We love a good romance here at Nerdist. This Vicious Grace melds two of our favorite things: slow burn romance and mythological reimaginings. Debut author Emily Thiede weaves Italian folklore into her tale of a young woman who kills anything she touches, but needs to touch people to save the world. Flipping through the pages feels like a sweltering European vacation and that’s before we get to the bodyguard trope in the form of hunky love interest Dante. We chatted to Thiede about fantasy, romance, and the influence of the X-Men and one particular surly hero on her delightful debut.
Nerdist: Can you tell me about the origin of This Vicious Grace?
Emily Thiede: So much of myself and my life is woven through this book that I’m not sure I could pinpoint just one inspiration, but the original idea—a girl who can’t touch people but needs to do so in order to save the world—probably started with the X-Men cartoons I loved as a kid. (And, later, Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of my all-time favorite grumpy reluctant hero!)
The story only truly came to life in 2019, though. After a few years of trying to write “to the market” and having no luck, I was starting to lose hope in my publishing dreams and I needed to have fun writing again, so I decided to play with this idea and indulge myself by pulling elements from my favorite books, movies, and travel destinations—snappy romcom banter, magical escapism, high-stakes action, a crew of misfits who become a found family, an Amalfi-coast inspired setting—almost as thought I was building a mental joy buffet of the “flavors” I love most.
As I finished drafting, I realized the origin of the story went deeper, too, that Alessa’s journey to master her powers, find support, and learn self-love was also an accidental metaphor for my own experience with late-diagnosed ADHD. In so many ways, it’s exactly the book that young me needed but never quite found.
What was your process when it came to world building and weaving in the Italian influences?
I tend to start with character and develop worldbuilding based on what would make the main character’s situation completely untenable, so readers know from the very first page that something has to change. To make Alessa’s story as compelling as possible, I designed a society where devotion to community and selflessness has gone to such an extreme that they demand she, as their most public figure, renounce her name, family, and friends. So, she’s not only isolated and cut off from physical touch, but she’s been entirely severed from her life and relationships. She’s in a tough spot, but it’s not a gloomy book, and I was dreaming of warm breezes when I started drafting it in late winter, so the Italian elements came from a selfish desire on my part.
By setting it on an island that reminded me of lemon orchards and the perfect gnocchi, I got to “visit” in my imagination every time I sat down to write, even though I wasn’t able to hop on a plane to Sorrento at the time. When I was ready to fine-tune the details, I watched a lot of travel shows and brainstormed with friends and family who had more recent memories to draw from. My parents travel to Italy every year or two, and one of my oldest friends visits from Rome every summer, so I spent a lot of time asking them questions to supplement my memories. It was so much fun layering all of those details in to create a colorful, sensory experience.
This is one of the loveliest slow burn romances I’ve read in a while. What’s your secret to building an authentic and engaging romance?
I’ve been a huge fan of genre romance novels for years, and in my opinion, no one crafts dialogue, interpersonal tension, and meticulous relationship arcs better than romance authors do, so I studied my favorite authors to try and figure out exactly how they made their romances feel so believable that readers fall in love alongside the characters. I wanted the relationship between Alessa and Dante to feel earned—no insta-love in this book!—so after I had a rough draft, I defined and mapped out each specific stage they would need to move through, from being antagonistic strangers to wary acquaintances to tentative friends and so on, then identified specific moments where something shifts for one or both of them.
I tapped into my psychology background to do this for both characters separately, digging into what would have the most impact on each of these very different personalities, then again for them together as a couple, writing notes like “Dante moves from scorn to initial respect seeing Alessa handle X.” Then I moved notecards around for days until I aligned everything just right. Many of these pivotal moments are so small that readers may not even notice, but I think the progression of their relationship feels more authentic because there are specific catalysts for each new stage, building and deepening their connection one scene at a time.
Something else that really stood out was the exploration of loneliness, which is something we rarely get in romance or fantasy novels. Why was that so important?
Adolescence and early adulthood can feel quite lonely, even for those who have lots of friends. Everyone’s still figuring out who they are and finding their place in the world, and it was definitely a part of my experience, so it felt natural to include that element. My family moved to a new state when I was in high school, and the school was redistricted the following year, so I got to be the new kid twice as a teenager. It was really difficult to leave my friends behind and start over, but I learned how magical it is when one kind person takes the first step to befriend someone who’s feeling left out.
Later, I studied psychology in college, and I was especially interested in social psychology and attachment theory, how interpersonal relationships impact individuals. We’re taught that the basic human needs are food, water, shelter, and clothing, but in truth, people are social creatures who need community, social interaction, and even physical touch. When I wrote This Vicious Grace back in 2019, I had no idea what was coming for the world, but I think the last few years have really shown everyone how true this is, and I hope readers find some healing or catharsis as Alessa find her way back to the human connections she’s been missing.
You have so much fun with the bodyguard trope here. Was that a narrative that you were fond of or familiar with before writing This Vicious Grace?
I’ve always loved gruff, taciturn characters who act like they don’t care about anyone yet can’t turn away from someone in trouble. Some of these are actual bodyguards, like Kevin Costner’s character in the original Bodyguard movie, while others aren’t technically bodyguards, just grumpy loners who get stuck looking out for someone less powerful, like X-Men’s Wolverine, the Witcher, or even Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park. There’s something so charming and emotionally satisfying about watching a prickly curmudgeon get worn down by a chatty, earnest character determined to get past their emotional armor. Plus, it’s a great excuse for forced proximity and so many of my other favorite tropes!
With the book so close to release is there anything you’re hoping readers takeaway once they read the book?
I hope, more than anything, that reading This Vicious Grace offers readers as much joy as it has for me. The world can be dark and scary sometimes, especially these days, but everything is a little easier with magic, jokes, and banter. If Alessa can endure a few assassination attempts and some majorly dysfunctional powers by keeping her sense of humor and finding her people, I like to think the rest of us can, too.
Featured Image: Wednesday Books