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October 22nd, 2003 Taylor Clark | News Stories
 

Deconstructing Zoe

One man's search for the key to a young Portland writer's success.

     
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IMAGE: MARK KOHLMAN
1 October 2003. Wednesday

10:30PM

I just got back from Powell's, where Portland superauthor wunderkind Zoe Trope played to a packed crowd. The reading was the 17-year-old's first public appearance in support of her national debut, Please Don't Kill the Freshman--a book she wrote at age 14 that earned her a $100,000 advance from publisher HarperCollins.

I'm not going to pretend I understand why. My interest in PDKTF waned after the first paragraph, where Zoe breathlessly describes her best friend, who like the author and all of the book's characters has been given a pseudonym:

linux shoe--fourteen years old. freshman. best friend. homosexual. beautiful. has made me cry many, many times. disgustingly insightful. plays cello. reads philosophy. asked me why tosca had to die.

This just doesn't do it for me.

I didn't want to be there, but my girlfriend--let's call her Snow Bunny--read and liked her book. I aim to please.

I'll admit I was curious about one thing: Why were major publishers clawing at one another's eyes for the right to pay 100 grand for a teenager's diary?

Not that I'm envious.

Even for those who had never seen a picture of the author--and that was pretty much everyone, since she guards her real identity fiercely--it was clear which one was Zoe. Clad entirely in black except for the pink skulls strewn across her skirt, Zoe was an electron spinning frantically around the nucleus of the room, red curls bouncing about, talking havoc.

Kevin Sampsell--a.k.a. Greasy Buddy Holly in PDKTF--took the podium to tell us what everyone already knew: Zoe is a phenomenon. Two years ago, Sampsell's Future Tense publishing house in Portland put out the precursor to PDKTF, a 44-page chapbook of journal entries from Zoe's freshman year--basically no more than a stack of Xeroxed pages stapled together. Her new book expands on this, incorporating her sophomore year in the same diary format.

Zoe's chapbook was No. 10 on Powell's bestseller list in 2002, an unheard-of feat for a small-press book. She has been adopted into a community of young blue-chip writers and endorsed by Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer. She has done dozens of interviews in the past few weeks, and PDKTF is already being translated into Italian, Dutch and Japanese.

Zoe may sell a million books at this rate. And I have no idea why.

2 October. Thursday

6:21PM

My big mouth. This morning I mentioned to my editor--who we'll call Evil Eye--that I saw Zoe read last night. This piqued his interest.

Next thing I know, I've agreed to write a story about her. A cover story. Evil Eye told me to keep it simple: Just explain why the book is getting so much attention. I nodded my mindless assent, shocked that he had even heard of something culturally significant from the current century.

I am so screwed.

OK, what do I have to go on so far? The reading.

HYPOTHESIS #1: Zoe is popular because she's so charismatic.

Speaking and performing lines from the book at Powell's--and it certainly was a performance--Zoe was all confidence and theatrics, almost as if she were doing a comedy routine. Once she finished reading, giggling girls with punk-rock pink hair and braces raised their hands with questions, hearts aflutter.

But I don't think this is the why behind her success in Portland. If great reading voices translated to huge book sales, then James Earl Jones and the cast of SpongeBob would be at the top of the bestseller lists. She's great behind a microphone, but that's just not enough on its own to explain her success.

Strike one.

Earlier today, when I emailed Zoe requesting an interview, her near-automatic responses in our exchange were like geek lightning. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise. Zoe is a blogging fiend.

We settled on Monday at two. It works for me because I'll have time to read her book by then. It works for her because she can still sleep in until noon.

I need a book deal.

After Zoe and I decided when to meet, I got to wondering: How difficult would it be to track down her real name and the high school that she trashes in her book? The mystery of her identity is a huge part of the buzz around her book, so how hard would it be to strip that away just using the Internet?

Ready. Set. Go.

It took 10 minutes. Her real name is ******* ******** and she went to ********. Funny. When we meet, I'll have to tell her to ******** her ******** from ******** ********. That's a dead giveaway.

3 October. Friday

8:16PM

My roommate--I'll dub him Paranoid Android--just arrived at our apartment with a random, unsolicited gift from his parents: a giant 3-D puzzle of the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo's ship in Star Wars.

This seems like a good time to retreat to my bedroom, where--flanked by Joyce, Beckett, Huxley, Orwell, Calvino and all of the other remnants of my posh liberal-arts education--I will rip PDKTF limb from limb.

9:46PM

PDKTF is a crass and overly sentimental book. Zoe is merciless in thrashing her enemies and gushing in praise of her friends; everyone is either a "lying whore" or "literally a genius." She's not exactly setting my literary world on fire. The book seems like nothing more than some kid's journal. I could write this.

Not that I'm envious.

For example, here's Zoe's sappy ode to her best friend: "My beautiful, beautiful Linux. You're gorgeous. You're fantastic. You crucify my hands, make the petals bleed, make me write words with the blood."

But then, just after you step out into the traffic of teen melodrama, she delivers a truckload of sharp writing.

Zoe turns clever: "We still have too many required classes and my schedule feels like a fat woman from the seventeenth century, being squeezed into a size six corset, sucking in her breath, turning a soft shade of blue."

Or caustic: "Birthday parties are the result of broken condoms."

I'm impressed that she could write like this when she was 14 years old.

HYPOTHESIS #2: Zoe is popular because people believe she is a child prodigy.

Yes, America loves kid geniuses--just look at how much attention we pay those spelling-bee goons and every passing golf savant. Plus, the book's promos all focus on Zoe's age. Still, while Zoe shows true talent, PDKTF is too patchy and sophomoric to lead people into thinking she's the Bobby Fisher of literature.

The mystery continues.

4 October. Saturday

3:52PM

I had hoped that the Millennium Falcon would be forgotten, but for some reason Snow Bunny thinks it will be fun to spread out all of its 857 pieces on the dining-room table and give it a shot.

I'll be in the other room reading. No, I want to help, but I need to read this book for work. Sorry.

Wading deeper into the teen angst and ire of PDKTF, Zoe keeps turning out little pearls that shine with the luster of her talent. These bursts of brilliance are keeping my nose in the book, and I'll give her credit: It's pretty damn funny. Example:

"I'm supposed to be eating fat-free yogurt and shaving my legs and shopping at the gap and finding different places on my body to adhere glitter, yes? YES?"

HYPOTHESIS #3: Zoe is popular because she is a dazzling writer and humorist, regardless of her age.

Her talent and wit certainly have a lot to do with it, but in reality plenty of people can write this well. The fact is, if she hadn't been 14 when she wrote this, it would never have been published. It must be something else.

As I'm jotting my acidic notes, it suddenly occurs to me that I'm slamming the journal of a 14-year-old girl. It's supposed to be juvenile. But Zoe sounds so grown-up sometimes that you forget she couldn't even drive yet when she wrote this.

5:09PM
I need a break. I'm going to go out and help push Millennium Falcon pieces around for a minute.

8:02PM
The fuselage is coming along nicely on the ship, and we're beginning work on the hyperdrive.

What am I saying?

5 October. Sunday

2:33PM

Ship construction is proceeding ahead of schedule. Meanwhile, I've finished PDKTF. As I feared, it just kind of...ends. It's better than I expected, and I can tell there's something there, but I still don't know what that something is. My draft is due in eight days. Maybe Evil Eye will get sick.

6 October. Monday

4:13PM

I just got this email:

"I might get bored later tonight and e-mail you a long, over-explicative rant about some of the things we talked about today...mostly 'cause I'm just so helpful! And precious! Don't forget how precious I am!"

It was from Zoe, who I'd met earlier at Crowsenberg's Half and Half. I found her sipping iced tea and scribbling in her journal.

"Moron from local paper walking in," I could imagine her writing. "Is that a puzzle piece in his hair?"

As soon as I said hello, Zoe was off to the races, talking up a storm.

Zoe wore a pink shirt and black, paint-spattered pants. Around her neck hung a chain with a dangling pendant showing a recumbent and scantily clad Bettie Page.

Observation: She's 17! Only six years younger than I am. Zoe's almost the same age as my little sister--we'll call her Little Sister--and she's already made $100,000 off a book. Correction: Off her diary. There she was all smug with her new Volkswagen and--

Ha ha! Of course I'm kidding! I'm happy for her! Really.

"It's funny that people think I'm so rich because I got this big advance," she said. "It goes away pretty fast."

Since Zoe is a minor, all of her assets go to a corporation that her attorney set up, as she said, "to make sure I don't spend it all on melody pops and ponies." Zoe Trope, Inc. gives her a $120 allowance every week.

Her college plans are unclear. Zoe graduated high school in three years, which according to her was because "I realized that there was no way I could pull off applying to college, my Senior year of high school and promoting a book all at the same time without killing myself."

I felt like I knew Zoe already, and I realized I did. I just read 300 pages of her life in vivid, emotional detail. She's every bit as boisterous, witty and forthcoming as you'd expect after reading her book, but another year of dealing with high school and the press has given her an added air of confidence. She now seems more comfortable in her own skin.

I like her. She reminds me of Little Sister.

I learned from Zoe that after Sampsell published her chapbook, word got out fast to the publishing houses in New York. Writer Joseph Weisberg--whose latest book, 10th Grade, treads similar ground--sent it to his agent with a note that just said, "This is awesome."

The pen name was Sampsell's idea. Anonymity has come in handy for Zoe.

"I'm still really young and dealing with creepy people who I just want to punch in the teeth," she said.

But writing incognito has also come at a cost: Zoe has had to turn down interviews with National Public Radio and The New York Times, among others, because she refused to give away her identity.

7:01PM

On the way home from work a light bulb appeared over my head....

HYPOTHESIS #4: Zoe is popular because she is an outspoken champion of overteased groups.

Finally, I think I'm on to something. After all, PDKTF is a tome of sexual confusion. Zoe is gay (or at least trying to be) and is characteristically blunt about her thoughts on sex. She is also a large girl. She is not ashamed of this. In PDKTF, Zoe feels picked-on, but is still strong: "I'm fat, I'm okay with it, and it doesn't really bother me." Her demeanor confirms that.

Then again, Zoe's book has an appeal that goes beyond outcasts. At the reading, the majority of the crowd was adult and the loudest squealing admirers were the waifish teens who dressed punk but seemed too normal to need PDKTF for support.

The crisis begins anew. Now I've met Zoe, but I still can't explain her popularity. Deep breath. Forget Evil Eye. Focus on the Falcon.

7 October. Tuesday

11:10AM

Zoe is furious. I just emailed her asking what she thought of an article about her in today's Portland Tribune that included a pretty clear photo of her profile. She's pissed about that, but even more by the story.

"Oh my fucking god...they fucking misquoted my book!" she wrote. "I said DODGEBALL, not kickball, you assholes."

Note to self: Triple-check all facts about Zoe.

8 October. Wednesday

2:29PM

My desperation level rising, today I decided to seek answers from Zoe's editors.

First, Kevin Sampsell. The writer, Future Tense publisher and early Zoe Trope enthusiast is also the events coordinator at Powell's, where Zoe's book is perched at No. 9 on the in-house bestseller list this week--one slot above Sue Grafton's Q Is for Quarry. Strange bedfellows.

Sampsell, a soft-spoken scholarly type, provided the numbers behind the early Zoe explosion.

"It sold about 2,500 copies total," he said of the chapbook. "I usually only print 200 to 500 copies for a book. With this, I'd go down to Clean Copy every couple weeks and say, 'I need 100 more of these.'"

His two cents: "She could easily be this new teenage hero. I'm thrilled by all of it."

Well, that wasn't much help.

Fortunately, I soon got a call back from Zoe's other editor: Elise Howard, of HarperCollins.

"We knew that HarperCollins had to have this book one way or another," she said.

According to Howard, Zoe's second book (or revised first book) is selling well. After a first printing she said was "in the healthy five figures," PDKTF has already gone back to press based on early orders.

That's great, but WHY?

"Zoe's voice is really distinct and uniquely her own. No one could have written this but her."

That tells me nothing. Great for a book jacket, but it won't satisfy Evil Eye. Is that the sound of Imperial Star Destroyers approaching?

5:53PM

Now utterly desperate, I drove out to Zoe's old stomping grounds, ************* High School, in search of one person.

Midwestern Tackiness.

Of all the people Zoe rips apart in PDKTF, her old French teacher, whose real name is ****** **************, gets the worst of it. Zoe characterizes her as an "utter bitch" and a "mad cow blabbering incessantly."

I wanted to see if this is true. I know Zoe still feels the same way these days, because I brought it up in our meeting.

ME: What was the deal with Midwestern Tackiness?

ZOE: She deserves to burn in hell.

I stepped into MT's classroom expecting the worst. As I explained who I was and why I was there, I winced a little, thinking it was only a matter of seconds before she called security.

She didn't. Instead, she smiled, apologized for not returning my call and asked me to take a seat.

She didn't even know Zoe's book was out. As I read Zoe's comments about her, she laughed them off nervously.

"I was warned," MT said. "She told me, 'I'm going to write a book, and you're going to be in it.'

"We would be working on pronouns, and she was back there writing whole paragraphs. She took notes all the time, but I just knew they weren't about French."

This is great stuff.

MT seemed sad that Zoe didn't like her, but she wouldn't take the bait.

"Honestly, I wish she would have stayed in my French class more, because she was very bright," she said.

Afraid she would get herself in trouble by talking to me, Midwestern Tackiness called for reinforcements. Soon, in walked ********, her department head, a man who happened to be Zoe's creative-writing teacher last year--after she'd gotten the book deal.

"When I first found out that I was going to teach someone with a $100,000 book deal, that changed the advice I was planning on giving," he told me.

******** claimed that Zoe never dangled her success in front of her fellow students.

"She seemed to be very good in class in terms of not flaunting it and not being impatient with other kids," he said. "She was sort of a cheerleader in my class."

As I walked out of the classroom, the writing teacher caught up to me with a final thought.

"Zoe writes like an adult," he said, "but in what she says about certain people, she shows the judgment of an adolescent."

10 October. Friday

3:12PM

Zoe was not pleased that I visited her old school. From a hotel room in New York--where she's doing a publicity tour--she emailed:

"I don't want my book connected to that school in any way. They don't deserve the credit or publicity and I don't want to rub their faces in it. I don't want them to be a part of my life anymore."

I think she's suddenly seen that revenge is a two-way street. Zoe's afraid of payback for what she dished out.

11 October. Saturday

10:33PM

Update: The project is in its final stages and everything is going as planned. As I put together the cockpit and looked in on the tiny Princess Leia inside, I pondered the fundamental problems she and Han had communicating.

HYPOTHESIS #5: Zoe is popular because of some girl-related reason that I couldn't possibly understand because I am male.

I think back to the tittering pink-haired girls at Powell's and Snow Bunny's interest in Zoe. Wouldn't that be a convenient way out for me? But it's just not true. Look at her biggest advocates: Sampsell, Eggers, Foer, Weisberg...all guys.

I am struck by my two current failures in life: 1) I cannot, for the life of me, isolate what is propelling this book, and 2) I have just spent another five hours completing a 3-D model of the Millennium Falcon.

12 October. Sunday

11:45AM

My draft is due in 22 hours and 15 minutes. I've just called Zoe's mother, ***********, a woman Zoe characterizes as being "high-strung, like a poodle." This was my final hope.

She was busy shampooing the carpets but decided to take a break. I asked her what she thought of her teenage daughter becoming a globetrotting author.

"It's not exactly what I saw on the agenda when I signed up to be a parent," she said. "We had lots of family discussions and meetings about this beforehand, to make sure Zoe understood the Pandora's Box she was opening."

Zoe's mother told me that they're proud of their daughter's success, but they don't really understand how it came about. They just try to keep Zoe's feet on the ground.

"I would really like to see her parlay this into a scholarship," she says. "She might be the flavor of the month, but she has so much growing and maturing to do."

13 October. Monday

1:20PM

Turned in a draft of the story to Evil Eye this morning.

"So," he asked, when I handed him the printout, "what did you find out about Zoe? What's the secret?"

I was afraid of this.

"Oh, I've got a few ideas," I replied.

"Ideas?"

Evil Eye shot me a look to make it clear that I am the worst writer ever to work for this paper. Or any paper.

I limped back to my desk and decided to seek the refuge of all desperate journalists: the Internet. I headed to Amazon.com to check out reviews of PDKTF.

People either love or despise Zoe's book. The negative reviews are scathing.

"Teenage mediocrity hand-in-hand with the backing of a large publishing conglomerate = Britney Spears the novelist," wrote a reviewer who'd chosen the confounding alias "Teeth Like God's Shoeshine."

Ouch. I found myself getting indignant on Zoe's behalf.

I read on: "The book was so random and unorganized" ("Jerry O'Conner); "It could have come straight from the dairy of any 14 year old girl" ("A Reader").

Hold on. That's doesn't make it bad. In fact, that's exactly what makes it work.

CONCLUSION: Zoe is popular because her missteps and immaturity make her book so real.

Who wants a polished, flawless treatment of life in high school? Every teen novel with a cute ponytailed girl on the cover or YM-style rag will feed that to you, but that's not the way it was for anyone. PDKTF breathes life because the reader is there with her, living her mistakes, eavesdropping on the jumble of her mind. With every passing page, we actually get to see Zoe grow up. Because of this, the book resonates with anyone who ever went through the protracted humiliation of high school.

Flashes of insight juxtaposed with embarrassing naivete. Equal parts pain and exhilaration. This is adolescence.

15 October. Wednesday

6:37AM

Over coffee, I told Zoe about my struggle to figure out her book's appeal and what I determined. She gave her appraisal in return:

"I think it was because of adults who read it and spread word of mouth. It was hype. I was in the right place at the right time."

She might be right; maybe it is this simple.

I've learned that Zoe's editors at HarperCollins are eagerly awaiting her next manuscript, which she plans to deliver before the year is out. Once again, I am thoroughly, debilitatingly not envious.

Later, Zoe and I careened through the downtown streets in her car. Having a 17-year-old at the wheel was every bit as frightening as I'd expected.

"Where are the lines? I can't see them," Zoe remarked in the car, referring to the lanes of the road.

Lanes, road, journey...I'm sure there's a really good metaphor here for Zoe's future. But I don't even want to think about it.

 
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