Guest writer, Hadley Stewart, catches up with author, Lee A.C. Rosen, about his latest book and the issue of gender expectations within the queer community.
The day before my interview with Lev A.C. Rosen about this latest Y.A. book, Camp, he sends me a message asking if we can do it an hour earlier. Like many New Yorkers during the pandemic, he too is enjoying some time away from the Big Apple. Rosen tells me he wants to squeeze in some extra time in the pool, before having to drive back to Manhattan. Then comes a picture of the pool surrounded by a just-mowed lawn, neatly trimmed bushes and a blue sky peppered with fluffy white clouds. Who am I to deprive him of that? It’s hardly surprising that Rosen wanted to take some time away. Putting the global pandemic aside, the author wrote Camp in just two months, in order to ensure it came out on bookshelves in time for summer. “It was pretty crazy 2 months,” as he describes it.
The book’s main character, sixteen year-old Randal, nicknamed Randy, spends his summers at Camp Outland, a summer camp for queer teenagers. Randy is a theatre kid, enjoys wearing makeup and has fallen for fellow camper, Hudson. There’s just one thing getting in the way of this summer romance, Hudson seems to be only attracted to masculine guys. So Randy decides to embark on a transformation, returning the next summer as Del, a more masculine version of himself, in order to try to get the guy.
“I just really loved this idea of the femme boy giving himself a masc makeover to win the boy, and how ridiculous and what a terrible idea that would be,” Rosen tells me from the poolside the following day. Although queer summer camps weren’t around when Rosen was a teenager, they have now become popular amongst queer teens in America. In fact, Rosen wasn’t even sure they existed when he initially came up with the idea for Camp. “I had to google it, because I thought, is that too out there?” he admits. Rosen’s experiences of summer camp were slightly different to Randy’s, however. “I went to a conservative Jewish summer camp,” he explains. “I will say that physically the space of Camp Outland is very much inspired by that camp, such as the location of things and some of the activities were certainly drawn from it. But the people and some of the experiences were completely different.”
Rosen says he was “the kid who always had a book” at summer camp. “I don’t know if I would even consider myself as someone who loved it,” he laughs. But he says that American summer camps are important for many young people. “This summer camp culture where you have your camp friends and they’re your best friends with for 4 to 6 weeks for the summer, I think it’s very important for some kids when they’re growing up.” Yet when he talks about camps that are now available for queer teenagers, Rosen does give the impression that he’s almost missed out on something during those formative years. “As a kid,” he says. “I would have been thrilled to go to a queer summer camp, and it would have changed my life.”
The book isn’t just Rosen’s homage to a teenage life that could have been, it’s a cleverly framed world that houses conversations between queer teenagers. “Kids are coming out earlier and earlier and you still don’t have access to that full on queer community,” explains Rosen. “In the book, one of the things that I wanted to do was to create this queer space, and have conversations within the queer spaces that queer kids can only have in queer spaces.”
Where did the idea for the premise of the book come from, I ask? “I really wanted to have a queer, contemporary take on the Doris Day, Rock Hudson movies,” Rosen tells me, saying that he was particularly interested in the “battle of the sexes” theme that ran through these films. “I thought if it’s going to be a queer story, then how do you do a battle of the sexes thing? So then it became an idea around a masc vs. femme battle.” Rosen also took inspiration from an interview about his first Y.A. book, Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts), where the journalist remarked that it was interesting to see an effeminate main character being viewed as desirable by other guys. “He said it was something we don’t often see,” Rosen recalls. “When I wanted to do this battle of the gender presentation thing, I wanted to capture this idea that femme men are considered less than by the queer community and I wanted to play with that idea.”
Rosen continues. “If we’re talking about masc vs. femme, if we’re talking about the value of these characteristic amongst queer men, that immediately leads to ‘masc for masc’ culture. I wanted to explore what it means to masc yourself out, because for me ‘masc for masc’ culture is just as much of a performance as drag. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t people who are naturally masc like that,” he adds. “But once you enter a place where it becomes the foundation of your identity, it becomes more about the performance, than who you actually are.”
Where does he think that comes from? Misogyny? I offer. “I think you have to look back at straight culture and the patriarchy,” replies Rosen. “It’s not just about misogyny, I think it’s certainly a component, but you have to look at the patriarchal values of our culture, where essentially there is an appropriate way to be a man.” In a recent podcast interview, Rosen described being queer as “a gift” and he reiterates this to me too. “I think once you realise that you don’t conform with what a man is supposed to be in the patriarchy, you’re given this opportunity to step outside the patriarchy and say, I don’t give a fuck about that.” He does acknowledge, however, that isn’t always the case for everyone. For some gay men, Rosen argues, they view being gay as their “one deviation” from society dictated gender presentations. “So instead of saying alright that’s all B.S. then, I’m going to abandon it, they say, that’s my one deviation. I’m allowed one deviation, but in every other way I must conform to what the patriarchy is, because otherwise I will be cast out of it.” Where does he think that comes from? “From a place of fear,” he says. “I think to compensate for being gay, they try to butch it up and to show like that they’re not like other gays.”
One of the messages in Jack of Hearts was about the messages that society passes onto young people about how to be gay. In Camp, Rosen has built on this idea, but has also opened up the conversation about how this results in self-policing within the queer community itself. “You get this idea of the ‘special gay’,” he tells me. “Which is sometimes passed on from straight loved ones. You have gay guys who come out to their family like Hudson does, and it’s ok that he’s queer, as long as he’s not like one of those gays. And that was something I really wanted to play with.” Rosen believes that these messages of “how to be gay” infiltrate into the queer community, and result in the rejection of certain queer people, due to them not conforming to societal gender norms.
I can’t not ask about the name Randy, I begin. Rosen starts laughing, as though I’m not the first Brit to ask him this question. “Yeah so in the U.S., it does not have the same connotation as it does in the U.K.,” he replies. “Obviously, we sort of know it from Austin Powers movies, that’s sort of our association with Randy meaning horny. My U.K. editor was like, can we change the name? It has a different sort of significance here.” So it’s not just an attempt to not so subtly slide in sex into every page of the book? “No, no,” Rosen shakes his head. In fact the name Randal came from the actor Tony Randal, who often played characters who were coded as queer. “It’s such a perfect name, with the Randy and the Del, there was just nothing else that worked like that.”
I bring the interview to a close by asking about another name, Trump. More specifically, I ask about the political discourse around people from minority groups, not only in the U.S.A., but further afield. What role do books about such groups play in today’s society? “There have been numerous studies done that prove that reading fiction makes people more open minded to more points of view, more compassionate and more accepting of other people,” says Rosen. “I think that fiction from other points of view, when straight people read a book like Camp, they understand and relate to queer people and view them as more human. And because of that they understand homophobia more, they understand why they need to be less homophobic, and it makes them better people essentially.”
As for what else needs to be done in publishing books from minority groups, Rosen would like more of them to be written by people of the same group, and for their books to reach a wider audience. “Ultimately, I think reading broadly, makes people kinder to other people. The issue we have is getting other people to read them,” he argues. “There is this industry-wide and worldwide understanding, that those books are just for those groups. That comes from everyone. That comes from booksellers, readers, teachers, publishers, no one is exempt from this, everyone is complicit.” So how can we ensure that queer stories are read by wider audiences? “Until we decide as a group to actively try to say that queer books are for straight people too, we’re going to run into that problem over and over again.”
Camp is available to buy now. Author photo by Rachel Shane. With thanks to Simon Armstrong of Penguin Random House.
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