Author Jonathan Tropper Profile
Jonathan Tropper uses New Rochelle as his muse.
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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.