Photo by Elizabeth Parker Tropper
Author Jonathan Tropper, a 39-year-old New Rochelle resident, is nothing if not blunt—at least on the page. His fifth novel, This Is Where I Leave You (Dutton), starts off with the words, “Dad’s dead.” But no need to reach for the tissue box; his stories are funny (very), meaty, and smart.
Smart, ’cause Tropper is remarkably insightful. “I’m big into watching people and taking notice of the relationships around me,” says the boyish father of three young children, who is dressed in jeans and a faded T-shirt. “I think one of my greatest strengths as a writer is being able to put myself in the head of someone else and extrapolate the emotions I think they’d feel.”
Recent sales, plus the fact that four of his books (The Book of Joe, How to Talk to a Widower, Everything Changes, and This Is Where I Leave You) have been optioned for movies, suggest the public and industry agree that Tropper is a gifted writer.
What makes Tropper’s stories so appealing is his comic wryness and breezy tone, set against the backdrop of suburban angst (Hello, Westchester!) with a hefty dose of self-evaluation. His tone is a mixture of Holden Caulfield, Jay McInerney, and Ray Romano, though many critics have compared him to authors Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta. Because his books all are written in the first person, with an “every guy” tone, his stories feel personal, as if the storyteller could be your neighbor or your favorite barista at the local Starbucks. And when you’re reading his books, you can almost see them as Technicolor movie trailers, thanks to the clever banter, meticulous scene stealers, entertaining adventures, three-dimensional characters, and dramatic fade-ins and -outs.
His novels (so far) tend to have the same basic theme: a down-on-his-luck Everyman-turned-redeemer who realizes he needs a healthy kick in the pants to grow up and move forward, whether that means confronting the old demons of high school, dealing with the death of a loved one and the dysfunctional family support that accompanies that loss, reassessing old loves, or simply finding one’s way in the suburban world. This Is Where I Leave You deals with family ties and the realities of middle age. It takes place over the seven-day period of Jewish mourning, or shiva, when the main character’s father dies and his formerly atheist family is forced to grieve together (the dying man’s wishes).
He admits he works hard to create flawed, interesting, and occasionally over-the-top personalities and likes writing about characters who need to dig deep. “Many of us only do that kind of self-evaluation when we’re forced to,” he says. “For me, there’s something liberating about writing about a character that ultimately has no choice but to reinvent his life.”
Longtime friend (since they were kids at summer camp) Lawrence Burian says Tropper always has been particularly perceptive about the world and people around him. When he and Jonathan were 18 and studying abroad in Israel, he recalls, they encountered a super-thick fog that made it difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. “I remember walking across the deserted campus, and Jonathan, who was coming from the opposite direction, called out to me by name. “I asked him how he could have recognized me from the distance in the fog, and he replied that he recognized my ‘walk.’ I think back to that story when I see how wonderfully he is able to capture in his books a vivid scene, colorful character, or deep feeling by not only painting the larger image, but also the smaller details.”
He Is Not His Characters
The fact that all of Tropper’s novels to date have been written in the male voice only reinforces the assumption that he is the character he writes about, which tends to make him more guarded when you meet him in person. Because you’ve read his books, you expect him to spew out the witty lines that dot his novels. But Tropper is more cautious and serious than his characters and not as quick to offer personal details.
Still, the more you talk to him, the more he loosens up to reveal shades of his funny, self-depreciating self. He’s “ready,” in fact, for the inevitable sex question, as This Is Where I Leave You has so many racy scenes that his agent, Simon Lipskar from New York City-based Writers House, likes to joke that even the French blushed on Tropper’s European book tour.
“If I haven’t been embarrassed yet with friends and family reading my writing, this book should do it,” says Tropper, confiding in the same breath that his kids won’t be allowed to read it until they are older. (His wife, who used to be a nursery-school teacher but now stays home with their kids, is okay about it.) “I can always tell when my wife’s friends or my parents’ friends have read a book of mine by the way they look at me.”
The look can be rather intimidating. “They appreciate my sense of humor but often expect me to be outrageously, sometimes scandalously blunt when the situation calls for it.”
But he has to remind people that he—and they—are not the subjects that grace his stories. “People I know tend to think I’m writing about them often or studying them for future placement in a story. I know they think I’m looking at their character traits and crafting something out of reality, but I’m not.” He adds, “The people I make up are a lot more fun.”
In fact, Tropper says he finds it mildly insulting that they’d even think that. “Fiction is making things up. I’m a fiction writer and my whole gift is being able to create something that sounds honest and authentic. The fact that I’d only be able to pick from my own life is ignorant. Look at the people who write about serial killers: do people say the author has to be a serial killer to write that genuinely?”
He does, however, have his muse: the backdrop of Westchester to help spur his creative juices. In This Is Where I Leave You, there are many nods to life in Elmsbrook, New York, which sounds suspiciously like our very own Elmsford. There are also mentions of Dobbs Ferry, Tarrytown, Valhalla, the Hudson Valley, and Metro-North. There’s even a Temple Israel that makes occasional appearances, though he swears it’s just coincidence and not based on the one on Pinebrook Boulevard.
Growing Up on the Cusp of Suburbia
Tropper grew up a typical ’70s kid in a house in Riverdale with two brothers and a sister, a stay-at-home mom, and a dad who ran a large contract-manufacturing corporation. “I didn’t stray too far from my roots,” he says. He says they’re close, with none of the dysfunction of the siblings, parents, and spouses who grace his stories.
Tropper studied English undergrad and then went on to get a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at NYU, after which he spent eight years running a Manhattan-based company that manufactured displays for jewelry and watch companies. He wrote at night and on weekends but also embarked on a not-so-unusual post-college path. He played softball and basketball with the guys when he could, got married, had kids, and moved to Westchester.
His first published novel, Plan B, about a group of college friends turning 30, attracted the attention of an agent, allowing him to quit his day job and become a full-time writer. That was almost 10 years ago, but it seems now is his time. According to Lipskar, the movie studios always pay attention to his books—four of them have been optioned at auction within a week or so of the manuscript’s completion —but this last one, This is Where I leave You, seems to have really caught on. “The mix of pain and hilarity that is a hallmark of most families’ lives is exactly the right canvas for Jonathan, and readers love it,” Lipskar says.
The Bronx native says his whole concept of suburbia comes from Westchester. “It’s the only suburb I’ve ever lived in.” The City on the Sound started finding its way into his stories early on but confirmed its presence with How to Talk to a Widower, which takes place in a fictional town called New Radford and is “one-hundred percent New Rochelle,” he says.
See if you recognize New Ro in this scene from the book:
“New Radford is pretty much what you’d expect from an upper-middle-class suburb. You’ve read the book, seen the movie. It’s all here. The original masonry homes, Tudors, and Colonials from the 1930s housing burgeoning families and imploding marriages, German luxury cars positioned in driveways like magazine ads, bored-looking kids dressed in the faded palette of Abercrombie & Fitch congregating nefariously in parking lots, morning commuters loaded like cattle onto the Metro-North trains into Manhattan, minivans and midlife crises doting the landscape like freckles.”
Burian says there was always something special about Tropper growing up, though he had no idea about his writing talents until college. “His roommate used to rave how Jonathan could dictate a full English or history paper for him without any effort.”
“Jonathan is, quite simply very talented,”he continues. “He was a black belt in the martial arts and a super-entertaining piano player without any formal music training. He was also somewhat precocious when it came to girls, as he was never without a serious girlfriend, even as a kid. It’s very exciting for all of us to watch him continue to build on his every success, while at the same time remaining very true to his family, friends, and community.”
It’s almost a little disappointing how, well, normal Tropper seems. He’s your typical suburban guy who works all day (he writes in a quiet nook at the Manhatanville Library where he is an adjunct fiction professor), plays a little piano when he has free time, spends evenings helping his wife with dinner and his kids with homework, coaches Little League, and often schleps his little ones to Last Licks in Scarsdale, or to the batting cages at Sportstime USA in—where else?—Elmsford.
Tropper says he used to work at home but found that he was more productive in the college library, where he admits to a “messy process.”
“I always know what my central theme will be and my character’s journey but everything else finds its way in or out. Sometimes I’ll be halfway through or three-quarters of the way through and find I’m reinventing what I’ve already done.” (His biggest piece of advice to students and would-be writers? “Persevere. My first book sold was not the first book I wrote.”) He admits to having a “graveyard” of unused material on his computer that he hopes to use one day. Which gets curious minds wondering if maybe a story on turning 40 might be a possible plot line in the not-so-distant future?
“The themes of his books have clearly grown from the arc of his life as they deal with topics such as being single, growing up, getting married, being married, living in suburbia, etc.,” Burian says. “But most of the characters are way more colorful than the people around him.”
And though Tropper’s supposed to be working on his sixth book—something about fathers and sons in the suburbs (“maybe”)—screenwriting is taking up a lot of his time. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”
As a result, Tropper has been traveling a lot recently to LA for business. No matter where his career takes him, though, he says there’s nowhere he’d rather be than here. All of which is good news for us Westchesterites who will be seeing more of “fictional” New Ro (and perhaps other Westchester towns) either on the big screen, or in novels to come.
Jeanne Muchnick, a freelancer based in Larchmont, has been a fan of Jonathan Tropper’s for years and was thrilled to meet him in person.