You know him. You love him. He's Gabe Durham. His new book is FUN CAMP and it's a ball.
It's a collection of short monologues, letters, and lists, all from the minds, voices, and pens of the denizens of a mythical summer camp and it's by turns funny, strange, and gigantic-hearted. Its multiple voices achieve harmony. And they're all singing that, "The Ants go marching one by one," camp song.
FUN CAMP is a really great, really resonant work about childhood, exploring in miniature the way we learn independence from our families, fond our own voices, and become responsible for the way we end up presenting ourselves to the world. I ask Gabe to talk about his book. He agreed. I love it when that happens.
Can you tell me if FUN CAMP was—from its earliest days—a novel? Did you conceive of it as such, or just as a series of small pieces with a common subject?
In the book's earliest days, FUN CAMP was more of an attempt to avoid writing a novel. I'd just finished a novel that I'd written pretty quickly, but it took a lot out of me. It was a sad and dark little book-- interesting too, maybe, but it didn't seem like it came from me. Like it wasn't totally born of my personality.
So as I sat down to write, I knew I didn't want to jump into another novel just because it was time to. Instead I started noodling. I'd signed up to take a poetry workshop some months later, so I gave myself license to noodle by saying, "I need material for the poetry workshop."
By the time I arrived at the poetry workshop, I had a lot of material. And the more I wrote, the less it seemed to "count" as poetry and the more it felt like monologues, which (as a proseman) took some pressure off. Then the whole thing got set at a summer camp and that's when I started calling it a book.
It's a novel the way Letters to Wendy's is a novel. Or the way a novelization of an Altman movie is a novel. The way all of the books in the Mud Luscious "art of the novel(la)" series (which FUN CAMP was nearly a part of) were novels. But I tend to use "novel" in the big tent sense of the word. What should we call it? Call it a novel!
What kind of a space is FUN CAMP? I have a couple of thoughts. Is the Fun Camp of FUN CAMP a single place with a you-can-find-it-on-a-possibly-fictional-map? Is the Fun Camp of FUN CAMP a name substitution for a number of different camps? Or is the Fun Camp of FUN CAMP a location in space where a multiverse of camps all meet and cross and coexist? Any of those right, or are there other possibilities?
The rule is: When someone gives you a multiple choice question and one of the answers is "multiverse," always ALWAYS choose multiverse. So multiverse.
Or let me back up. I feel like what I hit on here was a kind of camp that felt in many ways very specific to my own childhood--the way nonparental adults would seize on opportunities to try and get you to be a Certain Kind of Person, whichever they thought best, and use "silly fun time" as the gateway.
When I was a kid, I'd sometimes sign up for something that was billed as "fun" and "Christian" (things my parents and I were all at the time all on board with) and then I'd get to the camp/youth rally and there'd be a bait-and-switch: You had a little fun, you sang a few innocuous Christian songs, and then an adult male would get up and start pushing a radical conservative agenda. Anti-abotion, Creationism, pro-military drum-beating, shut-shaming, anti-feminist mysogyny, American exceptionalism--you name it. I think my parents would have been surprised at some of the messages I was hearing, but at the time I assumed that my parents believed all the same things. Because I didn't yet really know the difference between what my parents taught and what other adults taught. I was spongey. I assumed most adults were in cahoots.
But then I also got to generalize, take a principal that seemed to lurk behind all my camp experiences ("Be wacky! Prank! Food fight! But also do as we say!"), push that idea really far, and prod at it as best I could.
Do you remember the moment when it occurred to you that adults could be broken into the categories "Not full of shit" and "full of shit"?
I deduced the Santa Conspiracy and my mom gladly confirmed it, which introduced me to the concept of "things we believe in for kicks," which is an innocuous form of "full of shit" I plan to participate in someday.
Later, I figured out that the level of an adult's insistence that they were "giving me the goods" was often correlated with their being "full of shit."
Later I figured out that an adult could be "full of shit" one minute and "giving me the goods" the next, then back to "full of shit."
Later, I figured out that there's a big difference between a "full of shit adult who can't help it" and a "willfully full of shit adult."
Later, I figured out that someone could be both right and "full of shit."
Later, I identified countless instances when I thought I was "giving people the goods" but it turned out I was "full of shit."
Let's talk about a specific moment in FUN CAMP. Tell me about the change in the character Billy—who writes tiny letters to his mother throughout the days of the book—that occurs when he goes from "Billy" through the week to "Billy Matthews" on Saturday. (For the reader: the book is separated into seven sections, each for a day in a week that one might spend away at camp.)
Billy's where we get to see a lot of the book's overt motifs (camp as "trial separation" from parents, camp as a chance to try on a new, better personality) take place in real time. He begins camp a tentative first-timer. He misses Mom. He doesn't know how he'll make it a whole week without her.
But in his notes are these little awakenings--new foods, new jokes, new politics, new confidence--that allow him to break from Mom. And much of the game of the letters is that it's all happening impossibly fast, and that even as he declares himself independent from Mom, he's still consistently writing her two letters a day.
I experimented with including letters from parents to kids too, but their voices ruined the spell of the camp. One that came close to making it into the book was a letter from a dad to his daughter that has been heavily censored by the camp staff. It was visually cool but unreadable in a way the rest of the book was not, and J.A. Tyler advised me to cut it. I'm glad I did.
When you started writing the book, did you have the "days of the week" structure in mind? Or did you decide on a structure later and gather pieces into the days by saying to yourself: Okay, where in the week is this voice saying this thing?
The second one. Or wait: Can I go with multiverse?
I hit on the "days of the week" idea around the halfway point, and I'm glad it worked because there really was no Plan B. As an organizing principle it was incredibly useful because I got/had to ask not only, "Okay, where in the week is this voice saying this thing?" but also, "At what time of day?" And suddenly there are pieces like "Pass Me That Flashlight" that can only go at the end of a day, and the only challenge is picking which day.
Since camps (or the camps I went to) are so regimented/scheduled, it felt great to watch particular pieces fall into place in this way. I think it also helped give some of the more disembodied pieces (Something Sager, Everything I Know About Music, etc.) a stronger connection to the rest of the book. Yes, nobody's talking about camp directly, but there's not the distracting sense that we've left camp entirely. It's just somebody going on a rant on a Wednesday afternoon. Nearby are some trees.
Did you give yourself a limit to the length of the pieces as you were writing them? Did you produce any and think, "Well, this is too long," and edit anything down? I was wondering if the desire to keep the book an ensemble of voices meant trying hard not to spend too much time on one identifiable character or voice so that no one jumped up and became the "protagonist" in a reader's mind.
Something about the style of these demanded that when they got especially long, they fractured.
The Unfun Among Us, Dangerous Approximations of Hilarity, and Flight of the Boring were all conceived of in one exciting evening in the Smith Library when I happened upon a book on the treatment of mentally unstable youths. Mad parallels abounded between a treatment center and a summer camp, so I was able to borrow some of their coldly abstracted methodology: what the patient/camper is thinking when they act out, what do do when a patient/camper flees, etc. All of these pieces appeared together in The Lifted Brow, and there's something nice to seeing a particular thread presented together in this way.
Apart, though, their heightening helps advance the plot (or forward motion) of the book. Heightening was always how I organized individual threads. In fact, one of the only substantial changes to the book I made between the Advance Review Copy and the finished product was the reordering of the Ice-Breakers so that they got darker and more extreme as you moved through the book. (There's a lot more death on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday Morning.)
I don't think any one person threatened to take over the book, though the counselors did threaten to take over the campers in the early going because it took me a little longer to figure out what the campers sounded like (kid thoughts + adult powers of expression) and what they did for the book. But then I wrote the Billy letters, the comment cards, the warm fuzzies, the Tad parables, and several other camper pieces like Powers, Take It from a Vet, and Best Friends Should be Together, all of which allowed the campers to speak up.
Would you say that, in general, you're the sort of writer who "discovers" a narrative in the voices of the characters you write about? That you find your stories sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph instead of in note-taking and plotting and outlining?
Yes. Plotting is great, but I think it usually ought to happen alongside the writing of a book instead of beforehand. Most of my plotting involves the word maybe. As in: "Maybe a scene where..." Or: "Maybe he could..." Plotting as a little placeholder: I want to write this but not right now.
And note-taking is great, too, but I find it works best when I allow a lot of porousness between "notes for future writing" and the writing itself. That's been so useful in the nonfiction manuscript I've been writing. If I'd begun by diligently taking notes without allowing myself to really write until I'd amassed all my research, I'd have denied myself the little idea explosions that initially made the manuscript come alive. And would've probably been revisited by that undergrad research paper dread: "How will I know when I've got enough research that I can finally begin writing?"
Can you talk a little about what you're working on now? Both a specific manuscript and any other projects? Boss Fight Books, for example? Other things you are up to in LA?
The nonfiction manuscript is about my existence as a happy man in a dying world/declining nation/depressed economy where I can know everything but still not know so much. It's for now called Meanwhile, and vacillates between my life, my friends/family, and the United States. It takes place--much like the film Grown Ups 2--in a single day.
Los Angeles is too much fun not to take part in some Los Angeles-type things, so for me this year that meant taking sketch-writing and improv through the UCB theater, going to see a ton of comedy around the city, and performing in sketches now and then with friends. The end goal of all this (beyond in-the-moment creative joy) is unclear, though I think me + the right TV show could some day be real sweet to each other. One of the best things I wrote this year was an Adventure Time spec script.
The biggest consumer of my brain and my energies right now is Boss Fight Books, a new series of books about individual video games. Which video games? EarthBound, Galaga, ZZT, Super Mario Bros. 2, Jagged Alliance 2, and Chrono Trigger. The series has existed a month and it's already better-known than I am. One opportunity the series has afforded me: I may eventually write one of these books myself. So I've been doing a bit of exploratory writing based on the first decent idea I had. We'll see. Could just be an essay.
Any parting thoughts?
I'm in a lake house in Bellingham, WA, waiting for the winds to subside so I can kayak. I started reading American Psycho a couple days ago and it's a lot of fun. I know blood is coming, but for now it's all Wall Street dicks who can't tell each other apart swapping fashion tips. I once assumed that reading, like writing, would get easier as I slid further into adulthood, but so far the opposite is true. Stilling my brain these days is a real challenge unless I have an external goal like, "I need to read a bunch of these 33 1/3 books to better understand how they succeed and fail." Three nights from now (as I type this), I am doing a reading at a Seattle bar & restaurant with you and Sean Beaudoin. I'm Gabe Durham and I love Hobart and I love America, and if you elect me as your student council representative, I've got a lot of great ideas like Twins Day, No Homework on Weekends, and even loosening up the rules on how long of a hug is "too long of a hug."