Cecily von Ziegesar taps Colby memories for new novel set at "Dexter College"


By Emily Fleming '12

Cecily von Ziegesar ’92, author of Cum Laude, is also the creator of the best-selling Gossip Girl series, about a group of elite high-schoolers living, playing, and occasionally studying on the Upper East Side of New York. Gossip Girl was so popular with teenage readers that the CW Television Network started a series based on the books in 2007. The TV series, the third season of which ended in May, is a prime-time soap opera, and in my freshman year of college my friends and I would all get together to see what sorts of drama, sex, drugs, and trouble our favorite fictional Upper East Siders got into each week.

With so much success writing about frivolous high schoolers, why did von Ziegesar make the fictional transition from high school to college?

College was the logical next step, von Ziegesar said in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn, since the original readers of Gossip Girl are now in college or recently graduated. She wanted to give her original audience something they can relate to more closely at this stage of their lives, so Cum Laude is less plot driven, darker, and a little more thoughtful, von Ziegesar said.

“I was ready to move on to a more mature subject,” she said. “At first I thought that I would write about being a mom, but then I felt like that was too much of a jump and I wasn’t really ready for that. So I just made a small jump—to college.”

She set Cum Laude in 1992, the year she graduated from college and the period she knows best. Von Ziegesar said she feels comfortable writing about teens and young twenty-somethings because she sometimes feels like she is 22. But she hesitated to write about current college students because she didn’t want to appear out of touch.

Von Ziegesar may have tried to recreate college life from nearly 20 years ago, but I can attest that life at a particular college in Maine now isn’t all that different from Shipley’s experience at Dexter. The same type of kids still go to school here—preppy boarding school kids, crunchy granola types, edgy artists, and the small part of the population not so easily categorized.

That said, von Ziegesar is quick to note that Dexter is not Colby, but it is “a fictionalized Colby.” She did draw on her experiences on Mayflower Hill for inspiration. “I didn’t feel like I could write a book set at say NYU or Princeton, because I didn’t go to NYU or Princeton…,” she said. “I feel like I can only use my experience, and Colby was my experience.”

She recalled a particular instance on COOT where she stole the trip van and started doing 360-degree turns (just like Shipley), much to the chagrin of her COOT leader. Von Ziegesar may be adamant that Dexter College is not Colby, but Cum Laude it is a lot less fictionalized than she thinks.
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