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Veronica Roth

The YA novelist, 30, on the perils of early success, coping with anxiety, and the brutal honesty of teenagers

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke

I was settling in for the long haul when everything happened with Divergent. I was really excited, but excitement and fear are very connected for me. I had an untreated anxiety disorder and a panic attack. The pressure of everyone’s expectations was a lot to take in. I was just trying to manage everything, and there was no time to reflect or to think about strategy or the future. I feel like my 20s was this weird dream.

People were nicest at the beginning of my career, because that’s when I was the biggest or whatever. In recent years, it’s calmed down a bit and they’ve moved on to fancier people. I miss some of them, but now I see what was really going on, which is such a shame. They thought there was something to gain from being friends. Maybe they liked me, but they also liked the idea of me.

I’d always rather be made a fool of by being too kind than the other way around.

Early on, my mom was with me at a book event and said, “You have to stop ducking your head every time someone compliments you. Just say, ‘Thank you.’ ” And whenever I was feeling nervous about how an interaction had gone, she would say, “No one is thinking about you as much as you are.”

You can tell a lot about someone by how they break up with people.

Teenagers will insult you right to your face without meaning to. “I really loved your first book. I thought the third one was really disappointing.”

I don’t know enough about the world to teach children anything, but if I can help them to figure out what they think, that’s good.

I started writing when I was 11. Like, every day. It was mostly Lord of the Rings rip-offs, and I got weirder and weirder as I went. My mother was actually worried I wasn’t social: “Go be with your friends.”

At Northwestern, it was trial by fire. You submitted a short story for a workshop and everyone in the class read it. And then you were silent while they critiqued it for a half hour. You just had to sit there and take it. That was good training, because you don’t get to defend yourself to strangers on the internet. And you shouldn’t try.

The kind of therapy I’ve done most is cognitive behavioral. It’s about retraining your brain to think in different ways, so it’s very practical and concrete. You have to find something that reliably provokes anxiety. For me, it was one-star reviews on Amazon. So I would read one, get really anxious, and my therapist would help me to talk through it. It’s kind of like exposure therapy: You just deal with being uncomfortable for a little while. Being uncomfortable will not kill you.

By the time a book comes out, I feel nothing about it anymore. I still like the book, but I’ve let go of my attachment.

Being with my husband is like being alone. And I mean that in the best way. He doesn’t tax me or take up any space in my mind. He’s like another piece of me.

It’s hard to stand your ground when you’re easily swayed by people. If I’m sitting across from someone who’s disagreeing with me, I want to identify with them and understand why they’re thinking the way they are. But then when I go home, I’m like, “That was bullshit.”

Advice to my younger self? Honestly, I’d tell Young V it’s OK to go on medication for your anxiety. I didn’t want to need it, but I missed out on enjoying some exciting times in my life because I was so anxious I couldn’t savor them. There’s no shame in trying something that helps you be present in your life. Also, get yourself an eyebrow pencil. God.

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