Happy Wednesday, everyone! 🖤
I’m here with a very special blog post today, in which I shine the spotlight on the brilliant Victoria Lee, whose debut novel The Fever King comes out this year, on March 1st! If you recall, it’s one of my absolute favorite books I read in 2018 (and of all time, to be honest), and I’m so excited to have her here on my blog to chat about books, writing, being an #ownvoices author, other bookish topics, and of course, The Fever King!
In case you missed it, I posted my review of The Fever King earlier this week, and I highly recommend you read it, before diving into this interview. ✨
Also, before we do—let me tell you a little bit about how this “interview” was conducted! Victoria and I actually sat down (at the same time!) to chat about everything and anything, which means that a) she answered these questions pretty much on the spot, with no time to prepare, and b) this is only a fraction of an interview that lasted about three hours. (We may have ended up digressing a
lot few times.)
We had such a great time, and we hope that you love reading this post as much as we did creating it!
Okay, first off—for anyone who doesn’t know anything about your debut yet—three words you would use to describe The Fever King?
Antiheroes, technopathy, trauma
(Lily feels inclined to whisper: soft, precious boys who fall in love ft. a whole lot of angst, morally ambiguous characters (we all stan), and smart magic)
What was your inspiration for this story, and what were the first things that manifested in your mind (plot, characters, setting)?
Oh man this is a tough question because I don’t actually? know??
Okay so like I had this idea for a book that took place in a world where a magic virus had decimated the population and left some people with powers but also split the world into swaths of quarantined zone where magic was endemic vs. safe zones. The rest of the book was totally different, but that idea existed.
I also wanted to write a book about a character having to face their childhood abuser in order to do the right thing and save the world—and this interest in writing about trauma recovery and the intersection of survivorship + heroism obviously impacted TFK.
I also wanted to write Jewish characters in fantasy, a book that was unapologetically queer, and a book that would let me listen to “War Sweater” by WakeyWakey on repeat (read: with lovers on opposite sides of an ideological conflict). They kinda all got cobbled together into the end product. But I rewrote this book so many times that the book it started off as is basically a whole different story than the final version!
Speaking of different versions of this book; did you always know how you wanted this series to end?
Hahaha no it actually originally ended very differently, but I will never ever tell anyone what the original ending was, that’s going with me to my graveeee
(I guess Victoria will be taking me to the grave with her)
Especially in speculative fiction, world-building is immensely important—what inspired the world you created, particularly the magical elements?
I’m a professional nerd (science Ph.D. student), so I really wanted to somehow integrate science into magic. “Write what you know,” right? I wanted to do something kinda fresh and fun that would be easy for me to write about. (I’ve always admired the magic systems in, like, Brandon Sanderson’s books, but I’m not clever enough to write anything like that!)
Smashing science and magic together seemed like a good balance. It also meant I could write a character who was kind of nerdy but have that be framed as a good thing, and powerful, itn he context of the book? I wanted magic to be something you had to work hard to get good at, and I also liked the idea of a world in which power…and prestige…were based off intelligence. (Not all intelligence, obviously there’s multiple types, as psychologists we know this. But a certain kind of intelligence.) Especially considering how these days power and prestige are much more tied to wealth and class and race and gender. Not that a system where prestige is based off science intellect is any more equal—but it’s different, and I wanted to play with how privilege would look if it was grounded in something like science ability.
Plus it was a little bit self-indulgent, because I wanted to create a magic system I might actually have any hope at being good at myself….
What I love about The Fever King is how real and nuanced every single one of the characters is—how did you go about creating them?
Honestly a lot of it was just me listening to my massive 250-song TFK playlist and sobbing. I spent a lot of time really, really thinking about what was going on in the characters’ heads and how they felt about different situations. I guess it also helps that I’m a psychologist so I’m like, professionally good at thinking about why people think what they think?
(This playlist will destroy you, much like her book.)
As you know, I absolutely adore Dara and Noam’s slow burn romance from enemies to tentative friends to lovers—can you tell us a little bit more about their relationship, and possible influences, or similar romances?
I basically started off thinking about what types of relationships were most appealing to me in fiction and decided I would write the kind of relationship I wanted to read! These include hate-to-love/enemies-to-lovers trope, slow slow slooow burn, lovers on opposite sides of a political divide, unrequited stuff (tbf it’s not really unrequited, but one of the characters has a very good reason to not want to get involved with the other), academic rivalry…. Some of my favorite relationships (romantic or platonic) in fiction are Villanelle and Eve in Killing Eve, Xavier and Magneto in X-Men, Cardan and Jude in The Cruel Prince, Wren and Lei from Girls of Paper and Fire…. You can kinda see that I have a Type, here.
I’m a little reluctant to say the relationships are super similar, really, especially because I don’t wanna get people’s hopes up and then disappoint them!—but I think people who enjoyed the Xavier/Magneto dynamic in X-Men or Cardan/Jude in TCP will probably also like Noam/Dara.
You’ve written many books before, without any intention of publishing them—what changed with The Fever King?
Okay, so it’s kind of a funny story. I was at a psychology conference (I moonlight as a psychology/neuroscience ph.d. student) and it was the student social happy hour, so…I was already pretty drunk. (Can I admit this as a YA author? Whatever y’all have read TFK, it’s not exactly PG-13.) And I met this guy who was a student at a different university and we started talking.
Somehow it came up that I wrote novels “for fun.” And he asked me if I ever wanted to publish any, and why I hadn’t in the past. To be honest…usually, this question annoys the shit out of me. Why do I have to publish, or want to publish, to be valid as a writer, you know? But like I said, I was drunk, so I decided to just…go for it and be honest with him. I explained that I’d always a little bit wanted to publish something, but I’d never been fully satisfied with any of my previous books enough to do the work to edit them and get them in publishable shape. Something was always not-quite-right. They never felt like they should be my Debut.
And whereas most people, hearing that, would probably have been like “oh ok, whatever suits you,” he pushed back. He asked me if I really thought the books weren’t good enough, or if that was just anxiety. And I mean…yeah, it was anxiety, for the most part. I didn’t think my books were Amazing or anything, but that wasn’t the real reason I didn’t want to try to publish. I was just afraid of rejection. And as long as I didn’t try, I couldn’t fail. So I could just convince myself “oh I could totally publish a book if I triiiiied” and not have to risk proving myself wrong.
Anyway, he suggested that I come up with some date in the future—not too far in the future or I’d get complacent, but not so soon that it was unreasonable—and tell myself I would query agents at that point. So my goal would be to have a query-ready book on that date. And for some reason I agreed. And discovered pitch wars, and decided to use the application deadline as my date the book had to be ready by. And I ended up getting into pitch wars, and revising my book, and querying, and getting agents, and getting a book deal, and the rest is history.
I only met this guy once, but somehow he’s had a massive influence on my life choices in multiple ways. Because he got me to publish a book, but he also got me to try muay thai (he was really into mixed martial arts) which is now my new obsession. So THANKS, NICK??
What is your writing process like?
I’m ADHD so I can only get stuff done if I eliminate distractions and really get in the zone. That means I’ll spend like six hours furiously writing, but the second someone shows up and asks me how my day was it’s over. Done. Can’t get back into it.
I’m a little bit of a mix of plotter and pantser. I like to know all the major things that will happen in the book—plot beats as well as emotional beats—but I kind of discovery-write my way between those milestones. That’s how I keep the story feeling emotionally alive and interesting to myself. Sometimes if I over-outline I get bored. But if I don’t outline at all, my story doesn’t make sense and I have to rewrite from scratch (which happened with the first draft of TFK!). This is a happy medium.
How has getting published changed your life, and changed you as a person?
Good question…. It’s made me a lot busier? Like, now I have Deadlines for writing whereas before I could just kinda write at my own pace whenever I felt like it.
I hope I’m not more egotistical. But maybe I am. You should ask my worst enemy that question to make sure you get an objective answer.
I do think that I’ve gotten more confident. I feel more like…okay, sometimes your wild dreams are possible. Obviously I benefit from certain privileges in the publishing industry that make it easier for me to publish a book than other people (and experience other marginalizations that also make it harder to get published). But just the experience of having chased after this so hard, and achieving it…it’s a great feeling.
Next to being a fabulous writer, you’re also a Ph.D. student, you teach, you have a beautiful dog you take care of, … the list goes on. How do you manage to balance everything?
well Lily the truth is that I do not in fact balance everything
and soon I’m pretty sure my world will implode
…in actuality, though, I am a big fan of planners and to-do lists. Right now I’m using the Madness Planner which seems to be vaguely inspired by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (which I stan, like a true psych nerd would). The planner helps you keep track of your to-do list, appointments, and so on…but it also prompts you to focus on how the things you’re doing help bring you closer to your big-picture goals, to do something every day just to make yourself happy, and to keep in mind what you value most (in terms of “if you had 24 hours left to live, how would you spend them? Okay do one of those things right now!”)
Who are some of your favorite writers, and writers you’d comp yourself to?
Ooh I like this. Well my favorite writer of all time also wrote my favorite book of all time, and that is Donna Tartt with The Secret History. (I don’t know that I would comp myself to her though? Like…also, can ANYONE comp themselves to Donna Tartt? You dare.)
I also really love Holly Black (although I should note the only books of hers I’ve read since middle school are TCP and TWK, but they were that great), Katherine Arden (again…not really a comp to myself, I just love her work), Marie Lu, Leigh Bardugo, NK Jemisin, Scott Hawkins (he wrote this book The Library At Mount Char that you should definitely check out), Daphne du Maurier, and…umm, a lot of people, but now we’re getting into the realm of me wanting to start listing People I Know, which could be awkward so I’m gonna stop now.
What about favorite books?
Oh wow that’s a list. The Secret History, The Fifth Season, The Library At Mount Char, The Poppy War, Warcross, Vicious/Vengeful, The Bear and the Nightingale, Rebecca, Lolita, The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Girls of Paper and Fire….
Has becoming a published writer changed the way you read books?
I don’t think it was getting published, per se. But getting more serious about my writing craft in general definitely changed how I read. I remember getting really into close reading. …This was actually back when I was still mostly writing fanfiction actually, but I became very concerned with craft and pacing and structure and just writing the best goddamn fanfic I possibly could. And so I’d read books and I’d dissect them—why did the author use that word? Why did they put that comma there? Why did they reveal this secret when they did?
I’d take notes on my favorite books and try to diagnose why they were my favorites, and what the authors did to make them so damn compelling. I actually found a reference book that is super for practicing close reading, if anyone is interested! (Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer.)
The main character Noam fights for refugees’ rights in The Fever King. The novel was written way before the issue of immigration became as relevant as it is right now. How do you feel about the way you handled this topic in hindsight? Is there anything you would have written, or explored differently?
The immigration plotline in the book was very much inspired by Jewish experiences as immigrants and feeling like outsiders even in the countries of our birth. I think now that it’s become so large of an issue, and mostly affecting groups to which I don’t belong…I’m not sure how I would have handled it differently. I might not have chosen to write this book had I started writing it later. Because although the experiences are inspired by things I have personal experience with, I’m also aware that the book might be taken as “speaking for” people who are having a different kind of immigration experience now. And that would certainly never be my intention.
For starters, if I were writing this book again I would not choose to have Noam be half Latinx. I would have focused on his Jewish identity and how that connects to the lived experiences I share and am trying to talk about. I originally chose to make him half Latinx because I didn’t want to try and suggest that these experiences were unique to Jewish people, kind of…out of consideration for the fact that times have changed and Jews aren’t the predominant group experiencing this now. But reflecting, that wasn’t the best choice for a number of reasons, not least because I don’t have the Latinx lived experience and because the story really was about an analogue for Jewish experience. It would’ve been stronger as a story if I’d kept it narrowly focused on those experiences and narratives.
Speaking of writing about your own experiences—ownvoices books have been getting more and more popular, and are almost seen as a genre on their own at this point—do you feel pressured to “live up” to certain expectations, or as if you’re “not allowed” to create characters with a certain kind of identification?
I don’t know that I’d say it’s that you’re not “allowed” to write certain identities as it is that like…you’ll probably be bad at it? There’s so much inherent to an identity and a set of lived experiences that you can’t possibly understand if you haven’t actually lived that identity. I can obviously only speak for the identities I possess here, but let’s take…being bisexual, for example. There are all these weird little cultural and social nuances that I don’t think a straight person would ever be aware of—like politics within the LGBT community about being lesbian vs. female-identifying bisexual, or about being binary transgender vs. nonbinary, or when you go to the gay club vs. the lesbian bar and what the vibe would be like at each, how we feel about allies joining in pride parades, etc. And there’s variety even within these opinions!
So someone who is outside the community can’t really understand all those details, no matter how much research they do. And then they run the risk of causing actual damage to people from that community with harmful or stereotypical representation. There’s also the matter that if someone not from a given marginalization publishes a book about that marginalized identity (or featuring a character from that background even if it’s not about that identity), it might take a place from a book that would be written from a more authentic perspective. Publishers have these weird quotas for books about and by marginalized authors that don’t exist for majority-group authors. So if, say, a cis person publishes a book about a trans character—no matter how well-researched it is—when a trans author writing a book about a trans character comes along and subs to that publisher, they might get turned down because “we already have a trans book.” (Something you’d never hear: “we already have a cis book!”) It’s hard enough for marginalized writers to get published without having their stories coopted by people who don’t share that identity.
But then, writing as an #ownvoices writer for a given identity, you also feel pressure to do the kind of representation that all your readers from that same identity will feel is accurate. So, like, writing a Jewish main character…. What if people feel like I did a bad job? What if he isn’t ‘Jewish enough?’ And when there isn’t enough representation of that identity in fiction (especially fantasy) in general, every time an #ownvoices writer writes a character from their identity, they feel a whole lot of pressure to do it really really well. There’s no room to make mistakes. You feel like you represent the whole community. And it’s not like a reader can just be like, well, that Jewish experience wasn’t my personal Jewish experience, therefore I’ll go read one of the other five million Jewish fantasy books that might feel more authentic to my personal experience. Nope. Your selection of alternatives for Jewish fantasy is gonna be a lot smaller than if you were just looking for something to represent medieval British fantasy.
Is there anything you’d like your readers to know about you, or the book before they read it?
This book was incredibly personal for me in a lot of ways—not just because it’s my debut but because of the subject matter it deals with. And some of that subject matter might be difficult to read if you’ve also struggled with similar experiences. I have a list of content warnings available on my blog. It’s a little spoilery if you read further down—but at the top there’s a brief list of the general content I want people to be aware of. And if you need to scroll down and read details about how those things come up in the book, you can.
I don’t want anyone to be harmed by reading my book. My goal has always been that this book and these characters will help people who have experienced these things feel seen and understood. But I also know stuff can be difficult, and sometimes you just aren’t ready. Or you might be ready, but you want to know what you’re getting into so you can prepare for it. So these notes are available if anyone needs them: https://victorialeewrites.com/2018/09/18/the-fever-king-content-warnings.
Last but not least [insert Lily’s mischievous smirk] …
Let’s play Kiss, Marry, Kill with Noam, Dara, and Lehrer.
THE FUCK KINDA QUESTION IS THIS, LILY? Ughasdklfjals;dkja;ls [Lily’s smirk widens]
Kiss Dara, marry Noam, kill Lehrer. I just think Noam would be a good husband, okay
Victoria Lee grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where she spent twelve ascetic years as a vegetarian before discovering spicy chicken wings are, in fact, a delicacy. She’s been a state finalist competitive pianist, a hitchhiker, a pizza connoisseur, an EMT, an expat in China and Sweden, and a science doctoral student. She’s also a bit of a snob about fancy whisky.
Victoria writes early in the morning, then spends the rest of the day trying to impress her border collie puppy and make her experiments work.
Are you as excited about The Fever King as I am yet? Enter an exclusive, international* (!!!) giveaway by clicking on the Rafflecopter image or link below for a chance to win a signed hardcover of The Fever King!
*because Victoria is a generous queen (we stan).
Which aspect of The Fever King are you most excited about?
Which magical ability would you like to have? (AND WHO IS YOUR OTP?)
Have you joined the giveaway? ⚡️