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Veronica Roth on Reluctant Heroes and Doing What the Book Demands

by Brendan Dowling on April 7, 2020

As a teenager, Sloane Andrews was one of “The Chosen Ones,” five disparate young adults who used their magical powers to save the world from the enigmatic Dark Lord. Ten years later, she’s a husk of her teenage self, battling PTSD and apathetic about what direction her life should take. When one of the Chosen Ones unexpectedly dies shortly after the ten-year anniversary of the Dark Lord’s defeat, Sloane finds herself pulled into yet another battle to save the world, one that will call into question everything she has experienced before. Veronica Roth, who surged to success with her Divergent series, has here conjured another arresting world, filled with world-weary heroes making bold, adult choices. Chosen Ones is one of the most eagerly awaited titles of the spring, and has already been labeled a Best Book of April from TimeEntertainment Weekly, and Literary Hub. Brendan Dowling spoke to Roth on March 19th, 2020.

In the book, we see a very different Chicago than the one that exists. What went into devising a world and a city where magic is commonplace?

I mostly started with history. I decided that our history and this fictional world’s history departed from each other at a particular point. Instead of the space race, where we were in lock step with Russia trying to get to the moon, in the fictional world we decided to move our efforts underwater to explore the depths of the ocean, and that’s where magic comes from. Everything in the world of the book basically spirals out from that point. It affects our computer use, our social media use—which is to say that there is no social media—and magic, obviously. And then other aspects: architecture, design, retail stores, weird punny jokes, fashion, everything.

I love how you approach the differences in fashion, design, and architecture in this alternate Chicago. Can you discuss what your research process was to figuring out how those industries would be affected by magic?

In Chicago, you can read the history of the city by looking at the buildings. What style they were built will pretty much tell you when they were built. I decided that in this world, modernism does not exist, not in the same way that it took hold here.  They went the other way, more ornate, more old fashioned to our eyes, and then of course that’s reflected in fashion too. All the people are looking to the past to find these examples of what it is to be someone who practices magic, so they end up dressing like wizards. (laughs) I tried to have a sense of humor with it while also considering what this would actually be like.

How did you create this alternate Chicago and how that would operate?

It was an endless sea of research. In order to develop an alternate universe, you have to know how ours works a little bit better. I’m no history expert; I’m interested in it in the casual average person kind of way, but you do what the book demands. It wasn’t just more historical research about political events, it was also the history of modern computing, all of the buildings in Chicago, when were concrete sidewalks introduced to the world, what was the status of cars at this point, all this stuff.

Really the reason that I did all that research was because of the interstitials, what I call the documents in between the chapters: news articles, a government document, a poem, and interviews. Doing the research for each specific document helped me create a more cohesive alternate universe, because so much detail is required for each one. It took one day to write each interstitial and they’re not very long. That took up the bulk of the time for the book, even though they’re comparatively shorter [than the narrative].

Those interstitial pieces are so fun to read and flesh out Sloane’s world so beautifully. When did you decide that you were going to include them in the book?

It was later than you’d think. I had started the narrative sections and I decided that in order to really understand Sloane and the way that the world perceived her, I wanted to introduce her through the eyes of someone else. That’s where the interstitials started. Originally I only wanted one, just that newspaper article from the misogynistic reporter that starts off the book, because then you meet her the way that the world sees her, which is this tough chick, or at least pretending to be a tough person, who doesn’t care about anyone or anything and is this hardened figure. Then immediately afterward with the first chapter of the book, you see how vulnerable and how difficult her life is as a result of the trauma she’s been through. That juxtaposition was really important to me in terms of how we get to know Sloane and to have sympathy for her right off the bat. She’s being talked about in this horrible way, but in a way that we find believable—if you’ve ever read celebrity profiles of beautiful women that’s how they’re discussed sometimes—and that’s really troubling.

I want to talk about Sloane, because we’re seeing a “chosen one” character at a different point in their life than we’re used to. Can you talk about what went into creating her?

Basically there are two chosen one narratives in the book. There’s the one that came before, which is not something that we’re exposed to firsthand, but Sloane’s dealing with its repercussions. In that narrative, she’s not the chosen one really, she’s the love interest. When I was growing up, with the exception of Buffy, all the chosen one stories I read were about young men, so that would have been her role in those stories. The actual book is her chosen one story, sort of; I turn it on its head a little bit. I’ve always loved the anti-hero figure, where it’s a reluctant, “All right fine I’ll save the world,” that begrudging kind of heroism. Usually women don’t get to play that kind of role, and I thought it would be fun and interesting to see how she would be and also how she would be received. We have a harder time watching women be that way, actually unlikeable, so that was important for me to explore.

You get the sense of how traumatic it would be to save the world and then return to civilian life.

The worst part for me to write was when she was looking for spandex, because she knows she has to suck her gut in or otherwise there will be pregnancy rumors. What a terrible existence.

We see several chosen ones in the book, each of whom approaches their post-chosen one life in a distinct way. What was it like exploring the different ways being a chosen one could affect a person’s life?

My own brush with being well known—I wouldn’t say it was anything more than that—gave me a range of emotional experiences, and I kind of took one per character and gave it to them. Sloane is resentful and hates the way her life has been taken over by this thing, and I think  that’s a really relatable reaction. Then there’s Esther, who has decided to make the very best of it, which is also an understandable reaction. Who among us would not go start a lifestyle brand? (laughs) I wouldn’t, but I admire her tenacity there. Matt feels this distinct responsibility: “I’ve been given this role and I need to do good things with it.” Just taking little grains of the truth in my own experience, blowing them up, and exaggerating them was the way that I approached it. You have to be able to relate to characters. That doesn’t mean you have to have had the identical experience to them, but there has to be some emotional truth there.

You’ve talked about Buffy already, but what were the chosen one stories that were significant to you as a reader?

I think the earliest one was probably Animorphs, that’s the first I can remember. Then of course you have The Giver and Harry Potter. Harry Potter was the first time I ever encountered the phrase “the chosen one.” When I was a little older there was Dune and “The Matrix”—it’s not a book obviously, but that was a very significant media in my childhood. Those were the main ones. And Buffy, of course.

Can you talk about how magic and science butt up against each other in your worlds?

I usually write Sci-Fi, so this was a bit of a departure for me. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to connect to the magic in the book as a writer unless there was some kind of hand-wavey fake-science explanation. I thought there was a nice marriage of romance and science in sound frequencies, so that was going to be my mechanism of magic use. [In the book], particular magical workings fall under ranges of sound frequencies, or at specific frequencies, and you can hum or whistle these things into being. You can do it even if you can’t hear; you can still measure those frequencies. That was the start of the magic system building, but there has to be something else. There has to be a way for some people to be better at it than others, otherwise you can’t have a Dark Lord figure. He has to be more powerful than other people, otherwise who cares what he’s doing? That’s where the exploration of desire and intent as it relates to magic came into being. That’s important for Sloane because she’s pretty depressed, so she doesn’t really understand her own desires or connect to them in any meaningful way. Her struggle with magic becomes also her internal struggle, which is a nice mirroring effect.

Finally, what role have libraries played in your life?

For me, libraries were always a shelter. My parents got divorced when I was really young. I remember going into the library as a kid in my elementary school, and it being a safe place for me to go when I was having a lot of emotional trouble. Even when I got older in high school, it was that too. Obviously it provides a lot of essential services, like the access to books and information and the internet, but the way I related to libraries was always more of an emotional way: this is a safe place to be when things are really hard. You’re always welcome at the library.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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