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Veronica Roth the next literary superstar?

Christopher Borrelli

7:02 PM EDT, October 21, 2013

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The black town car pulled up and idled. White smoke curled from its tailpipe, rising in the morning drizzle. The driver stretched, his sportscoat tight at his back. He prepared for a wait. Within a minute, Veronica Roth, tall, with an angular, circa-1981 Pat Benatar haircut, high cheekbones and large Minnie Mouse eyes, bounded down the steps of her Edgewater apartment, still carrying her ceramic coffee mug. There was no time to dawdle. It was five days before the Tuesday release of "Allegiant," the final book in her phenomenally successful "Divergent" trilogy of young-adult novels about a dystopian Chicago and warring teenage factions.

"I've been feeling really weird," she said, watching commuter traffic crawl west along I-88, sipping at her cup. "There are all these people who are going to read 'Allegiant,' right? And they expect something of me. They will want this series to end well. They have high expectations. Yet I have this feeling of impending doom. Or is it —" she raised an eyebrow — "impending awesome? There are a million copies of this book going out!"

Actually, the first printing is 2 million.

The car was sent by HarperCollins, her publisher, which needed Roth at the Aurora warehouse owned by the influential west-suburban Anderson's Bookshop chain. She was asked to sign 3,000 books — in one day. Some would go to the "Allegiant" midnight-release parties in Naperville and Downers Grove. There's the basic autographed stock that Anderson's, instrumental in developing Roth's popularity, needs to last through Christmas. Then there's the event with Roth that Anderson's is hosting Saturday at the Tivoli Theatre (an event that sold out months ago); at least 1,000 copies would be needed there.

The town car stopped outside a stark office building buried inside an even more stark Aurora office park. Roth shouldered her way through the front doors and found a half-dozen Anderson's staffers buzzing about, smiling expectantly, busily stacking her books. On the first table were mounds of paperback copies of "Divergent"; on the next table, stacked row upon row, was its hardcover sequel, "Insurgent." But the bulk of the stock sat on the last table, tall, dense, skyscrapers of "Allegiant," its red, vaguely sci-fi cover repeating ad infinitum.

"How it's going?" asked a burly Anderson's sales rep in blue fleece.

"Good, if this is any indication," said Roth, her eyes calculating the task ahead.

"Then don't look down," he said, sweeping his hand across dozens of boxes still unopened.

There were 4,500 books to sign, not 3,000.

Veronica Roth is the next YA superstar, a Barrington native whose first book hit big within a few months of her graduation from Northwestern University. Already established as a brand name within YA reading circles, she awaits that moment when she becomes a household name. Which looks like it could be any minute now …

Mention her work to fans, booksellers and publishers, it doesn't take long before you're also discussing "The Hunger Games," "Twilight" and Harry Potter. "The kind of success Veronica has is unimaginable to most YA authors, who basically eke out $30,000 or so a year," said Robert McDonald, head of the children's department at the Book Stall in Winnetka. "Having her as a friend of this store is like having J.K. Rowling in your corner." Said Katherine Tegen, whose eponymous imprint at HarperCollins signed Roth in 2010: "I have such a strong gut feeling about Veronica. I mean, I was one of those people who could have (published) Harry Potter but management wouldn't let me spend large sums on it. And I've been haunted by that — until 'Divergent.'"

Brian Monahan, a book buyer for Barnes & Noble's 674 stores, said: "This is the next series — the next to follow in that line of Stephenie Meyer's 'Twilight' and Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games.' It is the next YA phenomenon. Historically, it's the third book in these teen properties that become the tipping point, and this one has already shown all of the hallmark signs: the steady growth, the online blogosphere-type buzz …"

The coast-to-coast midnight release parties, the requisite "Today" show fluff piece from Ryan Seacrest.

A week before "Allegiant" was released, pre-orders alone put it at No. 3 on Amazon's best-seller list; a few days before it was released, it was No. 1, the most pre-ordered title ever at HarperCollins, adult or young adult. Then there's "Divergent" and "Insurgent," which together have sold 5 million copies and been firmly entrenched at the top of the New York Times' young-adult best-seller list for months. And, of course — because it wouldn't be a successful young-adult series without a Hollywood movie attached — "Divergent," the first of a planned series of adaptations starring It Girl Shailene Woodley, wrapped production in July. The film, which shot around Chicago in the spring and summer, opens March 20, 2014.

All of which, relatively speaking, makes 4,500 books to sign a drop in a pop-culture ocean.

And yet, at the heart of this phenomenon is a person who is only 25 (she sold her first book to HarperCollins at 21), who has persistent anxiety issues, who is dealing with rabid admirers, who is figuring out where the line is between personal and public life and who, she said, still feels she's leaning to write.

John Green, himself a wildly successful young-adult author (and resident of Indianapolis), has been Roth's frequent sparring partner on the Times best-seller list — his blockbuster novel, "The Fault in Our Stars," is even becoming a movie starring Shailene Woodley. On the phone from Amsterdam, where that film is currently in production, Green said: "I think Veronica is handling herself as well as she can, considering everything. At 25, I couldn't remember to pay rent. And the truth is, no one tells you that this kind of success will be intimidating. But it is. It's a massive amount of pressure, and not just from fans, but from people whose jobs are on the line because of what you write. There is pressure from publishers to grow the YA space, which has been one of the few bright spots in the publishing world for the past decade. You start to realize you could disappoint millions of people — you could not understand what it feels like until you experience it."

"I'm going to throw up."

Last April, Roth and her husband, Chicago photographer Nelson Fitch — with her agent, Joanna Volpe, in tow — were gassing their 1994 Mercedes on the way to the West Side set of "Divergent" when Roth became very anxious. The film rights sold in 2010, soon after the book rights, and Roth didn't want anything to do with the creative end of the film, not the screenplay and not the casting. She said she's a writer, not a filmmaker. And yet, here was a film based on writing she did at Northwestern. Still, brand-wise, it doesn't always matter if the author had anything to do with adapting the material — failure and success reflect equally. She should at least visit the set.

When she arrived, there was a director's chair with her name on it. As she looked across the set — a giant fighting arena with white squares on the floor matched by white overhead lights — she became misty-eyed.

"It's like walking into my brain," she marveled.

Theo James — the actor playing Four, the love interest to Woodley's Tris, the series' brave, questioning heroine — burst past them, dressed in full costume. Roth and Volpe looked at each other: He's totally Four.

The "Divergent" series takes place in Chicago sometime in the future (not until "Allegiant" do we get a clear sense of when). Chicago has become a crumbling gated community of sorts, its citizens divided into factions defined by personality traits, their clothing coded by clan: There's Dauntless (bold), Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), Candor (honest) and Erudite (intellectual). At 16, Chicagoans decide what faction they want to be associated with, the one they were born into or one they aspire to. There's also the non-faction faction, the Divergent: the rebels who don't fit in. It's a classic dystopian set-up: a genetically engineered society pits teenager against teenager, then collapses, leading to a civil war.

With a few goofy, naive touches: There's a villain named Jeanine. Also, truth serum is involved. (Yes, truth serum.)

Nevertheless, if you're a young adult, or have a young adult at home, you know: Dystopias are hot. Roth, who said she had not read "The Hunger Games" until after she had written "Divergent," was a longtime fantasy-sci-fi reader and fan of Lois Lowry, whose 1993 novel "The Giver" has become a contemporary dystopian classic. "The funny thing is, when I met Veronica, 'paranormal romances' were buzzy in YA," said Volpe, who said that she pitched "Divergent" to publishers as a "futuristic thriller" because "sci-fi" was not selling at the time and "The Hunger Games" had not yet made "dystopia" the hot, fashionable genre. Molly O'Neill, then a new editor at Tegen (with a marketing background), took the bait: "Everyone would compare it to 'Hunger Games,' we were aware, yes. It would be regarded by some as a read-alike. But really we were reacting to the story. I was pitched on a Thursday night, started reading it on the subway home. Two stops later I had goose bumps. By the time my train reached Brooklyn, I was texting to cancel my dinner plans."

Roth always liked the way that children's books played with categories — how Harry Potter novels, for instance, divided characters by their magical dormitories. And HarperCollins liked how her factions could be a savvy marketing hook: Which faction would you be in, dear reader? Still, read-alike or not, "Divergent" makes for a clever parable about growing up, its factions serving as stand-ins for social groups, Tris' conflict with the factions a thoughtful vehicle for showing how a complex person is more than one defining trait.

"Simplicity is easy to come by," said screenwriter Evan Daugherty, who wrote the "Divergent" screenplay. "But a simple thing done well is hard to beat. Veronica nailed a very primal, relatable idea: You turn 16 and you choose what you think is going to be some narrow version of how the rest of your life is going to look."

Roth said that she's been told by fans and critics that the series is about everything from high school cliques to standardized testing to a moralistic religious allegory. A moralistic, devout Christian herself ("but not in a creepy way"), Roth said: "People assume there's some weird indoctrination thing hidden in these books, because the assumption is if you're Christian, you're preachy. But that would be a horrible thing to do to kids." Still, asked if there was deeper meaning intended, she added, simply: "It's a personal critique."

Roth began writing Tris, her daring heroine, because she herself was anxious. "Because of the anxiety, my own life felt repressive. So just as Tris makes bold moves and leaves her repression, I did bold things: I got married young. I moved to Romania for a while. I cut my hair short. Like Tris, I am trying to be a richer, fuller version of myself." Roth said she's been diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder. Last year, after "Insurgent" became a best-seller, proving that the series was not a one-book sensation, she was treated with exposure therapy — a technique that presents an anxiety-disorder sufferer with the root of their anxiety.

Which, in Roth's case, was the Internet.

Going online for anything had become "a minefield" of one-star Amazon reviews and snarky messages about how she "writes like a fourth grader." She said that she has since learned to manage the trolls; she still gets upset but doesn't let it paralyze her now. The bigger problem now is the intensity of fandom: readers who meet her and break into tears, fans who follow her for autographs. At the National Book Festival in Washington she became upset when faced with the task of signing and meeting 1,100 fans in one hour. "Some fans wait, like, five hours. You want to make it worth their time. Now I'm disappointing 700 people."

Not coincidentally, other than Chicago, her book tour for "Allegiant" will stop in only four cities.

Said Margaret Stohl, co-author (with Kami Garcia) of the popular "Beautiful Creatures" YA series: "The first time I met (Veronica), a couple of years ago, 'Divergent' had just come out. I already saw that familiar deer-in-the-headlights look, the freight train was bearing down. I said, 'Are you OK?' And she said, 'That's funny. Everyone just says "Congratulations."' I said, 'No, I understand: There's bad traumatic and good traumatic.' See, YA is partly a cult of personality. Could you imagine if you could contact (children's author) Richard Scarry? As a child myself, I loved (children's author) Susan Cooper, but I couldn't tell you what she's like. Veronica's fans, they think she's beautiful, read her blog, send her messages. It's a new world."

Roth is also the biggest star of the first generation of YA authors to have grown up during the Golden Age of YA, immersed equally in contemporary stars like Rowling and Meyer and forerunners like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, seeing YA movies, attending YA midnight-release parties. She said she owns a Harry Potter wand, still re-reads Rowling's series every year; she does not get how anyone has not read all the books. She was 11 when she read the first Harry Potter — the same age Harry was in that first book. At 25, her apartment, ordinary and post-collegiate (she's moving soon to a larger place in Ravenswood), still bears the marks of a YA childhood: Beside a shelf dedicated to Flannery O'Connor, her favorite adult writer, are shelves lined with children's books and the international editions of her own books.

A copy of "Allegiant" sits on a table strapped shut with a red belt.

"So I can open it at midnight (Monday) with everyone else," she explained cheerfully.

In an adjacent room, her writing desk stands almost comically tall, partly because she is tall (six feet), and partly because Roth never actually sits at it. Where a chair would be, there's a treadmill. She walks as she writes: "It's not good for muscles to sit 12 hours a day." Still, it's hard not to read that as a metaphor for a young writer whose career shows no sign of slowing and who, even her mother says, has stayed intense for years.

Roth is the youngest of three children. Her parents divorced when she was 5. She grew up with her mother, Barrington painter Barbara Ross (who later remarried). "She spent all of her free time writing," Ross recalled. "She was a smart, serious child, introspective. 'Divergent' is so Veronica, so interested in virtue." June Kramer, who taught Roth's junior English class, described Roth then as: "Not morally sanctimonious, just thoughtful and persistent — never able to let a point go by unchallenged." Roth herself is much less generous about herself, saying that her intensity was probably a result of her parent's divorce: "In elementary school, my report cards would be good, and then: 'Also, Veronica is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.' In high school, I was grouchy, defensive and judgmental — you know how you can judge people quickly, so they don't get the opportunity to judge you first? That was me in a nutshell."

When she found religion in high school — her boyfriend at the time invited her to a Christian Bible study, and it stuck, she said — her mother was alarmed: Ross' parents, concentration camp survivors, had pushed religion on her, "so I was never religious. But Veronica was so serious about it, I had to respect her choice."

Roth, who admits the "Divergent" series mirrors her life, began writing the first book as a freshman at Carleton College in Minnesota but didn't flesh it out until after she transferred as a sophomore to Northwestern's creative writing program. "I had a period where I was very down on academia for being snobby to commercial fiction. A teacher at Northwestern, making a joke, said 'You could always write young adult novels!' She had no idea that's what I wanted. It hurt: Is this what silly girls do? Young adult?"

In response, she started writing the Erudite faction, the nastiest faction, into "Divergent."

Brian Bouldrey, a senior lecturer and Roth's student adviser at Northwestern, said: "When she landed her publishing deal, I'm ashamed to admit, knowing that Veronica was this good Christian girl, I thought she had maybe written something like those (evangelical, apocalyptic) 'Left Behind' things. But it was so much more interesting and compelling. And now we get students asking for information about the creative writing program because they want to be the next Veronica Roth. You want to say to them: 'Good luck with that.'"

Success came ridiculously fast: During winter break of her senior year, Roth worked on "Divergent" for 10 hours a day, 40 days straight, "until my fingers were sore and I couldn't sleep." March, 2010: She attended a writer's conference in Indiana and met Volpe, who said Roth's "Divergent" pitch read like a book report, but the book itself was "unputdownable." Volpe signed Roth as a client at the moment publishers needed the next Meyer, the next Rowling. Volpe pitched the book as part of a trilogy. "Basically, we found ourselves competing against 12 other (publishing) houses for it," Tegen said. "I got approval from my CEO and we made an offer the next day — but even before we signed Veronica, she was already building an audience on her blog." April: The book was sold. May: Roth was in Manhattan discussing plans.

"We all read publishing news and go to (online) YA forums," said Kate Hart, a YA author and friend of Roth's. "We knew the marketing push the book would get, but the level of success was a shock." Before it was even released in 2011, "Divergent" had become a word-of-mouth hit thanks to the early copies of the book that HarperCollins circulated among key YA audiences. A year later, "Insurgent" repeated its success. Indeed, the series has been so popular that Roth recently received a kind of backhanded compliment: A thousand or so copies of "Allegiant" leaked out early from a Canadian warehouse, a situation slightly alleviated, Green said, "by the heartening sight of her fans posting pictures of those early packages on their Tumblr pages, the boxes marked 'Do Not Open until October 22.' I told Veronica: 'Just trust your readers.'"

Back at the Anderson's warehouse, watching Roth slowly work through a kind of literary assembly line, co-owner Beck Anderson whispered that she's hosted Rowling, Meyer, Collins, Green, and some of those authors have been changed by enormous success. "But not Veronica," she said, "Veronica has not changed." Roth's next book, Anderson said, "should not be a series. Even the most popular series tend to fade." Anderson left her desk and wandered over to Roth and asked the author: Did she know the state of Illinois wants to make Oct. 26 (the day of her book signing at the Tivoli) Veronica Roth Day in Illinois? Yes, Roth said, scrunching her nose, visibly uncomfortable with the idea, she had heard. Anderson watched her sign more, then more, then more.

Did Roth want to sit?

"I would," she said, "but the stacks are so tall."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli