And Related Subjects: Discovering a Passion for Fencing

In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!

It all started with The Princess Bride.

By the time I was fourteen, I’d seen the movie so many times I could recite it forwards and backwards and in rhyme. I’d grown up an athletic child, a competitive soccer player since age 4, with stints ranging from months to years in gymnastics, softball, volleyball. I was—and am still—a dreamer, and I had no trouble dreaming big. I vividly remember hitting tennis balls against our garage door in California while conducting mock interviews about my many championship matches.

Thanks to Mia Hamm, I wanted to go to the World Cup. And later, thanks to Westley and Inigo Montoya, I wanted to be a fencer.

That is how it started. I was fourteen, watching The Princess Bride for the 254321th time, captivated by Westley and Inigo dueling on the cliff-top. I had never held a sword in my life, but I phoned my mum and said, “I want to learn to fence!”

Being the mother of a precocious and overly imaginative only child meant fielding a series of short bright flares of enthusiasm, so my mum took the statement in stride. Last week it was espionage, this week it was fencing. She figured it would pass.

Unfortunately for my mum, she dismissed my swash-buckling dreams with the following fateful line: “Sure, Victoria, if you can find a fencing studio in Nashville, Tennessee, you can take a lesson.”

Rule 1: Never go in against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line.

Rule 2: Never issue a challenge to a precocious and overly imaginative only child.

Three hours later, I returned with the name and number of a fencing coach.

A week later, I had my first lesson, and I was hooked.

Unlike Westley and Inigo, I AM left-handed, a detail which really DOES come in handy when you’re fencing épée. I was never the best—a point that plagues me, a point that still whispers in my head whenever I have a shred of downtime—but I was addicted. Over the next five years, I would become state champion and go on to compete in a national tournament (I ranked 14th).

It’s a brutal sport, and for several years I bore the cuts and bruises to show for it. It’s a solitary sport, coming from soccer, where wins and losses are the work of teams. It’s a sport I wish I’d found as a self-possessed adult, rather than a teen who already felt apart from others. It’s a sport I’m just now coming back to.

Fencing is a game of living chess, a match where reflexes only work in combination with intent, and mind and body must work together at every moment.

When I got to University, I put down my sword (fencing is an expensive, travel-heavy game, and professors aren’t keen to overlook absences), and didn’t pick it up again until this past summer, on my 27th birthday.

And oh, it hurt. Young people like to think they’re invincible. They don’t like to face any situation where they’ve gotten weaker instead of stronger. I’ve remained an athlete, a distance swimmer with a side of running and rock-climbing thrown in, but I’m not a fencer anymore. Not yet. It hurt, to see how out of shape I was, how far down the rungs I’d fallen, but while my body needs tuning, my mind feels stronger than ever, ready to play the sword games my teenage brain wasn’t quite fit for.

Luckily for me, fencing doesn’t have an expiration date.

And when my Masters program ends this summer and I find myself back on Nashville soil, the first thing I plan to do is pick up my sword…

After re-watching The Princess Bride, of course.

V.E. Schwab is the author of YA novels The Near Witch, The Archived, and The Unbound. Schwab’s first adult novel, Vicious, debuted to critical praise and reader accolades. Her latest novel, A Darker Shade of Magic, takes us on a journey through parallel Londons—available now in the US from Tor Books and in the UK from Titan.


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