Listen to the story of Veronica Roth, a senior in Northwestern University’s creative writing program, and one might think that becoming a professional fiction writer is pretty easy.
Roth wrote a novel over winter break, revised it in January, started looking for literary representation in February and signed with an agent in March. By April, she had a contract with HarperCollins.
“It all happened very, very fast,” said the 21-year-old from Barrington, who transferred to Northwestern in her sophomore year to take advantage of the creative writing program in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for a writer so young,” said Brian Bouldrey of Roth’s three-book publishing deal. Bouldrey, who served as Roth’s independent study and honors thesis adviser, said he expected “she’ll be that solid person who has a long career in writing.”
He described Roth as a devoted Christian who wrote about Christianity and religion at Northwestern “without being easy and soft or by writing a tract. She really goes for the tough stuff,” he said.
Required to write a long work for her honors thesis, Roth wrote a novella about a young girl trying to find the mother who left her. In her journey, the character stumbles upon a Christian heavy metal rock festival. The work, said Roth, is based on the story of the Apostle Paul.
“She’s not afraid to mix it up,” said Bouldrey, a self-described gay, liberal and out-there writer. “She has backbone. She knows exactly what she wants to do.”
Roth, in turn, described Bouldrey as “a totally encouraging and respectful teacher.”
“Brian always encouraged me to incorporate my religious beliefs into my writing, and the writing I’ve done at Northwestern has incorporated a lot of biblical themes,” she added.
Roth describes the book picked up by HarperCollins as a darkly futuristic novel for young adults that imagines a teenaged girl growing up in a society that tries to cultivate certain virtues in its members to the exclusion of other virtues. It will be published in summer 2011.
Although that novel was not written as part of her Northwestern work, she “learned everything” in the undergraduate creative writing program, Roth said. Among the most important was the ability to write more subtly.
“The first story I wrote at Northwestern had all these crazy car accidents and things,” she said. “I learned how to quiet down, how to write clearly and how to construct stories that were subtle and not so heavy-handed.”
“Because great writers are also great readers, one of the most important things we do in the writing program is to encourage and teach our students to read,” Bouldrey said.
Roth appreciated being introduced to writers such as Alice Munro and Marilynne Robinson, two of her favorites. “Robinson is a spiritual writer which is probably why I gravitate to her,” said Roth. “She can handle religious themes in a respectful and intelligent way, which is something that I really appreciate.”
She also appreciated the 14 other students in the program who constructively criticized her work. “I love hanging with other writers,” she said. “In the fiction sequence, we really liked one another a lot.”
People often think writing is a solitary activity. “But it’s not something you can do in total isolation or you’ll go nuts,” said Roth. “You can’t write a book without getting feedback, because you’re too close to the work.”
Unable to predict what she will do after writing another two books for HarperCollins, Roth was clear about one thing. “I definitely intend to try to keep getting better at writing.”