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young adult files

Chasing Katniss: Divergent Author Veronica Roth Builds Her Dystopian Empire

Veronica Roth, photographed by Marco Grob

This profile originally ran in October 2013.

On March 31, 2010, 21-year-old ­Veronica Roth wrote a blog post titled “You + $$$ = ?” Roth was a creative-­writing major at Northwestern who planned to support herself as a proof­reader after graduation. The exercise on her frequently updated blog was about imagining success: What would she do if she suddenly had the resources of ­Stephenie Meyer or J. K. Row­ling? Roth’s answers were unapologetically practical—buy a house in Wisconsin, invest, donate to charity—and her wildest dream involved jumping into a pool of mini-marshmallows. Mostly, the aspiring young-adult author just wanted to work. “Day jobs? Pshh. Who needs them? If I could set up a nice little room in which I could write all day and supply myself with infinite tea, I’d be pretty much good.”

Two weeks later, Roth sold her first book, a dystopian YA novel about a society segregated by moral virtues and a girl who doesn’t fit in. Divergent was ­published in May 2011 and spent eleven consecutive weeks on the New York Times’ children’s best-seller list; the ­sequel, Insurgent, debuted at No. 1 a year later. The series has remained there ever since, thanks to a wildly enthusiastic, ­bordering on maniacal, audience that includes not just teenage girls but their brothers, their mothers, and a growing number of childless adults (Divergent coincided with the rise of The Hunger Games, the ­industry-wide scramble to succeed ­Twilight, and the resultant YA dominance in the pop-cultural landscape). Since no popular YA series is without a movie franchise, Summit Entertainment—the studio behind Twilight—will release Divergent early next year, and its cast (Kate Winslet, Next Big Thing Shailene Woodley) ­suggests similar expectations for the film version. Meanwhile, the contents of the trilogy’s upcoming final book, Allegiant (coming out October 22), are being guarded like Katniss Everdeen in the first half of Mockingjay. So if Roth isn’t quite at Twilight or Hunger Games levels, then she would seem to be on her way—or far enough along, at least, to tackle a few things on the list she wrote three years ago. Find a house, maybe. Figure out what else grown-ups do with large sums of money.

She went for the mini-marshmallows instead. At the mention of her otherwise unfinished list, Roth shrugs politely. “Dreams change,” she tells me, which is a fair point coming from a 25-year-old. I keep forgetting this fact, since in person Roth is almost six feet tall and intimidatingly serious; at first, it is hard to picture her bathing in a tub of candy or spazzing over a book meant for teenagers. She could reasonably be hired as my babysitter. Then she suggests we get some ice cream, frets over the flavors, and is soon covered in “cookie monster.” Roth and I have come to Coney Island on a bright September day to stare at a Ferris wheel like the one that Tris, the heroine of ­Divergent, climbs without thinking. We’re staring at it because the amusement park is closed and also because Roth wouldn’t want to ride it, especially with a ­stranger. The action-book author is afraid of heights.

She’s afraid of a lot of things, actually, and fear, or how to overcome it, is what first inspired Divergent. “I was in Psych learning about exposure therapy,” she recalls. “I wondered what would happen if there was a group of people who tried to create fearlessness using the technique.” She started writing about those people instead of doing her college homework, and within 40 days she had a completed draft. The fear-chasers from class became the Dauntless, one of five factions in the crumbling future Chicago where Tris lives. Each faction has a different moral credo that governs its members’ lives; they are like Harry Potter houses, minus the magic. So you have Tris’s adopted Dauntless, who value bravery; the selfless Abnegation, in which she was raised; Amity (peace); Erudite (intelligence); and Candor (honesty). The division, established long ago by a mysterious group, is supposed to teach humans how to be good again, one value at a time—but Roth’s point is that none of these values is effective all by itself, and the order is disintegrating. Tris, unable to conform and in danger because of it, rebels against society in order to save herself.

Divergent sold quickly—after four days, to the first editor who finished reading it—thanks to a familiar premise: stubborn teenage girl, divided society, kids fighting kids, civil war. “The Hunger Games was just becoming a thing when I was finishing writing it,” Roth says, and Divergent led the next wave of YA dystopian fiction. The timing worked in her favor, and so did the current distaste for fragile YA heroines like Twilight’s Bella Swan; Tris is strong and uncompromising (and a pain in the ass, really, but that’s popular too, as surly, “regular” teenagers are more relatable). Despite its trendiness, Roth sees Divergent less as a traditional “point a finger at society” novel and more of a personal critique. “Those virtues are the ones I believe in. And to kind of dismantle my own understanding of those virtues, or what it would be like to live this way, was a little bit like delving into my own psyche.”

She didn’t recognize it at the time, but Tris also became a test case for Roth’s own life. Not long after selling Divergent, Roth broke up with one boyfriend, started dating another, got married within a year, and moved (temporarily) to Romania (for her new husband’s work). “This is just a theory, but Divergent was sort of good for me, because it was a safe place to explore taking bold action,” she offers. “The things that Tris does”—jump off trains, fly down zip lines, leave her family—“are insane, and she comes from a sort of repressed environment. And I think my internal environment at the time I was writing it felt sort of repressed.” It is Roth’s particular gift that she could experience this as a peer and then write it as an adult. “It was a way to explore the possibility of making those kinds of big steps. And then when it was finished, I started making them.”

As we wander around the boardwalk, I notice that Roth is dressed in head-to-toe black, like a member of the Dauntless, and that I’m wearing Abnegation gray. This seems like a good excuse to go full fan-fic on Roth, so I begin quizzing her about Four, the curt, mysterious older boy who becomes Tris’s mandatory love interest. Roth drops a bomb: She wouldn’t date Four. “Too many secrets, not enough jokes,” she says, laughing at my immediate outrage. On behalf of message-board readers everywhere, I keep at her, pointing out how dreamy Four is, how he’s so sweet to Tris and such a jackass to everyone else. “He appeals to her,” Roth explains patiently, as if she’s done this a thousand times—as if she is used to grown women confusing her fictional world for a real-life dating pool.

She is certainly used to obsessive questions about the third book in the Divergent series, and she deflects most of mine with ease. The closest I come to a spoiler is on the topic of sex, which Tris and Four haven’t had, because Tris is deeply afraid of intimacy. The barrage starts again: Are YA characters allowed to have sex? (Yes.) Have Tris and Four had sex off the page? (No.) Is this an abstinence series? (No. Roth’s Christianity has nothing to do with it; the characters just aren’t ready.) So there’s a chance they could have sex sometime soon? It’s not out of the question? Roth breaks into a grin. This is the only time she’ll yell at me, but it’s loud, and she’s clearly not nervous anymore. “Maybe you have to wait!

*This article originally appeared in the October 14, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Marco Grob/Marco Grob Photography, Inc.; Marco Grob/Marco Grob Photography, Inc.