When Your Job Turns You Into a Brand, You Need a Friend to Be Human With

“Something that totally changes your life like that, even if it’s overwhelmingly good, it still is overwhelming.”

Two women sit in comfortable armchairs, in front of a wall of giant books
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two best-selling authors, Margaret Stohl and Veronica Roth. When Veronica’s first book, Divergent, came out, she was overwhelmed by its success. Margaret took Veronica under her wing “like when a kindergartner has a sixth-grade buddy.” As their friendship evolved, the mentorship started going both ways, and they now consider themselves each other’s “mental-health sponsors.” They discuss how to find friendship that makes room for imperfection in a career that turns you into a brand.

The Friends:

Veronica Roth, 32, a writer of young-adult and adult books who lives in Chicago. She is the author of the Divergent series, the Carve the Mark series, and, most recently, Chosen Ones.
Margaret Stohl, 52, a writer of novels, comics, and video games who lives in Santa Monica, California. She is the author of the Icons series, Royce Rolls, Spider-Man Noir, and other Marvel comics, and a co-author, with Kami Garcia, of the Beautiful Creatures series.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: I imagine that because of the nature of your work, you probably knew of each other before you knew each other. Did you have impressions of each other before you actually met?

Veronica Roth: I sold Divergent at a time when young-adult literature was growing at a fast pace, but it was still a small community. So when I entered the genre, I already knew of Margie and her co-author for Beautiful Creatures, Kami Garcia. But I knew of them as, These people are already famous. I was like, Maybe I’ll meet her someday.

Margaret Stohl: I remember being in a car with a group of other YA authors who were passing around an advance copy of Veronica’s book. One of the writers in the car was saying, “This is fantastic. This writer is going to be huge.” I remember being like, “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” and then by the time we actually met, Divergent had come out and it was really huge.

Beck: What happened when you actually met? Did those impressions shift?

Margaret: I remember meeting you in the middle of this massive conference, the Romantic Times conference.

Margaret Stohl (left) and Veronica Roth (right) (Courtesy of Margaret Stohl)

Veronica: It’s for romance readers, but they had a YA section. I think we met in some passing situation. I was leaving an event and Margie and Kami were going to the greenroom, and they said, “Come with us.” I felt like I was in middle school, going to the cafeteria and not knowing where to sit. So to have someone be kind to me, it was very exciting.

Margaret: It was like when a kindergartner has a sixth-grade buddy, right?

Veronica: Yes, that’s exactly how it felt. Later in the conference, you came and sat next to me at the signing table, and we had our first real conversation.

Margaret: I remember asking, “How are you doing?” That’s such a loaded question. It's an exceptional thing to debut as a big best seller. That happened with Beautiful Creatures for Kami and me, and I remember not knowing how I was supposed to feel. Something that totally changes your life like that, even if it's overwhelmingly good, it still is overwhelming. There’s this weird element of positive trauma that you can't really talk about or you sound like an ungrateful jerk. But you are reeling. I just remember looking at your face, Veronica, and I recognized what was going on.

Veronica: Everyone at that time was talking to me like I should be so excited at all times. I’m not complaining about those people being positive and happy, but I have an anxiety disorder and I was in a constant state of panic. Margie was the first person I can recall who was like, “It's okay not to feel okay right now. And you're not ungrateful for feeling that way.”

Margaret: I, too, am a person who has struggled with depression and anxiety. I have battle scars, and I'm pretty frank about that.

Beck: With the fame element of your careers, how do you parse out who you meet in the course of your work could be a true friend?

Veronica: I'm just a wary person. So I was always like, Why is this person being nice to me? But at the time that Margie approached me at that festival, she had nothing to gain from me. There was nothing I could offer. If I had gone up to you, Margie, and been like, “Oh my God, I'm such a big fan,” you probably would have said, “Get this girl out of my face.” But I also think you just have to have an intuition about someone. You can tell someone's interest in you is genuine.

Margie didn't want to talk about the fancy stuff I was doing, and never tried to compete with me. She didn't care about that stuff, wasn't impressed.

Margaret: I think that is an advantage of being old. I finished my first manuscript, which wasn't published yet, on my 40th birthday. And Veronica was sort of famous for having written the book in college.

Veronica: At another conference, in Kansas City, [Missouri], you invited me to dinner with a bunch of people. And this was before your book Icons came out.

Margaret: Beautiful Creatures, the series, was still rolling, but we were starting to write our own projects. Icons was the first book I wrote that didn't hit the [best-seller] list.

Veronica helping Margaret sign copies of Icons before a book signing (Courtesy of Margaret Stohl)

Veronica: It's hard to follow something that was big. We both know about that. The pressure is so high.

It was me at a dinner with a small group of people, and Margie started to cry. I think that's when we became friends. She had been very supportive, in an older-person way, to me. But at that moment, I was like, Oh, I'm being treated as an equal and a friend. Not just the kid who got invited to dinner.

Margaret: I was the kindergartner, at that point, and you were the sixth grader. I think that is the hallmark of a really good friendship, when you have some sort of equality in terms of both offering and needing that emotional support. That’s even more complex when you have a little bit of a public-facing personality, or, in Veronica's case, a lot of a public-facing personality. Frankly, not everything feels like a super real friendship.

One thing we're great at is when the other person needs to disappear, [it’s okay]. We’ll reach out and be like, “I'm here, buddy. Are you coming up for air? Do you need something?” in the mental-health-sponsor way

Veronica: “This is your mental-health sponsor. Are you eating more than peanuts?”

Margaret: I do sometimes only eat peanuts.

Beck: How did you guys end up deputizing yourselves as each other’s mental-health sponsors? What does that actually look like, beyond peanut regulation?

Veronica: I don't require peanut regulation, so that's a bit one-sided.

Margaret: We've gotten strict with the protocol. For instance, on book tour I am always sobbing by day three. [Veronica will ask me,] “What are you doing to prepare to take care of yourself? Who is your safe person?”

Veronica: You were the one who was like, "Just take the fucking Klonopin before events, God." But this aspect of the relationship came about because of the festivals [we run together].

Brendan Reichs, Veronica, and Margaret introduce the opening keynote at YALLWEST 2019. (Courtesy of YALLFest)

Margaret: YALLFest is a young-adult festival that is in Charleston, [South Carolina]. We had no budget the first year. Every donor's last name was Stohl. I remember being shocked when 100 people showed up. The last in-person festival we had was more than 30,000 people, and now there are two festivals—YALLFest and YALLWEST, which is in Santa Monica.

Veronica: The second year I went, Margie wanted to do a panel that was about mental health and writing. There were 10 of us on that panel, because I think we thought there was strength in numbers. I spoke maybe once. But after that, I think we realized that so many of us needed to regularly be present for another person. The only person I really felt comfortable being present for was Margie.

Margaret: The basket-cases panel, [as we call it], was this really powerful thing. To say, “I'm a No. 1 worldwide best-selling author. Some mornings I can't get out of bed. These are my medications. I am a wreck in many ways, but it does not define me.” That was what we were trying to model.

And frankly, it's a lot harder for Veronica. Well, let me not put that in your mouth. I will never be as famous as Veronica Roth. Being honest, and still being as real of a human as possible, I'm surprised the degree to which you're able to do it, and I'm always super proud.

Veronica: You're going to make me cry in this conversation, aren't you?

Margaret: I think it's a lot easier for me. I have sold my 10 million books or whatever, and it’s not a drop in the bucket of the things Veronica has done and also has to go through. The world starts to see you as a product or a brand. Even I am a brand. But you're a mega-brand, and that's a hard thing to deal with when you're a human. One of the things I like about the festivals is that it is a chance for all of us, but Veronica especially, to be small. And to be valued for things that are not your brand. By the way, Veronica’s fame is the least interesting thing about her. Skill with a spreadsheet, now that is rare.

Beck: I like what you said—”a chance to be small”—because I do think that friendship is built in the small things. Sometimes it is the huge moments that you really need support through, but it's also those small, daily moments.

Veronica: We are touching on these big hallmarks of our friendship, but, less conducive to storytelling, we just have a great time together.

Margaret: Crack ourselves up.

Veronica and Margaret, wearing her “Don’t Be the Empire” T-shirt (Courtesy of Margaret Stohl)

Veronica: Left to my own devices, I'm an extremely serious person, and I’m pretty rigid in terms of what I think is right or wrong. It’s been important for me to have people around who can see gray areas, who are generous and sympathetic to other people. Margie's one of the most generous people I know. When you were talking earlier, Margie, about how it's great that I've been able to be so open—I can only be open because you showed me how to be open. I wouldn't have done that without you. You don't do these things without a model.

Beck: As your careers have evolved, has your friendship influenced them behind the scenes?

Margaret: I was thinking of this the other day—you flew out to surprise me at my book party with a T-shirt you painted with Darth Vader on it that said Don't be the Empire.

Veronica: You used to say that to me all the time. It was like a motto for us: “Don't be the Empire, be the rebel army.” Which is basically, like, don't be an asshole.

Margaret: There are two slogans or mottos [that have been important for us]. That was one, and I can remember me talking to you about the tugboat operator and the sea commander.

Veronica: We have these quotable quotes, these sort of emotional headlines. I have a phone background that says, “Are you a ferryman or are you a boat captain?”

[We started saying that because] I was getting a lot of pressure to return to Divergent. That's become sort of a thing: Authors whose books were successful in the period of time in which ours were successful have been returning to those series, doing a prequel, or rewriting Twilight from the guy’s perspective, stuff like that. I was having a moment of career despair. I was like, Am I ever going to be able to move past this? Because I'm not going back to it.

And Margie said, “Well, you don't want that career. You don't want to go back to the thing again and again. You could ferry people back and forth on the same predictable route. Some people enjoy that. But you will not get value from it. You'd much rather be an explorer. You need to be on the high seas.”

Margaret: Exactly. There are some writers who do their best work in book 19 of their series. They write [that series] for their whole life. There are people I love who do that. But I have great sympathy for Veronica in this, because I'm the same way. Partly that's because I have superbad ADHD. I write comic books, I write video games, I write novels. I just finished a noir Spider-Man comic, and what people know me for is [Beautiful Creatures], a Southern Gothic romance. I'm all over the place.

There are a lot of ways to be successful. That’s my vantage point from being an old person and having tried a bunch of different things. At some point, you really start thinking about, What kind of voyages do I want to have? Because you only get so many. I'm much more aware of that than she is.

Veronica: The other big, significant moment I can remember is: You told me to leave the country when the Divergent movie came out, and I did. I went to France and Italy with my husband.

Margaret: You need to be in a massively inverted time zone so you are asleep when the internet is awake. [When the Beautiful Creatures movie came out], I went to Hong Kong.

Margaret and Veronica posing at YALLFest 2016 (Courtesy of YALLFest)

Veronica: I have this great memory: I was in a field in France near some person's vineyard, in the middle of nowhere, and I was watching this guy fix a bicycle wheel. It was spinning on a log. I was like, “This guy doesn't give a shit about Divergent.” And why should he? I texted Margie later and told her, “You were right. The world is huge and nothing I do matters.” It was like she had sent me on a vision quest or something. Like Luke [Skywalker] going into the jungle and having a revelation.

Margaret: I’m 900-year-old Yoda.

Veronica: You are not. You're like a young, hot Yoda.

Margaret: Well, you are not Luke. You are definitely more Rey. You came to the battle armed and with some serious skills. Our friendship is like a partnership. Speaking of Star Wars, it's like when you're back-to-back and firing in opposite directions. It's someone having your back.

We’ve given ourselves permission to mess up a lot. That is how people get close: by showing each other your most imperfect parts. And I think when the world sees your perfect parts, it becomes even more important to have people to be imperfect with.

If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.