In 2011, The Near Witch appeared in bookstores—the debut novel by a young author named Victoria Schwab. Though it received some enthusiastic early reviews—and found devoted fans—it was quite unlike the books that were hitting the YA bestseller list at the time, and didn’t perform strongly enough to warrant the publication of a sequel. Within a few years, it had slipped quietly out of print, joining countless other first novels that didn’t quite find the readers they deserved.
But of course that is not the end of the story: Victoria Schwab kept writing, and after hitting a few more publishing speed bumps, in 2013 she was reborn as V.E. Schwab, the author of Vicious and A Darker Shade of Magic. These days, she writes regularly under both names (both Victoria and V.E. are New York Times bestselling authors), and has built—through blood, sweat, tears, and a little luck—the kind of fanbase she could’ve only dreamed about back in 2011. And now, Titan Books is poised to reintroduce The Near Witch to this new legion of readers who already know Victoria Schwab, and are eager to see where it all began.
On the eve of the release of the B&N exclusive edition of The Near Witch, we caught up with the author to discuss her baby days as a writer, meeting disappointment with determination, and the importance of writing for yourself.
According to your introduction in this new edition, The Near Witch was written while you were still in college, and just a wee baby writer. Do you remember what inspired you to write this story—especially given, as you say, it wasn’t exactly on-trend for what was big in YA at the time?
I do, vividly. I’m a magpie writer, gathering shiny things, bits and pieces of a story until I have enough to make something. I had two lines stuck in my head: “The wind on the moors is a tricky thing,” and “There are no strangers in the town of Near.”
Add to that a passion for fairy tales, a fascination with insider-outsider culture, a love of magic, and a desire to write a story where the setting served as a main character, and you get The Near Witch.
What happened along the book’s journey to publication? How did it compare to your expectations?
The debut experience is always pretty inflated. Publishers are searching for the next shiny thing, and have a tendency to fetishize the new and debut, and every author wants to believe that theirs will be the book that makes the splash. Mine… didn’t. And I won’t lie and say it was easy. Even knowing that The Near Witch was a strange and rather quiet book, I wanted so badly to be enough. And I equated the novel’s success with my own validity, which never goes well.
What did your debut experience teach you about being a writer and getting published? How has your writing process changed since then?
One of the hardest lessons I learned was that you have to move forward, you have to keep going, and you have to remember that for the vast majority of writers, their careers are shaped by a body of work and not a single title. Of course, it’s difficult, in an industry where there is always something and someone new. But I decided that I was going to tell the kinds of stories I wanted to read, as strange and off-trend as they might be, and hope the right readers would find them.
After The Near Witch was released, you had no new books for more than a year—and then suddenly you seemed to be everywhere, with an adult novel and a YA novel released in the same year, a pace you’ve maintained (or bettered) basically ever since. What drives you to keep going?
That’s not exactly true. After The Near Witch, I had an 18-month gap, and then The Archived and The Unbound [currently available in an omnibus edition, The Dark Vault –ed.], books I love very, very much, and books that would serve to be a massive transition point in my early career. When they failed to make the mark the publisher wanted them to make (as I said, I write strange and askew, and sometimes that takes more time to ind its audience), I had two choices: to give up on publishing, or to find a way to be happy.
That’s really the moment I decided to write for myself, first and foremost, and that’s when everything changed. I wrote Vicious. And a series of work-for-hires for Scholastic, one a passion project and the other a way to keep myself in the game, and from there, A Darker Shade of Magic, which provided the first truly solid stones under my feet. As for what drives me, it’s the desire to prove early doubters wrong, and the need to challenge myself in different ways with every book. I never want to tell the same one twice.
You’ve talked a bit about this elsewhere, but can you discuss how you learned The Near Witch had gone out of print, and your reaction?
It’s not a pleasant piece of news. The thing about publishing is that, for a very long time, we were encouraged to smile. Always to smile. Talk about the good news, and never the bad. And what that does is, it makes an island out of every writer. It makes you feel so alone in whatever you’re going through. But the truth is, books go out of print. Authors hit hurdles, speed bumps, walls. It’s part of business we never like to mix with the art, but it’s there. And it’s hard. And the trick is to stay in it, so the successes balance out the failures.
How was the plan to get the book back into print initiated?
I really have Titan to thank for that. My UK publisher has been there, hand in hand with my US teams from the release of Vicious five and a half years ago. They’ve championed me in so many ways, and been a wonderful support system, so when The Near Witch rights reverted to me, Titan asked if they could take up the mantle, and do it justice. And they really have. The new edition is gorgeous, and thanks to their distribution channels, will be available on both sides of the Atlantic.
When is the last time you read the book? Do you reread your work generally?
The last time was when I was working on the sequel, The Dark Remains (it sits in a drawer somewhere, and it always will). That was back in 2011. I turned through parts of the book in 2012 while writing the novella The Ash-Born Boy, which is included in the new edition, but I haven’t read the book since. I get asked a lot if I ever considered updating it—revising to fit my current style/level of prose—but the truth is, I look at every one of my books as a time capsule of who I was, and what I was capable of, at [the time it was written]. I hope readers can see the strengths in this novel, as well as the fact I wrote it at 21, and that it serves as a starting point for every story that came after.
If you could give one piece of advice to the young writer who penned The Near Witch, what would it be?
Hang in there. And remember (to quote a good friend, Carrie Ryan), if you stay in this business long enough, everything that can happen will. The good and the bad.
What are your feelings on the weight debuts are given, especially in YA publishing? Can a debut really tell us anything about what a writer can do?
It really bothers me. I watch the pressure put on debuts, and the necessary inflation of egos, the promises made, and it just seems like 95 percent of the time, you’re setting the writer up for failure. Or at least, disappointment. The publishers expect so much, and the debut [authors] understand so little, and it’s not their fault. They believe what they’re being told. They want the business to mirror the art. I wish publishers would stop promising the stars. Building a readership takes time. It takes books. It takes luck. It takes patience, both on the part of the publisher and the author.
That being said, what are your most treasured debut novels as a reader?
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern; The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera; The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins; If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio—books that make me say, “How can this possibly be their debut???” Books that make so excited to see what the authors do next.
The Barnes & Noble exclusive edition of The Near Witch—featuring a variant cover, a new map, and a Q&A with the author—is available March 12.
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