Chicago-set 'Divergent' sprang to life in author's Barrington bedroom
Most university students don't bang out a best-seller over winter break.
Veronica Roth did.
"My parents were gone traveling," the Barrington High School grad said. "I was alone in the house and I wouldn't get up until 1 p.m. So, then, I would just sit on my bed and write."
The novel she wrote, "Divergent," became the biggest young adult literary property to hit the printing press since -- what? Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games"? The highly anticipated film version comes out this week.
Roth, now 25, followed the 2011 publication of "Divergent" with two sequels: 2012's "Insurgent" and 2013's "Allegiant." The latter enjoyed a first printing of 2 million copies, and plans are underway to bring both sequels to the screen as well.
"Obviously, things have turned out pretty well for me," Roth said with ruthless understatement. "But if they had turned out poorly, I'd still be writing the books, because I've been writing this stuff since the sixth grade because I love it. That's a really remarkable quality she passed on to us."
"She" would be Mom, alias Barbara Ross, a longtime Barrington resident who took up painting after retiring.
"She encouraged us to be creative," Roth said. "She didn't allow us to be bored. 'I don't tolerate that sort of thing!' she'd say. She was in favor of being creative without any expectation for a return on your investment.
"Sure, she goes to shows and hopes people like what she does, but she does it because she likes to. She finds joy and fulfillment in it. The way I work on my writing is sort of similar."
On March 4 at Chicago's ICON theater, Roth walked the red carpet and held her own with Shailene Woodley and other stars of Neil Burger's movie version "Divergent" at its Chicago premiere. Roth did not write the screenplay, but she did have a cameo in the film.
Roth set "Divergent" in a future Chicago where the government divides people into personality types. Anyone who doesn't conform to type is branded a "divergent," and that carries threatening consequences.
Roth remembered the first time she saw her futuristic vision of Chicago -- a damaged and neglected city by its citizens -- on the big screen.
"It's far grander. Bigger. In a way that's probably a very good thing," she said. "When I created this dystopian world, to me, it just feels very small in my mind. It's not as big as Chicago is.
"I love Chicago, but now it has all these turbines and giant, scary-looking fence. I think my favorite part of the movie is how prominently Chicago is featured, and how wonderfully destroyed it is."
Did Roth have any cinematic inspirations as she penned her trilogy?
"I don't have a terribly vivid visual mind," she said. "I think you can tell, especially in the first book. Things described are just a little vague. I'm working on bringing a little more specificity into my writing.
"But I've been watching movies and TV since I was very young. When you grow up that way, you have an idea of what action scenes are supposed to look like. I've always loved to write action scenes."
Roth said it would be tough to identify all the literary influences that went into writing "Divergent."
Well, there was one.
"My biggest influence when I was young, and it was my introduction to dystopian fiction: 'The Giver' by Lois Lowry. She's an incredible writer. My writing could never be as beautiful as hers. I read her when I think I was 10. It was the real world. It doesn't have any fantastical beings. But it's a totally foreign world at the same time.
"When I approached my own book, I wanted to create a (political) system that seemed like it would work. Otherwise people wouldn't participate in it. It didn't have to be a realistic system, but it could work. Then, to slowly show how the bad parts of human nature confound our ability to create peace."
Roth was born in New York but moved to Chicago at 5 with her parents and two siblings. She grew up in a religion-neutral household. While at Barrington High, she and fellow students took up Christian studies.
Since then, religion has become a fascination for the novelist and an influence for her books.
"I think it would be dishonest to present a world where people are never thinking about the big religious questions. Why are we here? In my writing, it's important that characters think about these things every once in a while, because I want them to sound like authentic teenagers who are experiencing the full range of human experience."
After graduating Barrington High, she spent a year at Carleton College in Minnesota before transferring to Northwestern University in Evanston because it offered her the ideal combo degree: English literature with creative writing.
Plus, she admitted, she wanted to return home to Barrington and Chicago.
"I know Minnesota isn't that far, but I've always been somewhat of a homebody," she said. "I missed home a lot."
So what's the big deal about Chicago?
"It's a beautiful city," Roth said. "It's a big city. We have incredible things here. Beautiful architecture. Really delicious food. We have exciting things going on in Chicago and we're like, 'Yeah, sure, no big deal.' There's no attitude and very little pretension. I really appreciate that about Chicago."
-- Dann Gire
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Chicago plays pivotal role in 'Divergent'"Divergent" began filming in Chicago April 8, 2013, with the Windy City a pivotal character in Barrington native Veronica Roth's story.
"The main thing we wanted to avoid was a certain sci-fi futuristic feeling that you can't relate to, that feels like a special effect," producer Lucy Fisher said in production notes. "That's partly why shooting in Chicago was such an important thing for us. Chicago is a grounded place, a place you could recognize."
The movie follows Roth's novel by referencing many Chicago landmarks, among them the Hancock Building, el trains, the University of Chicago, the Willis Tower, Lake Michigan, and Navy Pier and its famous Ferris wheel.
Additional scenes were shot in suburban Kaneville and Morris.
-- Dann Gire