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Camp Conversation

Lydia Conklin and Gabe Durham

bonus features:
Some of the things that Jo-Jo grunts (an incomplete glossary) by B. C. Edwards

Appendix 3B, "The Instructive Incident of the Lawn and its Necessary Lessons" by Steve Himmer

Alternate Ending to Shya Scanlon's "Portrait of the Oughtist" by Paula Bomer (with two collages by James J. Williams III)

Joan Enright's pie recipe (as featured in Eliza Tudor's "Person, Place, or Thing"

illustration by Lydia Conklin

(see one of Gabe Durham's "Fun Camp" shorts, with an illustration by Lydia Conklin here)

Gabe Durham: When I met you last week, we discovered that not only did we both have camp stuff in Hobart #11, but that we're both writing books about summer camp. So I'm curious: What draws you to camp? What about camp is exciting or rewarding or generative enough that you were able to write a whole summer camp graphic novel?

Lydia Conklin: I think camp draws me in for a few reasons. First of all, I think it's interesting how close to the brink of chaos camp is at any moment. Considering it's a bunch of teenagers in charge of a bunch of children, there isn't much stability at camp. If something were to go wrong, there aren't really forces in place to deal with it. Especially not at the camp I went to, which was super hippy-ish and put you in charge of all your time management. You didn't even have to go to activities. I spent a lot of time sitting on a rock.

I'm also interested in camp as a time when kids are alone for the first time. Most kids have never had independence from their families, but now they are in the forest with just their peers. It’s a very different dynamic. This can allow them to redefine themselves, or become cruel, or act wild, etc.

Lastly, I think it's cool that camp is a time for children to run wild in nature. I think it can change the way your brain works to be out in nature, going to bed when it gets dark and waking up when the light comes out.

What about you? What drew you to explore camp?

GD: Well my project began having nothing to do with camp, but instead as a series of little monologue poems, always one person talking to (and usually talking down to) another, the speaker often explaining some kind of rules to the other. So the "do as I say" attitude was in place from the beginning. Also, the pieces were informing each other—the speakers kept referring to "this place." One of those pieces, called "No Moms for Miles," was about the rules at a summer camp, and around the same time, I landed on Fun Camp as a title. And only then, once I started calling the project "Fun Camp" in my head, did I allow myself to start writing pieces that took place at a literal place called Fun Camp. And that opened things wide open and I began writing the pieces a lot faster.

Camp appeals to me as a miniature self-contained temporary society that operates on an extremely different logical/moral system than the outside world. I grew up going to church camp, both as a camper and then as a counselor, and the biggest difference between real life and camp life is that everyone at camp talks about God all the time to a degree that even the very devout don't/can’t in their daily lives because it's logistically impossible (there are things to do) and, I’d argue, unrewardingly repetitive. But then you show up at camp and Jesus is front and center of the whole week, and the implication is, "See how much you're thinking about God right now? You ought to be doing that all year." Guilt bomb!

But I'm not as interested in recreating my own camp experience as I am playing with that week-long radical value shift. So Fun Camp is religious, too, kind of, but the main emphasis is on fun, having fun, being a fun person, and loving/worshiping Fun Camp itself. Fun as mandate, fun as nonnegotiable. And that's exaggerated here, but I think that's absolutely a camp tenet. In school, you get praised by the authorities for being quiet and doing your work. At camp, you get praised for being kooky.

So the many implications of “normal life vs. camp life” are fun to tease out. Light mischief is encouraged at camp, and Fun Camp is pro-prank. Technology withdrawal plays a role. Also, this idea, "Your parents might be screwing up big time. Here are the real values you should be raised with."

LC: I'm definitely also interested in camp as a self-contained temporary society—and especially in how in that situation children also get to make the rules. There is a lot of unsupervised time at camp and your peers get to rule your life in ways they do not get to in real society. Also the gender divides interest me. My camp was all girls. There was a boys’ camp attached but we didn't see them much. Whenever we did there was a whole performative show of putting on tube tops and glitter, but mostly even the girls who were the popular pretty girls at school ran around in sweatpants and filthy t-shirts. This created a more level dynamic in some sense and in a way it let the girls be themselves more, even though that sounds cheesy, because they didn't have to worry about themselves in relation to boys. I don't think many of them got to do that before in Connecticut or New York City.

GD: Wow, we went to really different camps. Mine was all about programming, the schedule, mandatory activities. We'd have Free Time in the afternoons, which was, at most, 3 hours--not long enough to get into too much trouble. (Not that I would've anyway. I was a pretty clean-cut kid.) And it was always coed, so the game was on, at least by junior high. Girls who took the time to look good in real life kept it up at camp. I think my camp's approach to nature was kind of take it or leave it—nature is useful insofar as it is different from life, and it makes for a nice backdrop, but nobody's going to point to a tree and tell you what kind it is.

I like that on one level, we can squint at camp and it all looks the same--cabins, bunks, trees, campfire, bad food, all that—but then really have completely different experiences. And this goes back to the temporary society: Any interested party can rent a camp space and, providing they can convince kids to come, use it however they see fit. It's a blank slate in a pretty place where the camper, upon arrival, simply has to receive.

How long did your camp last, by the way? Longer than a week? Mine were always just a week but in kid time, it always felt like I'd been gone forever.

LC: My camp was varied - the first three or four years I only went for 2 weeks, but then I went a couple times for 5 weeks and when I was a CIT (counselor in training) I went for 8 weeks. It did feel like forever.

GD: You mentioned camp letting girls be themselves more. I'm interested in this. I had a friend in college describe how she was medium to not-so-popular in high school but then the queen of camp, beloved by all. How were you different at camp than at school?

LC: I think yeah camp was very different from school and I was different when I was there. Partly because I was gay, although I didn't really realize it so much at the time, but my friends in middle school at home were always doing drugs and smoking and having early sexual experiences which was stressful for me because I wasn’t at all ready for that kind of thing. I liked them a lot too, but at camp it was a tiny bit less stressful because there weren't boys and I didn't have to deal with pretending to have a crush on a boy and then even going out with that boy and not liking it.

GD: With all that free time, how did you spend your days?

LC: During the free time I remember milling around a lot, doing arts and crafts, there were tons of dogs let free in the camp that belonged to the counselors and I would hang out with them. I would play tether ball and talk with the other campers. It was also fun because you could get to know people of all ages and it wasn't so separated as in school.

GD: Can you tell a little more about your graphic novel? The Hobart piece is an excerpt, right?

LC: My graphic novel is told in three parts—the excerpt from Hobart is the first chapter of the first part. It's three summers that the girl, Marnie, goes to camp: 1994-1996, when she is eleven to thirteen. The book is called Camp Interesting and the camp is a strange place - there are only two counselors, one of whom is a chain smoker with a tear tattoo on her face. The campers are also strange and somewhat hostile and the book has a darkly comic tone to it. My agent is currently sending it around to publishers.

Will you tell me more about Fun Camp? Is it all short pieces like these?

GD: Fun Camp is a collection of prose poem monologues—I'm aiming for that sweet spot between fiction and poems. Each piece is one person addressing another. Some of them are firmly located at camp, others aren't but feel native to the project to me. There's no plot other than "A week at Fun Camp." I tried to inject one for a little bit and it was disastrous. There are characters in that I often know "this piece is in the same voice as that other one," but no characters I expect the reader to get to know or to track. It's shooting for funny and bewildering. I have a friend who’s reading these as I bring them into my poetry workshop, and she likes the Fun Camps best when they scare her. I want that too. What else? It's a book that lends itself being read aloud. I got to read a bunch of Fun Camps last month and it was one of my favorite readings I've gotten to do.

LC: Is it finished?

GD: It's not done. It's probably at about 70%. Tough to say--as my "Fun Camp" doc file grows, so does my "Fun Camp cuts" doc, so I really won't know until the end what's going to make it in. I'm taking it slow now because I know that when I finish the project, I'll be sad to be done. I'll also probably keep having ideas for pieces.

It's also fun to have a lot of short stuff to send out. I don't feel the need to hoard the way I do with my A-stories—there are always more Fun Camps. And so far, the reception from journals has been great. For whatever reason, I’ve had an easier time getting these published than my stories.

LC: What are your A-stories? You mean your more regular fiction?

GD: By A-stories, I just mean the longer short stories that took forever to write. I usually won’t send those to web journals because I don’t like reading long fiction on the web.


LC: Where else have you published Fun Camps? I would love to check it out. Sounds great. 


GD: Cool! I’ll hyperlink to the ones you can read online. Fun Camps have come out in Everyday Genius, matchbook, and Dogzplot, and are coming soon in FriGG, notnostrums, Nano Fiction, Hobart (duh), A cappella Zoo, Saltgrass, Skein, and decomP.

The last thing I wanted to be sure and ask you was about your experience with other works in our little subgenre. What other summer camp books/movies/misc. art have you enjoyed, either as a kid or in adulthood, and do you see any of those influencing Camp Interesting?


LC: I don't really know, to be honest. There was Salute Your Shorts on Nickelodeon as a kid and I think some Mk Olson camp special. I remember when I was in elementary school my parents would give me grown-up novels that were simply written and had kid protagonists (like To Kill a Mockingbird) and one was Looking for the Klondike Stone, which as I remember it is at least partially about camp. I loved that. In my adult life though I haven't read much about camp. Have you?


GD: Nope, just TV and movies. I remember a Saturday morning cartoon, Camp Candy, starring John Candy as the hapless head counselor at a scout camp. In college, I loved Wet Hot American Summer (which was my introduction to the Stella/The State guys), a spoof of a handful of 70's camp movies I've never seen. A couple of years ago, I got to see the documentary “Jesus Camp,” which was a whole new kind of weird.


LC: When I was working on the book I did try to find books on tape from the library about camp to inspire me as I drew but to no avail.


GD: It seems like what we’re doing doesn’t really lend itself to formal research. I've been leafing through nonfiction book on the history of camp in America called, A Manufactured Wilderness (Van Slyck), but really all the "research" I'm doing is looking for inspiration, just something to get me going. The camp book was kind of helpful, but I got just as much out of a book on the treatment of disturbed adolescents and another on how to put on and finance puppet shows.


LC: I remember there was one story published in my college magazine called Get Those Animals Out of the Mud, which was about a religious camp (you would like it.) I did a presentation on it as part of my application to the fiction board of the magazine, but now I can't find it online anywhere. It was really good.  Come to think of it, it's strange there isn't more. Maybe there is a hole in the market for us to fill!


GD: Money!

A Behind-theScenes essay for "Cold Travel" by Gabriel Urza

Camp Conversation: Lydia Conklin and Gabe Durham discuss summer camp

Hello Clone, I Will Say by Gabe Durham (featuring illustration by Lydia Conklin)

excerpt (chapter 1) from Steven Rinella's American Buffalo

Champaign-Urbana Gymnopédie by Scott Garson

Behind the Scenes of "The Fish" by Patrick Somerville

The Singing Fish: Revisited by Peter Markus

Three Different Apocalypses by Lucy Corin

My Eagle Scout Project: A Sidewalk: A List, an extra short by Adam Peterson

Deer Summer Sausage recipe (and illustration) by Mike Alber

The Lake Monster Is Curious: An Alternate Ending in the Monster’s Point of View, by Becky Hagenston