After I read Camp, I knew I wanted to interview L. C. Rosen. You know those books you’re obsessed with from page one? That was me and Camp. It pulled me out of a reading black hole. Keep reading this interview from Rosen on all things Camp related!
Sixteen-year-old Randy Kapplehoff loves spending the summer at Camp Outland, a camp for queer teens. It’s where he met his best friends. It’s where he takes to the stage in the big musical. And it’s where he fell for Hudson Aaronson-Lim – who’s only into straight-acting guys and barely knows not-at-all-straight-acting Randy even exists.
This year, though, it’s going to be different. Randy has reinvented himself as ‘Del’ – buff, masculine, and on the market. Even if it means giving up show tunes, nail polish, and his unicorn bedsheets, he’s determined to get Hudson to fall for him.
But as he and Hudson grow closer, Randy has to ask himself how much is he willing to change for love. And is it really love anyway, if Hudson doesn’t know who he truly is?
I’ve never been to summer camp, but there was something almost mythical about it for me, especially hearing about it from my friends. Like people would come back from it and either have the most amazing stories, or come back completely changed. Can you talk about your experience with summer camp? Did you grow up going to camp?
So yeah, I went to a Jewish summer camp in Connecticut. Being from New York City and also a *very* reform Jew (the camp was conservative, so more religious, if you’re unfamiliar with the terms) it was an odd experience. It’s the only place I kept kosher (the whole camp did), and where my friends were all suburban folks, with… usually more suburban values. But I made a lot of close friends, too! The really off stuff was the sports, and how they kept trying to get me to participate in the sports? One of my counselors always likes to tell the story of how I had a book with me and would immediately go to the side of the field to read instead of participating and as we walked from activity to activity I would still be reading, marching along. So I may have been the odd one out. Coming out there was also not great. Conservative Judaism has gotten better about queerness, but then it was not great. When I was a counselor-in-training, my counselor pulled me aside to make sure I wouldn’t tell any of the six year old campers I was working with I was queer. Sometimes the older male counselors would physically avoid me. Once I touched one on the shoulder and he pulled away in revulsion. And before I was out, there was another camper who used to call me gay (not politely) and fag and the counselors never stopped it. But I also remember finding my friend who loved The Rocky Horror Picture Show as much as I did and both of us Time Warping and stuff. I remember camping trips and good people. So it’s a mix of things. But it was definitely another side of myself – the friends I had at Camp and the friends I had at school were different and seldom met.
An all queer camp is a safespace and escape for the teens in this book, how was it to write an all queer cast, but also to celebrate the possibilities of camp, knowing that the end of summer camp is always looming?
Yeah, I wanted to create this amazing queer enclave and safe space, but one where you were always aware of the borders, of the straight world outside that you’d have to go back into, so it becomes this special place and time where you get to just not worry and be yourself for a while. Randy says it when he gets off the bus. It’s freedom. But I wanted to talk about how even in that unique queer community, the safe space, the heterocentric patriarchal world can creep in. We’re all effected by the straight world – even when we’re outside it, we can’t escape what it’s done to us, as queer people. So I wanted to explore how some of us become extensions of it, even within a queer safe space.
Part of what I loved about Randy’s story is how endearing, but also relatable his quest for love felt – the ways in which we can try to change pieces of ourselves – what spoke to you about Randy’s narrative or story? How were you first introduced to Randy? Was it a seed of an idea, a memory, a backstory?
So the original idea was a desire to do a 1960s screwball sex comedy, of the kind with Rock Hudson and Doris Day. I love those old rom-coms where someone is pretending to be someone else to win something but then they find maybe they’re really in love or they really are what they were pretending to be. I love rom-coms with disguises. So I wanted to do that, but make it a contemporary queer YA, and since those rom-coms are about the “battle of the sexes” I decided to make it more of a “battle of the gender presentations” or however you’d like the phrase it – but to do that in a way that worked I needed a queer space. I’d been thinking about a summer camp novel for a while, so when I got to this point in what I wanted to do, this felt like the right novel to make the summer camp novel. Then it all clicked. Randy, I knew, had to be a big go-getter. He had to be a teenager with a terrible terrible plan (as most teenage plans involving love are) but one he believed in, and one that would be fun. So from there I got to actor, theater kid, and he just sort of fell into place.
Did any of the side characters go through some intense changes from the draft to the final copy?
No, actually. Most of them were pretty solid from day one. Some became more major than I had originally expected. Montgomery and Jordan ended up being more than I thought they would (Montgomery especially was just originally a very minor character). Oh, and Paz! I didn’t expect her to be so big, either. A lot of these characters I originally created to play roles in the show – in Bye Bye Birdie – and the very queered up production of that, and once I had them there, they just sort of grew! But that’s how they started – as queer Bye Bye Birdie players.
In Camp, you’re able to balance an uplifting sense of joy and celebration with some very emotional situations for some of the characters, what was it like to write both pieces of this emotional roller coaster?
Well first, thank you! I think most books are emotional roller coasters in some way. Can’t have happy without sad, too. But I also think that while there’s a place for ‘homophobia free’ stories, and they’re super valuable, I think we need also make sure some stories for queer kids are happy, but also about surviving the straight world and learning to live in it as a queer person. Coming out isn’t the end of a story, it’s always the beginning, and those post-coming out, but still dealing with homophobia – especially from people who love us and just don’t get it – are so important.
Did you always know it was going to be called Camp?
No. Originally it was called ‘Masc4Masc’ or ‘Mask4Masc’ but the publisher changed it. They originally wanted it to be ‘Camp Outland’ but I got them to scale it back to ‘Camp’ because it’s about summer camp, but also camp behavior – camp masculinity especially.
Another thing you do well in Camp is feature some really complex adult characters in the book, did you always know you were going to have these specific characters?
Thank you! So I knew that of course there had to be adults here, too. Can’t just be teens running around screwing in the woods. And I immediately decided it would only be queer adults, too. Mentor figures in the community. Mark, the theater counselor, I knew right away was going to play the role of the Tony Randall characters in those 60s comedies. He was always a sort of nervous sidekick to the lead, telling him “this is a bad idea” and then getting deeply stressed about Rock Hudson doing the bad idea anyway, and so he’d run off to this therapist. Hudson always played this idea of hyper masculine, and Randall was supposed to be this nervous failure at being masculine. But I wanted Mark to be that figure who really cares about Randy and hates his plan and needs to talk to his therapist about it, but also the actual voice of experience. This is an adult who’s been through this stuff. This is Randy’s dad within the context of his queer family. And just like with his real dad, the teenager isn’t going to listen. So I had a lot of fun writing him.
Connie, on the flip side, I knew was going to be sort of the ruler of the “masc” domain within the camp. Mark presides over the theater, gets in drag, and represents a lot of where Randy comes from – then on the flip side is Connie. Quiet, authoritative, and extremely familiar with the idea of being herself – she’s a trans woman who rules over this “traditionally masculine” domain of sports and wilderness and is respected for it – but also she’s very familiar with the idea of having to hide yourself to be safe, because she grew up in that world of professional sports. Her ‘out and proud’ is just as valid and important as Mark’s, but it occupies a different space for a lot of reasons. And I wanted her to sort of represent Hudson’s world, which Randy is entering. And to show that while these loud white anxious drag queen gays are here and loud, and fun, yes, there are other ways to be queer. It’s a big queer world. And I like also that Mark and Connie have a moment where it’s clear they really love and respect each other, too.
If you had to have a different cover, do you have ideas on what it might have looked like?
So originally, when the title was going to be Masc4Masc, the cover I wanted was Randy and Hudson leaning against a tree, making out, Randy with his fingers crossed behind his back, and carved on the tree was going to be Masc 4 Masc in a heart, but one of the ‘masc’s was going to be in big flowery font. That was my original idea. But with the title change I suggested a patch, like boy scouts, which feels very summer camp to me, but glittery. They one-upped the glitter to sequins, which I loved. Originally, it wasn’t quite as gay, but I talked them into making it a big gay cover, which I’m thrilled about. But if I could change the title, I might want to go back to that carved tree cover.
About the Author
Lev Rosen is the author of books for all ages. Two for adults: All Men of Genius (Amazon Best of the Month, Audie Award Finalist) and Depth (Amazon Best of the Year, Shamus Award Finalist, Kirkus Best Science Fiction for April). Two middle-grade books: Woundabout (illustrated by his brother, Ellis Rosen), and The Memory Wall. His first Young Adult Novel, Jack of Hearts (and other parts) was an American Library Association Rainbow List Top 10 of 2018. His books have been sold around the world and translated into different languages as well as being featured on many best of the year lists, and nominated for awards.
Lev is originally from lower Manhattan and now lives in even lower Manhattan, right at the edge, with his husband and very small cat. You can find him online at LevACRosen.com and @LevACRosen