Interview: Veronica Roth on her book 'Insurgent' and feminism
In Veronica Roth's bestseller "Divergent," a young woman chooses to leave her family and align herself with a group that seems better suited to her true identity. "Insurgent," out Tuesday, sees Tris coming to a better understanding of what that decision really means in a book that is every bit as action-packed and questioning as the series kickoff. We caught up with the 23-year-old Chicago-based author to talk about her highly anticipated second book in the "Divergent" trilogy and strong female characters in dystopian young-adult fiction.
Jacket Copy: "The Hunger Games," "Divergent" and dozens of other titles in this burgeoning dystopian genre showcase strong female protagonists. Do you see a new shape of feminism emerging here?
Veronica Roth: That's a complicated question. What's interesting about these characters is that a lot of their strength is expressed in a physical way. Tris is physically weak but she learns how to be skilled in a physical way. Katniss isn't super buff, but she knows how to defend herself. I think that's something that needs to be explored more. Characters like Tris and Katniss, their worth and strength is not limited to their physical abilities. They're very much in control of their own destinies. In "Insurgent," Tris says, "Where I go, I go because I choose to." That element of "I can do it. I can control my life," that everything that happens, good or bad, happens because of the choice of the main character, that's sort of a new thing.
Jacket Copy: How would you describe your personal adolescent experience, and how did it inform "Divergent"?
Veronica Roth: As a teenager, I put a lot of pressure on myself, and a lot of that, for me, was about finding a moral high ground. As I've grown up, I've decided to abandon that because it made me judgmental and also stressed me out. There's really no way to be perfect. Perfectionism is a silly trait to have, so in a lot of ways that inspired the world of "Divergent," in which everyone is striving toward that ideal and falling short of it. Tris is a character who experiences that stress about, "Am I doing the right thing? I always have to do the right thing. If I don't, what am I worth?"
Veronica Roth: I slowly realized it's just not that important. What's more important is to try to love the people around you. Whatever that means at a particular time is the best you can do.
Jacket Copy: When you hear from readers, what aspects of "Divergent" most resonate with them?
Veronica Roth: Tris' bravery. It's important that she starts out not a particularly brave character, or at least her bravery is downplayed and dormant. She is physically weak and small and everybody underestimates her. I think a lot of readers, especially teens, feel like they're in that situation too.
Jacket Copy: What did you grow up reading?
Veronica Roth: Science fiction, which maybe drew me to dystopian. I also read Judy Blume and "Harry Potter."
Jacket Copy: What's so appealing about dystopian storytelling?
Veronica Roth: When you're a teenager, everything seems like the end of the world, and I don't think that's necessarily a silly thing. You're waking up and becoming aware that the world has problems and those problems affect you, whereas when you're young they don't seem to affect you that much even if you're aware of them. This dystopian trend picks up on that little part of your life where everything feels really extreme and it honors that part of your life and says, "Yeah. It is the end of the world. Look at it."
Jacket Copy: Romance is a huge part of most young-adult novels, including yours. Can you talk about the dynamic between Tobias and Tris?
Veronica Roth: Tobias wants Tris to be strong and is attracted to her because of her strength. That was so important for me to illustrate. They're not without their problems and they have a complicated relationship, but at the heart of it, he always believes that she's stronger than she believes she is. In my own relationships, I know that I should break up with someone who doesn't encourage me to be strong and make my own choices and do what's best in my life, so if you're dating someone who doesn't want you to be the best person you can be, you shouldn't be dating them. Growing up with Disney movies, you don't really get that feeling. Not that there aren't books out there that send that message, but I wanted my book to be one of them.
— Susan Carpenter
Photos: "Insurgent" cover; author Veronica Roth. Credits: HarperCollins; Nelson Fitch.