Veronica Roth, author, 30
Your brilliant career – 40 million novels sold – kicked off when your debut Divergent became an instant bestseller in 2011. You were 22. How did you cope? I had really good people in my life, and also the universe has a way of reminding you how small you are… You don’t get too caught up in all the big fancy things that are going on. When I learnt that the sequel Insurgent had debuted at number one, I hung up the phone, turned around and my dog was peeing on the floor.
The teens in your stories are thrust into extreme circumstances: dystopian futures, warring planets. Why does this appeal to writers of young adult (YA) fiction?
It gives you an opportunity, through exaggeration, to explore certain issues you might encounter in everyday life. When you’re a teenager it feels like life is that trying – you haven’t learnt how to cope, how to bear pain. Everything feels a bit more intense – at least that’s how it was for me as a teenager.
Though struggling with anxiety, you found the courage to spruik Divergent to agents while still at uni in Illinois. How did you reconcile your fears with your ambition? Anxiety affected me in mundane ways, like placing orders in restaurants and basic tasks, but for some reason I had good coping skills when it came to writing. I had to develop them with other things.
What are the responsibilities inherent in writing YA fiction? It’s a little different than you might imagine: what I’ve learnt from teenagers, and from having been one, is that they’re at this delicate point where they’re trying to figure themselves out, so it’s important not to ram a particular viewpoint at them; better to ask questions and give them food for thought about things they care about. Even when writing about extreme situations that don’t seem that grounded in reality, I try to tell the truth.
Now you’re an old lady of 30, do you worry about the need for a youthful viewpoint in your YA writing? One of my favourite writers is Lois Lowry (The Giver, Number the Stars), an older American who writes poignant and relatable books for young people. I had the great privilege of meeting her. Her books remind me that while you do have to be careful not to speak down to readers, the distance can be helpful. I can give my teenage self a little more grace...
The Australian YA writer John Marsden said recently “we romanticise childhood and we demonise adolescence”… Wow, I think that’s so true. Whenever people romanticise childhood I think, “Man, you must have had a different childhood than I did!” Not that it was bad, but I remember quite a bit of angst. I think we find teenagers annoying and silly and we don’t want to look back at our teenage selves. I was loud sometimes, obnoxious and surly, but I could also be thoughtful and sensitive. I had the seeds of who I was going to become.
eVeRything feels mORe intense when yOu’Re a teenageR
The heroine in your new sci-fi novel The Fates Divide is the daughter of a dictator. Where did you look for your research on propaganda? North Korea, Ceausescu’s Romania and of course Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I was writing it around the time of Trump’s inauguration, which was already upsetting, even before the term “fake news” started to be used as a weapon. And: “We’re gonna build a wall!” We put that sort of thing in dystopian fiction because it’s such a clear sign that something is going very wrong. Veronica Roth is at the Brisbane Writers Festival, September 5-8, and at events in Sydney and Melbourne Sept 10-11. More at harpercollins. com.au/veronicarothoz