Zoe's world - Author says she doesn't want to be teen spokesman

Friday, November 14, 2003

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Do not call Zoe Trope the poster child for the Baby Boomlet generation.

Do not remark on the fact that, at the tender age of 15, she managed to secure a $100,000 contract from a major New York publishing house for what is essentially a diary of her first two tortured years in high school, or that she pulled this off without ever revealing her true identity.

She'll bare her teeth at you and tell you how over that angle she is, how it's been done and done and done some more.

Better, really, to get through it fast, and consider instead the kinked contradictions of 17-year-old Zoe Trope, author of "Please Don't Kill the Freshman," and the adopted kid sister of young literati like Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer.

Here, after all, is someone who has laid herself bare for your reading pleasure and now lives a good chunk of her life on the Internet, where she presides over a blog that somehow manages to be both sardonic and touching (www.zoe-trope.com).

She is the girl who has written nakedly about her yearning to be known, to be validated: "I wanna be the girl they knew in high school, the 'yeah I had math with her,' girl, and I want to be their one connection to something famous and meaningful and important.

"The last thing I want is to be another student who slips by with a 3.49 who goes to a state school and graduates with a little degree and goes off to a little job and no one ever really knows what happens to her."

She's fed up with the people who snipe that it has all come too easily for her, and says she wants nothing more than for people to recognize themselves in her pages.

And yet, she is the girl who won't be photographed straight on, who says she wants to reserve the right to be anonymous.

"It would be 100 times easier for them to market me if I would show my face, give my name," she says during a recent interview with The Associated Press. "But I want to have my own life."

Trope is also embroiled in a serious love-hate relationship with her high school, and even though she graduated early months ago, she's still not quite over it.

In the 295-page book published by HarperTempest, high school is equated with day care, a place where English teachers talk blithely of the "journey" the class will take together, and assign papers about "what we will put in our 'suitcases."'

Trope's excellent adventure in publishing began in the spring of her freshman year, when she began sending journal entries to Kevin Sampsell, who had taught a writing class that she took while in middle school. Sampsell is an author himself, and the publisher of a small press company called "Future Tense."

He loved her work, and published it as a "chapbook," with staples instead of a book binding. She did a reading and the book started selling in Portland. Sampsell eventually discussed the book with another author, who forwarded it to his agent, and things took off from there.

Colleen Schwartz, a spokeswoman for HarperCollins, said "Please Don't Kill the Freshman," has already sold, "in the healthy five figures," and the company plans to go back for a second printing.

Susan Rich, Trope's editor at HarperCollins, said the company lobbied hard to publish Trope, beating out several other bidders and paying a "large advance" because, "we all agreed that here was a promising new voice with something interesting to say. As a 14- or 15-year-old, she had an ability to articulate her experience in a way that is somewhat unusual for a writer that age."

Thus far, reviews of the book have ranged from gushing to patronizing. "At times, the book brims with so much uninteresting vitriol and adolescent know-it-allness that it's like a kid kicking the back of your seat at the movies -- you just want to turn around and swat her," wrote Katie Haegele, in Philadelphia Weekly. "Thank goodness, then, for the little halo of poetry that shimmers around the edges."

Now that high school is behind Trope, there are parts that she misses -- the familiarity, mostly, of seeing her friends in the hallway each day. And it's clear from her journal that even perched above the fray, she was not above being embroiled in the tense, fragile dramas of high school.

Try as she might, she can't pretend it's not important to her -- the band and the literary magazine, grades and the environmentalist's club: "I've always been such a bad liar," she writes. "My heart gets caught in my throat, just like it always has on the first day of school ever since I was five."

Parts of the book read like everyone's yearbook ramblings, odes to the friends she once thought would be the center of her life, always. They are the same people who mainly didn't show up to her first big reading of the book last month in Portland, choosing instead to go to a football game and proving the painful truth that high school friends usually aren't forever.

But other entries grab you with light-years-beyond-15 observations: In Zoe's world, "birthday parties are the result of broken condoms." And she's fully cognizant of the relative absurdity of her situation: "They tell me I am a writer, and then send me to driver's ed, where they explain how to turn headlights on and off."

Trope is a delighted cynic, horrified by a world where Hummers are a status symbol and Arnold Schwarzenegger is a governor. She's also a hopeless, tremulous romantic, and her discovery of herself as a lesbian and her first love are central to her book, providing the most universal moments of "Please Don't Kill the Freshman."

"If I get an A on this next test, she'll come visit," she writes. "If I finish reading that book I started, she'll love me more. If I write more neatly, she'll hold my hand longer." (They are no longer together.)

In conversation and in the book, she's confident, almost cocky one minute, and wildly insecure the next. She's proud of herself, Trope says, for all she's done, but she's not sure she has the nerve to be who she'd choose.

And, contrary to the pigeonhole for a disaffected teen, Trope says she loves and respects her office worker mother and salesman father. "They are common sense, nice people and I am glad to have them," she says. "People assume that my parents must have pushed me hard but it's not like that at all."

The book seems to have struck a chord among her peers.

"I was taken aback from the first page at this girl's evident gift for writing the most achingly personal prose I have read in a long time," wrote a recent high school graduate on amazon.com. "This book, as the back cover told me, was about me, and indeed, it was."

These days, Trope is alternating between the rush of book readings and signings and the more mundane task of applying to college -- she's shooting for Brown University in Providence, R.I., but is afraid her SAT scores will be too low. She's looking forward to college, but reminds herself that, "people from high school will be there."

Trope is also still writing. If there's a next book, she says, it probably won't be a memoir but will star a character that reminds her of herself, because that's what she knows and what her readers believe in.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: