Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Eleven Up: Interview with Veronica Roth

First of all, I have to RAVE about how awesome DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth is. Brilliant. Just brilliant. The world-building is beyond amazing, and the book is so action-packed that, on my blog, I declared it UN-PUT-DOWNABLE. There was one part toward the end (I won’t give spoilers) that literally gave me goosebumps.

Here's the synopsis:

In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris, and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together, they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes-fascinating, sometimes-exasperating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret: one she’s kept hidden from everyone, because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly-perfect society, she also learns that her secret might be what helps her save those she loves . . . or it might be what destroys her.

I was lucky enough to interview Veronica Roth about her amazing debut novel. Here's what she had to say:

Okay, could you first tell us a little about your journey to publication?

When I finished my first manuscript (which I now refer to as The Story I Don’t Speak Of), I decided to go to the Midwest Writer’s Conference in Muncie, IN, to meet other writers and pitch my book to an agent. That agent was Joanna Stampfel-Volpe. I was terrified, but she was approachable and funny, and she asked to see my first thirty pages.

To make a long story short, Joanna (and a bunch of other people) passed on that manuscript, which I later decided to trunk—happily, at that point!—but she invited me to query her in the future. She was the first person I queried when I finished DIVERGENT, and since she’s my agent, we all know how that worked out! Anyway, after doing some pretty extensive revisions with Jo, she put the manuscript on submission, and I dug in my heels for The Long Wait. Stunningly, I didn’t have to wait long. I landed at Katherine Tegen Books with Molly O’Neill soon after.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Is your process changing at all now that you’re working on the subsequent books in the DIVERGENT series? Did you always have it planned out in your head?

I am sort of a pantser/plotter hybrid. I like to write freely in the beginning so I can discover the story and get to know the characters as I go. I like to leave room for surprises. But when the story grows to an unmanageable size, usually around 150 pages, I get confused and have to plan it out. At that point, I usually know roughly how it will end anyway.

But I’ve had to make some adjustments, because I had to outline book two and give a rougher outline of book three so that the publisher would know where I was heading. So it was a matter of writing an outline and then finding ways to feel like I was being surprised anyway. It was tricky. I’m still adjusting to this new way of doing things.

But as far as the trilogy goes, I’ve always known the size of the idea I had, which was three books long. Some ideas are short story length, some are novel length, but this one was monstrous. So while I don’t have the whole thing planned, I do have its greater arc planned, yes.

Are you a character or plot person? Or both?

I am definitely a character person. With DIVERGENT I just got a sense of who Beatrice was and what she was like, and writing the book was just a matter of describing what she was doing and what was going on in her world. The plot came from her—her decisions, her situation, her mistakes, her successes. When I get stuck with the plot, which happens often, my only solution is to consult the characters.

Did you have to do a lot of revising with DIVERGENT?

Oh. My. Yes. First I did as much revising as I could on my own and with my critique partners. Then I added another third to the book with my agent, because it was a little anemic. Then I reworked huge sections of it with my editor. Then, several rounds of revising and tweaking and nitpicking. I’m still not convinced it’s done.

Your premise is fascinating. What gave you the idea?

Well thank you! I’ve found it difficult to figure out exactly where the idea came from, so if you ask me three times I might give you three different answers. Basically, the very rough idea came to me a few years ago—I saw a character jumping off a building, but I knew it wasn’t to his death, and I wanted to figure out what would compel a person to do that. That, combined with what I was learning in psychology about exposure therapy (for the treatment of phobias) and group dynamics, added up to the first thirty pages of DIVERGENT (which I discarded when I picked the story up again four years later).

Four years after that I looked carefully at what I had done, and realized that I was really writing about virtue. The Dauntless faction came to me first, but the whole system was about our tendency as humans to try to perfect ourselves through our own effort, and our failure to do so. But to be honest, none of it would have come to anything if I hadn’t had a sense of Beatrice and her voice.

DIVERGENT is firmly set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. I read that you grew up in a Chicago suburb. Did you write from memory, or did you revisit all the places referenced in the book?

Initially I wrote from memory, but as I introduced more and more Chicago to the manuscript, I found that I needed to become a tourist again. So I did touristy things. There was an architectural boat tour involved.

If you had to choose a faction, which one would you choose?

Like Beatrice, I would be torn between Abnegation and Dauntless, mostly because I believe most in what they both stand for (in their purest forms—in practice, they’re both pretty screwed up). I love Abnegation best of all the factions, but learning to overcome fear is especially important to me, so when it came down to the choosing ceremony, I would probably pick Dauntless. And try like hell to survive.

Can you tell us anything about DIVERGENT #2?

I can tell you that Beatrice learns more about the factions she didn’t experience much in the first book—Candor, Amity, and Erudite. And the factionless—there’s more about them, too.

And now for an apocalyptic-type question! In the post-apocalyptic world, what one book would you like to have with you?

I feel like my answer is going to be painfully predictable, but here goes: I’d like to have the Bible. It’s the most important book in my life, for one, and for another…it’s LONG and it will take me my entire life to understand even a fraction of it. So it’s the perfect post-apocalyptic read for me.


  1. Excellent interview--excellent novel, too. I highly recommend it. :)

  2. I LOVED this book! Can't wait for the next one!

  3. Great interview! Thanks for sharing!