Articulate

S7 E8 | CLIP

Dystopian Romances

Young adult author Veronica Roth taps into a youthful zeitgeist. Her best-selling novels transport readers to dystopian futures where love still survives.

AIRED: June 18, 2021 | 0:13:56
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TRANSCRIPT

(classical music)

- [Roth] "Somewhere inside me

is a merciful, forgiving person.

Somewhere there is a girl who tries to understand

what people are going through,

who accepts that people do evil things,

and that desperation leads them

to darker places than they ever imagined.

I swear she exists."

- [Cotter] Veronica Roth was just 21

when she wrote her first book.

Divergent would become a best seller,

and the first part of a young adult trilogy.

It quickly amassed an international following.

And in short order the stories

were turned into big budget movies.

But looking back, Roth is now a little critical

of those early successes.

- The series that I'm most famous for

and that people continue to read,

which is a huge blessing,

is like the thing that I'm embarrassed.

You know, I'm embarrassed because I've grown

as a writer since then.

- [Cotter] Veronica Roth. Wasn't your average student

-n writing fiction

than classes or parties.

She wrote Divergent during the winter break

of her senior year; within months, she had an agent

and had signed a three book deal, all before graduation.

Less than a year later, she sold the film rights

to the series before the first novel

Divergent had even hit the shelves.

At the time, the young student author was still getting to

know herself and was managing

an undiagnosed anxiety disorder.

Because of this, she began a cathartic process

of character building, exploring traits

she aspired to like self-assurance and bravery.

- Over the course of writing the series,

I got a diagnosis and then I did exposure therapy

for that anxiety disorder.

And so it was almost like writing Divergent was

like priming myself for that experience without,

I had no idea that that was what was necessary to

make my mental health better.

But I had an instinct for like,

there's something powerful in this.

There's something powerful about encountering

your fear in order to eradicate it.

There was something nice about kind of watching that

character grow and then believing that maybe it would be

worth it to go through this pain in order to grow.

Like, let's see what's on the other end of that

basically, I mean suffering, like I don't want

to be dramaticúabout exposure therapy, but it sucks.

(laughs) So, but what happens on the other end

of it is really powerful

- [Cotter] Roth transformed her desire

for fearlessness into the Dauntless,

a group of people in the Divergent series

who embodied courage.

They're one of five factions organized by virtue

where all people choose a clear path and purpose in life

based on where they feel they naturally belong.

Together, each faction contributes

one highly developed human quality to the whole.

The Divergent world began as Roth's vision

of a perfect society.

But as the story took shape, she realized

that her utopia had become a dystopia for her characters.

And soon after, she became known as the new face

of dystopian fiction, even though

that was never her intention.

- I didn't do a lot of dreaming.

I just was so buried in loving the writing,

the actual like sitting down and doing it of it,

not the idea of what I could make of it,

but just what it was.

And I feel that way still, I don't have,

I mean, I have like some, I have goals,

but only because I've been forced

to articulate that to people.

- [Cotter] Fame followed in the wake

of her Hollywood successes,

compounding the pressure she felt

from her publishers, her fans and critics.

Although years of storytelling had prepared Roth

to write a novel, nothing quite prepared her

for the demands of life in the spotlight.

- It was really difficult,

especially with the anxiety problem that I had.

It was like a way of making my worst nightmare happen.

You know, suddenly everybody is staring at you.

I know it seems like the books were universally beloved,

but all I could see what were the parts

where people didn't like them or didn't like me.

So it was like being exposed to, I don't know,

to the unkindness of the world

all of a sudden on a scale that I was not prepared for.

I'm not sure how you prepare for it,

but for me it was a really difficult period of time.

So even though everyone would say, "Isn't this so exciting?"

It's like, yes, technically I suppose it is.

But from my perspective, because I'm taking

in all the negativity and sort of like

ignoring the positivity, for me it's not so exciting.

It's more scary.

- [Cotter] 10 years on, Veronica Roth has matured

and her books reflect this personal growth.

She's tapping into her upbringing and the influence

of her loved ones to create fuller, more immersive worlds.

If on her own she had a knack for characters

and the action of the story,

she's learned from the people closest to her,

her mother, a painter and her husband a photographer,

to better explore life's easily missed details.

Their influences deepened her own ability to find beauty

in what often goes unappreciated,

from her Midwestern hometown of Barrington, Illinois,

just a stone's throw from where

she currently lives in Chicago.

And even to insects that others might swat away.

- I know that people aren't always fond of the place

that they've lived most of their lives,

but for some reason I just love it here.

Like I have a real deep appreciation

for Midwestern culture particularly,

and maybe it's because I love things

that are harder to love sometimes.

And I find things beautiful

that are harder to find beautiful.

My mom loves insects, like the look of them.

We have cicadas here a lot.

So in the summer, it's just like that horrible

screeching sound is so loud, but she always picked

up their shells to incorporate into painting.

And she would kind of collect the shells to,

or dead butterflies or whatever to like put in them.

So she, I think, has this tendency too

where she, you know, this is something that like

other people find disgusting and she is so excited by it.

And so she's kind of always been that way.

So maybe it started a lot earlier than I thought. (laughs)

I would love to notice more details.

Like that's my husband's strength, he sees everything.

He sees everything. I don't see anything.

(laughs) So for me, that's like what

I've been growing toward.

And also I think it's, it's more interesting.

Like anyone can look at a mountain and be like, wow.

And I do, you know, I think mountains are beautiful too.

But I think it takes a little bit of patience

and a little bit of curiosity

to find other things interesting,

to look for what's valuable about things

that people are ready to discard.

- [Cotter] And her fictitious landscapes are where

she explores the detritus of human existence.

They're born of the marshy lakes and lush forests

of her childhood as well as of her beloved Chicago,

it's glittering skyline never far away in her writing.

Growing up reading science fiction and fantasy novels

like Harry Potter, Dune and Lord of the Rings

brought magic to the world she knew

and possibilities to the ones she'd later create.

- I read like a, like a wild man when I was a kid.

Like you couldn't pry books out of my hands.

I would read at breakfast and I would read in the shower,

you know, like holding it out of the spray.

And I would just like, that was how I kind of

survived having to go to all my sister's volleyball games.

So I was always reading.

And so I think that was like the earliest education

that I had, was just loving story.

- [Cotter] As a young reader, Veronica Roth was drawn

to "chosen ones," heroes appointed by fate

to save the world by defeating villains.

It's a topic she continues to explore in her work today.

In her favorite books, chosen ones were painted

as pure against a background of darkness of evil,

but if Roth's early interest in a hero's destiny

inspired her to write stories like Divergent,

as a more mature author, she's become interested

in the inner lives of her heroes,

going deeper, where her own early stories left off.

In her 2017 series, Carve the Mark,

Roth's characters echo the voice of a writer

moved by the gray areas of human experience.

- [Roth] "I got the feeling, looking at her,

that she wanted the world around her to be simple,

including the people in it.

Maybe she had to feel that way,

carrying the fate of a nation planet on our shoulders.

But I had learned that the world

did not become something just because you needed it to.

'You want to see people as extremes,

bad or good, trustworthy or not,' I said,

'I understand it's easier that way,

but that isn't how people work.'"

- [Cotter] Although It would be easier

to continue writing stories about good at war with evil,

Ralph began to reevaluate the use

of violent conflict in her novels

as she became more aware of the impact

of real world violence.

She started by revising Divergent's protagonist Tris.

- My relationship to writing about violence has changed,

even though my books have not gotten

less violent, I would say.

My feeling about the way that it's done is different now.

So I think when I wrote Divergent, you know,

I was young and I wasn't thinking so much

about the impact of it.

And those books read a little bit

like an action movie where the violence has little impact,

you know, on the world and also on the character.

And then while I was writing it was,

there were like a series of school shootings.

And I thought like, uh-oh, you know,

What are you doing?

What are you writing?

What are you putting into the world?

What are you communicating about this?

So, you know, I had set up this world with guns in it.

Throughout the series, they become

less and less prevalent, and that's why.

I realized that she needed to, as a character,

contend with what she had done

and to become disturbed by it.

I've been really committed to making sure

that when violence is used, it's taken seriously.

So you think, you know, "Oh, I'm writing in a fantasy world,

so whatever," but what you need is to

find the grounded humanity inside of the fantasy world.

Otherwise you're asking people to believe

too many impossible things.

So even though my subsequent books

have taken place in a galaxy far, far away,

the violence that takes place in those places has a real

and profound impact on those characters.

And so it's more about using it to showcase like

what kind of impact it has as opposed to using it

because it's like fun to watch,

which obviously it is fun for us

to watch because otherwise action movies wouldn't exist,

but I don't want my books to be action movies.

I love action movies, but I would prefer

to explore the emotional

and psychological impact of violence.

- [Cotter] Roth's first attempt at writing

for an older audience, Chosen Ones,

explores a new protagonist Sloan,

who offers the candid perspective of a hero

after the world is saved.

She is famous for the worst thing

that's ever happened to her,

the slaying of the Dark One.

As she shifts from hero to anti-hero,

meeting the petty demands of a saved world

with slumped shoulders and a scowl,

we see the after effects of heroism,

boredom and cynicism when dealing with

the mundanity of everyday life.

- [Roth] "When she sits down her mug,

I see the scar on the back of her right hand.

It's wide, stretching all the way across

and jagged and knotted.

She's never told anyone what it's from

and I'm sure she won't tell me,

but I have to ask anyway.

"Paper cut," she says.

I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be a joke, so I laugh.

I ask her if she's going to the dedication

of the 10 years monument and installation artwork

erected on the site of the Dark Ones defeat.

And she tells me, "It's part of the gig,"

like this is a desk job she applied for

instead of a literal destiny.

"It sounds like you don't enjoy it," I say.

"What gave me away?" She smirks.

- [Cotter] Veronica Roth's characters build resilience

by enduring chaos and violence,

but by remaining open and soft hearted.

She's building her own kind of real-world resilience,

one that she believes we can all tap into

by relying less on heroes and more on each other.

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(musical stinger)

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