Having written her own “chosen one” story in the hit YA trilogy Divergent, Roth is back with her first adult novel to explore what might happen to these so-called chosen ones after they’ve hung up their proverbial capes. Set 10 years after five teenagers — including prickly protagonist Sloane and her golden-boy boyfriend Matt — defeated the Dark One, a mysteriously malevolent figure wreaking catastrophic havoc across North America, Chosen Ones is a meditation on the ways in which predestined heroes might experience trauma later in life.
TIME spoke with Roth about the novel and what inspired her to delve into the question of what comes next for the teen-hero types so beloved by sci-fi and fantasy readers.
TIME: This is your first adult novel, but it explores some similar themes as your previous work, particularly the Divergent series. Today’s YA offerings often deal with adult situations—what is it about Chosen Ones that speaks to a more mature audience?
Roth: To me, the departure was on a thematic level. My approach to the book creatively was the same. I’m always trying to write the best story I can with the most complex characters I can. But thematically, YA stories are about coming of age and adult stories are not. Chosen Ones is about navigating the world as an adult, about having achieved the thing that you’ve been working towards. I think that’s something we all experience. You work your entire adolescence to either get a job or go to college and once you’re there it’s like, now what? That feels like a fundamentally adult question. And it’s the same thing for these characters except exaggerated. Like, how do I take responsibility for myself when I’ve been dealt a crappy hand by the world? How can I set aside my pain and learn how to be responsible and a contributor to the world? Those aren’t YA concerns to me.
Chosen Ones subverts the popular sci-fi/fantasy trope of the “chosen one.” Where did this idea of exploring what happens to these heroes after they save the world come from?
I grew up on chosen one stories. I was making a list the other day and realized just how many I was exposed to when I was young—mostly young men chosen one stories like Dune and Harry Potter and Lord of theRings. So I love these stories and I had also written one in Divergent. And with Divergent, people always ask me, “Well, what would have happened if the ending hadn’t been what it was?” I don’t have an answer to that question because, to me, the ending is what it is and that’s the only option I can see. But more generally, it got me curious about what would happen after the end of the story — not just plotwise, but psychologically. How do you cope with the emotional aftermath of having achieved this goal? And not just taking down a dark lord and being the triumphant hero of the day, but also, killing someone and being famous for it. That’s a complicated thing.
What drew you to writing a female lead who not only isn’t necessary likeable, but also does things that fall outside of the stereotypical hero mold?
If I look at the chosen one stories of my youth, there’s maybe one woman and it’s Buffy [the Vampire Slayer]. There are plenty of [female] chosen ones now, but when I was growing up, that wasn’t really the case. So it was important to me that [my lead] be a woman. As far as her antiheroine ways, I think she’s a little bit of a wish fulfillment for me. That sounds a bit odd because she’s not that likable, but she has this quality that I would love to have. She’s just like, “Bring it on—go ahead and hate me.” That’s so hard for a woman in today’s world because you feel like your obligation is to make everybody like you at any given moment, which is impossible. So writing about Sloane was incredibly liberating. She has a lot of rage because of what’s happened to her.
Prophecies play a large role in the events of Chosen Ones. What is it about the concepts of destiny and fate that interest you?
I love the idea of dread rather than surprise in books—the feeling that there’s a horrible thing that will inevitably come to pass. There’s surprise in prophecies in the discovery of how they work or how they ultimately look different than you might expect, but you also know exactly what’s coming. I love a fulfilled prophecy. I did a lot of twists early on in my career — and I probably always will because I love a good twist — but I’m becoming increasingly more interested in the tension that comes from dread.
A central theme of Chosen Ones is the idea that experiencing trauma at a young age can have both an emotional and psychological impact on you later in life. How do you feel this book fits into the conversation surrounding mental health in today’s world?
We have a whole generation of young people who have grown up a lot faster than I ever had to because of the internet. I feel like people know things a lot younger than they used to and they shoulder burdens that even I, not being that much older than them, didn’t have to take on. I wasn’t aware of any political situations when I was young. I didn’t fear for my life in school. I didn’t have any of those feelings or experiences. So in that sense, it’s relevant in that we take on burdens younger and younger now and there will be repercussions for that. We should be aware of that.
Why do you think there’s such a disconnect between the way teen-hero types are often idolized in literature and the view that many people have of teenagers and young adults in our society?
Everyone wants to believe that they didn’t fall victim to stereotypically teenage things, but people have such an odd view of their teenage selves. That’s something that I’ve realized over time. You were in fact very smart and wise as a teenager in certain ways, but you were also capable of being deeply, deeply silly. Those two things can coexist and they do. One of my most significant book signing experiences was meeting a girl who came up and talked to me about One Direction. I didn’t know who One Direction was at the time, which totally shattered her. I felt so bad. But then she passed me this note and when I read it later, it was full of all these deep insights about Divergent and what it had meant to her and what it had made her think about. And I was like, this is what teenagers are. They are both wildly intense about boy bands and capable of complex thought. These things are not at odds with each other. I think we sometimes forget that.
In Chosen Ones, it’s young people who are tasked with cleaning up the mess when natural disaster-esque events known as Drains begin wreaking havoc on society. Do you feel this story fits into the conversation surrounding climate change and the current political state in the U.S.?
To me, they’re less climate and more just magic events, so I hadn’t really thought about that particular connection. But, I mean, the Dark One lives in Trump Tower. There are some things that I wasn’t particularly subtle about.
Your descriptions of the Dark One’s most fanatical followers seem to invite comparisons to white nationalists and other far-right extremists in the U.S. What were you hoping to convey about American society with these parallels?
Mostly that it’s still racist. I don’t know how to get more into it than that. It just seems like that would be the response that some people would have to a chosen one [who is a person of color] being elevated to that level of fame. Naturally, it would bring the racism out.
After publishing your 2017 novel Carve the Mark, you received some criticism on the topic of racial representation that you addressed in a blog post. Did this criticism influence the writing of Chosen Ones in any way?
With Carve the Mark, a lot of that conversation happened before the book was widely available, so it was happening among people who hadn’t read it yet. And then as the book became widely available, the conversation changed. So I did pay attention to it and reflect on it, but mostly I thought about what this book required of me and tried to be as thoughtful as possible. I did a lot of reading of critical race theory and I brought in a few readers to help me find any blind spots that I have, because we all have them.
What do you find challenging about writing characters with whom you don’t directly identify?
It’s like any other part of the book that requires research except it’s a little harder to know how to do that kind of research. You can’t just rely on people you know because there are greater issues at play in your own perspective and in the world generally that you need to become aware of.
Chicago is almost like another character in the book. Why was it important to you to have the city play such a significant role?
I think writing Divergent primed me for writing about Chicago again. I’ve lived near the city my entire life and now I live in the city itself. But I’ve learned a lot about it through writing about it and I just don’t see a reason to set a book in another place at this point. The architecture of Chicago is such a significant part of the story because architecture reveals history and also, just aesthetically, the skyline is so important to my experience of the city and what I love about it.
What went into including such a wide array of fictional documents — from magazine and newspaper articles to top-secret government files — in the book?
They took a long time. They took the bulk of the writing process because I could tackle about a chapter a day of the narrative stuff, but I could only tackle maybe one document a day. Each one required research of its own to get the voice down. I had to read hundreds of declassified government documents — mostly from MK Ultra and Project Blue Book — to figure out how these things are structured. A lot of [the excerpts] came about because my editor really pushed me to dive into world-building. The documents accomplish a very great deal in a very small space. They tell you a lot about the world that Sloane is occupying in an incredibly efficient way.
Are there any authors in the fantasy or sci-fi space right now that you’d like to highlight as deserving of more attention?
Somaiya Daud, who wrote Mirage. That book is amazing so I would love for more people to read it. It’s about space Moroccans with kissing, as she would say, but also colonialism. And I just finished Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, which is incredibly fun, great fantasy if people want to escape their current world. There’s also a book called Vita Nostra by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko that’s amazing. It’s a dark-magic-school situation but deeply philosophical and bizarre. I’ve never read anything quite like it, so I definitely recommend it to readers who are interested in something more experimental.