Q&A with Veronica Roth
The author of the mega-hit Divergent series talks books, life and growing up in Barrington
Veronica Roth’s debut novel Divergent, which she began writing when she was in college, was a breakaway bestseller that transformed her almost overnight into a fan favorite among readers of sci-fi and fantasy fiction. The young novelist immediately caught the attention of Hollywood and a series of top-grossing movies followed. A graduate of Barrington High School and the creative writing program at Northwestern University, Roth has recently released The Fates Divide, the second book in her Carve the Mark series.
What were you interested in when you were the age of your young heroes?
Writing! I was fixated on it, to the point where I think my mom was a little worried. She just wanted to make sure I didn’t become anti-social, I think. She’s always been a good balancing influence.
How did you spend your time as a teen?
We did a lot of driving around. Going to 7-Eleven for slushies or to the grocery store to get Funfetti cake mix, stuff like that. The people I hung out with in high school weren’t really into partying, so we had to find ways to entertain ourselves — spending time in each other’s basements watching “What Not to Wear.” My boyfriend was in a metal band, so I went to a lot of metal shows to see him play.
What kind of student were you?
I was very dedicated, determined to get good grades and get into a good college, but I tried to challenge myself, so I was never the smartest in any class. (Not even close!) I sang in choir and I was on the congressional debate team. I played volleyball for a little while, too, but gave it up to focus on school, because our volleyball program at the time was very competitive (and successful).
Do you still have favorite haunts in and around Barrington and the suburbs?
I was so excited to introduce my husband to Boloney’s Sandwich Shop, which has been part of my life since I was a kid. (I’m sad to hear it has changed, but at least it didn’t close!) I haven’t gotten to take him to the Bread Basket yet, but we went to Canteen Restaurant and Egg Harbor when it was still in that little Hough Street location. Apparently most of my Barrington favorites are breakfast places!
How old were you when you started writing fiction?
Ten or 11, I think. My mother bought a lot of “kits” to keep us occupied — we were never allowed to complain about being bored — and one of them was a “bookmaking” kit. You filled in the pages and then sent them off to be bound. It made me realize I could write all my imaginings down.
How did your time at Northwestern help you develop as a writer?
The first time I ever let other people read my work — except for assignments in high school — was in a short story workshop at Northwestern. You have to sit silently as other people critique your work — you can’t defend yourself. The theory is that if you have to explain your story for people to understand it, you aren’t writing well enough. The only thing that matters is the story itself. I’ve carried that lesson with me, as well as a high tolerance for criticism, directly from Northwestern. I would absolutely not be the writer I am today without that program. I started Divergent while I was in college, but not for a class, just on the side!
How did you feel when Divergent started to take off?
I was waiting for the other shoe to drop! I’m very pessimistic that way. I don’t trust good things to last. I didn’t expect it to be as big as it was! I didn’t expect it to get published, period. That was my real dream, so everything after that was just extremely good icing on an already good cake.
How was the experience of watching the movies for the first time?
It was unreal. To see the finished product after all that work and to know how many people worked on it — not just the director and actors, but the costume designers and production designers and editors and the craftsmen who built the sets, everyone! — was an unforgettable experience. I knew that no matter how the movies performed at the box office, or how similar they were to the books, just that feeling, that people had taken my ideas and put that much work into making them come alive, was truly remarkable.
Can you give our readers a quick overview of the Carve the Mark series?
Carve the Mark is about a young man named Akos, who lives on a frozen, divided planet. He and his brother are kidnapped by the “enemy” nation’s leader, and he enlists the help of Cyra, a young woman suffering from a kind of supernatural chronic pain, to rescue his brother. Then everything gets a little more complicated. Along the way, he discovers there’s more to the people he’s been taught to hate than he ever imagined.
The Fates Divide is about the aftermath of Carve the Mark, which I’ll try not to spoil — but essentially, the two nations that Cyra and Akos are from are now at war, and they are desperate to end it before too many people get hurt. As you might
imagine, that’s bordering on impossible.
You’re writing about people from different galaxies, yet they come across as entirely human. What do you think science fiction can teach your young readers about the world they live in?
Well, nothing in science fiction comes from nowhere. I am from this planet (obviously) and from this time; the ideas that I come up with in my writing emerge from the particular context of my life, culture and knowledge. The Fates Divide is about a war on fantastical planets, but I know what war is because of what I’ve read and learned. Science fiction gives you an escape from reality, yes, but at the same time, it very much doesn’t. It shows you, through exaggeration, parts of yourself and your world. Maybe it even shows you them for the first time, because it offers you enough distance to encounter ideas in a way that feels fresh, or safe or new.
With Cyra, in particular, you’ve created a multi-dimensional character — she’s strong, curious and resourceful, but also vulnerable. Did you set out to create a role model for young girls?
No, I try to avoid prescriptive writing as much as possible. No role models, no lessons. My responsibility to young people, I believe, is to be honest with them — which doesn’t mean making everything realistic, because we’re talking about books with prophecies and supernatural powers in them! But it means, to the extent possible, making characters feel real, which means imperfect, and responding to situations imperfectly, sometimes quite poorly. My hope is that when people read my books, the stories become one strand in an incredibly complex web of ideas that they consider as they develop.
Your young heroes are fighters, out to change the world. Considering recent events in Parkland, Florida, do you have thoughts on the “hero” survivors who are up-ending attitudes toward gun laws?
Honestly, what those amazing young people make me feel most is the weight of my own responsibility. They are taking action because we forced them to by not doing enough, by not fighting for their safety hard enough. And while I support them wholeheartedly, I can’t escape that weight. They have endured a trauma they should never have endured.
What do you enjoy about writing for young adults?
I love how they read. When you’re an adult, it’s so easy to be cynical about stories that you no longer immerse yourself in reading. But for the average teen reader, books still completely absorb them, feel real to them, matter to them in a special way. I love being a voice that speaks, not about them, not over them, but to them. And I love listening to them, too.
Do you ever get writer’s block?
Often! I go back to the point at which the story stopped working and delete everything that followed, then figure out what went wrong, and write it again.
Does the story come out exactly as you imagine, or do you go through multiple drafts?
So many drafts! The real work of writing, to me, is in revision. It’s like a rough draft is just clay, and the actual sculpture happens when you make something with it.
Favorite childhood or teen book or movie?
“Wayne’s World” is our family movie. And my favorite books? Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver and anything by Judy Blume
Is writing easy for you or difficult?
Both! Always both.
Which writers inspire you?
Writers doing something completely different from me. Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro come to mind — their characters, their subtlety, their command of language. Something to aim for, certainly.
What do you do for pleasure?
Lately, I’ve been learning about photography from my husband. Also, boxing, when I can.
Favorite thing to do in the west suburbs?
This is true, I swear, not just a crowd pleaser — I like hanging out with my mom. We see movies. We do art projects. We talk about life. She’s the best.
Best lesson from your success?
Your worth is not in your work.