Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp

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Interview and thoughts by Joseph Riippi

So I did a little research on real-life fun camps.

The Parks and Recreation in Webster, New York, offers a couple fun camps in the summertime, one for second and third graders, another for fourth and fifth graders. Camps are offered for older kids, too, but those are no longer deemed “fun.” For the youngsters, activities include day trips to amusement parks, swimming at a pool, miniature golf, and something called “cooperative challenges.” But apparently camp stops being “fun” stops around age twelve. Camps for older kids are just called camp. Maybe it has something to do with puberty.

In Louisiana, the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries offers FUN camp, where FUN means Families Understanding Nature. Here, the camp-goers stay in “barracks” and have to be between 10 and 13 years old (except the parents, of course). The first two activities listed in “families understanding nature” are “Rifle Shooting” and “Shotgun Shooting.” Then archery, canoeing, fishing, compass reading, and other such outdoors stuff.

As someone who never went to a camp, but rather spent my summer vacation mornings working on a farm, my afternoons reading in a tree fort, Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp is much more my style. The book plays out like a scrapbook from a week at a summer camp. There are letters home, speeches of inspiration from counselors, lists of rules, descriptions of skits, and other such flashes of insight and experience that make up a week of adolescence.

Like adolescence, too, the pieces in Fun Camp run a superlative range. Durham gives us moments of mind-blowing insight…

DEAR MOM

It’s dawning on me, the disadvantage I’m at not having been raised in a bilingual household.

Billy

…and moments of devastating heartbreak:

 SUGGESTION

Maybe some rule where everybody has to be nice and talk to you and not move away when you sit by them since it is hard and I am trying.

Here’s my favorite bit, from toward the end of the book, a hyperbolic commitment to friendship from a section titled “Best Friends Should Be Together”:

Lifespans being what they are, we’ll be there for each other when our men have passed, and all the friends who come to visit our assisted living condo will be dazzled by what fun we still have together. We’ll be the kind of besties who make outsiders wonder if they’ve ever known true friendship, but we won’t even notice how sad it makes them and they won’t bring it up because you and I will be so caught up in the fun, us marveling at how not-good it never was.

The real life “fun camps” described above sound more or less like typical summer camps, their differences explained away by different regions. But it’s in the surprises that the fun lies, isn’t it? The unexpected friendships and experiences that a camp brings. It’s the same for books. They’re more or less anticipatory on the shelf, but a couple days in, well, who knows. And that’s what Fun Camp does best—it’s like a dark blue water balloon coming at you at nighttime.

Gabe and his publisher Adam Robinson (Publishing Genius) were kind enough to answer some questions about the book.

Questions for Gabe:

There are a number of voices in Fun Camp—counselors, Billy writing to his mother, the lists of rules, etc—did the book begin with a single voice and break apart in multiples, or was the concept formed when you began?

Man, this book began with next to nothing. Noodling with little paragraphs. In the shower I had an idea for a particular kind of voice: an opinionated dude holding forth in a regional dialect that doesn’t exist. (In the book, these pieces appear as “Grogg Corners a Camper.”)

In the same doc, I wrote a bunch more little speeches, all of them about opinionated people holding forth, but in different voices. And set in different places, wherever I wanted. But then a couple of them were set in a summer camp: Early versions of what became “No Moms for Miles” and “Quick Announcement Before Lunch.” And then I stumbled upon a title for the project: Fun Camp.

I liked the title so much that it infected everything. It was still a few more months, though, before I ceded that the whole thing took place in a literal summer camp. All my readers knew this should happen before I did. “You’re writing two different books,” Peter Gizzi told me, but I didn’t want to listen because it meant I’d have to throw out a lot of great stuff.

But when I finally committed to this very concrete place, the writing immediately took off and I had a draft within the year.

How much of this fun camp is based on any actual camps you’ve been to? Were you ever a counselor? Camper?

Yeah, I was both a camper and counselor. As a teen in California, I was a camper at Teen Camp and then a counselor at a kids’ camp called King’s Camp. All were weeklong Christian camps.

And my camper/counselor experiences were super-generative when writing the book, especially once I had an inkling about what (the fictional camp called) Fun Camp was like.

It often didn’t take much more than a kernel of an idea to get me going. I would think of a concept I experienced to be true at camp, like, “No matter what, the older kids will bitch about how camp is not as good this year as it was before,” and then generate a ton of material. So it was rooted in something real, but the text itself was heightened and Fun Camp-like.

Other times, the spark came from books I found at the library: tips for making your own puppets. Facts about bees. How British pamphleteers used to get around the censors. One book that was hugely inspirational was all about how to deal with troubled teens in a group home setting. And then I’d figure out how a sticky concept from these books might play themselves out at Fun Camp. None of this would have worked if I wasn’t writing a ton and throwing bits out at every turn.

I began to think of Fun Camp like a funnel: I’d take the raw material of my memories, concepts from books, or chants from ultimatecampresource.com, pour it through the funnel and see what came out. Often, the results surprised me.

Here’s a long question, but I think an important one. On my first read, I thought of “fun camp” as an allegory for social networking. What struck me, especially in the first sections, was this phenomenon that occurs at camp (and, I think, in a lot of life) in which a person must create a kind of avatar of him or herself. There’s a piece toward the front called “Summer After Summer of Love” in which the voice is trying to reconcile the “this summer” self with a “past summer” self. There’s a key difference between a self at camp and a self in real lifea vacation, reallywhich made me think of the escape to “fun camp” in general as an escape onto the Internet. On Facebook and Twitter, people can choose to project an “ideal” of themselves, just like they can at camp. For instance, in telling how to perform publicly in a nightly skit, you write: “Act well, using method techniques like drawing from memories of some of the more intense emotional experiences you had in the last hour. Try to be complex and cathartic and redemptive.” Then there are notes of encouragement and compliments that campers publicly share with another along a clothesline—the “warm fuzzies” you call them—which are so much like posting on another’s Facebook wall or Tweeting “at” someone. Do you see the fun camp you created as a reflection of life as it is, how it should be, or how it shouldn’t?

I think you articulated well three very distinct assumptions a person could make reading this book: Durham’s attempting realism, Durham’s counselors are mouthpieces for what he thinks, or Durham’s being ironic (and basically believes the opposite of whatever the counselors say).

But as I worked on the book, the pieces felt like they were most heating up when I both agreed and disagreed with the speaker. The requisite ambiguity of literary fiction can be exhausting or boring for how it keeps writers reticent of making the big proclamations. Here’s one way to have/eat your cake: Make your characters boldly proclaim stuff you’re ambivalent about. Maybe that’s obvious but for me it was a revelation.

I’m really intrigued by your Facebook reading. Joe Sacksteader wrote a cool thing about Fun Camp for Tarpaulin Sky about how the counselors’ advice can double as writing advice to college students. He wasn’t framing it as an allegory but rather as a teaching opportunity—and in that context, the counselors are the good guys, revealing wisdom Sacksteader called “both asshole-ish and true.” And then in yours, I guess the counselors would be the Man: pushing users to like more, share more, rant more, and just have fun out there (so long as you stay on Facebook). It’s true that a lot of the pieces in the book (“The Creative Use of Mealtime”) are basically concerned with creative ways an authority figure might try to norm away a kid’s individuality.

The book went through several stages of near-publication, first as a runner-up for the &Now contest, then with Mud Luscious Press, and now with Publishing Genius. How’s it feel to know it’s finally here?

I’m happy and relieved.

It’s been over two years since I signed a contract with Mud Luscious. I can’t claim I was patient throughout the whole thing, but the benefit is that I was able to write a bunch more pieces for the book in the 6 months after it was accepted, did several edits after that based on friends’ notes and my own read-throughs, and then worked with J.A. Tyler on the book and revised based on his notes.

So I’ve had a lot of time to sit with every piece in this book, and it’s truly as good as I can think to make it. It’s also helped me to own the book on a level I can’t own some of the stuff I wrote before Fun Camp.

Then the MLP shutdown happened, which was a bummer for everybody. What a cool press. But I was lucky to get the offer from Publishing Genius within two days, which wasn’t such a long time to have to stew. Even before the offer came in from Adam, people (Mike Young and Brian Carr especially) immediately jumped in to help me figure out a solution.

The final urgent thing was a couple weeks ago when Adam and I had a frantic back-and-forth about the book’s cover. He did an amazing job. I love how it turned out.

Some of my favorite bits of the books are Billy’s letter home. There’s one in particular that reads simply, “What have you done?” What do you think Billy’s mother would write in response, if anything?

Ha, well, technically by the time Billy is writing “What have you done?,” Mom is either going to get the letter right before she comes to pick him up or after he has already returned home. So they are bound to have some interesting conversations in the days immediately following Billy’s week at Fun Camp.

Parents have no clue what is happening to their kids at camp. You just release your child to strangers and hope for the best. Meanwhile, camp is just ideal for indoctrination: it’s enclosed and exhausting and intensely social, and run by adults who for some reason signed up for it. And yet it’s too awesome a time (and too sanctioned a cultural space) not to let your kid do it. If you don’t, you’re a Parent Who Doesn’t Let Their Kids Go to Camp.

Those Billy letters really snuck up on me. I wrote them as another little experiment, and barely changed them (except for the last one, which was trickiest), but when I began to parse them throughout the manuscript, I saw that these little nuggets were doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of the arc of the book.

What’s next for you? Any book tour plans or news you want to share?

Yes! First thing I’ll mention is that for the last year and a half I’ve been working on a big nonfiction manuscript called Meanwhile, all about being a citizen of the United States and the world at this stage of the information age. It’s really plainspoken and smooth on the sentence level (not as performative as Fun Camp), but organizationally it’s the craziest and most ambitious thing I’ve ever done. I read a little piece of it on the Gorsky Press podcast, and the first essay/excerpt is coming out this week in The Weeklings. Curious editors are encouraged to him me up.

Next month, I am going to fly to Massachusetts and then drive down the coast with the poet Jack Christian (Family System), reading and snacking and selling books. There is even talk of getting one of those iPhone credit card swipers. We crazy.

In my head I am calling this the FAMILY CAMP TOUR but I have not cleared that with Jack. If you live near these places, please come say hi!

Sat 6/8, Brooklyn, NY: Mellow Pages – 7:00  – Gabe Durham, Jack Christian, Chris Cheney, Jonathan Callahan

Sun 6/9, Brooklyn, NY: Unnameable Books – 7:00 – Gabe Durham, Jack Christian, Bianca, Ben, and hosted by Greg Gerke

Mon 6/10, Boston, MA: Ipsum Books – Boston – 7:00 Gabe Durham, Jack Christian, Matt Salesses

Tue 6/11, Hadley, MA: Flying Object – 7:00 – Gabe Durham & Friends, Mike Young

Wed 6/12, Baltimore, MD – FUN CAMP Release Party & Reading. Gabe Durham, Jack Christian, Megan Kaminski. Hosted by Adam Robinson

Thur 6/13, Philadelphia, PA – Time TBA – Zach Savich and Hilary Plum’s Home – Gabe Durham, Jack Christian

Fri 6/14, Richmond, VA – Time TBA – Gabe Durham, Jack Christian, Allison Titus

Sun 6/16, Washington DC – Time TBA – Gabe Durham, Jack Christian, Donora Hillard, Scott McClanahan. Hosted by Mark Cugini

And then on 7/6 in Oakland, CA I’m reading at the Beast Crawl for Corium.

Questions for Adam:

Mud Luscious Press was originally going to publish Fun Camp, but then sadly shutdown last month. Publishing Genius took over the book release almost immediately. Had you been familiar with Gabe’s work before taking on Fun Camp?

Yes, in fact I was working with Gabe on a novella we were going to put out as an eBook for PGP’s “eBook Flights” series. It’s a cool story called Locked Away, about a parallel universe (I think), in which cellars are only recently invented and everyone gets kidnapped. That book is still going to come out, but we’re putting it on the backburner. I’d been reading his work everywhere over the last few years, and we met a couple times, like at the Juniper Festival thing in Amherst. He played guitar in Mike Young’s band the Cinnamon Urns, so I knew he was cool.

What did you see in Fun Camp that made you decide so quickly to publish it?

It was a no-brainer. It was so obvious. I think I was taken in most immediately by Gabe’s ecstatic language play. But also I grew up going to summer camp for several weeks a year, working at them and even being a counselor, so the book resonated on that level too. I feel grateful to J.A. Tyler from Mud Luscious for making the transition really easy. I feel like I’m getting a great deal. I am excited to publish this book.

If you could write a warm fuzzy for Gabe about the book, what would it be?

Ah, the warm fuzzies is a favorite part in a book full of favorite parts. I wonder if he made that concept up, or if that was part of a camp he went to? Anyway, I would be like, “Dear Gabe, Just wanted to send you a warm fuzzy for coming up with Grogg, such an amazing character, and for writing the ‘Grogg Corners a Camper’ pieces, which are some of the most exciting hunks of literature I’ve read since I read The Dog of the South, which, okay, doesn’t really bear the comparison except about how I got all amped up for the prose. I’m just saying ‘I love Fun Camp, Yes I Do.’ Your friend, Adam.”

***

Joseph Riippi’s books include A Cloth House (Housefire Books, 2012), The Orange Suitcase (Ampersand Books, 2011), and Do Something! Do Something! Do Something! (Ampersand Books, 2009). His next, Research (A Novel for Performance), is forthcoming in 2014 from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

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