By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome L. C. Rosen to the WNDB blog to discuss his YA novel Camp, out May 26, 2020!
Set in a summer camp, this sweet and sharp screwball comedy set in a summer camp for queer teens examines the nature of toxic masculinity and self-acceptance.
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, however, 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?
What inspired you to set a novel at a camp for queer teens? I absolutely love this idea.
Thank you! And thank you so much for interviewing me! I’m very excited to do this.
So, the original idea for Camp was to do a modern-day queer YA version of an old 60s Rock Hudson/Doris Day type “battle of the sexes” rom-com. I had a friend in high school who loved those movies, and we used to watch them at her house. When I write, I try to think about the various historical genres that we never got to see queer stories in because queer stories couldn’t be told at the time. And this particular slice of screwball is one of those genres. So that was the seed.
I’ve also always wanted to do a summer camp story. I went to, and later worked at, a Jewish summer camp in Connecticut for many, many years, and that place was always rife with stories. Camper drama, counselor drama, facilities malfunctioning drama—we had it all. So that was always in the back of my head, a setting waiting for a plot.
So when the seed of this “battle of the sexes” started sprouting, the first thing I realized was that if it’s queer, it’ll have to be different somehow, and I started thinking of it as a battle of “masc/femme”—identities that queer men can often get attached or, or at least joke about. And that in order to really unpack those identities and play with the ideas and problems within them (internalized homophobia, toxic masculinity, the feeling of having to be a particular way to “prove” your queerness) I realized it would have to be a big queer safe space of some kind. And then the camp setting leaped out of the back of my brain and said “MY TURN!”
I did have to check that these summer camps existed, but they do! I’ve had the honor of virtually visiting some of them and meeting the campers. They’re amazing spaces, often in need of help to stay afloat, so if you think they’re wonderful, they make great places to donate to!
Camp really delves into toxic masculinity in the LGBTQ+ community, and also the ways we sometimes change who we are for a romantic interest. Why did you want to explore these themes and for a YA audience?
So when I write queer books, I want them to be about queerness. I don’t want a book where if you switched out a boy for a girl, not much would change. I think those books are valuable and serve an important purpose, but I also think that if it were only books where queer characters were treated just like straight people in every regard, it would be a big disservice to queer teens, who are growing up knowing the world doesn’t treat them like their straight peers. And I just don’t feel a need to write those sorts of books—at least not now.
There are issues unique to queerness, from the obvious ones like homophobia and coming out to the more nuanced ways microaggressions, assumptions, and the ways the queer and straight communities intersect play a part in our lives, which persist after we’re out, often for our whole lives. And I think teens deserve books which show that and explore it, so as to prepare them for it and to help them figure out the kind of queer they are, and how to love all their fellow queers as well.
Like I said earlier, the masc/femme thing came naturally out of the original idea of a modern “battle of the sexes” vibe, but I wanted to show that there is no wrong way to be queer and that queerness is a huge spectrum. To really get into that, it means showing all these different ways to love your queer self, from sort of naturally butch Brad whose masculinity isn’t threatened by his boyfriend putting nail polish on him, even if it’s not really his thing, to gloriously femme George, who is big and hairy and is lusted after by Brad.
And then we have Randy, who gets to literally try on the butch identity, even if he’s never been butch himself. And he finds he likes parts of it, too —he becomes a leader, he figures out the obstacle course. What’s important is that every queer person—and hopefully every straight person—finds that they possess within them multitudes, and those multitudes have different gender expressions, too. The important thing is that you be the version of you that brings you the most joy and gives the most love. In many ways, Camp is more about Hudson’s journey, as he figures out that version of himself—at least, that’s the obvious one. But Randy becoming an assistant director is entirely the result of the leadership discovered in himself from playing butch. Next summer, Hudson will come back different. He’ll wear makeup, he’ll do makeup for the show while also doing the obstacle course. But Randy will come back different, too.
Getting to explore your identity, as a queer person, in a queer safe space, is something more queer teens aren’t afforded until college or later, because we’re often one of just a few queer teens—we become “the queer one” and we have to interact with that identity in some way—either by rebelling against it and trying to conform to heteronormativity, as Hudson does or by feeling it means we must exist completely outside of heteronormative gender ideas like George does. But who we really are, if we ignore straight people, and ignore the idea that our queerness is what determines our identity, is more complicated than that.
Straight kids get to figure that out so early because they’re not the queer kid (although I’d imagine other minorities have similar experiences with being the one Black kid or the one Asian kid, but I can’t speak to that). So I wanted to write a book that showed all that, that played with all of it, so that queer teens, especially ones feeling like they were relegated to being “the queer one” that they can try on as many identities as the straight kids do, too.
If you were going to a summer camp with the characters from the last TV show you watched, who would be coming with you? Do you think they’d fare well at Camp Outland, or would it have to be a very different type of camp?
Haha! What a question. Okay, so my husband and I have recently become obsessed with a British game show called Taskmaster, in which comedians have to do things for points. These things range from “do something surprising with this rubber duck, most surprising wins” to “get this boulder as far away from here as possible.” It’s very funny, and contestants have included Mel, previous host of Great British Bake Off and Noel, current host of Great British Bake Off (same season after she’d left but before he’d been announced as the new host, scandal!).
But I guess the most consistent folks are the host—Taskmaster Greg Davies, a very imposing man, and Alex Horne, who created the show but plays the part of Davies’ PA on it. As adults, I guess they’d be counselors, so they’d probably be okay. The kids probably wouldn’t listen to them though, which might annoy them, but they’d also make some AMAZING obstacle courses and activities. The show often has a summer camp activity vibe, in fact. It’s all on YouTube.
I’m in love with the photos of your cat on your Instagram. Tell us about her—what’s her name, how long have you had her, does she support your writing career, or does she step on your laptop like my cat does?
Oh, she’s going to be so thrilled you asked. Her name is Waterloo because her breed is a napoleon, and my husband and I think we’re funny. We call her Lulu for short, though. Right now, she is sitting in my lap purring and also yowling because my hands are typing, and not petting her. And to be clear, I do not mean “yowl” in the way people think of “meow.” She does not have a cute, sweet meow. She has what would definitely be described as a loud whine. When she’s been heard on zoom calls, people think I have an actual toddler being tortured just off-screen. She’s good for posing with photos of books, though. And she is pretty cute. I’ve been told she has a perpetual scowl, but I think she’s got much softer expressions, too. She has a cat sofa that’s on the table behind our real sofa and she sits on it while my husband and I sit on the regular sofa and we all watch TV together.
Have you had any memorable experiences at summer camp like your protagonist, Randy?
So the aforementioned Jewish summer camp I mentioned was actually the place I experienced the most homophobic bullying growing up. I remember one kid, before I was out, calling me gay all the time, counselors throwing around the word fag. Once on a trip of some sort, the one who called me gay constantly just shouting “Lev is gay” when we were all in our tents trying to sleep, and though by then I had an inkling, I shouted back “I’m not.” That memory haunts me because this is a bully who in that moment, won, and made me ashamed enough to lie about myself. I’d been so good at ignoring him before that, I don’t know why that moment when I was in a sleeping bag in a tent in the middle of nowhere, and it felt like there were walls between him and I. I don’t know why I felt so vulnerable in that moment, but I did.
Later, after I came out and was a counselor, my boss, who had been my counselor, actually took me aside and told me I wasn’t allowed to talk to the campers about my sexuality. She clearly was embarrassed to do it, and I didn’t make it easy for her, either, asking if other counselors were given this rule, and what exactly she thought I was going to tell the five-year-olds I was in charge of at the time. She said it was a concern that the Camp’s parent, a Jewish Community Center, had. Apparently, they were talking about me at the highest levels! Such an honor. And that summer, I think, was also the summer I wore a shirt with rainbows on it—like a button-down, around my waist or on top of my tee—every day of June for Pride. One kid asked me why I always wore it and before I could even open my mouth, my boss said “he loves rainbows.” I wasn’t allowed to mention Pride.
Maybe not what you meant by memorable. I have lots of great memories, too, though. My friend Kate and I taught all our fellow Counselors in Training the Time Warp and made them watch Rocky Horror (I’m just as confused about that being fine as you are) and I remember learning how to steer a canoe and realizing I wasn’t bad at it with a lot of pleasure. Mostly I was a “sit in the grass and read” guy though. And an A&C guy. We painted the inside of our cabin one year. I did an NYC skyline at sunset I was proud of. I wonder if that’s still there.
If you could create your dream panel for Camp, what would it be about? What other authors would you invite to be on it with you?
Oh man. How many am I allowed?
So, I feel like Camp is about a bunch of stuff: community, romance, and this old, honestly very old conversation that the queer community has been having forever: assimilation with straight society or have our own queer society? I talk about it a little with the history lessons in the book, but this discourse goes back so far.
So I think, first of all, I’d want a queer historian on the panel. Hugh Ryan, author of When Brooklyn Was Queer is who comes to mind first. We marched together at Pride a few years back, and he’s so smart and funny and just on the nose about queer history and the way it influences current queer stuff. After that, honestly, can we raise Rock Hudson from the dead for this? Famously closeted gay movie star who made this genre what it was? I would love that. Hudson is named for him (and Randy’s last name, Kapplehoff, is what Doris Day’s real last name was). I think that would be special—beyond the usual ways necromancy is special, I mean. Vito Russo, the queer film historian who wrote The Celluloid Closet, would also be on my “bring em back for this panel” list, so we had some context for Hudson and the inherent queerness in those old screwballs. Jenni Olson, a film historian who we wouldn’t need necromancy for, I think would also offer a valuable modern perspective.
Then, of course, I’d want some YA authors. I think Dahlia Adler, author of Cool For the Summer, and queen of queer books, should be on literally every queer books panel. The scope of her knowledge is breathtaking, and her insights into the ways queer literature has changed and continues to change are always ahead of the curve. She also runs LGBTQReads, which is an astounding amount of work she does for the entire queer community. And then I’d want to bring along Julian Winters, king of queer YA romance, author of The Summer of Everything. I was emulating Julian when I wrote Camp. I wanted to capture the same feeling of joy that he has in all of his books, the way he makes these kids and these groups come together. Running with Lions was the book, I think, that gave me the push, I think, to write Camp. If it hadn’t existed, I might have written Camp off as a bad idea. And finally, though it might seem an odd choice, Adam Sass, author of Surrender Your Sons, which is also about a queer camp! Of a very different kind. Adam always describes my book as a satyr play of his book—they deal with similar themes, even similar settings (kind of), and similar groups of characters. But his is a book of facing horror, and mine is one of ridiculous love. His takes place at a queer conversion camp if you’re not aware, but somehow the two books really reflect each other and the queer community in interesting ways.
If the characters in Camp showed up on your doorstep, who would you be fast friends with? Who would annoy you the most?
Montgomery would annoy the f**k out of me.
Don’t get me wrong, I love him, but I specifically wrote Montgomery as someone who completely annoys me because I knew he was going to get the part George wanted, and I wanted to go in hating him a little. As for who I’d be fast friends with, I think all the counselors would be fun, in their way. Especially the camp director Joan. Poor exhausted Joan, always trying to protect these kids. I feel she and I could go sit somewhere and vent and then watch something funny on TV. And Jordan, with their love of musical theater and old movie references, while also at times seemingly like a trained assassin? That’s what I aspire to be. So, I hope we’d get along, too.
What other books do you see Camp as being in conversation with? Do you have any recommendations for published or forthcoming books?
Well, as I said for that brilliant panel question, Adam Sass, Julian Winters, and Dahlia Adler are all strong recommendations. I also love books by Alex London, Adib Khorram, Caleb Roerhig, Phil Stamper, Tom Ryan, and Cale Dietrich. In middle grade, Kyle Lukoff just had this beautiful ghost story come out called Too Bright to See that I loved, and on the same ghost story front, I’m very excited for Ryan Douglass’s YA The Taking of Jake Livingston. In adult, Genevieve Valentine’s Icon/Persona duology is brilliant, and I loved Bath Haus by PJ Vernon.
But if you’re looking for books to really be in conversation with Camp, the easy answers are Adam Sass’s Surrender Your Sons and Julian Winters’s Running With Lions. If you’re the sort who writes (or assigns others to write) essays on queer YA, those three make a fascinating triptych.
What’s one question you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
“Can anyone here at Louis Vuitton design you some custom clothes for the season, Mr. Rosen?”
To which the reply, of course, is, “That would be lovely, thank you so much.”
L. C. Rosen, also known as Lev Rosen, has written several books for adults and children, including the young adult novel Jack of Hearts (and other parts). His books have been featured on numerous Best of the Year lists and nominated for several awards. He lives in New York City with his husband and a very small cat.