Author Veronica Roth wrote her dystopian young adult novel “Divergent” during her senior year at Northwestern University. More than a decade later, the New York Times best-selling author has proven her staying power having published a cadre of short stories and young adult books, and a 2020 adult novel, “Chosen Ones,” and guest-edited the most recent “The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.”
Roth’s latest release, “Poster Girl,” is a speculative novel about the fall of an oppressive regime, a search for a missing girl in the aftermath, and the perils of voluntary surveillance. (Read: all those apps tracking you on your phone. And the way that sometimes it feels oddly good to have all of those apps tracking you on your phone.)
As Roth explained, “It’s good to be aware of what kind of power we’re granting our systems because it’s hard to take power back.” We chatted with Roth in advance of her stop in Boston and the Oct. 18 release of her first mystery, “Poster Girl.”
“Poster Girl” is an interesting exploration of how closely technology and observation are tied to our behaviors. Did your relationship with technology change while writing it?
I did a six-month social media hiatus to write the book. Part of the reason I did that was to get into the main character’s headspace — she’s been observed and then, suddenly, she’s not being observed in the same way.
Part of it was also because for my last book, “Chosen Ones,” I had been on social media so much. It was released the first week of lockdown, so that was the only avenue I had to talk about my work. I got overloaded being on it all of the time, like so many of us were.
Now, since the hiatus, I’ve been so much less active. I think I broke my addiction to social media. I also think a little more about what devices I allow to listen to me — which is now basically none of them. I deactivated Siri and don’t use any devices in my kitchen that I can talk to. I don’t want to be listened to by any technology anymore. And you, of course, can’t avoid all of these things unless you want to completely detach — but it’s made me want to advocate for more transparency in terms of how our data is being used.
You raise some fascinating points about the way we opt-in to sharing our data and information — probably concerns that are on people’s minds already.
Right. More people, recently, started thinking about their period-tracking apps, for obvious reasons. I think that’s the first time I’ve noticed that it was central in the public consciousness, at least since I myself became aware.
On that note: A lot of your work is deeply on the science fiction and fantasy spectrum, and this [novel] felt a bit closer to this moment in time. Is there a different feeling writing in that vein?
Yeah, absolutely. I think the demands of the research are so different. When you’re making something up from scratch it needs to have its own inner logic, but when it’s closely based in reality, you want to use what’s already there.
I wrote this during the pandemic when people weren’t traveling yet, so I couldn’t go to Seattle. I had to rely on my memory, and also Google Earth, and a friend from Seattle that I needed to lean on in order to create a world that felt grounded and detailed. It’s a matter of doing a lot more research for every scene: Where is this? What does it look like?
Did you dig into any mystery works as you were figuring out how to set [the plot] up?
I read as much of the mystery genre that I could find: “The Gone World” by Tom Sweterlitsch, and “The City & the City” by China Miéville come to mind.
What was the most natural part of writing this book?
Writing the romantic arc is always something I rely on as a carrot to carry me through. It’s hard for me to write without some kind of love story. This one in particular — every time they were on the page together there was this tension that I found really exciting and fun. That came the most naturally. Which it usually does.
I realized today that when you published your first book, you were graduating college — which was also the same year I graduated college — which, incidentally, made me feel bad about myself. But that’s fine.
No! Don’t. I mean … it was truly a strange time.
But I was curious how it feels, looking back on your progression as a writer?
Well, I feel sure that you know this, but when you look back on anything you did when you were 23, there’s a certain amount of… ugh…
But I think that’s kind of the hope at least, that you feel that way. If you’re not growing and changing then you wouldn’t be benefiting from your experiences. There’s some amount of reflecting on a lot of growth from the last decade.
But I also think about it as a very special time of my life when “Divergent” came out. There are a lot of experiences I had then that I really cherish. It’s been a wild ride.
Veronica Roth will discuss “Poster Girl” at Porter Square Books: Boston Edition on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. For more information or to reserve a signed copy, visit portersquarebooks.com/event/boston-veronica-roth-poster-girl
Interview was edited and condensed.