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GALLANT Author V.E. Schwab on Her Haunting Underworld Fantasy

You’re likely already a fan of V.E. Schwab. Her adult fantasy novels have garnered the author a rightfully huge following. Titles like Vicious and A Darker Shade of Magic put Schwab on the map, but the prolific author became a global sensation with the release of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. That fantastical tale enchanted readers everywhere. V.E. used to publish her young readers novels under the name Victoria Schwab, but her new novel Gallant marks the first time she’ll be publishing under V.E. And that’ll be what she’ll be publishing all her stories as from now on! And while Gallant will certainly find an audience with younger readers Schwab has hopes that it will appeal to readers of all ages like some of her favorite stories.

It’s a haunting tale of a young nonverbal girl named Olivia who moves into a strange new house named Gallant. The kind of book you can read in a single sitting, it will stay with you for far longer. To celebrate the book hitting shelves, we chatted with Schwab about horror, underworld stories, and the moment she can’t wait for readers to discover.

Greenwillow Books

Nerdist: Could you tell me about the origin of Gallant?

Victoria Schwab: It took about five years. I think people think of me as a very prolific writer, and they don’t realize that I kind of work in a staggered system where each thing that I’m writing, I’ve been planning for a very long time. There’s a sequence that it all goes through where I’ll plan a book anywhere from a year to 10 years. So Gallant actually took that long because I thought I was writing a fairy tale. And it took me about three and a half years to realize I was writing an underworld tale. I kind of needed to understand what would be on the wall. So it took quite a few years to figure out exactly what the shape of the world that I was telling my story within was.

I knew I wanted to write a claustrophobic story, if that makes sense. I think setting is such a crucial character in a novel. I love creating settings that feel almost like miniature worlds unto themselves. So I wanted Gallant to feel claustrophobic in that way. I wanted it to feel not only like a main character, but also like a cage for the story. So it took me a little while for all of the pieces of it to come together. Olivia was always nonverbal. I knew I wanted to write a story that examines the shapes that a voice can take. So many kinds of disparate ingredients come together to make the meal that ends up being a book like Gallant.

I’d love to talk more about Olivia. I can’t recall reading many books with nonverbal leads, but I’m really glad you took that route with Olivia. So could you talk about that choice?

It was a challenge for several reasons. From a technical standpoint, I’ve always depended very heavily on dialogue. So writing a nonverbal protagonist obviously changes the shape of language and its relationship to the book. For that reason, I also chose to make the book in third person because I knew it would have an audiobook.

If I had the book in first person, while we would be closer to the voice in Olivia’s head, it also would mean that somebody would end up portraying that voice and rendering a nonverbal character inherently verbal. I didn’t want that. I thought it was really important—even though it creates a little bit of distance—to maintain the protectiveness of Olivia’s voice in that respect of the narrative, and to force you to understand that nonverbal doesn’t equal silence.

She absolutely has a voice. But I did want to look at the way in which having a voice that other people don’t necessarily hear or know how to engage with creates an extremely lonely environment, a sense of isolation. I think that you already feel that a bit as a teenager, especially the kind of teenager that I was.

V.E. Schwab

You’ve spoken about the long journey to bring Gallant to life and about how Olivia was always going to be non verbal, so what came first? Building the story around Olivia or crafting Olivia to fit into the world you wanted to tell this story in?

It’s often difficult in retrospect to pick the two apart. I think we end up almost retconning our own process as creatives where something’s become very clear in retrospect. Like, I didn’t realize as I was writing Olivia that one of the reasons that I have her as nonverbal is that was a time in my life where I didn’t have the vocabulary for what I was going through. That time felt extremely exasperating. I was closeted, but I also didn’t realize that I was gay. So because of that, it was a challenge where I couldn’t figure out the language to tell other people in a way that they could hear. So you know, that’s a thing I realized after writing Olivia.

At the same time, trying to go back and dissociate Olivia from Gallant is really difficult. But I think that Gallant came first, because I knew that I wanted to build this house. I knew there was the house and I knew that there was the garden wall and I knew that there was a place beyond the garden wall. So I do think that Gallant as a place predates Olivia. But very early on in the process Olivia would have been paired with Gallant. It’s not as though Olivia maybe existed as a character and I was looking for the framework and put her in. Olivia kind of grew with the setting. They became very tangled. I think it’s a metaphor that only works if you read the book, but I don’t know which of them is the weed and which of them is the rose!

Speaking of Gallant as a location, could you tell me a little about the stories that inspired you when you were crafting the Gothic space? There’s definitely a little Secret Garden and some spooky British Boarding School books, but what else did you look to?

It’s interesting because I’ve always compared it to Crimson Peak meets The Secret Garden. I think The Secret Garden less from a narrative and more from a sheltering from the world sense. I grew up constantly looking for those little hidden microcosmic worlds. We’d go hiking and I would look at the stones that I was hiking on and try and find keyholes and try and find portals. So the part of The Secret Garden that appealed to me so much was really the secret of it. The idea of a hidden place within a place, the almost nested narrative of it.

I’m also very drawn to Guillermo del Toro and Neil Gaiman. Writers who create—you don’t even want to call it horror, you want to call it like the quiet tension of frightening places. I’m not a fan of slasher films. I skew more towards Stephen King’s suspense than his horror. But I think there’s a frighteningness to lonely places. And I think what we’re really afraid of is being alone with ourselves. I think the claustrophobia of places is also the claustrophobia of our own internal landscape. That sounds so pretentious, but what I mean by that, I think this isn’t like a “Boo!” frightening book, right? It’s really about is what happens when you’re left alone. I think that loneliness and fear really go hand in hand.

As we come closer to the release of the book, is there a moment or page turn you’re really excited for readers to discover?

It’s gonna sound awful to say, but the very last page. That isn’t just a cheat to make people read the book! The thing is, I write my books in reverse, meaning the way that I know that I’m ready to start writing the book is when I have the ending. I don’t actually start writing a novel until I have not only an ending but the ending. 21 books in, none of my endings have changed. Whole books have been rewritten, page one rewrites, but the endings never change.

For me, the ending is that last bite at the end of the meal, it’s the culmination of everything. So much of what I’m doing over the course of the novel is to earn the ending. And the ending of Gallant is probably one that—of all of my books—I’m proud most of, because it was the thing I was writing to the entire time, and I feel like I earned it.

Gallant is currently available for purchase.

Featured Image: Greenwillow Books

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