Before she wrote a New York Times No. 1 bestseller, novelist Veronica Roth ’10 was no stranger to being critiqued. It’s a skill she learned in the creative writing program at Northwestern. “You sit there for an hour, and people tell you what’s wrong with your work, and you don’t get to explain yourself,” she says of her experience. “And that’s what it’s like in the real world, too.”
The humility and openness to artistic development that Roth developed in class helped her handle the pressure when her debut novel, Divergent, along with her subsequent books, Insurgent and Allegiant, were all bestsellers. The trilogy was adapted into a big-budget Hollywood film franchise starring Shailene Woodley. “With Divergent, I was very fortunate to blow through a lot of lifetime career goals all at once,” she says. “That was wonderful, but it left me with an unsettling void of dreams, and I had to recenter myself.”
Since then, Roth has focused on her own growth as a person and as a writer. “I’m learning how to be better on a sentence-to-sentence level but also learning how to make my ideas more complex and nuanced,” Roth says. “My hope is that with each book I’m able to achieve that, even in small ways.”
Her latest novel, Poster Girl, published in October 2022 by Harper Collins, takes place in a dystopian future “just around the corner,” in the aftermath of a revolution against an authoritarian regime that employed a mass surveillance tool: an ocular implant known as The Insight.
“Mass surveillance obviously isn’t new to dystopian fiction,” Roth says. “But when I had seen it [in other works], it was imposed externally. ‘Big Brother is watching you,’ for example. But usually an authoritarian regime is not imposed from without; it’s something that we invite in because we believe that it has benefits.”
As she began drafting Poster Girl in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Roth took a break from social media both for her own mental health as well as a way of relating to Sonya, the novel’s main character, who grapples with the fallout from the Insight era and her own culpability in the old regime. With the omnipresent tracking system ended by the new government, Sonya has suddenly stopped being “extremely online.”
“In the way we use social media and the way we use our phones we’ve invited in something that we might want to be more wary of,” Roth says. “I’m not advocating for paranoia but rather for thoughtfulness in how use our devices.”
While the science-fictional future described in Poster Girl has been described in early reviews as “bleak and spare,” Roth still finds reasons for hope in today’s real world.
“Early in my career I was fortunate to be on a panel with [author and internet activist] Cory Doctorow,” she says, “and he [said], for every technological advancement that we’re afraid of, there are good actors in the world, too. So even in the midst of scary or unsettling situations, there are people who are working against those forces. So I guess I find hope in the individual actor.”
And, she says, she can always count on support from her old classmates. “The number of times people come up to me at book signings and say ‘Go ’Cats!’ is pretty intense,” Roth reports. “It’s always a delight to run into Wildcats in the wild, as it were.”