Divergent author Veronica Roth: Young women need to know they're strong enough
Still a student when her debut dystopian Divergent trilogy went stellar, landing multiple movie deals and mega-bucks, Veronica Roth's success is the stuff of dreams – but it's still brought its own set of pressures. As her new book hits the shelves, she talks to Hannah Stephenson about anxiety, family and staying normal
AT THE tender age of 28, Veronica Roth is among the world's richest authors, thanks to her Divergent trilogy – yet the bestselling writer isn't as self-assured as you might expect. She admits her early success left her feeling more under pressure when it came to penning her latest book, Carve The Mark, the first in a Young Adult sci-fi fantasy duology.
"That's just natural," she says with a laugh. "Not feeling it would be slightly delusional. But I just tried to focus on what I was doing. You already have readers, and you think about how they're going to like what you're doing – and the more you think about that, the more paralysed you are, so you have to learn a mental practice when you're an author."
While her three Divergent books – Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant – were all adapted for the big screen, reportedly grossing more than $765 million worldwide, she's not worried if Carve The Mark doesn't follow suit.
"If the right people came along with the right take on the story, then I'd be open to it, but I'm content to let it be just a book, if that's what's on the cards."
So did she not like the Divergent films?
"For the most part, it was a positive experience. As an author, getting to have that happen is huge for your career, but they deviated more from the heart of the story as they went on. I loved the first one, but they got more sci-fi and techy, and that wasn't really so much in the spirit of the story."
Roth was still at college – she took psychology in Minnesota, then transferred to study creative writing at Northwestern University – when she clinched a publishing deal for Divergent. The film rights had been sold before the book came out.
She still doesn't know how she coped with the fame and fortune thrown at her feet virtually overnight.
"A sense of humour helped. I have good friends and family and they stayed consistent. After the first movie premiere, my family came and we did this big fancy party. But then at the end of the night, it's just me and my brothers and sisters and my husband in a hotel room.
"That's the party I like best," she adds. "At heart, I'm a homebody and I haven't changed."
She agrees she felt overwhelmed initially by all the attention, and soon sought therapy.
"It's my personality not to want any attention at all. You have to remember that the kind of person who sits down to write a book is volunteering for an entire year of solitude. We are not generally the kind of people who want any focus at all. That was hard to adjust to, but I went to therapy.
"I've had an anxiety disorder my whole life, so I've been to therapy on and off throughout, before books and after books. I went back and tried to talk through some of the things I was feeling and experiencing, and it was helpful."
Roth, who was born in New York and raised on the outskirts of Chicago, where she lives today, reckons her anxiety is biological. While her parents, who are divorced, are not anxious people, she recalls that aunts and uncles in the family, along with at least one grandparent, have been
"The thing about mental illness is that you have the biology for it, then something triggers it. I was always a worried and perfectionistic child," she recalls, admitting it greatly affected her teenage years.
"I was unhappy but there was nothing wrong. I had a very stable home, I got good grades, my family were very loving, I had friends, but I had these existential questions. My first foray into therapy was as a child. My parents were getting divorced and my mom thought therapy would help my transition. Then I went again as a teenager and then in college. I always knew it was an option and a healthy one. Everyone needs an objective outsider to help them think things through sometimes, especially when your brain is being irrational."
Despite her success, ordinary stuff can still trigger bouts of anxiety: "It might be ordering at the deli counter or in restaurants, or when I come back from a party and think, 'Oh my God, what did I say?' It's regular things, not the big stuff."
She's ranked among the world's richest authors – so is she enjoying the fruits of her labour?
"I don't know, I've created a pretty stable life with my husband but we're not doing anything crazy. I'm still only 28 – I'm not going to be a nut about it all."
Her husband, photographer Nelson Fitch, is about to open a restaurant in Chicago. He reads her new material first, but doesn't criticise.
"He knows his job is to read it and tell me it's wonderful," Roth says, laughing. "At times, you just need a cheerleader, and he's great at that."
Carve The Mark is set in space, on a violent planet where everyone develops a 'currentgift' – a unique power meant to shape the future. Its central characters are Cyra, the sister of a brutal tyrant who rules the Shotet people, and Akos, a gentle chap from the peace-loving nation of Thuvhe.
When Akos and his brother are captured by Cyra's people, he becomes desperate to keep his brother alive – but will he and Cyra help each other to survive, or destroy one another?
The book sees a reversal in traditional gender roles (he's very gentle, she's tough and feisty).
"It was important to have him be her inspiration for change, and to be this soft person that she wants to protect. He's still a man, it doesn't take away from his masculinity the fact that he occasionally needs to be rescued."
She seems to like creating empowered, tough female characters, like Cyra, and before that Tris in the Divergent series.
"I wish I were that tough," Roth confesses. "One thing that Cyra and Tris have in common is their resilience in bad situations. They are able to bounce back and think in the midst of deep difficulty and pain, and that's a quality I think is really important for young women and for mental health – knowing you are strong enough to meet what comes at you. That's a quality I admire. I'm still searching for a way to get to it."
Roth's work has at times been compared with The Hunger Games, which she finds flattering.
"I'm definitely not complaining about that. I love The Hunger Games. Comparisons are good because they drive readers towards similar work they might like."
Despite having millions of fans worldwide and more money than she could have ever imagined, Roth insists an average day now is not too different from when she was writing her stories in college.
"I get up, wear pyjamas 'til noon. I answer a lot more emails now, I walk the dog, just boring stuff."
It seems she still can't quite believe the success of the Divergent series.
"I thought maybe someone will read them," Roth reflects. "It's all been a huge surprise to me."
:: Carve The Mark by Veronica Roth is published by HarperCollins, priced £14.99.