WashU students don’t necessarily wait until after graduation to make their mark on the world, and the story of author Victoria “V. E.” Schwab’s undergraduate experience is an extraordinary case in point. Schwab, BFA ’09, arrived on campus in August 2005 determined to become an astrophysicist, but she became enamored with WashU’s variety of courses, from set design to art history to, of course, literature. Grounded by this insatiable love of learning, Schwab then set a challenge for herself. “I wrote my first novel as a sophomore at WashU, mostly because I was afraid I couldn’t write one and wanted to prove myself wrong,” she says. “The writing was strong enough to get me my first agent, but never sold.”
Undeterred, Schwab began her second novel as a WashU senior. “I set aside two hours every night, walked to a nearby café, and wrote from 9 p.m. until the place closed. I finished the book a week before graduation, and it sold that September. What WashU did, at every step, was to encourage curiosity and embrace ambition.”
Schwab is now one of today’s most prolific writers. At age 33, she has already published 20 novels, traversing the genres of fantasy, sci-fi and horror. Her adult novels (published under “V. E. Schwab”) and young adult novels (under “Victoria Schwab”) have left readers spellbound, catapulting her to the New York Times bestseller list, even to No. 1. This success is partly explained by the way Schwab’s otherworldly stories are grounded in everyday life, rendering their magical elements palpable, and her explorations of identity personal.
In her latest novel, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, a young villager, Addie, escapes her provincial fate by making a deal with a dark spirit to live forever, allowing her to explore the outside world and its cultural riches. The devil’s due, however, includes this catch: that no one — her parents, friends or lovers — will remember Addie the second she leaves their sight. From 18th-century France to modern day New York City, Addie must reinvent her interactions with others at every moment, while lasting love and friendship continue to elude her.
Schwab admits there is some of herself in the character of Addie: “I’m ravenous when it comes to reading, to art, to experience. Anything that can open my world a little wider. That desire is mirrored in Addie.”
The idea for Addie LaRue came to Schwab a decade ago while living abroad, but it was today’s social milieu that compelled her to see it through. “A major theme of the book is autonomy, and the way it’s withheld from bodies that present female. I wanted to tell a Faustian tale, but those always focus on men. They barter for immortality, and then get bored,” Schwab says. “A woman would never be given the same ease and freedom to move through centuries. Addie survives for so long because she cares more about experience than glory.”
“My favorite kind of fantasy is one where magic and reality are inextricably linked, where you as the reader are asked to believe, not in words on a page, but in the presence of the extraordinary and the strange and the fantastical in your own world — a door you simply haven’t found yet, a threshold you haven’t crossed. But one you could.”— V. E. Schwab
From the outset, Schwab incorporated gender identity into her novels, albeit subtly. “From an LGBTQ+ perspective, I desperately wanted to write casual queerness,” Schwab explains. “As a gay person who came out in her twenties, I didn’t need a coming out story. I needed to see characters like me simply taking up the space we do in life, always informed by our gender and sexuality, but not always defined by it, and never reduced to it.”
And like Addie LaRue, Schwab is desperate to make the most of her time. “Even as a freshman at WashU, I was painfully aware of time — its brevity, its restriction and the knowledge that by choosing one path, we elect not to follow a hundred others,” she says. “That fear ties directly into a fear of irrelevance, and the desire to be remembered, to build something that feels less fickle and fleeting than the time we’re given.” With a show on Netflix, her next novel and a new story arc for her Shades of Magic series planned for the future, Schwab will definitely continue giving readers something to remember.