In an exclusive interview, Veronica Roth—author of the hit dystopian Divergent series—divulges the big inspirations behind Carve the Mark, the first book in her anxiously anticipated sci-fi duology, out next January.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Can you give us an overview of Carve the Mark in your own words?
ROTH: It’s set in space, and it’s the story of two brothers who are kidnapped by a dictator in an enemy country. In order to save his brother’s life, one of them, Akos, has to work with someone who’s supposed to be his enemy, but winds up being something more.
Where did you come up with this?
Gosh, it’s so weird, because it came from so many different places. But essentially, I wrote a crazy, early prototype version when I was like 12 or 13. Just the basic idea of, what would happen if one of your family members was taken away from you, and then came back after being kidnapped, different. Throughout the years, I never quite let that idea go. I’d write it as fantasy, I’d write it as sci-fi, I’d write it this way, and that way, with a girl, with a boy. I just kept bouncing around, and I finally figured out the way that it works.
So you came back to it after all the Divergent stuff, or had you been working on it little by little throughout?
Well it’s funny. I’d wait for edits on Insurgent and I’d poke myself back into this story and try to find a way to make it work again, and then I’d give up, and go back to working on Divergent.
It sounds like it must have a special place in your heart if it’s been with you for over a decade.
Yeah, it really does. I think I’m obsessed with this idea of changing and still fitting with your family — because family is really important to me. In my family, we’ve been able to change and grow, but we still find ways to stick together. So maybe that’s where it comes from. But it is a very personal story for me.
I also feel like you’re really intrigued by this concept of a pre-determined fate. Why does that fascinate you? What about it draws you back?
Suspense is not the only tension that can exist in a story — there is also dread. So it’s not like, “What’s going to happen next?” But more like, “Oh my God, this is coming. How is it going to come?”
So it’s more about figuring out the path than the ending.
Yeah. It’s just a different kind of story surprise. You want readers to be surprised — and I do twisty, turny stuff sometimes. But this is a new experiment.
Right, because then there’s the whole question of, “Do you have to be tied to your fate, or can that change?”
That’s essentially a world-building question. Am I going to adhere to the system or not? I still… well, wait and see.
What is your world-building process like? Where do you start, and how do you keep it all straight?
I learned a lot from writing the Divergent books, like “plan ahead,” and “keep track.” I loved writing those books, but by the time I got to Allegiant, I was like, “I have set myself up with some very difficult rules because I didn’t think this through.” I was definitely a little bit more flying by the seat of my pants with the Divergent books. This time, I was like, “No, you’re going to think through these planets, how they work, what they look like, what they’re called, how these languages work, all of these things. Figure it out.”
How do you keep everything straight? Do you have a wall with index cards and string?
Oh man, that would be cool, but no. I just have a series of documents, really. I use Scribed to write, so you can make research pages and you can save articles… you can do all that inside the program. So, you know. Technology.
How do you come up with peoples’ names? This book has some good ones: Akos, Cyra, Ryz. They feel like ancient names.
My thought was, I didn’t want it to sound like a language you’ve heard, because there’s a lot of fantasy out there where you can pronounce the names, which is great. But I just didn’t want it to feel like this Anglo-Saxon, Western thing. I wanted it to feel alien. So I looked into ConLang, which is “constructed languages” — some people do this for a hobby. I’m not one of those people. I’d come up with these vowel-consonant pairings, or trios, and I’d just make a list of the sounds I wanted.
I could never do that.
I felt like a crazy person! I’m sitting there with these huge lists of like, not-words. Luckily I have a separate office.
Where did you get the idea for the “current” that runs through all the planets?
I do like to make sure there’s a religious element — or at least potential — in the worlds I build, because I think that’s pretty natural, and a huge part of our lives even now. Even if you decide you don’t believe in anything, that’s a decision that people make. So I wanted there to be a force, an actual, tangible, visible force. You can be religious about it, or you can think about it as a scientific phenomenon. I think I just liked that idea, that a religious person would point to the sky and be like, “Look, it’s right there! The evidence is right there!” and the more secular person is just like, “No, that’s just a thing in the sky.”
Can you explain Cyra’s current gift?
It causes her constant pain, so she’s in chronic pain. And it also… anyone she touches experiences pain, but she… it’s almost like she’s got 10 pain pieces at one time, and if she gives you 5, you feel agony. If she gives you 10, you die.
So if she’s giving someone 5, does she only feel 5?
Yeah, I think that’s… for her, it’s a constant temptation, to want to give it away. But the only thing keeping her from doing that is this weird, inborn moral compass, which even she is not sure that she has. Because she’s convinced that she’s messed up. So that’s her struggle: What do I do with this power that’s destroying my life?
Can you tell me more about the feathergrasses?
Oh yeah. They were in very early iterations of this story. I think I just… I mean, I wanted some creepy stuff. They are this grass that is not native to the planet, that cause people to hallucinate about really creepy things.
You might have touched on this before, but what new themes did you want to explore with this series that you didn’t get to cover with Divergent?
I think I’m just excited about new characters. Tris was very focused on ethics and morality, and she’s like a hero, classically — wanting to give herself for the cause, for her people, for the greater good. Cyra is not about that. Cyra’s looking out for Cyra, and the people that she cares about. She’s like a Slytherin, you know? And I’ve never written about a character like that.
It almost feels more realistic in a way. I don’t know that all of us are walking around like, “What can I do for my people?”
Exactly. I do enjoy thinking of it in Harry Potter terms, so forgive me for doing this constantly, but if Tris and Four were like Gryffindors, the big, grand gesture, knights-in-shining-armor people, these are my little Slytherins, I guess.
The Slytherins deserve their own story!
I know! Because you know what? They’re interesting!
Are you nervous about following up such a huge blockbuster series? What’s going on in your mind?
I think I’d have to be a robot not to be nervous! I just really want the same people who loved Divergent to love this. And I think there are some that will. But I also think I’ve reached a place deep peace about it, where it’s like, “Listen. I created it with pure joy and love and enthusiasm, and that’s all I can do.” So I’ve just kind of let go of trying to control how people react to things, I think because of Allegiant. People reacted to that ending the way they were going to react, and I couldn’t do a thing to stop it. And that’s fine! It’s all good, actually.
What did you feel like was the hardest part about writing this book?
Oh, I think it was just the really expansive universe, right at the beginning. Because Divergent expanded as it went. This is like, “Listen, we’ve got some planets, we’ve got an overarching government, we’ve got cultural conflict…” It was just huge. There’s so much going on. And then coming up with the rules, and making sure it was presented in a way that’s not overly complicated, was a real trick.
I want to ask a little about the similarities to Star Wars. Was that part of your inspiration, or is it just not possible to write about intergalactic warfare without getting compared to Star Wars?
I think that’s probably part of it. Because they weren’t even making a new Star Wars movie when I was writing this.
Oh, that’s so annoying for you.
Actually, you know what? I think it’s great. Because what the new movie has done is it’s made it clear that women are interested in sci-fi, and it’s not a thing that is only for dudes. So I am pumped about it, because little girls want to be Rey, and that’s one of the most wonderful things. And I love, love Star Wars. For me, it can’t possibly not be a part of the inspiration, because it’s just formative, you know? But I feel like [Carve the Mark] is a little Star Wars, a little Dune, by Frank Herbert, because that was also one of my early sci-fi exposures. Just these really big universes with these complex political systems.
I also felt shades of The Giver in here.
That was also one of my young sci-fi reads! And A Wrinkle in Time — going to these weird worlds. I love it. I’m a nerd, I guess.
Well, nerds are becoming more mainstream.
Yeah! Geek chic!