“If you take out the hero, you better take out the villain” Vanessa Len on her new book Never a Hero

  • Jess Gately
  • September 6, 2023
  • Comments Off on “If you take out the hero, you better take out the villain” Vanessa Len on her new book Never a Hero

Vanessa Len is a bestselling Australian author and educational editor, who has worked on everything from language learning programs to STEM resources, to professional learning for teachers. She took time out of her busy schedule to chat with Jess Gately about her writing process, book boxes and her new book Never a Hero.

So, first of all, congratulations on the release of Never a Hero.

Thank you. I’m so happy this book is out. It was my lockdown book. I feel like it was unexpectedly difficult just because of the lockdown, which I’m very much supportive of, but yeah, it was mostly written in that year that we were just inside.

Which when you’re writing about time travel and going all over the world and all that sort of stuff would be pretty difficult when you’re stuck inside.

Yeah, although it was quite nice to, I guess, escape somewhere. But there were times when I was just like, it’s just me and this book. *laughs* And the wild things that are happening in this book.

All right. Well then, for our readers who maybe missed the absolute phenomenon that was Only a Monster, or perhaps some of our readers just need a bit of a refresher, can you remind us what happened in the first book?

Okay, well I’ll do the pitch first because I’ve, um, I’ve been pitching it as a monster girl whose summer is ruined when the cute guy at work turns out to be a monster slayer.

But to recap, Joan, our monster anti-hero, I guess, finds out at the beginning of book one that she’s a monster. But then, things get even worse. She finds out that the guy that she’s had a crush on all summer is a monster slayer. And it ends up being this battle between him and her… and she also teams up with a hot monster guy [Aaron].

So at the end of book one it seemed as though Joan and the human hero Nick were about to be reconciled. But, instead Joan used her special power to unmake him and change the timeline so that at the beginning of book two her family, who he killed, are alive again and he doesn’t remember her anymore.

And neither does Aaron, very sad.

Which now brings us very nicely to the beginning of book two, where Joan is still grappling with all of that, and with the decisions she’s made, and with the fact that nobody else remembers, and she’s grieving for this lost timeline and what she’s lost there, but also grateful that she has everybody back. What can readers expect in this new book with this new chase?

I feel like I’m a really terrible person because I love it that everyone forgets in a time travel book, except for the main character. So, Joan is really recovering from the events of the first book at the beginning of the second book.

She remembers her family dying, but they didn’t really. And now, this guy that she really liked, Nick, is back in her life, but he doesn’t remember her anymore. And they get attacked by monsters and have to go on the run, and then horribly, even more horribly, she finds out that the other guy that she really liked, Aaron, is chasing her, perhaps wanting to kill her this time around.

And I noticed that on the back blurb from this book is the last words that Aaron said to her, which is “You can’t ever meet me again”, which just becomes this kind of mantra for her right throughout the book of, “I can’t” but she’s desperate to see him again.

I feel like you know that she is going to meet him again though.

Well, I mean, yes, but it’s that big question of what’s going to happen when they do.

Oh and I guess then a new villain emerges. So, Joan is going to have to find a way to combat the new villain after she just killed the hero of the story.

I feel like I had a little mantra of my own. I had this whiteboard the whole time I was writing in COVID. And it was just that if you take out the hero, you better take care of the villain.

Your villain in this one is amazing. I’m not going to give any spoilers away for people, but obviously the mastermind behind what happened to Nick and everything that’s happening… that all comes out in this book, which is very exciting

I feel like the villain is secretly my favorite.

Well this is kind of what you did with the first book as well. You have this character that seems so unforgivable and then you do something with them that makes them still unforgivable, but understandable a little bit.

I always want to do that. It’s like even the characters that you don’t like — except maybe Aaron’s dad. I feel like he’s never going to get a redemption. Spoiler for all of the books. But, I do really like it when you can kind of still at least understand where the characters are coming from, even if you don’t like them or don’t like what they’re doing.

Let’s talk about the setting because I love the setting. So, in both books, we get to experience London across different time zones and that’s even more exciting in this book than it was in the first because we get to go back a little bit further. What research did you do to bring both the modern and the historical streets of London to life?

I did a ton of research. I actually, weirdly, did all this research before I even started writing the first book. I think I just did about three years of development, so it was like world building, all the research… I mean, occasionally I’d have a new setting that I would just need to research on the spot. But usually I would find that in my folder, I would have done it before. I was really surprised and happy with my past self that I’d done it.

So I did a lot of Google street view, just like walking around London virtually. And then for historical London, I went to the library. I did all the usual stuff. I read about accounts, like contemporary accounts. And I feel it’s a bit safer to write about historical London than it is almost to write about contemporary London.

It’s like, contemporary London is really hard because there’s so many experts that live there. They could be like, well, that’s not right. So in a way, I feel like I did the most research about modern day London, just trying to get the terminology right, the cultural stuff right. And then I felt almost a little bit more relaxed when I sent [the characters] back to the 1890s. I was like, look, if there’s like one word out of place, it’s okay for this. I mean, no one was there who’s still here.

And I know you’ve said in other interviews in the past that you visited London before the pandemic. Have you been back since?

No, I haven’t been back since. It’s funny, I think for the first book, I had just set it with a little bit more time, I think, in modern London. And then this one was more historical anyway.

And then I had done a little glimpse of the future, like very near future London as well. I guess I did a little bit of research on that. I was like looking at skyscrapers to come and like building plans that might be, but I also invented a couple of new pieces of architecture.

I was going to ask about that because there were a couple of buildings that I was like, oh, has she got inside information?

One that was like a really cool building, I think it was called the Tulip building that was… I think it had been semi-approved and I’d written that into the book and then I saw it was cancelled and I was like, oh no. So then I just made up a new building. I was like, I’m not going to be cancelled by this again.

I love that the monsters of this book are not what you’d typically expect when you say the word monster. Where did you get the idea for monsters being time traveling beings?

I feel like I had the concept first, like monster versus monster slayer. So there was a time when I was like, well, maybe they’re like monsters that eat you, like monsters that are really very monstrous like tear you apart. But then I made this list of all the things that I really love in books and in TV shows and movies.

I guess I was kind of trying to find patterns in there. Because, I was like, I really want to build a world I’ll really enjoy writing because I know it’s going to be a quite a long project to write. Well, at least write the first, but I didn’t even know I was going to get to write two more.

So, I was really trying to build out of things that I liked. I would say like, oh, I really like Doctor Who. I guess I really like lots of time traveling narratives. So, I thought, okay, maybe they won’t be monsters that eat you physically, maybe they’ll be more like monsters who can time travel but at a cost where they have to steal human life, in order to get to time travel.

I feel like it also gives you degrees of monstrousness. It’s like, well, if someone’s taken a few hours of someone’s life, that is pretty bad, but do they deserve to be killed? But then you’ve got like a monster that might just kill somebody without any worry, any thought. So it’s like almost degrees of monstrousness.

Yeah, and Joan does that a lot through this book where she’s looking at each of the people she knows and is counting up the number of hours. She’s counting the number of times they’ve travelled and learns about what time periods they’ve been to and starts to calculate it.

Yeah, I kind of like the idea of you are really in that in-group of monsters because it’s from the point of view of a monster girl, so it’s like, you’re in, you’re in, you’re in, you’re in, and then every now and then I kind of want to push you out again and be like, oh no, actually they’re quite evil.

But to do that time travel stuff, you obviously had to create some rules to avoid paradoxes and time loops and all that sort of stuff. I’d love your insight into that thought process because it’s a very complicated world and time travel is always a really complicated trope and yet you seem to have pulled it off quite seamlessly.

It was really hard.

Anytime anyone says, oh, you pulled this off. I’m always like, it was really hard. It was really difficult. I think the three years of development, I’d come up with the model of time travel during that. But that was really like intensive thinking about it, kind of bouncing ideas off other people.

How would this world work? What kind of model of time travel do I want? I was like, I think I want a model where nothing is truly fated. You can change the future, but it’s really hard. So, I wanted like a bit of a challenge about it as well.

So, I ended up coming up with this model, which is almost like the timeline itself is a kind of creature or an entity that pushes back against you when you try to make changes to it. But it was quite a long, almost a little bit of an organic process where I was really thinking through what kind of world do I want this to be? I wanted these characters to like travel back and forth through time all the time, but without, you know, super affecting the future every time they travel.

Like I didn’t want them to be constantly returning to the future and finding, “oh no, everything has changed because I stepped on a butterfly”. So in a way, the kind of world that I wanted came first, and then I made the rules of time travel to fit that.

The way you explain it within the book as well is just so fantastic. That sense that the timeline is its own creature and it’s its own thing.

It was a terrible moment in book two, when I had just put all these diagrams to explain time travel into the book, and my critique partner was like, what have you done? What are you doing? Just take them out. And it was literally like, just diagram after diagram. And she’s like, you don’t… don’t do this. I don’t need this.

I think the explanation you give is with Aaron throwing a pebble into the water which was just so beautifully done.

Yes! In that scene, it was like diagrams. *laughs*

Speaking of that particular period of the book, this is also possibly the first time that Joan has gone back far enough that her heritage as a biracial woman starts to come into play. What was it like writing about that?

In a way, it was actually really fun because I got to write about London’s Chinatown at that time, which I don’t think I’d really read that much about until I started researching it. It was kind of the place where the early Chinese dock workers started to settle. I think I did a little bit of poetic license because actually they kind of became more of a community a little bit later, but… it’s an alternative timeline.

But yeah, that whole area, I wish I’d been able to go to London to see that area. I think that was the main one that I wish I’d been able to see, but it’s actually not really there anymore. So it’s just like a couple of old buildings that remain and the actual Chinatown has moved since then.

So I would say, yeah, that was a really fun element to bring into it because I think you don’t always think of historical London as having quite a diverse community, so it’s really fun to create that.

It was really fun to read it as well. As you say it’s not really something that you see in historical depictions of London.

No, but actually it was there, although a tiny bit later than they were there in that time. They were just a bit of a small community that I made out.

While we’re on the subject of Joan’s heritage, she’s very much forced to deal with her half human, half monster identity in this book as well. You’ve said in the past that you wanted to represent the diaspora experience. Did you find that some of the things that you wanted to represent came out differently or perhaps more strongly than you expected?

I think I had sort of set it up to be diverse in like diverse characters. So, in a way, it was just nice to be able to have the plot play out with that kind of diversity. I really love urban fantasy, but it’s sometimes, well, I guess, the ones that you used to read in the 90s, the 2000s, they weren’t quite as diverse as I would have wanted to see. They didn’t quite reflect this, my own surroundings.

So, yes, I feel like just having set it up like that, then I didn’t really have to… I guess I just like having it in the narrative play out as it probably would have worked out.

And throughout the series, Joan is struggling with the morality of the monster world. Not just the cost of time travel, but particularly in this book also the various other powers that these families possess and utilize frequently. Can you tell us a bit more about that and what inspired you to write about those sort of moral issues?

It’s funny actually. I feel like that was a bit, that was a bit more organic than I was expecting.

I thought it was going to be a little bit — When I first started conceptualizing these, I thought it would be a little bit more lighthearted, a little bit more humorous even. But yeah, as soon as I realized that probably Nick has to kill Joan’s family, it was not the tone that I was thinking I was going to be writing.

It was such a good impetus for her to join the story that I was like, ‘I think I have to do this’. But yeah, after that I feel like the morality really strongly came in because Joan wasn’t raised as a monster, and so when she finds out about what her own family on her mother’s side are doing, she’s really shocked.

She’s like, this is truly terrible. You’re stealing human life. You don’t even care. But then she starts to find herself morally implicated as well, because when her family is killed by this human hero, she has to make a decision. Is she also going to steal life to try to change what happened? So yeah, I was really interested in, maybe even more than morality in things like consequences.

Like sometimes decisions are really hard, like maybe there’s no right decision, or maybe the right decision is going to have really bad consequences. So that was something I was really interested in for book two. It’s like all the things that Joan did, and maybe you were even on her side last time.

I wanted to show the consequences this time. When she took out the hero, when she killed the hero, essentially, she took out the humans protector and she finds at the beginning of book two, that there are some humans missing in the world that used to be there. And I think she just slowly starts to understand, Oh, that’s because of me.

Taking a break from the very serious stuff. I know you had a soundtrack for Only a Monster. Is there one for Never a Hero?

The funny thing is, I made that soundtrack on request, which was very fun. But I don’t listen to music when I’m writing. It’s um, I like absolute silence.

Although, I mean, I could write in a cafe, but I think sometimes the words get into my head while I’m trying to write at the same time. Even instrumental I find really weirdly distracting, but I feel like I’m almost more of a post-soundtrack person. And I haven’t had a good think about it yet.

Fair enough. Is there anything that now that I’ve said it, that if there was a soundtrack that you know, would definitely have to be on it.

I feel like… I often return to them. There’s like a song called ‘Monsters’, by… I think it’s a French singer called Ruelle, that always seems very appropriate when I listen to that song.

I will have to go and give it a look. Thank you for the recommendation. Alright, I’ve been holding off on this one, but let’s talk about the boys.

Oh, yeah. Okay.

So we got to know Aaron pretty well in the first book. Yeah. But in this one, we finally get to know a bit more about Nick’s personality beyond just that hero archetype. Firstly, I’m curious if you’ve already decided who Joan will end up with, if anyone.

I have, yeah. *laughs*

All right, follow up question then. What’s it like writing these two characters and making readers fall in love with both of them, especially knowing that you know who she ends up with?

It’s really fun. I feel like that was almost the element I hadn’t quite expected, like the level of engagement from readers and their level of excitement. To me, the two guys are very thematic. So, you know, Joan is half human and half monster, and I had wanted these two love interests to represent these two different sides of her and kind of be in the conversation.

So like the end game of the guys is kind of working in parallel with the endgame of the whole series. Because I always wanted to feel like how can you possibly reconcile this because I think Joan is someone who really desires harmony actually, but because you know the two sides of her are in conflict, you almost wonder how is it possible. Could she ever be in harmony again. And yet I wanted those two relationships to reflect that. How can this be resolved in a way where everyone is happy.

Ooh, I’m very curious then to see how this is resolved then. I find it really interesting as well that both of those characters, Aaron and Nick, are both problematic in their own way, but still hugely loveable. That’s a really difficult balance to strike.

It was difficult. I feel like it is difficult, but I really wanted them to have very strong relationships with Joan. So… yeah, it’s funny. I think in a way Aaron is almost, well, I guess less overtly— Well, it’s funny to talk about a hero as violent, but of course in this story from a monster’s point of view, the hero was really violent.

He’s like killing her friends, her family, because they’re monsters. But strangely in a way, the monster character Aaron is a lot less overtly violent. He’s not hurting anybody except when he takes time. So it’s almost like his violence is much more hidden.

Yeah. It’s that degrees of violence, isn’t it?

Yeah. Yeah. Physical violence versus the unknown. Yeah. But, I did always want to make sure that like neither of them actually ever harmed Joan.

Well, we’re starting to get towards the end of this interview, but I wanted to ask about your experience with book subscription boxes, because you’ve got some absolutely gorgeous editions of your books out there. I can see a couple of them on the shelf behind you. Can you tell us a bit more about the process for how those editions came about? And was it ever something you dreamed of when you were writing?

No, I feel like my dream was fully fulfilled when a publisher bought the book at all. That was like, Oh my gosh, someone’s going to read this who’s not me, who’s not my two friends that have read it.

And then I had never heard of a book box before. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know it was a thing. But I suddenly sold it to the UK, which I also had not expected; because I sold it first to Australia and the UK usually likes to have full Commonwealth rights.

So that was already unexpected. And then, as part of that, they said “also one of the book boxes has accepted your book too.” And I was really so excited. I was like Googling it. I was like book boxes. What is this? Seeing all these incredibly beautiful additions with, you know, foiling and sprayed edges and artwork on the endpapers. And then it was like, I don’t know, several more book boxes got in touch through the publishers and said, we’d also like to do it. It was really, really overwhelmingly exciting.

They’re absolutely gorgeous. And they’re so hard to come by now as well, because they all sold out so bloody quickly. That must be really exciting though, to not just see your book once. Or even, you know, a couple of times in different languages, but to also just see all these different editions with all this beautiful artwork that’s been inspired by your story.

It’s really surreal. And seeing merchandise of the book has just been truly surreal. It’s like, I didn’t expect to see playing cards with my characters on them. I did not expect to see a little canister, a little t shirt. I don’t remember what else there was, a necklace. Um, yeah, a postage stamp. I didn’t imagine that.

It’s wild. It’s not anything you could— I don’t think it’s anything that you do dream of when you’re writing a book because really you’re just writing a book.

So I take it you’re now working on the finale to the trilogy? I know, obviously there’s nothing truly huge that you can tell us, but can you give us a tiny hint of anything?

It’s so hard to talk about because there’s also a twist at the end of book two, which is huge. I will say that romance is really ramped up. I thought this is the book that I’ve been waiting for in terms of being able to actually do the end game. I had to do so much plot before to get here.

Romance and endgame plot is fantastic. I’m really excited for it. And finally, for those of us who have been left with a gaping hole and yearning for more after the cliffhanger that was the end of book two, what books can you recommend to tide us over until we get that finale?

I just read this amazing new book that just came out called The Spider and Her Demons by Sydney Khoo. It’s set in Sydney. It’s a very cute take on almost Spider Man. The character is I believe, Chinese Malaysian diaspora as well and she has sort of spidery powers.

It’s very fun. It’s a really fun read and there’s little cute references to spider man like her aunt is called Aunt May, but kind of the Chinese Mae. I love it.

I’ll have to go and look it up. Anything else you want to recommend?

Oh, I just read… I always, I feel like whenever I’m reading, it’s usually ARCs that are like six months away, but I just read this amazing ARC by June Tan.

It’s called Darker by Four. And it’s like, I don’t even know how to explain it. It’s just the coolest urban fantasy I’ve read in a really long time.

All right, adding that one onto the list for when it comes out. Thank you so much Vanessa. Congratulations again on Never a Hero. I’ve already seen it’s blowing up everywhere but I hope it continues to be super successful. And we can’t wait for the finale.

Thank you.

Never a Hero by Vanessa Len is out now from Allen & Unwin. Get yourself a copy from Booktopia HERE.

Read our review of Only a Monster HERE and stay tuned for our review of Never a Hero.

Jess Gately

Jess Gately is a freelance editor and writer with a particular love for speculative fiction and graphic novels.