All famous writers have to deal with angry fans at some point, but few have experienced what Divergent author Veronica Roth went through last year. A Barrington native who graduated from Northwestern and currently lives on the North Side, Roth’s new space-fantasy series—Carve the Mark—made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
It started when another YA author, Justina Ireland, accused Roth of “reinforcing cultural white supremacy” and encouraging readers to “code brown-skinned people as evil.” Within days, YA Twitter (which isn’t exactly known for levelheaded discourse) was abuzz with angry readers calling Carve the Mark racist.
Roth noted in her response that the two fictional cultures depicted in Carve the Mark were “physically indistinguishable from another,” not based on race or skin color, and a close (or even casual) reading of the novel backs her up. Even with the facts on her side, Roth—who has spoken about her anxiety in the past—says she lost some sleep over the ordeal.
Roth’s sequel to Carve the Mark, The Fates Divide, was published this month. It continues the Shakespearean love story between Cyra and Akos, while further exploring Roth’s fictional solar system, including the mysterious “shadow planet.” I spoke with Roth over the phone about space, Chicago, and her advice for people suffering from anxiety.
How is The Fates Divide different from Carve the Mark?
There's a little more humor in this one, and a little more adventure and discovery. It also explores the political situation in the solar system more heavily. It’s the same galaxy, but it goes deeper.
Why did you go into space for this series?
I really subscribe to the Star Trek “final frontier” philosophy, because [space] felt like this place of possibility. I wasn't bound by a responsibility to represent our world, which is something that exists in dystopian fiction. I set Divergent in Chicago, so I had to pay attention not only to Chicago, but also to our social and cultural history, and that was a big undertaking for someone so young.
So with Carve the Mark, I was like, “How about I just create this whole new solar system and fill it with everything that excites me in genre fiction, and as many weird things and cultures and languages as I can think of?” It brought the true joy of writing back to me.
How did the controversy over Carve the Mark affect the writing of this book?
Criticism is a huge part of your life as a writer, and I value it, but not all criticism is created equal. You have to evaluate whether you think someone is right. I wouldn't say that it changed the writing of The Fates Divide—I just continued as I was going to because I had thought really deeply about these things, like racism in fantasy. But I try to base the changes I make on criticism that comes from really thoughtful readings of the book, as opposed to someone who only read 100 pages of it.
You've spoken about anxiety before, and the Carve the Mark controversy sounds like a nightmare for someone who suffers from severe anxiety. Do you have any specific anxiety triggers?
Health anxiety was probably the number-one reason why I started taking medication. You're stressed, your anxiety is already high for other reasons, but then you fixate on something that's completely benign that's happening to your body. Usually it’s cancer fears for me. The first time I was like, “I know this is irrational, but I can't get my brain to stop doing this and I feel like I'm losing touch with what’s real.” And that was really scary for me. I knew I needed some help. I had to stop pretending that I was “too strong” for medicine, because that's crazy. You wouldn’t say that about any other condition that happens to your body, and your brain is your body.
I have some social anxiety, and the other ones are nebulous and hard to understand. It was pretty severe, but luckily things have subsided with medication.
Do you have any advice for people who are struggling with anxiety and aren’t sure how to seek help?
I'm totally for looking into whatever resources you can find. The worst thing is to suffer alone. Sometimes people can't afford therapy, because it's expensive, but there are sliding-scale options, like the Family Institute at Northwestern, and a lot of other organizations that provide low-cost counseling and therapy. But I think the real obstacle for people is just that they don't want to take that step. It's a little bit funny because you're like, “I need to go to the drug store to get my anxiety medication, but I'm too anxious about going to the drug store to get it.”
So for people who are kind of just journeying alone, my therapist said something to me that was really powerful: “You don't have to fight so hard.” It was really profound, because I didn't like using every ounce of energy to fight back. She said “Let’s find something to make it easier.” It's not like some battle that you get medals for — it's your life.
What made you decide to stay in Chicago?
After I graduated, I stayed in Evanston but slightly farther away from campus. And then after I got married, we lived in Romania for five months. When I came back [to Chicago] for a week for work, I was in a taxi in the middle of Chicago's beautiful architecture, and I started crying because I just love it here so much. At that point, we decided to move back to Chicago instead of New York.
Do you have a favorite part of town?
Edgewater is one of my favorite Chicago neighborhoods. It's where I used to live. There’s this little strip of mattress stores on Broadway with some real hidden gems — little antique stores, my husband's restaurant, wine stores, indie cafés. It’s got great stuff, but people don't really know about it because there's Andersonville right next door and some of my favorite places.
Now that the Carve the Mark series is over, do you have a sense of what you want to do next?
I'm never not writing, and I had this like insane burst of creative energy the last year and then into early this year. So I made a lot of plans. And right now they're in the exact phase where I can't tell you about them.