Divergent series, a book she wrote during college, that's sold multiple millions of copies and stayed on the NYT bestseller list for years. You know the series was made into movies, and you probably know that her next book, Carve the Mark, is releasing next week as one of the most anticipated books of 2017.
But although I greatly admire the way Veronica has handled her unexpected success and resultant fame, that's not why I asked her for an interview. What makes Veronica a true badass is that despite leading a busier life than almost anybody, she's still the kind of person that, say, sends you a stuffed brain to hold when the one in your head is acting up. She's the kind of friend who texts you while you sit in the surgery waiting room, telling you silly jokes to help keep you calm. She's the kind of friend who uses her success to promote the work and causes of people she cares about -- and though she might kill me for mentioning this, she's the kind of person who shares her wealth privately behind the scenes, because she's not interested in cookies or attention for doing the right thing.
I'm glad to call her a friend, and grateful that she's shared her thoughts for this project.
Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?
Veronica: I’ve been writing for fun since I was a kid, maybe 10 or 11 years old. It wasn’t until college that I thought of it as something I could do for a job—and even then, I knew how hard it was to get published, so my official plan was to be a freelance copyeditor or proofreader, since I did that part-time while I was in school. But sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time—or rather, sometimes you just have the right manuscript with the right people at the right time! I sold my first book, Divergent, a couple months before I walked at my graduation.
But the path that led me to Carve the Mark was basically just me, playing around with a story I found interesting, after the Divergent series was finished. I felt like I had finally shed the lingering shame that had surrounded my love of YA books and sci-fi/fantasy and all the delightful tropes therein, and I don’t know, I just charged into the story with joy and filled it with all the things I liked: space! Training montages! Family drama! Burgeoning female friendships! Weird mystery substances! The “people with powers” trope! The “girl used as weapon gains her own agency” trope! Alien languages! Space gladiators!
It was a powerful feeling.
Veronica: Honestly, I am frustratingly single-minded. Writing was always my hobby—I crammed it into all the empty spaces in my life while I was in school!—so when it became my job, I had no hobbies to speak of, and I still don’t. I read, but that’s pretty standard for a writer. And it’s not creative, but I do love to exercise. I started kickboxing last year and I love it. Running, too.
Kate: What's your biggest challenge?
Veronica: I’m anxious! The diagnosed, medicated kind of anxious. So sometimes my biggest challenge is not obsessively checking WebMD, or not falling asleep in the middle of the day so I can avoid the things that stress me out, or having a conversation with more than one person over the course of an evening. Some days I feel really strong, like I can handle anything, and some days I’m completely helpless and can’t work and feel like a waste of space. Medication gives me more of the former days than the latter, these days, and that’s amazing. God bless you, chemicals.
Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.
Veronica: I have to tell you, I always feel like such a fraud talking about failure when I’ve been so fortunate, and really had very little to overcome to get where I am—being a straight white able-bodied woman from an upper class background in America is a pretty sweet deal, guys.
But I guess that just means redefining failure, because one of the things I think was a big failure of mine was a failure of sensitivity. I wrote a pretty careless sexual assault scene in Divergent, and one day I went on the Internet to discover that someone had pointed that out, pretty publicly. Digging deeper, I discovered that other people had had a problem with it, too. I wrestled for awhile about what to do about it, and ultimately I decided it was best to just own up to it. I wrote a blog post describing as honestly as possible what was wrong with the scene and what I had learned since I wrote it.
And this is the important thing, the thing I feel like we don’t believe enough in our culture: when you just acknowledge how you messed up and don’t try to make excuses, people are receptive to that. The world can be a very hostile place, don’t get me wrong. But the mistake a lot of people make when they fail the way I did is trying to hide it or downplay it. We all make mistakes; everyone knows that. But a sincere confession is good for the heart.
Veronica: I don’t receive compliments very well, to be honest—they make me want to disappear into a hole in the ground, so I’m not terribly gracious in my reaction to them. But I am proud of the person I’ve become. I think I’m pretty honest, and kind, and I try to support other people as much as I can. It’s hard to say this! Why is it so hard to say what we like about ourselves?
Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work?
Veronica: Honestly, I think I’ve been through a bit of a feminist tornado in the past ten years. In high school I was one of those people who identified as “not like other girls,” who had negative feelings about female friendship. I certainly wouldn’t have called myself a feminist. Then, in college, I realized that I had female friendships that didn’t involve gossip, or competitiveness, or passive aggressiveness—all the things that I believed defined female friendships before then. It’s pretty hard to be a feminist if you’ve been culturally conditioned to hate your own gender, right? So God, am I grateful for the supportive, smart, and generous women who made me love being a woman.
I’ve been learning since then. Recently the biggest revelation I had came courtesy of Sumayyah Daud, which encouraged me to listen before I talk over people who experience marginalization in a different way (and, let’s be real, in a much greater way) than I do. That doesn’t mean not taking action. It means directing your efforts to boost marginalized voices and platforms, not your own. And most of the time, I still have no clue how to do that. But I try to be patient with myself, and with other people. We’re all fumbling for the light switch here.
Veronica: Listen to them. Celebrate their accomplishments, even if the small, dark parts of you feel envious. Help—if they ask. Be present if they don’t.
Kate: Who are some badass ladies we should know, and why?
Veronica: Margaret Stohl – she’s an author of some great books, but she’d be the first one to say “who cares?” to that identifier. She co-founded my favorite YA-focused book festival in the country, Yallfest, and its sister festival, Yallwest, where she arranged transportation, a free meal, and a free book for kids from low income areas to come in. She often finds herself to be one of the only female voices in the room with other Marvel types, now that she’s writing Captain Marvel comics. She does a lot of work with Facing History in Los Angeles, an organization that seeks to increase students’ understanding of bigotry and prejudice. I want people to know these things about her because she really hates to talk herself up, so you might never have understood how great she is otherwise.
Sarah Enni – Sarah is one of the most talented writers whose work you haven’t gotten to read yet, but she has a short story in the upcoming anthology Because You Love To Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy. She also does a podcast called First Draft where she interviews writers about their craft, and she’s one of the best question-askers I’ve ever encountered, a skill I very much admire and want to cultivate. [Sarah's Badass Ladies profile is here!]
Somaiya Daud – Somaiya is another “one of the most talented writers whose work you haven’t gotten to read yet”. Her book Mirage, which is Moroccan space royalty wonderfulness, comes out in 2018, but in the meantime you should probably follow her on Twitter at @somaiyadaud. She is very smart. So smart I’d really like to crawl into her brain and live there forever, subsisting only on wisdom.
Emily Graslie – my fellow Chicagoan who works at the Field Museum, has a youtube channel called The Brain Scoop where she will get you Interested In The World Around You and make you put up the praise hands emoji for WOMEN IN STEM!
Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?
Veronica: Take one step toward what you want. That’s all you need to do right now—one call to a therapist, one page of writing in your book, one job application, one conversation. Step until you’re just a little bit uncomfortable, and after you’ve recovered, step again. A badass knows what she wants and goes after it. But that doesn’t mean she always feels like a badass or can grab it all at once, and that is okay.
And for fuck’s sake, be kind to yourself.
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