Victoria Aveyard is living every writer’s dream. At the age of 25, the screenwriting graduate is already a bestselling author, has had her novel, Red Queen, optioned for a movie and has written Eternal, a screenplay that, according to US entertainment trade magazine Variety, has been acquired by Sony Pictures. Her second novel, Glass Sword, which was released last month, is already climbing book charts around the world.
Aveyard laughs nervously when I suggest that her rise – at least in the publishing world – is nothing short of meteoric.
“I just have to take it one step at a time,” she says via telephone from her sometimes-home in California when asked how she’s dealing with her massive success.
“When I get a little caught up I just have to take a step back and go back into the work and focus on the stuff that’s really important,” she adds.
The theme of Red Queen, like with many popular young adult (YA) fiction novels, is about the struggle for power. Specifically between the Silvers, super-powered people with silver blood, and the red-blooded Reds, who are powerless and not too happy about being ruled. And like most YA heroes and heroines, 17-year-old Mare Barrow is about to tip the balance. Mare is a Red, but when she is attacked by a Silver, discovers that she can shoot lightning from her fingertips. She becomes the focal point of a Red uprising, and the object of curiosity and fear for the ruling Silvers.
This tale of a super-powered underdog has caught on with readers. Readers often get on Tumblr and Twitter to pepper Aveyard with questions, which she dutifully answers. Curiosity about the movie – which might be directed by Elizabeth Banks, according to The Hollywood Reporter – is high. (“Do you have a dream cast?” asks a reader on Twitter. “No, I don’t,” Aveyard says to me almost bashfully. “I’m not a casting director so I don’t have any. It’s not my job.”)
Aveyard confesses she didn’t expect her manuscript to even become a book.
“I didn’t think the manuscript would get me an agent let alone get published. Having realistic expectations and then having them blown apart has always worked well for me,” she says, her smile travelling down the phone line.
Fortunately for her, reality has exceeded her wildest expectations.
A fruitful detour
YA was a natural choice for Aveyard. Not only has she always known that her main character was a teenager, at 21 when she started writing Red Queen, Aveyard had only just left teenhood behind. She felt close enough to the age to portray the “transitional moment in everyone’s life when we all have very strong memories”.
Also, Aveyard loves how writers can “go anywhere they want” within the genre.
“I really like mashing up genres. To me, Red Queen has a lot of fantasy, dystopian elements, science fiction, and a little bit of historical elements. It’s really cool for me to pull from all these areas. I’m a kitchen sink writer – I kind of throw in everything that I like,” she says.
The story began with an image that flitted into Averyard’s imagination one day.
“I had an image of a teenage girl who is about to be executed and, instead, she kills her executioner with lightning. I thought that’s interesting, I would really like to write that. So I started building the world and telling that story,” she says.
In March 2012, Aveyard, who has always wanted to write a book, pitched the idea of the novel to her screenwriting manager. He liked it and encouraged her to work on it. So, fresh after obtaining her BFA in Screenwriting from the University of Southern California, Aveyard moved back home to Massachusetts to live with her parents and work on her novel full time – a decision she’s quite thankful she made.
“If I had to (work a day job and write at the same time) something would have suffered – most probably my sleep!” she says.
Still, Aveyard was filled with doubt and had little faith in what she was doing.
“I thought it was garbage. I thought it was terrible,” she says, referring to her manuscript.
What kept her going were her father and friends who urged her to finish as they wanted to know what happened next.
There was also another strong motivator: money.
“I did have college loans looming, and that was a good motivator!” she says, chuckling.
And although she finished her book after six months of hard work (and much meticulous world-building with charts and graphs), she still didn’t know if anybody would ever like it.
“My management passed it to a literary agent and she looked it over and then they’re signing me for the manuscript and then we did a lot of edits and then we ended up with HarperCollins,” she says.
Her agency sold the book in April 2013, just four months after Aveyard finished the first draft. In February 2015, after many painstaking edits, which included an overhaul of the original ending she had penned for the book, it was finally on the shelves in the United States.
Readers would be interested to know that Aveyard included the original ending – now an “alternate ending” – in special editions of the next book in the series, Glass Sword. She prefers the current ending, saying that the original ending was “way out of left field”.
“Changing the ending changed the trajectory of the whole series,” she says.
Red Queen made a splash. In fact, on March 1, 2015, it was No.1 on The New York Times YA bestseller list in the first week of its release. US trade magazine Publishers Weekly trumpeted, “the only title by a first-time author to accomplish that feat”.
But this actually made Aveyard nervous and worry about the reception of the second book.
To allay her worries, Aveyard told herself: “I can’t control how people react or how the book lands.”
“Then I focused on what I could work on, which is my own writing.”
Currently, she is busy writing her third novel, and while she had just released Cruel Crown, a collection of novellas based in the Red Queen universe, she has no intention of writing any more short works.
“I really liked writing the novellas but for now I really love to get the rest of the story out there before I sort of wander away from it,” she says with a laugh.
When asked if the fourth book will be the last in the series, Aveyard says she doesn’t know right now.
“I know the main story that I want to tell and how long it’s going to take. I’m not going to add things that don’t need to be added and I’m not going to take out things that don’t need to be taken out.”
Aveyard says she wants to play in “other sandboxes” in the future and has little projects that she chips away at while writing the books for the Red Queen series. One of her “little projects” was Eternal, which she wrote while her third book was being edited.
And although it’s early stages yet – and in the film industry nothing is a guarantee – Aveyard says that she has met the writer, director and “a bunch of producers” that are getting behind the movie.
“Everyone’s been very inclusive and very clear that they want me involved, that they’re happy that I’m around. So far my experience has been really great,” she says.
Being able to work in the same industry as her moviemaking and writing heroes feels “very cool and very weird”, she says. And although she wrestles with the emotional ups and downs of a writer’s life, Aveyard will not have it any other way.
“I’ve achieved something. I got paid for it. I’m a professional writer, which is a complete dream come true for me. It’s scary, it’s hard but I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else,” she says, her enthusiasm palpable.