Isabel E. Kaplan ’12

Sitting in Crema Cafe, non-fat latte in one hand and BlackBerry in the other, freshman novelist Isabel E. Kaplan ’12
By Anna M. Yeung

Sitting in Crema Cafe, non-fat latte in one hand and BlackBerry in the other, freshman novelist Isabel E. Kaplan ’12 parries her timid demeanor with confident eloquence. She has the air of total normalcy that most Harvard students manifest, but in both pedigree and talent, Kaplan is a far cry from normal.

Her book pitch in seventh grade garnished a mention in Page Six of The New York Post, but Kaplan had to wait till the ripe age of 16 to finally sign her first book deal. However, patience paid off; Kaplan’s debut novel, a project more than two years in the making, is set to hit bookstore shelves on June 30. “Hancock Park” chronicles the coming-of-age story of Becky Miller, who attends the posh Whitbread School for Girls in L.A.

The publisher’s blurb on the Tower Books Web site is dramatic. “Surrounded by the children of high-profile celebrities... Becky Miller faces even more challenges in the form of self-absorbed parents, her weight, and her painfully high intelligence, which culminate in a nearly brutal day-to-day existence.”

The plot draws noteworthy parallels to Kaplan’s own background. Kaplan has been a resident of L.A. all her life and graduated from the elite, all-girls Marlborough School, located in Hancock Park. “Certainly the experiences and situations and the settings and the places involved are things I have to understand, to know about, otherwise I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing about it authentically,” Kaplan says. However, the young author denies that her novel falls into the roman à clef genre.

“This isn’t meant to be my, and certainly isn’t, my exposé,” Kaplan says. “The characters are not Marlborough girls. I am not Becky Miller.” In fact, Kaplan had to disappoint people who were hoping to appear in her book, stressing that she was writing a novel.

Kaplan is also reluctant to draw connections between “Hancock Park” and the popular “Gossip Girl” series or The A-List series, which all share similar settings.

“I think ‘Hancock Park’ is a study of Los Angeles insider life from someone who feels she is at the edge of the inside, and doesn’t feel completely at home.” Kaplan said “There are lots of other books out there, like ‘The A-List,’ that are from the point of view of girls who feel really at home there... Becky Miller is certainly within that world, but she feels a little out of place. “

Kaplan said she signed her book deal with HarperCollins in the summer after her sophomore year, following a book party, where her mother introduced her to an editor.

Her mother, Susan Estrich, was the first female president of the Harvard Law Review, and is now a political commentator for Fox News. Her father, Martin H. Kaplan ’71, is associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and a former White House speech writer.

“I’m not riding on my parents, though,” Kaplan says, “I’m trying very hard to do this on my own accord and out of my own merit.”

Kaplan said she mentioned her idea for a book on L.A. insider life to the HarperCollins editor at that party. According to Kaplan, the editor was encouraging and she secured a meeting to pitch her book in the form of a 20-page preview. The day after her meeting, she said, she got a call: HarperCollins wanted her book.

Contract secured, Kaplan spent the next two years working on her novel, working closely with her editor throughout the process to develop the book. At the same time, though, Kaplan was also juggling the hectic high school career of the usual Harvard student on top of writing.

“I do remember sleeping in high school,” Kaplan says, “Perhaps not as much as I would like.”

Kaplan spent all of junior year and the beginning of senior year developing a “rough draft” of the novel, and the majority of her senior year was spent editing. She submitted her final edits the day after her high school graduation.

Kaplan kept the book under wraps during development, even from her parents, considering writing to be a private process. However, several of Kaplan’s freshman friends at Harvard have been allowed to read galleys of her novel.

Her friend Jana O.M. Christian ’12 said that Becky Miller was definitely not Kaplan’s doppelgänger. However, she said, “there are many one-liners of commentary that really gave me an insight on part of her life.”

Though Kaplan was reluctant to commit herself to discussing upcoming projects, she does seem optimistic that whatever the future holds, it will involve writing.

“I have no idea what’s coming next,” Kaplan says. “The novel I write next… we’ll have to wait and see.”