It’s a rainy Tuesday in New York City, and Veronica Roth has just received a compliment on her pants, which are shiny, chic, and made of fake leather. Roth—who skyrocketed to literary stardom almost immediately after her debut novel, Divergent (the first of the bestselling series of same name), came out in 2011—is in town from Chicago for a breakfast organized by her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She’s here to celebrate the launch of Chosen Ones, her first novel for adults.
“Thank you,” Roth responds graciously. “Fake leather pants sometimes smell like fish oil. These do not!” She then offers a surprising confessional: “One time, I was wearing a patent leather skirt at a press junket with Shailene Woodley [who starred as Tris in the Divergent movies]; she and I had to sit next to each other, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, my skirt stinks.’ It was a terrible time to realize that.”
A lot of things have changed since Divergent, the movie, came out in 2014—that pungent skirt has left Roth’s closet, and the entire YA universe has shifted, as well. Roth recalls how, at the time, one of the most controversial topics in the industry was whether it was okay for grown-ups to read books marketed to teenagers. “We live on a different planet now,” she says, noting that, in the wake of larger controversies like #MeToo, “we don’t give a crap about who’s reading this genre” anymore.
Roth, now 31, is still Roth, of course: tall, striking, with clear, luminous skin and an open, matter-of-fact demeanor. She’s as likely to share insights about worldbuilding (for Chosen Ones, she kept a list of when certain Chicago skyscrapers were built so she could accurately craft her alternate version of the city, diverging from the real thing at a key point in time) as she is to talk about her struggles with anxiety. (The latter peaked during the years she was writing and publishing the Divergent series. She’s recently gone off meds, after years of therapy.)
With Chosen Ones, which comes out in April as the first of a duology, Roth has stayed in her wheelhouse—somewhat. The novel is dystopian science fiction, but her characters and intended audience skew older. She wrote Divergent, featuring 16-year-old Tris, during the winter break of her senior year at Northwestern University. Set in a postapocalyptic society in which people are assigned factions based on human virtue, Divergent was published when Roth was just 22. Chosen Ones focuses on a group of adults who saved the world as teenagers 10 years ago. They’re heroes now, both fawned over and critiqued, but also broken—famous for something that was the worst experience of their young lives, something they didn’t really have a choice about in the first place.
It’s been almost 10 years for Roth, too, since her first book came out. Is that a coincidence? “It is!” she says. “I did not do that on purpose. It’s definitely cool, though.”
In Chosen Ones, Roth’s characters are coping with the aftermath of a near world-ending disaster; they’re also wrestling with the complications of adulthood. They grapple with engagements, ailing parents, and other peoples’ expectations.
“It’s not about coming of age,” Roth says of her new book. “It’s about taking responsibility for shit. It’s about learning that pain doesn’t give you license to be an asshole. That is an adult theme.”
Roth describes her main character, Sloane Andrews, as a kind of “wish fulfillment” for herself. “Sloane is someone who is fed up with the world, who is fierce. She is ultraconfident. She’s smart. She doesn’t care what people think about her.”
In Roth’s mind, Sloane embodies something a lot of women wish for—the power to let go of the expectations society puts on them. “Not everyone can afford to be like, ‘Screw you, world!’ ” she explains. “That’s a very privileged thing to be able to do.”
Roth, unlike Sloane, has not been as able to flip the bird at the world. Having to wrestle with vast success, quickly and at a very young age, has been difficult. Even more difficult has been facing criticism online—social media, Roth has found, can create an oppressive, even frightening swirl of opinions and expectations. And then there are the simple, hard truths of numbers: while Roth’s books in the Divergent series have sold astronomically—HarperCollins, which published the trilogy, says the series has moved more than 42 million units globally—her more recent efforts have failed to ignite quite the same level of sales, or fan fervor. Divergent set an incredibly high bar, and Roth’s been grappling with how to move on from the series. Is that part of the reason for shifting her focus to adults?
In responding, Roth brings up a line from Chosen Ones, when Sloane, in a moment of self-reflection, thinks, “And she would tarnish too, always famous, but always fading, the way old movie stars were, carrying ghosts of their younger selves in their faces. It was a strange thing to know with certainty that you had peaked.”
That fear of having peaked is something Roth knows intimately. “I think about it a lot,” she says. She then recalls stumbling upon a thread about literary one-hit wonders that included her. “Honestly, it was hard to read,” she says. “Then later, I was like, ‘Well, it hasn’t really been enough time for you to say that, really.’ ”
And, of course, sales is not the only measure of success. Part of her journey, Roth explains, has been learning what matters most to her in the work she does. “It was hard to move on after Divergent, because it’s just not going to feel the same,” she says. “What it made me realize is, you know, I never had these dreams. I didn’t articulate, ‘I want to be on the bestseller list. I want to get a book published. I want to have a movie deal.’ What I’ve realized is that I’m very ambitious, but I’m creatively ambitious, so I care about writing a better book, writing a more interesting book, challenging myself, trying to find something that feels scary, that feels like I can’t do it. And then you write that thing.”
Roth doesn’t read reviews. She’s been off Twitter since the 2016 presidential election, when “it became so overwhelming.” After Allegiant came out, she got death threats from people unhappy with how it ended the series, and she put up walls on social media to protect herself. In the alternate Chicago in her new book, there’s no internet at all. (People developed magic instead.) But in the real world, Roth has recently returned to Instagram, where she is enjoying feeling “safe enough to just relax”—writing thoughtful posts about anxiety and reading. Now, on social media, she says she’s learning “to have fun in the moments between the hard stuff.”
These days, Roth finds herself thinking more about how to be a grown-up. She’s quick to point out that this doesn’t mean giving up writing YA. Instead, she’s interested in branching out. “I think the things I’m interested in now are a little different and maybe not as YA focused,” she says. “I just feel like I have to follow my interests.”
As for looking back, that’s become an absolute joy. “Like, what an amazing thing that happened in my life!” Roth says. “I can’t believe young Veronica did all that stuff! I’m very proud of past me. Good job!”
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novel Unclaimed Baggage (FSG) and the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest (Riverhead).