Queer vampire series First Kill, created by New York Times bestselling author Victoria “V. E.” Schwab, based upon her own short story of the same name, launches on Netflix today, Friday, June 10th. It’s a “Juliet and Juliet” tale of two households and forbidden love, which introduces us to teenage vampire Juliette (Sarah Catherine Hook) as the time draws near for her to make her first kill so that she can take her place among a powerful vampire family. She sets her sights on a new girl at her high school, Calliope (Imani Lewis), but much to Juliette’s surprise, Calliope is a vampire hunter from a family of celebrated slayers, who is looking to make her own first kill. Both find that the other won’t be so easy to defeat, but way too easy to fall for. Felicia D. Henderson serves as showrunner alongside executive producer Emma Roberts on the eight-episode series.
Schwab, who wrote a beautiful coming out essay for Oprah Daily in 2020, is the author of more than twenty books, including the acclaimed Shades of Magic series, the Villains series, the Cassidy Blake series and the international bestseller The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Ahead of today’s premiere of First Kill on Netflix, Victoria “V.E.” Schwab spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about her inspiration for the premise, the evolution of queer screen representation, the thrill of seeing the cast embody the characters she created, what advice she has to encourage fellow writers, and her favourite piece of LGBTQ+ culture.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: You’ve said that you often like to have an ending in mind to help drive the writing process. I wondered to what extent that was true with First Kill and if you could give me an insight into what inspired this really delicious premise?
Victoria “V.E.” Schwab: “As far as endings go, it’s a little trickier when you have many, many players in the game. It’s something that I love to do as a novelist when I’m the sole creator—when I’m playing God—but with a show it’s a very extensive pantheon. There are a couple moments that happen towards the end of the season that were in my original show Bible, so I was very excited to see those happen. There’s also a huge amount that I didn’t anticipate. We got into the room and came up with the stories. I had certain goalposts and I couldn’t wait to reach them, but a lot surprised me along the way.”
“In terms of the general inspiration for the story, I grew up with Buffy and Supernatural. I grew up loving genre, but you don’t often see yourself in it, except as a side character, as kind of a throwaway. I often joke—but it’s not really a joke—that if I had seen myself more in some of these shows it might not have taken me as long to come out. I came out when I was 27. So a lot of it was me wanting to tell a story that 16-year-old me might have seen herself in, kind of breaking down the binaries of what queerness looks like. Also, I really wanted to write queer existence, because we’ve come so far, we have so many amazing queer narratives these days, especially on television, but the vast majority of them are about queerness. We get to have space if we’re talking about our identity, but we’re so much more than our identity, and we get to have that depth and complexity. So I like to write genre stories featuring queer characters to say, ‘You get to have adventures, you get to have genre, and it doesn’t always have to be about your gender or sexuality.’ So that’s so much of what I wanted to do with Juliet and Calliope. Of course, there’s taboo in the story, but the taboo is that one’s a vampire and one’s a monster hunter, not that both are girls.”
Yes, I’m sure we’ve both read and watched so much where the hints are dropped…’Oh, this might be a queer character’ and there’s almost a drum roll and then a reveal. And we don’t get with First Kill.
“We’re fed on crumbs, right?! We’re fed on crumbs! As queers we’re always given subtext, and I don’t want subtext!”
I loved the coming out essay that you wrote for Oprah Daily, where you described your characters as beginning to live the way you do, “unrepentant, never reduced to their queerness only expanded by it. It infuses them in many ways, sometimes subtle, others loud. They take up space in the world, space they deserve.” How is that realized in Calliope and Juliet in First kill?
“In the simplest of terms, it’s not a coming out story. Both of these girls are already out, they have full acceptance by their families. It is a non-issue. Their coming out stories are addressed, but by the time we meet these girls that’s not the secret that they’re hiding. Of course, shows depend on tension, they depend on conflict, and so there’s plenty of that in the show, but the conflict for Juliet and Calliope has nothing to do with who they like and how they identify.”
How did you find going from what I imagine is a pretty solitary endeavor of writing novels to being in a writers room and being involved in a big television production?
“It’s a challenge. The collaboration is kind of the feature and the bug, right? But it really is the feature. I still write novels, that’s still 95% of what I do, so I saw it as an amazing opportunity to have other minds involved which was also absolutely essential, because there’s creative intention and there’s lived experience. I’m never going to possess the lived experience to write for half of this show, for half of this cast. So there was never going to be a world wherein this story could be brought to life without representation. Having the writers room and having Felicia our showrunner allowed us to have an incredible breadth of voice and representation that ensured that we were doing our due diligence and telling the best story possible.”
What was it like to see your characters brought to life by this incredible cast?
“That was probably my nerdiest moment! The moment that I was on set and I got to actually see these characters that I had made up on paper, that I had given these identities to and these quirks to, to actually see an actor breathe life into that role and to have it be more than the sum of its parts. When you’re writing a novel, whatever’s on paper is all that there is and the rest is left up to the reader’s imagination. So to get to see an actor, not only possess and inhabit, but create these characters really, was the coolest part of this entire process.”
You’ve said that sometimes it can take a little while for character names to come to you, what was that process like with First Kill?
“Well, the Burns family came first, the hunters. The three children are named Theseus, Apollo, and Calliope. So they all have very classic names because they’re our heroes. They’re our slayers, the best of the best, so I wanted to give them champion names and give them that god element, these chosen ones. Whereas with Juliet, the whole family has very classic southern, old money names like Elinor and Margot and Sebastian. With Juliet herself, it’s a nod to Romeo and Juliet. This story is “Juliet and Juliet“, so I could never have named her anything else.”
What’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?
“Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is one of my absolute favorite stories, and also film adaptations, with Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. The first time I read that, I was like, ‘Wait, lesbians can have literary, historical stories as well?!’ That was one of those stories that just broke my mind open and I thought, ‘Oh, it doesn’t always have to be about identity. It can be a story where someone has a full, rich life.’ That story is a thriller, it has twists; it’s a Rashomon-style retell. To get to see that level of complexity and depth in a novel, and then to see it done so wonderfully on screen, I found deeply inspiring.”
You’ve built up an extensive body of work over this last decade, what advice do you give to writers who might have a novel in their minds but maybe need to hear a little encouragement to help them realize their own creative works?
“I write my endings first for a reason, and it’s because I’m a very anxious person who’s constantly prone to quitting. I find that having an ending that excites you means that on bad days, you won’t quit because there’s a measurable distance between you and the finish line, and on good days, you can’t wait to get there. I feel like you can never get too lost in a story that way. Very many of us start stories and very few of us finish them. It’s really less about convincing anyone to write and more about convincing them not to quit. What I would say is, have an ending that excites you, but also to remember that you are writing for an audience of one person, and that audience is you. As long as you can write a story that you are excited by, that you want to read, then no matter whatever else happens with it, you are not wasting your time.”
By James Kleinmann
First Kill debuts on Netflix on Friday, June 10th 2022.