Divergent author Veronica Roth makes adult fiction debut with Chosen Ones

In her new novel Chosen Ones, American author Veronica Roth delves into the lives of five magically gifted heroes a decade after they defeated a supervillain when they were teenagers.
In her new novel Chosen Ones, American author Veronica Roth delves into the lives of five magically gifted heroes a decade after they defeated a supervillain when they were teenagers. PHOTO: NELSON FITCH

Everyone knows a Chosen One story. A special boy or girl is plucked from the masses to defeat the evil villain and save the world. From Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, it is a tried-and-tested trope.

But what happens afterwards?

That was what American author Veronica Roth found herself wondering in the wake of her own "chosen one" story.

Roth, 31, carved her mark during the young adult (YA) dystopia boom with the best-selling Divergent trilogy (2011-2013), set in a post-apocalyptic society that divides citizens into five factions based on their defining virtue.

When Beatrice "Tris" Prior turns 16, she tests as "Divergent", meaning she could belong to more than one faction, and is told to keep this a secret from the authorities. She goes on to lead a revolt against the system.

"I grew up on Chosen One stories," says Roth over Skype from her home in Chicago, a familiar setting in her novels. "Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings, Dune by Frank Herbert, the Animorphs series. I had a lingering fascination with the concept of it.

"After the end of the Divergent series, a lot of people asked me about what would have happened to Tris if it hadn't ended the way it did for her. I can't come up with an alternate ending for any books that I've written, but it made me wonder about what would happen to that kind of hero, because I think the psychological cost of what they go through to triumph is a lot greater than we might think about."

Roth delves deeper into this with Chosen Ones, a novel about five magically gifted heroes who defeated a supervillain known as The Dark One when they were teenagers.

Ten years later, they are still trying to cope with the intense public scrutiny that comes with their celebrity, as well as their own struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Roth is now working on the sequel to Chosen Ones, which has been picked up for a film adaptation by production companies Picturestart and Temple Hill.

Chosen Ones is her first adult novel. She is one of a number of popular YA authors making their adult debuts recently, from Leigh Bardugo with Ninth House last November to Sarah J. Maas, who kicked off her Crescent City series in March with House Of Earth And Blood.

Roth, who has written another YA duology, Carve The Mark (2017-2018), says that what separates YA from adult fiction is not pacing or literary quality, but what the characters are going through.

"Is it an adolescent concern, or is it an adult concern? Navigating adulthood and figuring out your place in the world as a grown-up is not really a young adult concern, and not a question that a YA book seeks to answer."

Chosen Ones, she says, is "quintessentially millennial". One character parlays her fame into becoming a social media influencer; others struggle with burnout.

The protagonist, Sloane, finds herself in a phase of arrested development. Unsure of how to navigate her present adulthood, she spends her time excavating the past, in particular classified documents that detail how the government handled her and her peers.

"I think we're a bit confused as a generation," says Roth, who is married to photographer Nelson Fitch. "We graduated (from) college in a recession and are now trying to have kids during a pandemic. It's a very strange generation that has trouble finding its identity."

Roth herself had something of a "chosen one" path. She wrote Divergent while still in university, sold it at the age of 21 and was hailed as the next big thing in YA fiction.

The trilogy has sold more than 32 million copies worldwide and was made into a film series starring Shailene Woodley as Tris.

By the time Roth was 25, she was a publishing phenomenon. She was autographing thousands of copies of her book in a day. She was also receiving one-star reviews and trollish comments on the Internet.

"It was a fantastic experience, but also unsettling," says Roth. She has an anxiety disorder, which spiked at the height of Divergent's success. "It took a lot of time to figure out what kind of writer I was going to be in the aftermath of Divergent."

She stresses that what she went through was not a trauma akin to the experiences of Tris or Sloane.

"Sloane saved the world. That's the most exaggerated form of achieving something big. But then she has to navigate what kind of person she is in that aftermath and how to proceed from there. I think that is something that I really connected to when I was writing about her."

Sloane, like Roth herself, is tall and athletic. "But she is also not particularly strong. She is extremely prickly and defensive and not quite sure that she cares about saving the world."

Roth relished writing a female anti-hero, as most anti-heroes are men. "It was important for me that she be a little unlikeable... Because people who have gone through really difficult things, they aren't always suffering in heroic silence. They're difficult."

She adds: "As a woman in the world, there's this pressure to be liked by as many people as possible. It was cathartic to write about a character who really didn't care about that. I can't imagine what that would be like, but I guess I get to live in her head."

  • Chosen Ones ($29.95) is available at bit.ly/KinoChosenOnes.
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 05, 2020, with the headline Divergent author Veronica Roth makes adult fiction debut with Chosen Ones. Subscribe