Wednesday 9 October 2013

Feature Profile: Veronica Roth Builds Her Dystopian Empire + How to Create a YA Phenomenon

This weeks New York Magazine examines the fast-growing young adult lit genre, including a profile of author Divergent Veronica Roth and a nine-step plan for creating the next teen franchise.

Chasing Katniss: Veronica Roth Builds Her Dystopian Empire 

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).

Movies & Marshmallows

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.

Factions & Fears

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.

The Hunger Games & Timing

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.”

Being Brave

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.”

Four & Sex Scenes

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!

How to Create a YA Phenomenon, in Nine Easy Steps

The Divergent series has sold 5 million books and is regularly called “the next Hunger Games” or “the next next Twilight.” Interested in writing the next next next teen franchise? Here’s a step-by-step guide.

1. Start a blog.
Early online readers got to watch Roth write Divergent, find an agent, and sell it to HarperCollins—all in real time on her website. By the time the book was published, “she was already a social-media phenomenon,” says editor Katherine Tegen.
Pro tip: Blog about lots of things!
A list of non-writing topics mentioned on Veronica Roth’s blog: dead raccoons, traffic lanes, sweet-potato soup, spiders, a OneRepublic CD.

2. Don’t be afraid to be trendy.
The Hunger Games was big at that point, but there were a couple other books that were on the cusp of the dystopian-sci-fi trend—Matched and The Maze Runner. But the timing just worked so that Divergent ended up at the top of the pack.” —Casey ­McIntyre, publicist for the series
Pro tip: Don’t make it mushy.
Divergent’s love story is hidden between action scenes, which attracted adult sci-fi readers immediately. A fan e-mail from an older gentleman: “I don’t usually read Young Adult, but this reminded me of Brave New World.

3. Tell everyone you know.
Early copies of Divergent were sent to trades, YA bloggers, and kids—many of whom started telling their friends. Becky Anderson, an ­independent-bookstore owner in Chicago, recalls her first Divergent event: “We were expecting maybe 80 people to come, but kids had given books to their friends because they were so excited about it. We ended up having 120. Kids were sitting on the floor.”

4. Sell the movie rights early.
Summit Entertainment bought the movie rights before Divergent even hit shelves. Says McIntyre, “Once there’s something that goes up on Deadline or Variety, suddenly it’s a property that people are really happy to get the advance reader copy for.”

5. Play to your base.
“For Insurgent, we really limited the number of advance reader copies. We selected 50 bloggers to participate in a preorder campaign, we separated them into factions, and we had them compete against each other and post different content.” —McIntyre

6. Continue blogging.
Even after Insurgent hit No. 1 on the Times’ children’s best-seller list, Roth kept sharing—about her anxiety, and revisions, and whether she likes sausage pizza. (She does.) Relatable!

7. Keep fans addicted between books.
In April 2012, Roth published Free Four—a retelling of one scene from the perspective of Divergent’s hunky love interest (not unlike Stephenie Meyers’s leaked pages of Twilight told from Edward’s POV). It gave readers something to pore over as they wait for Allegiant.

8. Hit the major PR milestones.
“When we started making all the casting announcements, it became real for the fans in a way it hadn’t been,” says McIntyre. And then the movie-PR machine— an Entertainment Weekly cover, a trailer debut at the MTV VMAs—started working for the book.
Pro tip: Get Shailene Woodley too.
Between indie hit The Spectacular Now, the upcoming The Fault in Our Stars adaptation, and Divergent, Woodley is the now the must-have star for all the important teen movies.

9. Avoid leaks.
The first readers of Allegiant will be the fans who line up at midnight. Says Tegen, “This is the highest number of preorders HarperCollins, including the adult division, has ever received for one book. I don’t think you need to put out advance copies.”

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

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