Veronica Roth the next literary superstar?

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Popular young adult author Veronica Roth signs several thousand copies of her newest book, Allegiant, at the Anderson and Sons warehouse in Aurora, Thursday, October 17, 2013. Allegiant is to be released Tuesday, October 22.

"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

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