With a best-selling trilogy and a film based on one of her books to be released next year, Veronica Roth, 25, is already a giant of the genre aimed at teens and twentysomethings. James Kidd meets her in London
Very hot property
“Success can really mess with your mind if you are not careful. The whole identity shift. Things become normal that aren’t normal. I have a lot good people in my life who I’ve told: ‘Kick me very hard in the butt if you think I am becoming this horrible, big-headed person.’ They haven’t done that yet, so I assume it hasn’t happened.”
So says Veronica Roth, the 25-year-old, Chicago-born novelist who, in just four years, has become the hottest property in the world of young adult fiction. Her dark, dystopian trilogy featuring Beatrice “Tris” Prior has sold over five million copies, making Roth the author most likely to usurp the “YA” throne from Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins.
Her new novel, Allegiant, which completes the series, has just been voted best Young Adult Fantasy on the influential Goodreads website. Divergent, the first part of Roth’s series is set to appear in cinemas next March starring Shailene Woodley, Theo James and Kate Winslet.
The Veronica Roth I encounter seems primed for global stardom in 2014. Striking, pale and angular, she radiates poise, sitting almost motionless throughout our meeting, and looking utterly at home in her chic London hotel. In this, she is the polar opposite of Tris, her wild, tattooed and somewhat mercurial heroine. “I was the good kid who came home at a reasonable hour and never did anything wrong.” What the pair have in common is a keen intelligence, a fraught backstory and, as befits every modern heroine from Twilight’s Bella Swan to The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen, a decent man. For Roth, it is her husband, Nelson Fitch, for Tris, her moody, but vulnerable beau, Four.
But Tris’s coming-of-age arc – from fearful insecurity to wisdom and courage – finds strong echoes in Roth’s own life and character. The youngest of three children (she has an older brother and sister), Roth was born in Chicago. Any chances of a happy childhood did not last long. “My parents are divorced,” she says, her voice falling noticeably on the final word. “My dad wasn’t around us much when we were kids. My mom was pretty much managing three children and a job. My dad was helping, but being in the house day-in-day-out is the challenge of parenting. My mother is very brave, very strong in moments that must have been very hard for her. She never let that pain leak into us.”
Mothers do well out of Divergent. Roth describes her own – a painter called Barbara Ross – as the most important influence on her writing. “My mom was a huge voice. She’s not a writer, but she was always saying it’s OK to fail as long as you’ve tried your hardest. I realised at a certain point the kinds of hard choices she had had to make to make a better life for us.”
Fathers fare less well. both in life and art. Four’s abusive father is one of Allegiant’s villains: “I know what he told me – that I was broken, that I was worthless, that I was nothing. How many of those things did he make me believe?”
Roth is distinctly uncomfortable when discussing her own. “He had a job, and worked far away. Now I have a good relationship with my stepdad,” she adds quickly. When I return to her biological father, she takes evasive action. “You are pressing me. But I am not going to talk about it.” Roth laughs unconvincingly when I apologise. “You’re just doing your job,” she replies as if she were describing a sewage plant.
Arguably the theme that connects Roth to her fiction is the question of how emotional damage can be repaired. “Allegiant’s last line is about healing, and you can’t talk about healing without talking about loss.”
Roth began her own restoration at school, where she became a born-again Christian: all three novels offer thanks to God in the acknowledgements. “It’s a part of my personal life. The books have posed some challenges to me personally. Just struggling with the pressure, and how to conceive of yourself after you become successful very quickly. In that sense, my religious beliefs have been a great help to me.”
Roth talks in similarly cathartic terms about writing. She began when she was 11 years old in the sixth grade. “It has been a little weird. Like diving into my psyche. Tris grows up in an oppressive environment and chooses this bold path. I think anxiety makes your internal environment very oppressive. It makes you unable to do the things you want to. Following her through this really bold move was helpful for me.”
If one word defines Roth’s character, it is anxiety. “When people reach out to me about very serious things, it is about mental illness. I have been pretty open about my struggles with anxiety and I think it makes it feel safe to tell me. Especially people with anxiety problems really latch onto the whole message of, ‘Be brave’.”
The idea for Divergent came to Roth when she was a freshman studying psychology at Minnesota’s Carleton College. “I was learning about exposure theory. A phobia sufferer is exposed to the stimulus that provokes their fear response until they learn a healthier response. It does work very well.” This inspired Divergent’s initiation rites in which Tris and her comrades face their deepest fears. “Four” is so-named because he only has four. Roth cheerfully confesses to rather more. “Bugs, heights, all sorts of things.” When I ask if she has ever undergone Exposure Theory herself, she replies: “Yes, but for anxiety not for a phobia.”
Writing for young adults has obviously paid off handsomely. But, Roth insists, her attachment is profound and sincere. “It’s funny that people are so patronising toward young adult fiction because this is such an important age to write for. There’s this lovely quote by [fellow YA author] John Green about young people being on the precipice of figuring out who they are and who they want to be – making really big decisions. You are always figuring out who you are and who you want to be throughout life, but it is such a heightened time.” Green’s ambition, Roth continues, is to be a voice in the room as teenagers make these mammoth decisions. Roth herself declares slightly different ambitions. “I don’t even know if I want to be a voice in the room so much as a way to push people to ask questions.”
Questions are certainly being asked of Roth by her readers currently – not all of them to her liking. It is a mark of Allegiant’s success that it has been accompanied by Roth’s first backlash, centring largely on the pleasingly brave and poignant ending. Roth rationalises the furore by pointing to the passions her novels have provoked in her fans. “This intense feeling that they know this person and have some kind of friendship with them because they have been reading. To have something bad happen is upsetting. It’s like processing real grief over a real person.”
Roth talks a brave game, but has clearly been taken aback by the negative critiques and taken them to heart. “I didn’t really realise it was a brave decision until the book came out and everyone is saying, ‘You suck and I hate you…’” How do you respond, I ask? “I don’t. I have this official policy, which is ‘do not engage’. If people are going to say something mean, then they’re allowed. It’s a free country. But I don’t have to answer.”
As for the future, Roth is biding her time. Next year will be devoted to the Divergent film. As for fiction, she has no intention to follow JK Rowling into more adult territory. “I don’t have so much interest in that right now,” she replies. “I love my readers so much, and I have so many ideas that fit into that young adult category. I know that’s where I want to be. But there’s so much freedom to do any genre. Especially weird things. It’s a great time to be a YA writer now.”
Whether Divergent can become the new Hunger Games remains to be seen. Regardless of the film’s success, Roth looks set to be one of young adult’s more popular voices for some years to come. I only hope she can keep her fears at bay and enjoy her achievements. “The moment a book is published it stops belonging only to me and starts belonging to every individual who reads it. It has been a very healthy mindset. By the time they started casting the movie, I was already pretty well practised about letting go. Now it’s up to them. I hope it turns out well.”
James Kidd is a regular contributor to The National.