In 2013, V. E. Schwab flipped the superhero genre on its head with Vicious, the story of two college roommates who decide to give themselves superpowers. But the powers they acquire are not of their choosing, sending them both on very different but very dark paths—one to prison, and one to kill all the other people in the world who have superpowers. At the end of Vicious, Victor and Eli face off in a battle which only one can win. Maybe.
This fall, Schwab continues Eli and Victor's struggle even as she expands the story to encompass two new powerful women as well as Sydney, Victor's young ally from Vicious. We spoke with V. E. Schwab about Vengeful when she was in Seattle for her multicity book tour.
Adrian Liang: With Vicious you created not superheroes but ExtraOrdinaries—or EOs. And for ordinary people to become extraordinary, they have to have a near-death experience and also a jolt of adrenaline. How did you come up with that idea?
V. E. Schwab: I do want to specify that not everybody in this world that I've designed who has a near-death experience comes back with a superpower. A lot of people just come back as their normal selves, but it's this combination of this quantifiable aspect of this incident and an unquantifiable aspect—this desire to survive—for my characters to come back with superpowers. I wanted to design an origin story for superpowers and explanation that was really rooted in medicine, and I wanted it to be simple. I wanted it to be feasible enough that at least some people would question if it was possible. We have these documented examples of people lifting cars in moments of extreme duress or people doing things which seem to defy human limitation. Whether I'm writing science fiction or fantasy, [I like to] keep it pretty grounded. To keep at least one foot in the real at all times, because I think it makes it easier for readers to follow you that next step.
In Vicious, a lot of the story revolved around Victor Vale and Eli Evers. They were each other's arch-nemesis. But in Vengeful, they're not necessarily the center of the story anymore. For you, who is the center of the story in Vengeful?
I like to think of it as a broadening center. Victor and Eli are definitely still absolutely fundamental. They're essential to the story, but they're not the only ones now. I've broadened the scope to include Marcela and June and Jonathan. Especially Marcela. Marcela is the kind of woman who definitely takes up space. She is an ex-mob wife. I say ex, because the book opens with her husband trying to kill her and burn the house down with her inside. She has come back with the ability to ruin anything she touches. [Vengeful] is about her, and it's about June, a young woman that she crosses paths with. They both want the same thing in different ways. June happens to be a contract killer, and she has perhaps my favorite power in the entire series. She's essentially a walking, talking voodoo doll. Imagine if Mystique from X-Men could not only take on the appearance of somebody else but if, while she had that appearance, any damage done to her would only be done to the person she looked like. June is invulnerable as long as she is wearing someone else's face. It makes her a very, very dangerous person. Vicious in a lot of ways is about taking control. And for Victor and Eli specifically, Vengeful is about losing control. But for the women in this story, it's an exercise in taking back control. It's an examination of the ways in which this world tries to strip women of that control, and the ways in which Marcela and June and Sydney, who continues from book one, find ways to take that control back for themselves.
Nobody seems have taken to heart the concept that with great power comes great responsibility.
I like that you pointed that out, because one of the reasons that they're called ExtraOrdinaries—EOs—and not superheroes or superpower people is because one of the core concepts for this series is the idea that if you give a flawed and complicated human being superpowers, you do not make them a superhero. You make them a flawed and complicated human being who now happens to have a power. I think that, if anything, that would make 99% of us worse, not better. I'm really, really interested in where power intersects the moral gray zone, and what kind of power is inherently geared towards abuse of power.
I enjoyed in Vengeful how you made Eli a little bit more sympathetic.
I'm a little ornery, and I don't like it when readers get too comfortable in their assessment of a character. I usually set it as a goal for myself over a course of a series to have at least one long-con character. How we judge people is based on how much we know about them. You don't get Eli's back story in book one, and so all you have to judge him on is his present. Whereas in Vengeful, the roles are reversed, and all you get to judge Victor on is his present, and you get Eli's full back story. But it's not like I'm trying to flip the script. I'm never doing that thing where you go back on a character's nature. I'm simply showing you more of them, and I think what readers find is the more you learn about a character or about a human being, the harder it is to make simple, qualitative judgment on that person.
I'm actually really good at parallel parking as long as I know the car. If I'm in a strange car, it takes me 32 to times parallel park.
Do you have a dislike of glutinous foods?
I have a dislike of strangely textured foods. I don't like a weird, spongy texture.
Is there a movie you loved as a kid that sadly doesn't hold up now?
Oh, no! Probably Ferngully. I feel like most of the movies I loved it a kid do hold up, but one really did: The Princess Bride, which is my favorite movie of all time. Totally holds up.
Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
No, because I'm such a bad singer that I would never impose that on anyone, even drunk.
What book are you actively reading and enjoying right now right now?
I'm actually reading nonfiction. I'm reading Bad Blood, which is a book that's an examination of the founder of Theranos. It is compelling and extremely disturbing.
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