"Imagine all the angst and lust of high school," author Thea Hillman suggests. "Now imagine having all the intellectual and emotional maturity to capture every excruciating moment."
Zoe Trope exists. She was born in 1986 and graduated from high school with the class of 2003 in Oregon. In between those two momentous occasions, she published a 13,000-word memoir that spent several weeks on Powell's bestseller list. Within months, the locally published chapbook won her a New York agent and a lucrative contract with HarperCollins.
In Please Don't Kill the Freshman, Zoe extends the original memoir through the end of her sophomore year. We follow along as she's publishing her chapbook, falling in love, giving her first readings, taping pictures to her locker, crafting her international debut, bursting with hormones, staring self-doubt in the face, and trying to finish her homework in the meantime.
"I am fifteen and I have a book," she writes. "No one knows this. They know that I didn't get a good grade on that last assignment and I spend my time in class either reading or listening to music or writing in my notebook. I wondered why I was chosen to be swallowed whole and who else will want to taste me. I wonder if I will really read in Seattle or Border's. I wonder if a crowd of people will come to see just me.
"The color of my hair and stockings will undoubtedly amuse everyone who sees me. I am not what they expect. A fifteen-year-old who can write with a book reading at Powell's. I am not a punk dyke girl or an Indian-cotton-wearing hippie. I am Zoe Trope and I am turning to life."
Dave: So let's start at the beginning: You were in eighth grade and this guy you call him Greasy Buddy Holly, but I still call him Kevin came in to teach your class how to write. Was he teaching any particular kind of writing?
Zoe Trope: It was really unstructured. He'd make a list of topics during the day, then he'd say, "You have fifteen minutes to write about one of these topics, or you can write about all five." It could be fiction or creative nonfiction. He gave us a starting point, and we had to put something together.
Dave: What did you think of Kevin?
Trope: Well, it's funny because the first week of class I was sick, so I didn't get to go. I was talking to my friend on the phone that night. He's like, "Well, it's not the guy we thought it was going to be." Phillip Margolin was originally supposed to teach the class.
Dave: See, there's a detail I didn't know.
Trope: I don't know why he couldn't do it, but he wasn't able to, and Kevin stepped in because he's a greedy bastard and wanted the money, I suppose. I don't know why they let that man teach teenagers. It doesn't seem right to me.
I said, "So it's not Mr. Margolin? What's this guy like?" My friend said, "Well, his name is Kevin Sampsell, and he's really weird." So that was the first I'd heard of him. When I went to class, I tried really hard to figure out whether or not he was gay. That was tough. He had the lisp and he dresses well.
When the class was over, he gave us his email address. I was writing over the summer, and we emailed on and off. He would recommend books and bands, and I'd be like, I've never heard of that band, and I don't know what that is, all this obscure stuff. It's funny because over the past three years now we can actually talk, and I know what he's talking about. Our taste isn't exactly the same, but I know more of the things he mentions now.
Dave: Just so you know, I probably read more than 98% of the population, and I've never heard of a lot of those books and authors until he tells me about them.
I'd picked up Kevin's book during the class. They said he was a published Portland author, so of course I went to my library, and they had a copy of How to Lose Your Mind with the Lights On. I remember I started reading it in the car as my mom was driving me home. The first couple stories involved an old woman killing someone with a fire poker, a box of Christ crackers from a church, blow jobs in 7-11? It's just insane, surreal stuff, but I absolutely loved it because it wasn't like anything else I'd read. There wasn't a specific beginning, middle, and end to each story, and there was something really evocative and interesting and powerful about everything in the book. It was different.
Dave: So how did he end up publishing the chapbook?
Trope: The spring of my freshman year, I started sending Kevin journal entries I was writing during class. He said, "Oh, this is fantastic. This is great. I'm going to make a chapbook out of these. You'll be a small press star, and I'll make millions!" He didn't actually say that, but maybe he was thinking it.
The chapbook doesn't really reflect all of my freshman year. It starts in the spring and goes through to the end of the year. That summer, we put it together. The editing process went something like, "Here's the collection of entries. You misspelled that. That its needs an apostrophe. And that sentence doesn't make sense." Thirteen thousand words and he made about three or four changes. He capitalized some stuff. It was really minimal editing. Then he laid it out. We chose a cover three different covers, actually and stapled it up.
It was supposed to come out in September, then September 11th happened, and it didn't seem like a great time to release a chapbook. So it actually came out in the middle of October of my sophomore year.
Dave: The book the full-length book picks up your journal in the summer after the chapbook ends. Did you write those entries over the summer in real-time or were they created later as entries to fill in the space of the story?
Trope: I finished writing the chapbook at the end of the school year. Two or three days went by and I started wondering what to do next. I was just twiddling my thumbs and whistling. What to do now? So I just kept writing. Linux Shoe went to Singapore, and I wrote all those letters to him. I posted them in an online diary, so he could log in and read them. This was my way of keeping in touch with him and also keeping a journal at the same time.
Dave: At what point in the process did you decide that the full-length book would carry the story of the chapbook forward? Was there ever talk about filling in the earlier part of your freshman year, instead?
Trope: Well, what happened is the chapbook came out in October, like I said. I did a reading at Powell's in November, and it was really scary. I'd never done a reading before. I didn't know what to wear, didn't know what to say, didn't know what to do. I really didn't know the vibe of it. I was reading with three other authors who'd come up from San Francisco Beth Lisick, Justin Chin, and Thea Hillman and I was basically their opening act. There must have been a hundred or a hundred fifty people there. I was so nervous.
I read, and the weirdest thing happened: People laughed at what I was reading. I didn't realize it was funny until then. I was literally taken aback. I was holding my book and reading, and people started laughing, and I stopped. I didn't know what to do. The more I read from it, the more I realized, This really is funny. The thing is, I never meant it that way at the time. Not that I thought it was very serious and somber, but me being very sarcastic and snotty is just my regular persona and I don't consider it to be particularly hilarious, especially when written down.
I sold the most books that night, probably because mine was five dollars and all the other authors' books were ten and fifteen. Kevin was like, "You sold a ton of books!" And that put me on the Powell's bestseller shelf. So I did that reading in November, then December and January crawled by. I did a couple little interviews for the Mercury and Nervy Girl. Then, sometime in February, an author named Joe Weisberg called Powell's, and he talked to Kevin. He said he wanted to set up an event at Powell's. Kevin said, "What's your book about?" He said, "Well, it's a narrative in the voice of a sixteen-year-old boy. It's about his sophomore year of high school." [Editor's note: The book is called 10th Grade.] Kevin said, "Really? There's this girl in Portland who wrote a book about high school. You should read it." He sent Joe a copy of the chapbook. Joe read it, and he sent it to his agent with a three-word note that said, "This is awesome."
His agent emailed me directly. I got really, really scared. David, this agent, was seriously interested in my work. He said he wanted to talk about the possibility of selling the chapbook to other publishers; he wanted a beefier version of it. He said, "Can we look into possibilities of making this longer or filling it in?" And I said, "No, I don't think I can do that. This was written as-is, at the time. It's very in-the-moment kind of writing. I can't go back and just add more to it. That falsifies the work." You know, as if I'd make a painting, put it in a gallery, then go back to touch it up. Then Kevin and I were emailing back and forth, and he basically said, "Zoe, don't do this. You're ruining your life." More gently than that, but he tried to explain to me that this could be something really good and really big and maybe I should try.
Kevin is the one who suggested this idea of continuing on the chapbook and adding stuff afterwards, making an expanded version of my journal. I was kind of hesitant, but I figured that maybe I could do it because I'd been writing thousands of words a month anyway. So David got a bunch of chapbooks from Kevin, and he sent them around New York to all these different publishers.
Simon and Schuster was interested, MTV Books, Scholastic? but I noticed that some of them had specific ideas about what they wanted. Someone at Scholastic said they'd only publish it if I took out all the cocks, cunts, and fucks. I said, "Well, there goes about two thousand words of my book. There's not much left. Bones is what you'll be getting." Another editor told me, "I think the characters are really strong, but you need a better narrative arc." It's great that she thought I could edit it into something more provocative, but I'm not going to change my life story so that it has a better tone to it or something. We kind of struggled with people maybe not understanding what I was trying to do with the chapbook, wanting to turn it into something else. Then HarperCollins wanted to buy it, and they didn't want to edit it, and they didn't want to censor me and they also offered the most money.
So to answer your question: Yes, at one point the agents and other publishers in New York probably would have been happy with a meatier version of the chapbook, but I didn't think I could do that. I felt like I would be sacrificing my integrity.
Dave: The book still does end up having something like a narrative arc, but more in the sense of the way you're talking about things, what you're focusing on? How conscious of shape were you? Did you have an end-date as you were writing?
Trope: Well, I'm sitting here saying that I didn't want to change things or have a narrative arc, and I really didn't with the chapbook. When I went back and looked at the expanded version, I found myself in a much more serious editorial mode.
I think one of the big reasons was length. I'm not the most prolific person I know, but when I put together all of my journals from freshman and sophomore year I had 125,000 words. It was insane. That was even after some paring down, after I'd chosen particular entries. I cleaned that up and sent a version to my editor with 87,000 words. The final version of the book is about 65,000.
I wrote out a letter to my editor when I was going through revisions, explaining why I'd removed certain things, and one of the biggest reasons was redundancy. Even now I think a lot of people might read it and think, "Okay, I get it: You miss him. And you're gay. Alright, good. What else?" A lot of people might be bored with those themes. When I was editing, I was trying to figure out where I was the most poignant with any particular theme. Where do I say it best? It's not as if I was editing out whole events or trying to present myself a certain way or to create a narrative arc. I was trying to be kind to my reader and not put them through 125,000 words of blah blah blah drama gay gay faggot and whatever else is in there.
I wanted it to make sense. I wanted things to have some context. I wanted it to flow. There are stories in there and there are substories. I have to be cryptic to a certain extent to keep my privacy, but I also have to make sure that the story makes sense. That's mainly what I struggled with: making sure it was concise and in context.
I chose the ending because I thought it was a good place to finish. I've heard from some people that it doesn't feel conclusive, but it can't feel conclusive unless I die. I don't know how else to satisfy that. I think I ended it in a good place, being this fifteen-year-old girl living a very weird life, having this dichotomy of knowing that there are people talking about me in a city three thousand miles away and I don't know what's being said about me or what's being done with my work, and meanwhile I have to go volunteer at the library or go to Driver's Ed. That trivial life alongside a glamorous life, trying to live both at the same time. That's where I was at the time. And my editor really liked that the book ends with the word "stop." But I'm still writing and keeping a journal, so it could have gone on forever.
Dave: Who do you think your ideal reader is?
Trope: Well, it was interesting touring a little bit with the chapbook. I went to Seattle and San Francisco. I did a few readings in Portland. I read at a college in San Francisco, which was really cool. They paid me to be the opening speaker at their Gay and Lesbian Heritage Month. I had a whole hour and a half. I read part of the chapbook, then I talked, then I read from the new book and I answered questions. It was cool. It paid really well; they paid for my airfare and my hotel. It was a really neat experience.
Reading to those college kids, lines that usually cracked up my audience? They were just silent, blank-faced. I think that's because for younger people the stuff I write about is still very real and very serious, and it's not funny.
When I'm reading with older people, they're like, "Oh, I had a gay best friend when I was in high school. We never got laid. That's so hilarious!" People my age are like, "I'm gay and in high school, and I can't get laid." They're very serious about it and very sad. They don't have the distance to laugh about it. Younger people interpret it a lot differently than older people.
HarperTempest, the publisher, is a Young Adult publisher, which is kind of frustrating because everything I get has the Harper Children's letterhead on it. I got this marketing survey they give to all their authors, and it's meant for adults. "What is your spouse's name? Where did you go to school?" Uh, I went to high school, but you can't say where because I don't want them to know. And I don't know where I'm going to college yet. There was a question like, "Where have your illustrations been shown?" I'm like, "On my refrigerator." They did ask what audiences I'd prefer to read to, and even though I'm on a Young Adult line, over the last year and a half I've seen adults respond to it a lot more than teenagers. And I can understand. If Zoe Trope were some other teenager, I would not want to read the book. Fuck her! She's young and famous, and I hate her! People that are jealous of me or just bitter about it, I'm like, "That's so okay." Because I would totally feel the exact same way. It's fine.
I really hope it gets cross-marketed because I think there's a lot in there for adults. One of my main hopes for writing first the chapbook then this is that people can see that teenagers can write and that we can think about things; it's a fledgling hope for respect for youth. I know that there are so many kids who've written to me or who've talked to me at readings who are insightful and have something to say. And it really frustrates me when people shut off teenagers. I don't talk to teenagers or I don't read teen books because they're all so immature. I'm like, "It's really unfortunate that you've taken this representative few and made it the whole. What if I said, 'I don't talk to adults because they're all stuck up and they have jobs and they don't understand me'?" It frustrates me when people make those boundaries.
Hopefully the reader for my book is anyone, but I see that it would probably relate really well to gay teenagers or even queer adults and they have a lot of disposable income because most of them don't have kids, so I really hope they buy the book! But I hope a lot of people read it because I think a lot of people can understand it.
Dave: Earlier today in the office, I was reading aloud portions of a very critical essay about your work that I found on the Internet. It may have been grounded in nothing more than jealousy, but the response is one I'm sure others will put forth. What business does this girl have making all this money? Why is she so special? As if all the adults with big book contracts deserve it entirely.
Trope: Because the world is a fair and just place.
Dave: Always. You're the lone exception.
But if you're anything like your persona in the book, you're a fairly sensitive person. So has dealing with criticism become any easier since you've signed the contract? How do you think it will change for you once the book is out?
Trope: I think it's getting easier to deal with. Like anything, having practice at it helps. You just have to respect how people feel. If someone doesn't like me or doesn't like the book, that's fine. I really don't have a problem with that. There are plenty of books I don't like, and people I don't like, and it's okay. We don't all have to get along.
What really frustrates me is when people make assumptions or start rumors. I'm so willing to talk or answer questions or help people understand, but I'm still not good at hearing people lie about me. How I got this fame or who I gave head to or who I fucked or what I said?
Just accept the simple fact that I was extremely lucky. I was in this class, and a guy called Powell's, and he sent my chapbook to an agent, and the agent sent it to the publishers, and the publishers picked it up? It is a weird chain of events that I really didn't have a lot of control over.
I'm getting better at handling people being bitter or jealous or just not liking the book, but I get frustrated when someone says, "Oh, they're just all jealous." I'm like, "No. Some of them really don't like the book. Some of them don't like me, and that's okay. It's okay." I don't need a bunch of people patting me on the back every time there's a bad review. I'm so appreciative of people writing emails or telling me that they like my work, but you don't have to defend me. It's not your job, and it's not a big deal.
I'm a sensitive person, but I'm getting better at laughing it off. What I hope people remember is that it's a journal. I didn't go out there and write an epic novel. I'm not saying it's the best thing ever written.
Dave: What interesting opportunities have you had because of all the attention?
Trope: Lots of things. I met my first girlfriend because of the chapbook, in one of those crazy everyone-knows-everyone in the Northwest kind of ways. A friend of Kevin's, Sara Ryan, who's a really cool Young Adult author, gave my chapbook to her friend for her birthday. Then Sara emailed me and invited me to her reading. So I went, and there's a quote on the back of her book by a fifteen-year-old girl. I asked about her, and Sara said, "Oh, she's a really smart girl in Washington. You should email her." She's the one in the book that I have a relationship with; she's Scully and Skull.
It was really neat to go to San Francisco, and I'm excited about going on tour. I'm going to New York and Philadelphia. I've never been to the east coast; the farthest east I've ever been is Chicago. I haven't traveled very much.
Also, an Italian journalist is flying in to Portland in September to write something for a magazine because my book is being published in Italian. The foreign rights thing is interesting. A fun experience was getting to translate my book into Italian, working with a translator, who was really, really nice, but she needed to translate the book right around the time I was graduating high school. I graduated a year early, so I graduated in June. She was emailing me in April, then May, then late May and into June. "Zoe, please, I'm not going to make my deadline if you don't help me!"
Stuff that's probably really mundane to Amy Tan or Chuck Palahniuk is still hilarious to me: my publicist sending me a birthday gift, or getting contracts in the mail, or the fact that people want to do interviews with me. I don't take it very seriously because I'm very aware of the fact that it could all disappear immediately. I'm trying to enjoy it while it lasts.
It's really funny when people will write, "I know you're really big and famous, but if your publicist who answers your email will pass this on, it would mean so much to me." I'm like, "Dude, this is a Hotmail account. It's my address. I'm the one who answers it. I get all the spam." I've made a lot of really good pen pals from all this, getting to know people who've read the book. I like to write letters, so it works out well. I'm endlessly interested in all the people who hear about me and take the time to email me, and the way people's personas will translate in text.
Dave: Any books you've recently enjoyed? What comes to mind?
Trope: I've read more books in the past two months than I did in three years of high school. Honestly. It's weird what high school has done to me. It's made me feel like I've forgotten how to learn.
I'm trying to figure out why I stopped reading so much. In middle school, I went through about a book a week. We had a half-hour of mandated study hall time, so I got to read every day. It was great. I just didn't read very much in high school, and when we had books we had to read I was the kind of person who would have the book in front of me with something else hidden inside of it. I remember we were supposed to read The Odyssey freshman year, and I had The Perks of Being a Wallflower inside of it. So cliché, right? I love it.
The two books I read during high school that I moderately could stand were Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck I don't like Steinbeck, but I liked that book because it was the best thing we read in English that year and then The Great Gatsby I read in junior English, and I liked that.
Stuff I've read this summer? I've been rereading a lot of things. I reread The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which I'd kind of shit on for a while. When people would ask me about it, I'd be like, "It's so cliché. Everyone in high school reads it. It's not that good." I was really snobby about it for a while, then this author named Marty Beckerman he's reading with me in New York, and he's putting out a book on MTV Books he really likes Perks of Being a Wallflower. I thought I'd reread it to see if I'd find something new in it. I enjoyed it the second time much more than I did the first, which I guess is the way with most good books.
I read Empress of the World by Sara Ryan again, and that one also I liked even more the second time.
Having written something and gone through the editing process now, I have a really different take on books, and it's tougher. I read things, and I'm like, How did they do that? I don't think I could do that. It's a little frustrating now to read something because I'm not as naïve as I used to be. It's made writing for me a little more difficult because I want to try different things, but I feel like I'm trying to catch butterflies without a net. I don't have the right stuff to make this thing happen. I'm on my way there, but I think a college education might help. Something to look forward to.
I've been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction, which I think is a completely under-appreciated genre. I don't just say that because I'm on a Young Adult imprint. I just find it really interesting because it's adults writing for teenagers, essentially. I never read a lot of it when I was in high school because I thought it was too often an adult trying to shove some weird, moralistic story down my throat. That there's always some message there. But I think kids should try hard not to be so discouraged by it and find an imprint that they like. Again, I'm biased, but HarperTempest does a lot of edgy, interesting stuff. It's quality stuff, not boring, moralistic stories. I think teenagers should try to find a publisher they like and follow it. That's worked for me. Whatever you're into. That's my plug for Young Adult literature: It's a lot better than people think if you're willing to look.
Dave: Now that you're reading more YA fiction, what are you seeing that you hadn't before?
Trope: Well, something Sara Ryan pointed out to me: that parents aren't really there. They exist on the periphery. I never noticed that until she pointed it out to me, but it's true. And I realized, reading back through my book, that I don't mention my parents very much. It's not because they aren't interesting, fantastic people; it's just that I was in my own world, and they weren't there. They're mentioned sparingly. Same thing with my brother, but he was away at college at the time, so he wasn't living at home.
Curve magazine asked me to write a column, and I decided to write about my parents, an homage to them for not writing about them in my book. It's going to be in a winter issue. I could write so much about them. There are so many great stories. They grew up in San Diego in the sixties and seventies. Interesting times down there.
I kind of sprung the chapbook on them, and when I had an agent. I just sort of told them, as teenagers often do. Just to let you know? I remember being like, "Yes, I have an agent. Didn't I tell you last week? We had lunch." I have a really expectant attitude that they'll just deal with it, and they have. It's amazing. My mom is so incredibly logical. She's just like, "Well, I guess we'll have to get a lawyer," and she found a fantastic intellectual property lawyer.
My dad's a lot like me. Our birthdays are two days apart, and we're both outgoing, obnoxious, funny, rambunctious people. We work really well with my mother, who's just this solid, poker-faced woman. She handles all the paperwork and my taxes and keeping me anonymous and keeping me sane. She's very grounded and very logical. My father's like, "Let's go on tour!" He's more out-there. They're the perfect pair for this kind of situation. My mother will handle everything in the background and my dad will go out there and shake all the hands.
And he is a lesbian charmer. I don't understand what it is, but he could play his flute and they would all follow him wherever he went. They all love him. I can't get a date, and yet they all want him. The story is that when they lived in San Diego, my dad's best friend for two years was Ms. Gay San Diego. And there was a bakery owned by Amazons who wouldn't talk to men or even look at them, but my father was practically best friends with all of them. That amazes me.
I think they're such great people, and I don't talk about them enough. They don't get enough credit for dealing with me. You're spending an hour with me? My parents have to live with me, you know? It's a lot for them to handle, and they're so amazingly okay with it.
My mom's rea
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State