Novelist Veronica Roth and pianist Amy Yang see a way forward.
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.
Amy Yang is a renowned classical pianist and chamber musician.
Born in China, Yang moved to the United States with her family in 1995 at age 11. Her father, mother, and grandfather were trained musicians and she began to play on her father’s piano at an early age. She studied at Curtis Institute of Music, Juilliard School, and Yale School of Music, and returned to Curtis in 2011 as a piano teacher and program director. She is also a chamber music coach at the University of Pennsylvania and a teaching affiliate at Haverford and Bryn Mawr colleges.
As a chamber musician, Yang has appeared at music festivals in Europe and the United States and performed at many of the world’s major concert halls. Her repertoire ranges from the baroque era to the present day; she has premiered works by numerous composers. Her debut album, Resonance (2018), features music by Bach, Shuman, and contemporary Pulitzer-winner Caroline Shaw. She has also recorded with violinists Tessa Lark and Itamar Zorman, clarinet player Jose Franch-Ballester, and trombonist Achilles Liarmakopoulos.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that helps us explain who we are to ourselves and to others. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, “Lateral Visions.” 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: 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.
And pianist Amy Yang plays and absorbs music in an unusual way. Touch, listening, and her own visualizations give her a unique perspective on the sound she’s producing.
Amy Yang: I try to really tune into the lifespan of the notes. The note can exist right before it’s played, in I think your imagination, and as you sort of bring it to life, it has that lifespan. I mean, how does the sound decay? How does it carry its way to the next note?
That’s all ahead, on Articulate.
(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.
The Washington Post has called Amy Yang “a jaw-dropping pianist who steals the show…with effortless finesse.” But Yang has a secret: when she plays the piano, she is also singing and painting.
Amy Yang: You know, there are so many inscriptions in my scores that just say, “Sing, sing.” It’s basically open your heart and sing. It’s such an amazingly powerful yet simple, liberating and empowering idea. Yeah, it’s the permission to let your voice be heard.
And for Yang, performance gives access to complex ideas and feelings from within and beyond herself.
Yang: That’s the ultimate goal, is how can I play a sound that really can be transported through space in an emotional way.
And Yang has spent her life finding deeply human connections through music. As a soloist and chamber musician, she’s performed on some auspicious stages, including the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall and the White House. She has premiered dozens of new works, and she released her debut album in 2019.
Hers is the story of a musical life born not from wealth or privilege, but from soldiering on through hardship with hope that spans across time and cultures. Born in China in 1984, Yang remembers first poking the piano keys from a step stool. Her father was a composer, her mother a soprano, and her grandfather conducted her in a children’s choir. But Yang’s musical life would not begin for many years and thousands of miles away. When Yang was eight, her father moved to the US to secure a more hopeful future for his family. She and her mother, alone in Beijing, survived with little means. But for Yang, soldiering was in her blood. Even at such a young age, she was aware of the hardships her family survived before she was born.
Yang: Especially on my father’s side, they went through the Cultural Revolution, and through famine, through poverty. Everything that was a disaster that it was.
The Cultural Revolution was a campaign to ban art, literature, and music that was tied to the West and traditional bourgeois values. Under Mao Zedong’s rule, instruments were destroyed and musicians and professors of classical music were actively persecuted. Yang’s family came through it with wisdom born of extreme difficulties.
Yang: But I think that’s always on the back of my mind, just first of all, how lucky I am to be their child, but also that the lessons that they learned are actually ones of optimism and hope for life rather than, you know, I’ve been tortured so much, and saying life is not worth living.
After three years, Amy Yang and her mother joined her father in Houston. It was a happy reunion, but as a shy 11-year-old, navigating a foreign culture was confusing. Her father began taking her to concerts and the excursions became her favorite escape. One evening, she attended a piano recital by one of her father’s friends, Timothy Hester. It was a life-changing event.
Yang: My dad said after the concert, I asked him if I can take lessons from him and they happened to be good friends. So my dad brought me over and I was so lucky that he accepted me.
Like a dam breaking, music began to flow through Amy Yang, and she became diligent in her practice. Her dedication would eventually lead to a full scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, then onto the Juilliard School, and then the Yale School of Music. Mastering difficult compositions was fun, but there was something much deeper that captivated her. Through the composer’s notes, she could explore their internal lives.
Yang: It is so extraordinary because you’re doing it in notes, in sound. How does that translate? How do we get to be a part of someone’s emotional world through sound waves and through their collection of notes and how they structure things? It is extraordinary to me.
When Amy Yang plays, she is free. Free to express the emotions of the music. Free to transcend her past. And with that freedom, her voice emerges and she honors the calling of the music by engaging all of her senses, and her imagination allows her to criss-cross sensory experiences. The lines of a drawing can dance and music can have color. Sometimes she paints music as she imagines it.
Yang: I could see it changing color depending on the context. And yeah, for me, it’d be more harmony related rather than single notes. But certain harmonies and even in their inversions had different colors. I think there is a polarity in this piece, that harmonic relationship between, you know, G flat and F sharp. Yeah, again, same notes, but in different contexts. It has a different coloring, different meaning. I try to really tune into the lifespan of the notes. The note can exist right before it’s played, in I think your imagination, and as you’re kind of bring it to life, it has that lifespan. I mean, once it sounds, how does the sound decay? How does it kind of carry it’s way to the next note? When I do feel like the chemistry is right, when I’ve put in enough work, when I’ve grown to understand what I’m doing in performance, it is, it is like, yeah, channeling, traveling. Yeah, at that moment, I do feel like, yeah, I’m doing something worthy. I’m making this music sing, that I’m, I’m perhaps helping to give, give its voice its due.
AJC: But is there any sense of it being, you’re almost above it? Like, you’re not…
Yang: Mmhmm yeah.
AJC: Do you allow yourself that?
Yang: Yeah, above it as in like it’s not, actually not quite made by me. It’s like it’s, yeah, I had a recent experience performing for Philadelphia Chamber Music Society where I did feel like, well, towards the end of the program, I was entering another realm. Like it was, yeah, I was playing the music, but it was deeper in space.
AJC: Did the people who were listening to you, do you think they understood that?
Yang: I certainly hope some of that freedom could be felt by them and therefore they could help them to feel a certain level of joy and freedom in their lives, even if it’s just for the duration of the concert.
There’s no doubt that Amy Yang’s performances can feel otherworldly, but there are people who rely on her to attend to more temporal matters. Her husband John, also a pianist, and their son Saron, who is asserting his independence, just as toddlers do.
Yang: I hope that as he gets older, that so many of these wonderful ways of looking at life and persevering through difficulty that I’ve learned from, you know, my family and certainly from mentors over the years, I’m able to somehow model that for him.
And her parents are never far from her thoughts.
Yang: For them to rise above the ashes and hold such a light in their minds, in their psyche and in their heart and such hope for the future generation for me, for me, my son is such a beautiful gift that I try to remember.
And to honor this gift, Amy Yang lovingly gives voice to and insight into the deepest human emotions: hers, her listeners, ours.