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'Hancock Park' author Isabel Kaplan writes what she knows

July 31, 2009|Susan Carpenter

A privileged life isn't always the same as a charmed life, but Isabel Kaplan is one of those rare people who leads both. Godchild of Carol Channing, daughter of well-connected USC professors Susan Estrich and Martin Kaplan, Kaplan is a Los Angeles native who, at 19, has already founded two nonprofit organizations, interned at Glamour magazine and with U.S. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and attends Harvard University.

Then there's her first novel, the young adult book "Hancock Park," which became a Los Angeles Times bestseller two weeks after its June 30 publication date.

"Hancock Park" tells the story of a 16-year-old student at a private school -- territory that's well mined in literature of all stripes, from middle readers like "Harry Potter" to adult titles such as Curtis Sittenfeld's "Prep" and Anita Shreve's "Testimony." Only, in "Hancock Park," the private school is in L.A. and for girls only, which puts a different spin on the narrator's story as she struggles with her parents' divorce, her own self-image and, of course, boys.

Being a novel, "Hancock Park" and its characters are fictional, but there are more than a few parallels with Kaplan's real life. The author grew up in Hancock Park, also has divorced parents and attended the prestigious Marlborough School -- an "independent, urban day school for young women grades 7-12" that delivers "a college preparatory curriculum in an environment imbued with high ethical values," according to its website.

In the book, the school isn't called Marlborough. It's Whitbred. And the main character is Becky Miller, a people-pleasing bottle blond who's been prescribed more medications than an average geriatric to deal with the ills of the well-to-do -- namely anxiety and depression.

"I think most teenagers, no matter where they grow up or live, probably have a feeling of, 'Do I fit in here?' What I tried to present in the novel is that feeling of making sense of the abnormal, and having the abnormal treated as normal," Kaplan said during a recent visit home.

In town to spend a week visiting friends and family, she was also taking Hollywood meetings about bringing "Hancock Park" to the screen.

Written during her senior year of high school, "Hancock Park" isn't Kaplan's first book. She wrote her first short story at 7 and her first full-length novel when she was 12 -- a book she tried to sell to Judith Regan, the one-time publishing industry powerhouse with whom Kaplan's mother is friends.

Although Regan passed on Kaplan's first book, she was instrumental in selling "Hancock Park" -- a departure for the woman best known for publishing celebrity autobiographies.

"She read it and said, 'This is great. Why don't we have coffee this week?' By the end of the week, I had a book deal and I'd only written 15 pages," said Kaplan, who has spent the past school year honing her writing skills with author and visiting Harvard professor Jamaica Kincaid, who has since moved on to teach at Claremont McKenna College.

"The most important thing I've learned is just to keep writing and to read a lot," said Kaplan, who is heeding Kincaid's advice.

Kaplan is at work on a second novel.

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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