Today, I welcome Victoria Lee to Queering Up Your Bookshelf to talk about their writing origin story, involving secret romances and political intrigue with Lisa Frank characters, how living in other countries is beneficial for writing fantasy worlds, and the way they approached representation (yes, let’s make everyone queer, always!) and writing about abuse in their upcoming YA novel, The Fever King, out with Skyscape on March 1.
Victoria Lee grew up in Durham, North Carolina, where they spent twelve ascetic years as a vegetarian before discovering spicy chicken wings are, in fact, a delicacy. They’ve been a state finalist competitive pianist, a hitchhiker, a pizza connoisseur, an EMT, an expat in China and Sweden, and a science doctoral student. They’re 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 their border collie puppy and make their experiments work.
Find Victoria online:
What is your writing origin story?
When I was in first grade or so, according to my parents, the teacher told us to write down everything she said. And she started listing simple words. Well, at some point another teacher came in to talk to her and everyone else stopped writing. But baby Victoria, being a literalist, just wrote down that entire conversation verbatim. And when the teacher came back and resumed telling us simple words, allegedly I just kept the conversation going into a whole new fictional sphere.
Or maybe my origin story was the weird stories I built around the Lisa Frank characters on my folders and binders. Every time I closed my eyes I would escape into the world of Lisa Frank, which had political intrigue and forbidden romances and treason plots and illicit magic.
Or maybe it’s the fifty-thousand word novella I wrote when I was eight about a girl on the Oregon Trail, inspired by the computer game.
It’s hard to say when I first started considering myself a writer. I did a lot of school-level writing competitions as a kid, with short stories, and honestly I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t writing some kind of fiction or another.
(How) did your life as an ex-pat in China and Sweden inspire your writing?
Just being exposed to all kinds of different cultures and lifestyles feels invaluable as a writer. It’s so important to expand your awareness of different ways of living and social norms and habits to include all those you didn’t grow up with. I also think there’s something very unique about being an outsider in someone else’s country for a long period of time and needing to adapt to those norms and social traditions. It helps you realize a lot about cultural and moral relativism, and how your way of doing things or thinking about things is limited in scope by the culture you grew up in. That’s particularly great when you’re writing fantasy and need to invent worlds that are totally unlike our own. You might not model those worlds off existing countries, but being aware of the wide expanse of ways people live can help you think outside the box.
What does representation mean to you and how does it feature in your writing?
In terms of queer representation specifically, it was really important to me to write a book in which there were a lot of queer characters who were just…casually queer. When I was growing up, I didn’t know any queer kids who were out. And then I went to high school—to an arts high school, specifically—and suddenly almost all of my friends were queer. In college, too, I hung out with an almost entirely-LGBTQ+ crowd. So my reality became a queer reality. When I watched tv shows and read books where everyone was cis and straight—or where there was just a token queer character—it rang false.
The initial draft of TFK had a lot of queer characters, and a critique partner told me she thought I’d have trouble selling the book or landing the readers because there were so many gay characters in the book, and didn’t I think it was a little unrealistic? That’s when I doubled down and made them all queer. Like. Literally all of them.
‘Cause hey: if it’s not unrealistic for everyone in a book to be straight, then how is this any less realistic?
How did you come up with the magic system in The Fever King and how did science play a role in this?
In the universe of The Fever King, magic can only be used if you understand the science behind it. So to do telekinesis, you have to understand physics—and to heal someone, you have to understand anatomy and physiology. I really enjoyed nerding out over science stuff when writing the book—especially the scenes where Noam was learning how to perform certain types of magic for the first time. I think being a scientist in my day job made me excited about writing a science-based magic system because it’d be one of the only kinds of magic I’d end up being good at. Plus there was just something so aesthetic about the idea of people having to study mundane science so hard to perform fantastical feats.
What is your writing process?
I’m a bit of a hybrid of a plotter and a pantser. I like to plot the main milestones of a story and then discovery write my way between them until they’re all connected. It ends up being the perfect combination of planning and being able to keep the tension and surprise myself.
In terms of the actual act of writing… There’s this café I love to write in. It’s in an old Victorian house and every room has a different vibe. It feels like you’re sitting in someone’s grandma’s living room writing a book. Plus their drinks are really interesting and they let me add bacon fragments on top of my maple latte once. So I have a soft spot.
What is your best piece of advice when it comes to writing and publishing?
Writing is rewriting! I want to write that on my forehead or put it in my twitter bio or something so it’s the first thing people see when they ask for writing advice. I feel like it’s so tempting to see your first draft as a final draft. But I don’t know anyone who wrote a perfect first draft. Everyone had to revise, with critique partners and agents and editors…often pretty heavily. And in some ways that’s comforting. Because you don’t feel the same pressure to write a perfect book right off the bat. You have permission to experiment and mess up and reassure yourself that you’ll fix it later.
What is the hardest lesson you learned while writing?
Honestly…probably that same lesson. That I won’t write a perfect draft, that I’ll probably even have to rewrite. It’s intimidating to think about that too much heading into a new book, especially. The other hard lesson I’ve learned is that you have to learn to let go of a book once you’re done with it. When a book is out in the world, you can’t change anything now—there’s no use thinking about things you would have done differently, or reading reviews and obsessing over everything that readers didn’t like. The book is done, it’s out there. The only thing you can do now is write the next book.
Abuse plays a prominent role in The Fever King. How did you approach this in writing about it and do you have any advice for other authors who might be tackling similar topics in their writing?
A lot of this plot line in The Fever King was drawn from personal experience. I wanted to represent characters who aren’t the “typical” victims people often talk about in the media. There’s so many ways survivors can blame themselves and be blamed by other people for violence done against them. Survivors will be blamed because they’re promiscuous, or mentally ill, or struggling with addiction—as if all these aren’t often the direct result of trauma. So in that way I tried to keep my approach very victim-focused. The character in this book is currently experiencing abuse, they haven’t survived it and already entered the process of recovery. I think that’s a fairly specific kind of experience to write about, too, with its own specific challenges and emotions attached to it.
My main advice to other authors writing about abuse is to keep in mind that there is no stereotypical way for a victim or survivor to behave. Some victims withdraw and become afraid of sex and socially anxious, whereas others throw themselves into partying and promiscuity and substance abuse. And so often we have a schema in our minds—a prototype of what victims are supposed to look like—that’s incredibly damaging to victims to who don’t fit that role. Allow your characters to be characters first and victims second. And allow their abuse to influence them in multiple ways. And most importantly…allow them to be more than their victimhood. Keep in mind their dreams, their hopes and wants for the future, the identity they have for themselves independent of their trauma. Don’t allow their abuser to steal their personhood.
What was your favorite character or scene you’ve written recently?
There’s a scene in the sequel to The Fever King where a character finally is able to really verbalize something traumatic that happened to them. And for me that was so difficult and powerful to write. Giving that character their voice in that moment felt like giving myself that voice. Every time you speak up against abusers you have to make the choice to do it: a hundred little choices, again and again, and writing this character slowly become more and more comfortable saying their truth was really meaningful for me.
What are you currently working on? What’s next for you?
I’m working on revisions for the sequel to The Fever King. It’s called The Electric Heir, and it’ll release in 2020. (Probably in March.) The book picks up six months after The Fever King leaves off, and it’s about twice as dark and twisted as the first.
Other than that…. I have a few projects underway, but I can’t say too much about them just yet! Hopefully soon.
BONUS QUESTION (from a fellow whisky aficionado): What is your favorite whisky?
Right now I’m really feeling the Bowmore 15. It’s just so…smooth and dark and peaty and tastes like…I guess I’d say a candied Lagavulin? It has notes of toffee and chocolate and ginger and vanilla and burnt fruit. My second favorites are the Lagavulin 16 and the Laphroaig Quarter Cask. I like my scotch to taste like a campfire in my mouth.
In the former United States, sixteen-year-old Noam Álvaro wakes up in a hospital bed, the sole survivor of the viral magic that killed his family and made him a technopath. His ability to control technology attracts the attention of the minister of defense and thrusts him into the magical elite of the nation of Carolinia.
The son of undocumented immigrants, Noam has spent his life fighting for the rights of refugees fleeing magical outbreaks—refugees Carolinia routinely deports with vicious efficiency. Sensing a way to make change, Noam accepts the minister’s offer to teach him the science behind his magic, secretly planning to use it against the government. But then he meets the minister’s son—cruel, dangerous, and achingly beautiful—and the way forward becomes less clear.
Caught between his purpose and his heart, Noam must decide who he can trust and how far he’s willing to go in pursuit of the greater good.