto themselves, that they should take on new challenges and not just be continuations of the book preceding them," Schwab said. "The original version of 'Vengeful' was very much a book that was a continuation of 'Vicious.'"
So, she reopened her manuscript and took it "back down to the studs." She said she turned subplots into main plots and main plots into subplots and found the experience "brutal and terrifying."
"I can honestly say I'm so grateful to have an editor who pushes me in that way because the final result is so much more than the original version of 'Vengeful' ever would have been," she said. "But that's not to say I didn't want to quit numerous times."
In fact, Schwab said rewriting the book "nearly killed" her. She had low moments where she wanted to delete the story, cancel her book contract and give back the money from her advance. Now, she can go on tour and celebrate that she made it through.
Schwab is aware that because "Vicious" was a standalone book for five years, some of her readers won't think it needs a sequel.
"I would really challenge them to pick up 'Vengeful,'" she said. "It's not a conventional sequel. It is a conversation with 'Vicious' in a lot of ways. I'm intensely proud of it."
'City of Ghosts'
Set in Edinburgh, known as one of the most haunted cities in the world, "City of Ghosts" tells the story of 10-year-old Cassidy Blake who, after a near-death experience, can see ghosts, including her ghostly best friend, Jacob. When her parents' job takes them to Scotland, Cassidy discovers a whole new purpose to her spectral abilities that sets her on a dangerous and haunted adventure.
Schwab said the first time she set foot in Edinburgh in her early 20s, she knew she'd write a book based in the city one day. After attending graduate school there, she saw Edinburgh as a place that is "enamored with story," including its own morbid history. She found that everyone there had a ghost story to tell.
In her very first novel, Schwab said she created a character who was neither alive nor dead. Though the book was never published, Schwab still wanted to rescue that element of a girl who was in between, and she thought Edinburgh would be the perfect place to put her.
She describes "City of Ghosts" as "horror with a fantastical bent to it" and knew from the start that children would be the perfect audience for such a story.
"(Children) have such extraordinary imaginations and they're scared by different things than adults are," Schwab said. "I think kids tend to be a lot braver than adults when it comes to certain kinds of fear. So, for me, there was little question that I would write 'City of Ghosts' for a younger audience."
Since she always tries to write for a version of herself, Schwab said it wasn't necessarily difficult to find her 10-year-old voice, but it was challenging to hold back her darker sense of humor.
"Dark humor is a thing I think we develop as adults, so there's an authenticity I have to be aware of when I'm writing for a younger audience," she said.
"City of Ghosts" was also the first book Schwab wrote in a real, contemporary setting, and she felt pressure to get the facts right. Since she no longer lives in Edinburgh, she made several return trips to check locations and details. While the manuscript was in copy edits, she discovered a cemetery that was the setting of several major scenes in the book now had a new gift shop. So, she had to hurry and make sure to include that detail in her manuscript.
"Which turned out to be really delightful, to have a gift shop before this really haunted location," she said.Comment on this story
Every ghost story told in "City of Ghosts" is a documented story in Edinburgh, except for the main ghost the book centers around. Schwab said it was easy to find these stories as Edinburgh "wears its hauntings on its sleeve." However, she's currently writing a sequel set in Paris, which "keeps its hauntings on the down low," and she has to work harder to get the stories and atmosphere she's looking for.
The sequel to "City of Ghosts" has a tentative release planned for late 2019.
If you go …
What: Victoria Schwab book signing
When: Saturday, Sept. 29, 7 p.m.
Where: The King's English, 1511 S. 1500 East
Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of the featured book from The King's English.