Experience the Summer ‘Camp’ You Dreamed of as a Queer Kid in L.C. Rosen’s Amazing New Novel

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In his 2018 Young Adult debut novel, Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), writer L.C. Rosen wrote what the Gay Times said “might be the most important queer novel of the decade.”

Next month, Rosen’s hotly-anticipated YA follow-up, Camp debuts. Self described as “a laugh-out-loud summer rom-com perfect for fans of What If It’s Us and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”

It’s also a deftly written, and lovingly nuanced comedy that  sublimely critiques the culture of toxic masculinity within the queer world, and definitely the young queer world.

NewNowNext already calls the book “gloriously gay” and “highly anticipated.”

The setting, fictional Camp Outland in Maine, is a wonderland and refuge for the queer kids who attend it, but as the summer ends, its members wrestle with their freedom to be themselves ending and crashing into the realities of the real world, where not all of them can be who they really are, which would be angsty enough on its own, but Rosen daringly suggests: who really knows who they are at that age anyway?

Camp‘s protagonist, 16 year-old Randy Kapplehoff looks forward to camp every year where the gender non-conforming queer teen can see his best friends and where he shines every year in their annual end of camp musical. It’s also where he met the love of his life Hudson Aaronson-Lim–the straight- acting guy into other straight acting guys who barely knows Randy exists–until Hudson meets Del [from Randall], Randy’s new super butch masculine persona he’s crafted, after working out and practicing all year, to present himself as for the first time at this year’s camp.

Hudson falls for Del, but will he love him even after he finds out that Del is really the effeminate Randy?

#GayNrd spoke to its writer L.C. (aka Lev) Rosen about both books— Hearts which will hit shelves in a new paperback edition on May 26, 2020 alongside Camp  just in time for Pride Month and perfect reading for the time of social distancing.

Both books are super sex positive, why do you think that is so important? Sex is part of growing up for most people.  It represents taking control of and responsibility for your own body and your own pleasure.  And it’s been part of the teen narrative since forever.  With Camp, I was playing into that trope — it’s a romantic comedy and so a sex scene seemed like something I should put in there.  There are plenty of detailed sex scenes in straight YA, so I didn’t think it was a big deal to show a healthy, funny, not super erotic sex scene between two men.  In Jack of Hearts (and other parts), its all about sex, of course.  About taking ownership of wanting sex without strings about not being shamed for wanting that.  I think young people in general feel a lot of pressure to conform to certain behaviors when it comes to sex, but what those behaviors are vary with gender and sexuality, so I wanted to write one about what young gay men feel pressured to be like – don’t be slutty or femme, then you’re a stereotype and don’t deserve to be treated as a human — that’s what straight culture tells us.  Be a sweet monogamous and/or chaste guy who gives fashion advice, but doesn’t wear makeup.  We’re told that even in the most liberal environments.  So I wanted to talk about that and say ‘yes, be slutty if you want to be.’

I think sex positivity is so important because if we don’t teach kids — especially queer kids —about sex, they’re getting it, at best, from lackluster sex-ed classes (which seldom cover queer sex) and more likely they’re getting it from porn.  They’re getting expectations about sex from porn! Can you imagine going into your first time having sex and thinking it’s going to be a porn movie?  There was an amazing article about this, and people teaching teen porn literacy, in the New York Times Magazine last year or the year before, and one quote that stays with me is they were talking to a teenage boy who hadn’t had sex and they asked him if when having sex with a woman, he’d try to have anal sex with her without talking to her about it beforehand, and he said yes, because all the women in porn do it and seem to enjoy it.  Porn doesn’t show lube, cleaning up, seldom shows condoms or putting them on.  All the messy parts of sex aren’t in porn by design, so to me, with Jack and the sex scene in Camp, I wanted to show that messiness.  I wanted to show that sex is okay and that it’s not going to be perfect and clean like porn, but it can still be fun.

Did you attend a camp like the one in the book? I went to a Jewish summer camp, actually. I did physically model Camp Outland on it, and some of the activities are the same — obstacle courses, canoe trips to an island — but the people and the way the camp worked are entirely my own creations.  I have been saying though, that since that summer camp was actually where I experienced the most outright homophobia growing up, I took it and made everything super gay!

It’s my revenge, but not really.  It’s what I think a lot of kids deserve to have now.

 It still blows my mind that kids even have these opportunities, how do you think it changes how we think about ourselves growing up? There are queer summer camps for teens today!  They’re usually shorter than the one in my book – only a week – but the fact that they exist at all is amazing to me.  A lot more kids are coming out earlier and earlier, which is great, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t that one gay kid in the grade in some places, and now, hopefully, he, she or they can go to a place where it’s only queer kids!  A place where you can talk about what it means to be queer without being told what it is by straight people.  I’d almost say it’s a place without homophobia, but as I get into in Camp, homophobia can come from within the queer community, too.  But it’s a place to confront that.  A place to really experience the diversity of queerness. I also feel like, when I was a teenager, coming out meant you were immediately “the gay kid” and that was your whole identity and people judged you based on how well you conformed to that.  And that might still be the case some places, but definitely at a queer summer camp, that goes away.  You get to figure out who you are without that hanging over you, because everyone is the gay kid.  You still have to do the work of figuring out what your relationship to your queerness is, sure, but it’s so much easier to do that when you’re surrounded by other queer people, each of whom has their own relationship to their queerness, too.  So I’d imagine these kids grow up happier, at least in one respect, and more confident.  They get more power defining themselves – they get to really try out identities and figure out what pieces of them feel right.  Which is what straight teenagers have been doing forever.

It’s nice to see queer kids get that now, too.

In both Camp and Jack of Hearts you deal with the main characters having intercourse — did you get any push back from those scenes? It’s interesting — in Jack of Hearts, all the sex scenes are fade to black, but there are a lot of them, and then there are the sex advice columns that give fairly explicit how-tos on anal sex, blowjobs, even BDSM.  But that actual action of sex is never in the present on the page.  It’s sometimes talked about.  But that was also sort of the point of the book, so I never got pushback from my editor on any of that.  Certainly there are people out there who’ve sent me nasty emails, written deeply ignorant homophobic reviews, etc.  But my editors were always fully behind me.

With Camp, which isn’t really about sex, but is more of a classic romantic comedy, there’s one sex scene.  Just the one.  But it’s happening in the moment, and it’s described, not fade to black. I emphasized the funny parts and my intention was to make it honest — a sex scene that’s messy and funny and still real.  I didn’t want to make it super erotic.  But sex scenes much more graphic than this have been shown in straight YA and at this point raise very few eyebrows. So I felt like even if it were a big deal, it shouldn’t be.  Of course, an issue with writing queer sex is that queer people are already so sexualized in the eyes of straight people that any kind of sex scene between two queer teens is going to be seen as “too much.”  So I’m assuming we’ll get plenty of that ranging from vague to full-on homophobia.  But I’m proud of the way sex is handled in both books.  It’s honest, which is what I think queer teens need to see in depictions of sex.

 Are there film or TV projects based on either in development? Nothing I can talk about at the moment, but stay tuned…

Follow Rosen on Twitter.