1979 Niskayuna High graduate relishes success of ‘Divergent’
Publisher discovered young author
NISKAYUNA Katherine Tegen recognizes good material when it comes across her desk.
Tegen, a 1979 graduate of Niskayuna High School, felt Veronica Roth’s manuscript about walled-in citizens of Chicago was something special, and she was right. In 2011 Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, published “Divergent,” and it became a bestseller. This week Tegen was in Hollywood at the world premiere of the Neil Burger-directed film based on Roth’s book starring Shailene Woodley.
“It was amazing,” said Tegen, whose parents, Dale and Norma Brown, still live on St. Joseph Drive in Niskayuna. “I went to the after-party at the Hammer Museum, and I’m in this three-story atrium filled with people listening to live music played by a band that did music for the film, and I’m thinking, ‘All this is happening because of a manuscript that came across my desk four years ago.’”
A 1983 graduate of Middlebury College, Tegen started working for HarperCollins in New York City in 1984, went to Disney Publishing Worldwide in 1996 and came back to HarperCollins in 2001. While at Disney, another manuscript, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” by J.K. Rowling also came across her desk — but she couldn’t get the bosses to bite.
“I didn’t win the auction for that one,” remembered Tegen. “I loved it, but they [Disney] just didn’t have a vision for the series.”
A few years after that missed opportunity for Disney, Tegen bolted back to Harper Collins, and by 2003 had her own imprint.
“It’s kind of like having a little boutique in a large publishing house,” Tegen said of her working relationship with HarperCollins. “It means that everything I publish is selected by me and all published under my imprint. I work in New York City and I have 10 people who work for me.”
All of Tegen’s work is aimed at children, including teenagers. When she first read “Divergent” by Roth, an unknown 19-year-old woman, she knew she had something that was both unique and of very high quality.
“It came through a literary agent, and I knew right away it was one of the most incredible things I had ever read,” said Tegen. “It was a teen manuscript, and I knew it was going to be big. My gut instinct told me. I’m 52 now and I have read a lot of manuscripts and when something stands out like this you know it’s going to be a huge hit.”
Tegen said the movie does a great job of getting across Roth’s story. She’s seen the film three times already this week.
“I love the movie, and I think anyone who has read the book will also love the movie,” she said. “And, even if you haven’t read the book, you will find it extremely entertaining. My 18-year-old daughter loves it, and she is the target audience. A lot of older people might not like it that much, but teenagers are loving it.”
Tegen had her own successful book in 2005, “The Story of Easter Bunny,” illustrated by Sally Anne Lambert. She has wanted to be a writer/publisher since she was a young girl after reading Beatrice Potter’s “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.”
“When I was little my parents gave me this printing press, and I would make my own newspaper, the Squirrel Nutkin News,” remembered Tegen. “I would hand it out to all my stuffed animals and all my dolls. I always knew what I wanted to do.”
Tegen said her time at Niskayuna High School only heightened her resolve to get involved in the publishing industry, either as a writer, editor or publisher.
“Niskayuna at the time had an amazing English department,” said Tegen, singling out Lillian Turner, the chair of the department, as a big influence on her life. “I took all the English honors courses. I loved them all, and Mrs. Turner really sticks out.”
Tegen, her husband, Doug, and their two children live in Manhattan and return to upstate New York often.
“We have another home in Woodstock, and my parents have a house on Sacandaga [Lake], so that’s where we tend to meet up together,” she said. “We only get to Schenectady about once a year.”
Katherine Tegen Books also had a big success with Angie Sage’s “Septimus Heap,” a series of fantasy novels that began in 2005 and has sold 5 million copies.