Young adult author Veronica Roth taps into a youthful zeitgeist. Her best-selling novels transport readers to dystopian futures where love still survives.
Veronica Roth is a bestselling author best known for the Divergent series of novels for young adults.
Roth was born in 1988 in New York City and raised in the Chicago suburb of Barrington, IL. She wrote her first novel, Divergent (2011), while studying creative writing at Northwestern University and sold the publishing rights before she graduated in 2010. It tells the story of a young woman in a post-apocalyptic United States. Two sequels, Insurgent (2012) and Allegiant (2013), followed in quick succession, selling millions of copies worldwide. The books were adapted into three films. Released between 2014 and 2016, the movies grossed over $750 million.
Roth has also published several other books related to the Divergent trilogy, as well as the two-book Carve the Mark series and unrelated young adult stories. She published her first speculative fiction novel for adults, Chosen Ones, in 2020.
(Excerpt from Veronica Roth’s Divergent)
Somewhere inside me is a merciful, forgiving person. Somewhere there is a girl who tries to understand what people are going through, who accepts that people do evil things, and that desperation leads them to darker places than they ever imagined. I swear she exists.
Veronica Roth was just 21 when she wrote her first book. Divergent would become a best seller, and the first part of a young adult trilogy. It quickly amassed an international following. And in short order the stories were turned into big budget movies. But looking back, Roth is now a little critical of those early successes.
Roth: The series that I’m most famous for and that people continue to read, which is a huge blessing, is like the thing that I’m embarrassed—you know, I’m embarrassed because I’ve grown as a writer since then.
Veronica Roth wasn’t your average student at Northwestern, more focused on writing fiction than classes or parties. She wrote Divergent during the winter break of her senior year; within months, she had an agent and had signed a three book deal, all before graduation. Less than a year later, she sold the film rights to the series before the first novel Divergent had even hit the shelves. At the time, the young student author was still getting to know herself and was managing an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. Because of this, she began a cathartic process of character building, exploring traits she aspired to like self-assurance and bravery.
Roth: Over the course of writing the series, I got a diagnosis and then I did exposure therapy for that anxiety disorder. And so it was almost like writing Divergent was like priming myself for that experience without—I had no idea that that was what was necessary to make my mental health better. But I had an instinct for like, there’s something powerful in this. There’s something powerful about encountering your fear in order to eradicate it. There was something nice about kind of watching that character grow and then believing that maybe it would be worth it to go through this pain in order to grow. Like, let’s see what’s on the other end of that basically, I mean suffering, like I don’t want to be dramatic about exposure therapy, but it sucks. So, but what happens on the other end of it is really powerful.
Roth transformed her desire for fearlessness into the Dauntless, a group of people in the Divergent series who embody courage. They’re one of five factions organized by virtue where all people choose a clear path and purpose in life based on where they feel they naturally belong. Together, each faction contributes one highly developed human quality to the whole. The Divergent world began as Roth’s vision of a perfect society. But as the story took shape, she realized that her utopia had become a dystopia for her characters. And soon after, she became known as the new face of dystopian fiction, even though that was never her intention.
Roth: I didn’t do a lot of dreaming. I just was so buried in loving the writing, the actual like sitting down and doing it of it, not the idea of what I could make of it, but just what it was. And I feel that way still, I don’t have, I mean, I have like some, I have goals, but only because I’ve been forced to articulate that to people.
Fame followed in the wake of her Hollywood successes, compounding the pressure she felt from her publishers, her fans, and critics. Although years of storytelling had prepared Roth to write a novel, nothing quite prepared her for the demands of life in the spotlight.
Roth: It was really difficult, especially with the anxiety problem that I had. It was like a way of making my worst nightmare happen. You know, suddenly everybody is staring at you. I know it seems like the books were universally beloved, but all I could see were the parts where people didn’t like them or didn’t like me. So it was like being exposed to, I don’t know, to the unkindness of the world all of a sudden on a scale that I was not prepared for. I’m not sure how you prepare for it, but for me it was a really difficult period of time. So even though everyone would say, “Isn’t this so exciting?” It’s like, yes, technically I suppose it is. But from my perspective, because I’m taking in all the negativity and sort of like ignoring the positivity, for me it’s not so exciting. It’s more scary.
10 years on, Veronica Roth has matured and her books reflect this personal growth. She’s tapping into her upbringing and the influence of her loved ones to create fuller, more immersive worlds. If on her own she had a knack for characters and the action of the story, she’s learned from the people closest to her, her mother, a painter, and her husband, a photographer, to better explore life’s easily missed details. Their influences deepened her own ability to find beauty in what often goes unappreciated, from her Midwestern hometown of Barrington, Illinois, just a stone’s throw from where she currently lives in Chicago. And even to insects that others might swat away.
Roth: I know that people aren’t always fond of the place that they’ve lived most of their lives, but for some reason I just love it here. Like I have a real deep appreciation for Midwestern culture particularly, and maybe it’s because I love things that are harder to love sometimes. And I find things beautiful that are harder to find beautiful. My mom loves insects, like the look of them. We have cicadas here a lot. So in the summer, it’s just like that horrible screeching sound is so loud, but she always picked up their shells to incorporate into painting. And she would kind of collect the shells to, or dead butterflies or whatever to like put in them. So she, I think, has this tendency too where she, you know, this is something that like other people find disgusting and she is so excited by it. And so she’s kind of always been that way. So maybe it started a lot earlier than I thought. I would love to notice more details. Like that’s my husband’s strength, he sees everything. He sees everything. I don’t see anything. So for me, that’s like what I’ve been growing toward. And also I think it’s, it’s more interesting. Like anyone can look at a mountain and be like, wow. And I do, you know, I think mountains are beautiful too. But I think it takes a little bit of patience and a little bit of curiosity to find other things interesting, to look for what’s valuable about things that people are ready to discard.
And her fictitious landscapes are where she explores the detritus of human existence. They’re born of the marshy lakes and lush forests of her childhood as well as of her beloved Chicago, it’s glittering skyline never far away in her writing. Growing up reading science fiction and fantasy novels like Harry Potter, Dune, and Lord of the Rings brought magic to the world she knew and possibilities to the ones she’d later create.
Roth: I read like a, like a wild man when I was a kid. Like you couldn’t pry books out of my hands. I would read at breakfast and I would read in the shower, you know, like holding it out of the spray. And I would just like, that was how I kind of survived having to go to all my sister’s volleyball games. So I was always reading. And so I think that was like the earliest education that I had, was just loving story.
As a young reader, Veronica Roth was drawn to “chosen ones,” heroes appointed by fate to save the world by defeating villains. It’s a topic she continues to explore in her work today. In her favorite books, chosen ones were painted as pure against a background of darkness of evil, but if Roth’s early interest in a hero’s destiny inspired her to write stories like Divergent, as a more mature author, she’s become interested in the inner lives of her heroes, going deeper, where her own early stories left off. In her 2017 series, Carve the Mark, Roth’s characters echo the voice of a writer moved by the gray areas of human experience.
(Excerpt from Veronica Roth’s Carve the Mark)
I got the feeling, looking at her, that she wanted the world around her to be simple, including the people in it. Maybe she had to feel that way, carrying the fate of a nation-planet on our shoulders. But I had learned that the world did not become something just because you needed it to. ‘You want to see people as extremes, bad or good, trustworthy or not,’ I said, ‘I understand it’s easier that way, but that isn’t how people work.’
Although It would be easier to continue writing stories about good at war with evil, Roth began to reevaluate the use of violent conflict in her novels as she became more aware of the impact of real world violence. She started by revising Divergent‘s protagonist Tris.
Roth: My relationship to writing about violence has changed, even though my books have not gotten less violent, I would say. My feeling about the way that it’s done is different now. So I think when I wrote Divergent, you know, I was young and I wasn’t thinking so much about the impact of it. And those books read a little bit like an action movie where the violence has little impact, you know, on the world and also on the character. And then while I was writing it was, there were like a series of school shootings. And I thought like, uh-oh, you know, What are you doing? What are you writing? What are you putting into the world? What are you communicating about this? So, you know, I had set up this world with guns in it. Throughout the series, they become less and less prevalent, and that’s why. I realized that she needed to, as a character, contend with what she had done and to become disturbed by it. I’ve been really committed to making sure that when violence is used, it’s taken seriously. So you think, you know, “Oh, I’m writing in a fantasy world, so whatever,” but what you need is to find the grounded humanity inside of the fantasy world. Otherwise you’re asking people to believe too many impossible things. So even though my subsequent books have taken place in a galaxy far, far away, the violence that takes place in those places has a real and profound impact on those characters. And so it’s more about using it to showcase like what kind of impact it has as opposed to using it because it’s like fun to watch, which obviously it is fun for us to watch because otherwise action movies wouldn’t exist, but I don’t want my books to be action movies. I love action movies, but I would prefer to explore the emotional and psychological impact of violence.
Roth’s first attempt at writing for an older audience, Chosen Ones, explores a new protagonist Sloan, who offers the candid perspective of a hero after the world is saved. She is famous for the worst thing that’s ever happened to her, the slaying of the Dark One. As she shifts from hero to anti-hero, meeting the petty demands of a saved world with slumped shoulders and a scowl, we see the after-effects of heroism, boredom, and cynicism when dealing with the mundanity of everyday life.
(Excerpt from Veronica Roth’s Chosen Ones)
When she sets down her mug, I see the scar on the back of her right hand. It’s wide, stretching all the way across, and jagged and knotted. She’s never told anyone what it’s from and I’m sure she won’t tell me, but I have to ask anyway. “Paper cut,” she says. I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be a joke, so I laugh. I ask her if she’s going to the dedication of the 10 years monument and installation artwork erected on the site of the Dark One’s defeat. And she tells me, “It’s part of the gig,” like this is a desk job she applied for instead of a literal destiny. “It sounds like you don’t enjoy it,” I say. “What gave me away?” she smirks.
Veronica Roth’s characters build resilience by enduring chaos and violence, but by remaining open and soft hearted. She’s building her own kind of real-world resilience, one that she believes we can all tap into by relying less on heroes and more on each other.