Meeting Veronica Roth: An Ascendio 2012 Highlight

In response to a reader’s question about Veronica Roth at HPEF’s finale last month in Orlando, “Yes, I did meet and speak with the Divergent trilogy author.”

Meeting my second big-name author, Lev Grossman being the first, I was delighted to find that Ms. Roth, like Grossman, is a very pleasant and thoughtful person, nothing like a self-important Gilderoy Lizard. I met her at a cocktail party of sorts for the “names” at this convention. The ‘Merlin’s Circle Reception’ with open bar cost $750 for non-names like me to get in and meet the stars of page and screen — I was only allowed in because my ‘Circle’ registration was paid for by Rosetta Stone in exchange for a talk I gave on magical language.

Anyway, I was enjoying a catch-up conversation with the delicately ribald (and nearly bald) Lev Grossman when Ms. Roth joined us with her agent, Joanna Volpe, and another YA author. The other author actually had heard of me and seemed very excited about our meeting; as I had almost done a prostration before Ms. Roth as they approached, her excitement brought things back into some kind of silly balance.

In my fan-boy delight, I started speaking to Ms. Roth, I’m afraid, rather than with her, about what I thought her books meant in the context of the Potter Legacy, their genesis in the wake of an imagination, popular and individual, shaped by the Hogwarts Saga. I’m not sure if the three or four women and Lev in our little circle didn’t think I was nuts, brilliant, or both, but they said some very kind things about what I offered about her novels and their meaning. The one I recall is Roth saying to Agent, “He understands what I’m after…” She also enjoyed my comments about Chicago’s North Shore and how her books are transparencies of the castes there.

Yes, Veronica Roth is taller and younger than you’d expect. She is also very open and candid. She offered quite without restraint that she was in therapy of a sort not unlike her lead character to treat her being consumed by negative reviews of her work (which online dismissals she seeks out). As revealing,  when I offered that she was necessarily my antagonist because she went to Northwestern and I the UChicago, she responsed, “I would have gone there, too, but they turned me down.” As I said, “candid” — and with a refreshing modesty.We agreed that obviously Northwestern and its writing program was what she needed rather than four years in Hyde Park.

I noted at one point that her weblog was a delightful source of information about her — and quite a break from the prudent distance kept from fans by Rowling, Meyer, and Collins. I suggested she might want to emulate them, if only to protect herself. She just shook her head and said with conviction, “That’s not me.”

If you doubt that, check out what she wrote yesterday On Erudite, Anti-Intellectualism, and the Overlap Between the Writer and the Story. Anything but TMI, these shared reflections are evidence of a remarkable candor about her  projections of self within her first novels. Contrast this with Mrs. Meyer’s eagerness to disavow any meaning, not to mention Mormon content, in her books, despite the obvious wish-fulfillment parallels. Ms. Roth is struggling for self-awareness through the examined life.

We had a bit of a back-and-forth about her differences as a writer with Ms. Rowling and the other first generation ‘Potter Legacy’ authors, Meyer and Collins. She blanched at being mentioned in the same sentence with those writers and agreed that she differed from them most fundamentally in her “not planning” her work.

Now, just on the surface that is preposterous, because her post-apocalyptic world has certain divisions and qualities that were obviously not made up on the fly but are the pre-set context in which the drama takes place, all of which require design, which is another word for “planning.” What I allowed was that she meant her symbolism and the like was not intentional or pointed at a certain end. Her end or goal, however, even in the absence of soul triptychs, alchemy, and ring structure, is profound reader identification with character and psychological type, which identification leads to catharsis and self-transcendence. She agreed.

I left to do an interview with a video journalist that took the better part of an hour. I found Roth later at a restaurant and gave her copies of my books. She and Ms. Volpe (anything but vulpine!) both said they would send me an email. Neither has, alas. Make of that what you will!

What I have taken away from the experience and encounter is that Ms. Roth, like Mr. Grossman, is a very human, very thoughtful person. I found that wonderfully refreshing and reassuring and I am only that much more looking forward to the third Divergent novel. Maybe I’ll even see her again, either at Leaky Con this weekend or on my trip to Chicago this October for talks at Northwestern and the UChicago. You’ll be the first to know if I do!


  1. John,

    I am jealous that you got to meet so many good writers in one venue, but I am glad it was you of all who could have meet them. I loved Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” and even emailed her last summer and she was gracious enough to respond.

    I think you are right that she did not plan as intensively as Rowling in writing her novels, but might I suggest that the triptych souls, while not found in three characters, are still included in the novel. I am not a lit critic like yourself, but I found it very stunning that the three tests for the Dauntless initiation mirrored the three parts of the Platonic soul.

    The three stages of Dauntless initiation are the combative, the emotional, and the mental. It is a rough parallel, but it seems to be there.

    The first stage the initiates face the combative challenge were the initiates learn how to fight and are pitted against one another. The second stage they are put into a simulation were they face their fears and control their emotions. And in the last stage they face the fear landscape and is a mental challenge.

    Maybe that is a reach, but as Roth developed the initiation stages I am sure she divided it up to the different parts of our soul/life given the limited options of our metaphysical make up.

    Thanks for the updates. Looking forward to hearing more.


  2. Very interesting article. Ms. Roth sounds as interesting as her novels. Though I do believe it is Gilderoy LOCKHART, not Gilderoy Lizard…

  3. I meant ‘Lizard.’ Really, the books’ Gilderoy is not nearly as reptilian as I imagine a self-important author can be, especially the public atheist for whom Lockhart is a transparency.

  4. Gotcha.

  5. Elizabeth says

    Did she happen to mention why Joshua is not an Abegnation name? Yes, that is the odd question I wanted to ask and did not get to you in time (though really, I’m sure you didn’t need to cut your time with questions from someone else!) I really do like her name choices.

    What a treat! I am really delighted by this series, especially by the way each faction represents the failings we have as Christians when we focus on only one of the attributes we should emulate (service, courage, kindness, etc.) and then become a body whose parts are at war with each other. I am looking forward to part 3!

  6. The factions also line up nicely with the Big Five personality traits of psychology:
    Openness (sometimes called Intellect) = Erudite; Conscientiousness= Abnegation; Extraversion = Candor, Agreeableness = Amity and Neuroticism = Dauntless. Hopefully I’ll do a full post on this later.

  7. I am still in the first book, but to me it suggests the 4 personality types model:
    1) Amity=sanguine=otter
    Strengths– Outgoing, responsive, warm, friendly, talkative, enthusiastic, compassionate
    Weaknesses– Undisciplined, unproductive, exaggerates, egocentric, unstable
    2) Dauntless=choleric=lion
    Strengths– Visionary, practical, productive, strong-willed, independent, decisive, leader
    Weaknesses– Cold, domineering, unemotional self-sufficient, unforgiving, sarcastic, cruel
    3) Erudite=melancholy=beaver
    Strengths– Analytical, self-disciplined, industrious, organized, aesthetic, sacrificing
    Weaknesses– Moody, self-centered, touchy, negative, unsociable, critical, revengeful
    4) Abegnation=phlegmatic=golden retriever
    Strengths– Calm, easy-going, dependable, quiet, objective, diplomatic, humorous
    Weaknesses– Selfish, stingy, procrastinator, unmotivated, indecisive, fearful, worrier
    I sense that Ms. Roth has very well explained how many of us are raised with certain expectations, based on our parents’ personalities, because that is all they have known. But, due to genetics, each of us has a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses and we have to decide what path to follow. Often, it causes great family rifts. We cannot expect our offspring to be our clones, but we do.

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