By Noelene Clark
Los Angeles Times
At 26, Veronica Roth already has penned a bestselling YA book trilogy and co-produced two films, including “The Divergent Series: Insurgent,” starring Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller and Kate Winslet. Chicago-based Roth wrote “Divergent” when she was a 21-year-old college senior; her wild ascent has been a surreal ride. She recently discussed what she hopes the story means to young women and what’s next in her writing career.
— You saw “Insurgent” several weeks ago, but now everyone else gets to see it.
I’m looking forward to seeing it again with my mom and my stepdad and my husband there.
— Do you feel different about showing your work to your family as opposed to fans and strangers?
Yeah, weirdly, it’s easier to show it to strangers — I think because family grows up with you, and they know all your weird stuff and your embarrassing stuff, and if any of that gets introduced into a book, they’ll call you out on it.
— You wrote the book at your mom’s house. Did you use your family as a sounding board during the writing process?
I did write “Divergent” in my mom’s house, most of it when I was home for winter break. Obviously it took longer than that. I think the only thing I consulted my mother on was whether Tris (the heroine portrayed by Woodley) should be attacked by birds or rats. She said birds are scarier because they’re less obvious, which I think is a really astute observation.
— What was your take on the film? It has some pretty big departures from the novel.
That’s true. I think I was really prepared for that, because looking at “Insurgent” just structurally, it’s a lot more complicated than the other books in the series, with a lot more nuanced character motivations. I didn’t want to see a movie in which they’re just explaining things to you the whole time. I was prepared for a lot of plot streamlining. But I feel like the characters are true to the characters in the book and that the setting is still very familiar, so I was really happy with it once I saw how well the changes worked. Obviously it’s not easy to watch your work changed, because you’re, like, “Wait, what did I do wrong?” But when you see that it works for the translation to a new medium, it’s really easy to accept.
— You’ve said that the “Divergent” world is brighter on screen than you’d imagined it in the books.
The way I imagined this world is so grim, just from a visual perspective. I don’t know why everything I imagine is in shadows. I think it’s because I don’t have as detailed an eye for the “Divergent” universe as a filmmaker has to. I need to describe setting, and I’m certainly working on doing that a little more, but my style is a little more sparse. And I don’t have to fill in a shot with a million details, because I’m writing a novel. So it’s always a little brighter, but it looks more like the world. We’re not constantly cast in shadow.
— What was it like consulting on set?
I give feedback, and they are happy to hear it. They don’t always take it, but that’s the nature of any creative relationship. And if anyone has a “Divergent” universe question, I’m like the encyclopedia. They had fewer on this film than they did on “Divergent” because they were establishing the world then.
— Were there any depictions in set design or casting that you felt like, “This is exactly what I imagined.”
It was important to me to have a diverse cast, so one of the people I loved seeing most was Daniel Dae Kim as Jack Kang. And he’s just fantastic. I remember just sitting there, listening to him and thinking, “I wish this man could record my voicemail, because he has a really soothing voice.” And he brought a kind of power to Jack, which is really fortunate, because he doesn’t have the most active role in this movie. He kind of gets trampled by all of these really powerful women, which is awesome. But I didn’t want him to be a useless leader; he just knows his limitations. And so Daniel brought a kind of power to that role because he seems like such a capable person. When he’s on screen, he sort of has this charisma.
— Tris, the story’s heroine, is not always likable.
I think one of the lesser-talked-about ways of dehumanizing someone is to make them perfect. So in an attempt to represent women and not disrespect them, which is a good thing, sometimes people go too far, and they’re just, like, “Women are angels! Look at this saintly and perfectly strong woman, blasting her way through this action movie.” But that’s no good either, because no one can live up to that standard. So letting her be flawed is such an important thing to me.
— But she learns to like herself, despite those flaws.
Tris’ emotional journey is just crucial to “Insurgent.” And that was something I was really paying attention to when I was watching the movie come together. So it’s important to me in order for her to become a stronger person for her to go through the dark times on screen, not to just bounce back like a mindless action hero would but to grapple with what she’s done and what she feels like she’s done … to have her really struggle with it and go into the dark place and come out a stronger woman.
I really love that the place she comes to is one of compassion toward herself and forgiveness, especially for young women to see. Young women are pretty much taught to constantly criticize themselves and to never believe that we’re good enough, and to see a young woman, even in the midst of a really fun and entertaining action movie, go through that journey is just so powerful for me to watch. I hope it’s powerful for some of my young readers to witness as well.
— You’re working on a new series — a space opera? What’s it like to get back to writing after “Divergent”?
I am, and I’m so glad you used that terminology. It’s going to be a duology — so two books — and hopefully the first one coming out in 2017. It’s about a young man who unites with someone who’s supposed to be his enemy in order to get revenge. It feels awesome.
It took me a while to find the right story, the one that felt as exciting to me as “Divergent” felt when I first started writing it. I finally did, and I was just so relieved. I was, like, “Thank goodness I still feel this way about writing.” Because, you know, a lot can change. Everything in life pretty much changed, but this didn’t, and I’m really happy about it.
— How have you handled all that change? To have had so much publicity so early in your career?
Occasionally I feel like I skipped a decade of being frustrated and wondering if it would ever happen. I got to go right into this new part. It’s not something I ever expected, and it was a huge change from where I was when I started, so it certainly threw me for a while. But I think now I know how to focus my mind very much on what’s important to me, which is the work of writing and getting better and my family and friends and dog. And as long as I think about those things and not about the crazy things, I feel pretty much the same about life as I used to.