My pseu-called life

"Zoe Trope," the 17-year-old author of "Please Don't Kill the Freshman," received a huge advance to write a diary of her angsty and erotically charged high school days.

Published October 27, 2003 3:51PM (EST)

It's hard to remain anonymous when you're on a book tour and doing countless interviews, but Zoe Trope is trying. "Zoe Trope" is the pen name of a 17-year-old from Portland, Ore., whose memoir, "Please Don't Kill the Freshman," was released earlier this month by HarperTempest, an imprint of HarperCollins.

A 17-year-old with a memoir?

A 17-year-old with a $100,000 advance to write the memoir?

A memoir blurbed by Dave Eggers ("Zoe Trope's book is unflinching") and Jonathan Safran Foer ("I'm in awe of Zoe Trope").

Well, yes.

It's been a busy few years for Zoe, and she's trying to keep a modicum of privacy in Portland: She won't allow pictures of her face to be used in the press, and she won't give out her last name or the names of her parents, older brother, or high school. "So much of it has to do with my age," she says about her decision to remain anonymous. "I didn't want people to know where I lived or where I went to school and bother me or my friends." But she doesn't kid herself. "It's really terribly easy to figure it out," she says. "Redheads named Zoe in my city? Not that many."

Zoe started writing in the eighth grade, in an after-school writing class taught by writer Kevin Sampsell ("How to Lose Your Mind With the Lights On"). "She was very rambunctious and sort of disruptive, but in a fun way," Sampsell says. After the class, Zoe and Sampsell stayed in touch; she'd send him her writing and he'd critique it. The funny, sarcastic, whip-smart and surprisingly poetic diary entries she was sending him about her life as a freshman in high school -- the tedium of public school, her burgeoning queer sexuality -- impressed him so much that Sampsell, who runs an indie press called Future Tense Books, suggested they publish the entries as a chapbook (a small, cheaply printed and stapled book of poetry or prose).

The cover of "Please Don't Kill the Freshman" -- an illustration of peppy cheerleaders -- belies the narrative inside. The entries, disjointed and cryptic, revolve around Zoe's relationship with her best friend, "Linux Shoe" (Zoe's friends all get pseudonyms, too); her crushes on various friends, girls and boys; and her first relationship with a girl -- a butch lesbian who decides to strap down her own breasts and call herself a "he." ("My girlfriend turned into my boyfriend and didn't even ask my permission!" Zoe writes.)

When Joseph Weisberg, the author of "10th Grade," discovered the chapbook and sent it to his agent with a note ("This is awesome"), the agent e-mailed Zoe, and soon she was fielding offers from publishers. She signed the deal with HarperCollins in May 2002 and spent the next year writing more journal entries and editing them down from 125,000 words to 65,000 words. "Please Don't Kill the Freshman," the longer version, was released earlier this month.

"She's writing her experiences in real time," Sampsell says. "I think that's what's highly original about this book. I think her writing style is dazzling and brilliant. She's not a conventional writer: She doesn't write 'beginning, middle and end' stuff. It's very free-flowing, almost like jazz."

Last May, Zoe graduated from high school a year early. She wants to go to college, but she's taking the year off to publicize "PDKTF" and possibly write another book.

Accompanied by her father, who acts as her chaperone on all her out-of-town appearances, Zoe traveled to the East Coast two weeks ago for the first time. The day she arrived, the New York Post's gossip column, "Page Six," quoted her: "I'm hoping I can maybe visit some schools while I'm out here. You know, shake hands with admissions officers and say something like, 'Have you ever heard of me? Oh, you haven't? Well, sit down, 'cause I'm about to rock your [bleep]ing world.'"

I spoke with Zoe on a recent a Saturday afternoon at Teany, Moby's teahouse on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, before her reading at the bookstore Bluestockings.

At your reading last night in Brooklyn, you said that the publishing process just kind of happened -- you didn't put much effort into moving it along.

I never worked to set this all in motion, but as it fell together I went along with it. I sent my writing to Kevin to get his feedback on it. When he said he wanted to publish it, I thought, um ... OK. And when the agent e-mailed me six months later, I was really nervous -- like, I don't think I can rewrite this book. I didn't believe in myself, but Kevin thought I could do it.

How did the class with Kevin Sampsell change the way you felt about writing?

Kevin's class introduced me to a lot of new ideas about experimental writing -- writing that doesn't have to be coherent or make sense. His book, "How to Lose Your Mind With the Lights On," showed me that you didn't have to have a normal story arc in order for something to be powerful. The class was only a couple hours, so he'd say, 'Write for 15 minutes about a ghost in an elevator, or take this poem and remix it.' He did a lot of exercises to break away from the idea of 'Make a story with developed characters.' He'd tell us to just write.

At first, I sent him some poetry and short stories I'd written, but he wasn't into them. So I said, 'Here's something I was writing in class today. What do you think?'

What was his response to the entries?

He was impressed because I had so much raw talent and I was so energetic, so unapologetic about how and what I was writing. It was completely different from anything else he'd read before. A lot of people read the chapbook or read the first part of the long book and say it's incoherent, it's confusing, it's cryptic -- but that's what Kevin loves about it.

How did you explain to your family and friends that you were publishing your diary? Were you nervous about their reaction?

I told them, but it was kind of intangible to them. They didn't know what a chapbook was. They didn't understand what it would mean. My parents thought, Oh, that's neat. That's nice. Chapbooks come out all the time, and "small press" means small press, so it didn't seem like such a huge thing.

I talked with people a little about it -- like, I'm publishing some diary entries I've been writing, and you're in it. And they'd be like, Oh, what are you writing about me? And I'd say, Stuff. Just us and what we do when we hang out.

How did your friends -- the people you write about -- react to reading about themselves in your chapbook and the extended book?

I'm so honest anyway, with everyone I know, that no one has ever said they were shocked. If I like you or don't like you it's pretty obvious, so no one was surprised by my opinion of them.

Are your friends jealous of your success, your book deal?

I think if my friends are jealous of me at all, it's because I get to wake up when they're having lunch. And they want the fringe benefits -- I'm paying for their cheese fries at Denny's.

Did anyone in the administration at your school read the chapbook?

My vice principal called me into her office and asked me if I knew what libel was. I said, Yeah, but I don't see how that applies to me. She said something I'd said about one of the teachers could be considered libelous and I should stop printing the book and be careful about what I write in the future. She completely discouraged me from continuing what I was doing. She said I wasn't allowed to have the book at school or promote it in any way, and that they wanted to have nothing to do with it. So I said, That's great, I don't want you to have anything to do with it. It's not your book, it has nothing to do with you, my name's changed, all my friends' names are changed, the school isn't mentioned anywhere in the book, so...

You're incredibly contemptuous of your school in "Please Don't Kill the Freshman." What kind of student were you?

I got good grades, I'd turn in the homework, I participated. [My problem] was more the administration and counselors, because I wanted to form this gay club, which they thought was really inappropriate, and I had political collages on my locker that they thought weren't appropriate, clippings from Mother Jones and the Progressive magazine. They weren't like, "Kill your government," but the headlines were very provocative. I had a little tiny hemp ad on there with a marijuana leaf, and they didn't like that. Because it was political, they were uncomfortable with it. I just really got the message that thinking outside the box was very unwelcome at my school.

Have you always hated school?

I never liked the experience of public school or the structure of it. It always seemed very totalitarian. In school they make it seem like nothing's applicable. It's very hard for them to relate what you're doing in class with any real-world experiences. It always really bothered me that they referred to life after high school as "the real world," because it seemed to completely invalidate whatever you were doing at the time. So I always worked really hard at making sure I had a life. I went to school but it never really consumed me. I had the chapbook, and I could try and get a life outside this realm of football games and high school plays. Kevin would tell me about readings that were going on. I had different groups of people that I'd hang out with, and we'd do things that were away from school, like going downtown or going shopping. Even at home, I could get online and talk to people. I had pen pals, people I would e-mail back and forth with. I just wasn't so consumed by all the drama at school.

School was never first priority. My parents told me for years that public school and high school is bullshit. They keep you in there to keep you out of the workforce. They want you there because they need a tax revenue.

So more of your educational growth happened at home?

Neither of my parents graduated from college. My mom's a high school dropout. But they're both very, very bright people. They have incredible common sense, and they're very open. My mom reads voraciously. I think I got that from her. If I didn't know something I could ask them, and they wouldn't treat me like I was stupid.

It sounds like they're the kind of parents who treat teenagers more like adults than kids.

Yeah, they've always treated me like a person. We used to have this thing in our house where we were like, We're family, but we're different people and we have to learn how to get along together. They've always been so completely sensible, laid back, relaxed. My mom reads a lot of cookbooks and my dad falls asleep in his recliner. They're just people. I'm really, really grateful to have them as parents. I don't know how any other parents would deal with what I'm doing now.

Have they read your book?

My dad hasn't read all of it yet. My mom's read it at least twice. I don't think my mom was particularly shocked. I was kind of worried that she'd punish me retroactively for some of the stuff, but again, they're so painfully logical. They're like, We realize that you don't always tell us everything and that sometimes you probably even lie to us. They're freakishly honest with themselves and each other and I guess that's where I got it. They so clearly remember what they did as teenagers that nothing shocks them. I think they have a certain amount of trust in me that they raised me to make smart decisions and live my life in a responsible way.

What about the blatant discussions of your sexuality in PDKTF? Did it make them uncomfortable to read about their daughter's sexuality and sex life? Did they know that you read lesbian erotica, for example?

They're very cognizant of what teenagers are like, in terms of experimenting with sexuality or drugs. When I was reading a lot of erotica in middle school, I brought home so many books from the library anyway -- my mom never snooped; she respects my privacy so much -- and unless I pointed a book out to her specifically or she saw me reading it, she might not have even noticed. And if she had, literature is so accepted in my family that it wouldn't have been a big deal. To her, reading is a much safer way of experimenting with something rather than going out and doing it. If I was curious about something, my parents always encouraged me to read about it. When I took my mom to [the Portland bookstore] Powell's for the first time, she found some paperback collection of Penthouse letters, and she was like, Oh, this is great! Sexuality is not a taboo thing in my family at all. My parents grew up in Southern California in the '60s and '70s and they've seen a lot of stuff. They're very accepting of other people's lifestyles.

You're incredibly emotional in PDKTF when describing your friends -- you're always falling in love with one friend or another -- but, at the same time, you're detached from them, observant and analytical.

I've always felt five to 10 years older than everyone else. I get tired of waiting for everyone else to catch up. And sometimes what I'm doing now doesn't help with those kinds of feelings. I have friends who are in high school and getting really stressed out about grades or college or whatever, and it seems so boring to me. I'm not interested in that environment or mindset anymore; I never have been.

Your friends are so frank about sex, and are so willing to explore their sexuality.

Sexuality in high school is more open than a lot of people realize. I don't think it's more accepting -- I have friends who've been spit on; it can still be very hateful -- but among groups of friends it's like, Yeah, he's gay, so what. You're dealing with a lot of people with a lot of raging hormones and a lot of curiosity. The people I hung out with -- I can't remember anyone being particularly concerned with anyone else's sexuality. People thought my girlfriend was interesting because she was so butch. When she became a boy that took a lot of explaining.

It's interesting how you're able to see so many sexual or erotic possibilities in the people around you. Most teenagers -- well, most people -- have a kind of mental list of what they are and aren't attracted to. You don't really seem to have that.

I'm naturally hyper-observant. I'm really good at watching people. I notice these incredibly tiny details about people, something I think is so slight that other people don't see, so I guess that will make me attracted to people more than the generic, Oh, he has a nice ass. I'm like, Didn't you notice the way he writes? He holds his pencil in his left hand and he crosses his T's a certain way and when he's thinking his tongue kind of sticks out of his mouth. I can write, like, whole papers about people after watching them for five minutes. I guess that's how it's so easy for me to be attracted to people.

Had you come out to your parents by the time the book was published?

More or less. It's not a really big deal. Harder than just talking about it is dealing with people's reactions to it, people's spin on it, and trying to explain it. It's very confusing in my book, and it's still confusing to me now. I say that I'm gay a lot, but I use the word "gay" the way other people use the word "queer," just to mean that my sexuality deviates from the norm, so I think I'm probably losing a lot of dates that way -- like, she's only into girls. No, I'm into people. Gender doesn't matter if I'm attracted to you.

I haven't had a date in seven months, which is pathetic. My friends always tell me -- and maybe they're just trying to be nice, but I think it also has some validity -- that people are probably rightfully intimidated by me or think I'm unapproachable.

When you edited the book, was there anything you were tempted to delete -- anything that seemed embarrassing? You seem so OK with the fact that anyone who reads PDKTF will know tons of intimate details about your evolution as a teenager.

Being 16 and editing this diary I'd written when I was 14, I had to learn to respect what I'd written. There are some things I would cringe at, but I would think, I can't cut this. This is who I was. I think that's the only reason I got through the editing process. At a certain point I just learned to suck it up. I can't completely erase this picture of who I was.

Can you explain all the cheerleader imagery on the cover?

I just think it's a cute shtick. It's ironic, almost, because the book is so not like, Yay, high school! It's also the iconography of high school -- you think of high school, you think football and cheerleaders. I think it takes that stereotype and skews it.

By Whitney Joiner

Whitney Joiner is an editor at Seventeen magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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