Alexandra Robbins is Proof: The Geeks Really Shall Inherit the Earth
May 26, 2011 by Liz.Funk
When Alexandra Robbins was a 23-year-old recent Yale grad, she balanced freelance writing for USA Today’s sports section with working on the manuscript for a book called Quarterlife Crisis. The book was a smash success, landing Alexandra Robbins on the bestseller list, on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and on Americans’ reading lists.
Today, Robbins has penned five more books, three of which have been bestsellers: Pledged (about sorority life), The Overachievers (about excessively driven high school students), and The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, her newest book, published recently by Hyperion.
The Geeks reveals how the very traits that make high school students unpopular, socially excluded, or “fringe” (floating between social circles without being wedded to a particular clique) make them admired, respected, and successful later, once outside the social confines of high school halls. Robbins coins the term “quirk theory” to describe this deeply reassuring phenomenon. The Geeks is 436 pages, chock-full of research and statistics and studies. But it’s also a thoroughly inspiring, uplifting page-turner. Robbins spoke with inReads about investigative journalism, being featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and publishing her fourth bestselling book.
inReads: I noticed in an interview on Rachel Simmons’ blog that you said you weren’t popular in high school, and today, you’re one of, if not the most, widely read journalists under age 35. Your life proves your theory. So what was high school like for you?
Alexandra Robbins: I prove quirk theory in a few ways. I was a floater in high school, in that I could sit at most tables in the cafeteria but would never feel completely part of the group, which made for a lot of lonely weekend nights because every group assumed I was out with another group. And I was also a dork and I’m still a dork! But quirk theory works because I learned how to relate to so many different people in high school.
inReads: The Geeks follows a structure that you pioneered with Pledged and then The Overachievers. You spend a great deal of time following young people who illustrate the phenomenon at hand, and they give you a ton of access to their lives. Is there an audition process to find really interesting, candid young people to shadow?
AR: I interview hundreds and hundreds of students for my research. The ones who jump out at me as being particularly fascinating and likeable make the cut as main “characters.” But it’s not really an audition.
inReads: You obviously get close with your sources, and I noticed in this book is that you write about these kids with a tenderness that’s a little different from your previous books. Was there any hesitation on your part in reporting on their lives with such a level of candor?
AR: The students know there’s no-holds-barred. They know that anything they tell me is fodder for the book. But I always show them their stories before I go to print. With The Geeks, no one had any quibbles. Also, about three-quarters of the characters in The Geeks had read The Overachievers and had contacted me initially.
inReads: There’s a great line in the book where you say that “nonconformists aren’t just going against the grain, they’re going against the brain.” You describe studies using MRIs of peoples’ brains to show that when we discover an opinion of ours strays from the opinions of a group, our brain emits error signals that mimic the signals for “financial loss or social exclusion.” What made you decide to draw upon science to help round out your argument?
AR: The point of the book was to be able to reassure kids and parents and even young adults that not being in the popular crowd in school is actually a good thing. So, if I’m going to make a claim like that and prove quirk theory and explain why it gets better, I’d better be prepared to have actual data. I wanted to look into the science of popularity. At first, I didn’t even know there was a science of popularity, and when I delved into it, I thought it was riveting. First, it’s validating for my argument and second, it’s really interesting. It’s definitely something I wish I had known about when I was younger.
inReads: Something I admire about all of your books is that there are painstakingly detailed endnotes where you cite every article, book, and study that you’ve quoted. How long does it take you to do those?
AR: It takes me forever to do the endnotes. It’s the most annoying, tedious part of writing my books, but I believe it’s absolutely necessary to give credit where credit is due and to map out the research that I did.
inReads: Something that you noted in the book is that you gravitated towards the kids who weren’t popular and personally, as I was reading the book, the character Danielle (“the Loner”) seemed like someone who I would probably be friends with, even if she was a little closed off.
AR: Middle school and high school environments are rigidly conformist. Fellow students push each other into this idea of one narrowing, tiny image of “acceptable.” And if you don’t fit into the box, you’re automatically branded an outsider. Part of it is the age of the student population. Their psychological development demands that they try to construct strict boundaries. And part of it is the trend in schools to wipe out creativity in favor of standardized tests.
Just because you’re excluded in high school doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with you. I think it’s the other way around. I think the popular kids are in more dire straights. It’s the popular students who are more likely to engage in risky behavior, who are less likely to do well in school, and who are more likely to be involved in acts of relational aggression, because that’s what kids in the popular crowd do: they jockey for status.
inReads: Going back a few years, I was wondering what it was like when you were two years out of college and Quarterlife Crisis was published, which appeared to have really catapulted you to literary stardom overnight.
AR: I think they were only going to print 7,000 copies of Quarterlife Crisis, and suddenly I was on Oprah. It was unexpected, because I never anticipated going into books; I always anticipated that I’d be a starving reporter at a daily newspaper, but The Washington Post didn’t hire me. I was freelancing; I was doing mostly sports freelancing for USA Today and then I segued into magazine writing. But I couldn’t say everything I wanted to say in a 4,000-word article. I wasn’t expecting to follow this path, but it’s been a lot of fun.
About The Author:
Liz Funk is an upstate New York-based freelance writer, author, and frequent college lecturer. She has written for USA Today, Newsday, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and AOL.com. Her first book, Supergirls Speak Out: Inside the Secret Crisis of Overachieving Girls, was published by Simon and Schuster in March 2009. She is at work on her next book, about recent college grads in the recession (working title: Coming of Age in a Crap Economy). She collects autographed books and antique chairs and she adores her legitimately neurotic-but-adorable sable collie. Her website is LizFunk.com.