From “Fun Camp,” by Gabe Durham in Puerto del Sol Vol. 47, No. 1:
Across the deck outside the mess hall is a clothesline for pinning Warm Fuzzies, little notes to make co-campers’ chests flutter with camaraderie. For example, a camper might write to me, “Dear Dave, Fun Camp is so great. I’m having the best time. Thank you for putting in so much work to make this a rewarding experience,” to which I’d reply, “Dear Madeline, Quit sucking up to the staff and write a note to someone your own age. I don’t need your validation, and neither does Fun Camp. It was here before you were born and will remain long after we’re both dead.” And now, look, we know each other better! All necessary paper, markers, glitter, and the whole bit await your creative destruction in the craft hut.
Gabe Durham is the author of FUN CAMP, a novel forthcoming from Mud Luscious Press. Other fiction has appeared in Quarterly West, Mid-American Review, The Lifted Brow, and elsewhere. He lives in Northampton, MA, and edits Dark Sky Magazine.
Below, Gabe discusses fun camp experiences, non-traditional novels, and the contents of his wallet.
1.I really admire the strong voice in “Fun Camp.” The speaker, Dave, has a bitter sense of humor, yet still manages to have moments of tenderness. Or, at least, what counts as tenderness for Dave. How did you develop and negotiate the voice in these speeches?
I think for Dave, our head boys counselor and the mouthpiece for a number of these speeches, there’s a vulnerability that comes out of his awareness that he’s built a summer camp around a very narrow and surface-level (but also primal and kinda legitimate) concept of what fun is. So there’s conflict between his role as facilitator of wackiness, mandating that kids have fun and be fun–water sports, food fights, silly skits, pranks–and the fact that he is a full-grown man who just can’t get into that stuff like he used to.
There’s another piece from the book, a prayer to Fun Camp in which Dave confesses, “I never loved greased watermelon relay.” And he feel a real guilt about that. He has this image of fun person he’s not living up to.
At the camps and retreats I went to growing up, I knew a number of youth ministers who were complete man-children, and while they seemed to better relate to us kids than most adults could, part of that ability to relate seemed to come from a real stuntedness, an immaturity both emotional and spiritual. (I would not extend this criticism to the guy who ran my own high school youth group, by the way–he’s a thoughtful dude.) And of course a lot of those guys were right out of college, and were on to new careers by their late 20’s and early 30’s, and I am at 28 much more forgiving of young adults who don’t have all their shit together.
2. You describe this piece as a story in 10 speeches. Why did you choose this form? What were some of the benefits and challenges?
The publication of a lot of the pieces from FUN CAMP was a happy mess. I began to publish a number of the pieces individually before I had much of a sense of what the tone and themes of the book was going to be, before I even knew that it was to take place at a summer camp. This actually worked very well for me because I was propelled by the feedback and encouragement I got from editors, and I was also aware that my store of unpublished shorts was depleting, like, “Okay, these got nabbed up. Time to write some more.”
Eventually, the motivation shifted from the expansion of the project to the desire for FUN CAMP to be a real book that knows itself. And what we’ve got here in Puerto Del Sol is an attempt to try to arrange some of the yet unpublished shorts into something more cohesive. So while the larger book vacillates between campers, counselors, and staff, this set focuses solely on voices of authority.
The form of this book wound up being such a useful container for my own ambivalence about so many things: I don’t know that there’s anything said in this book that I 100% agree or disagree with. But it was also a useful container for my memories, things I was reading and watching and listening to, my imagination, and whatever was going on in the present of writing the book. “Snow Day” was first drafted on a particularly brutal day of Massachusetts winter–How could I write about a summer day, I wondered, when I’m not even sure summer ever existed?
All the most successful writing projects I’ve worked on so far have been the ones that seem to offer me a way in: To arrive in many different moods, sleep levels, seasons, and times of day, and to be myself on the page. The melodramatic way I put it in my head is: Make sure and write the book where the idea of working on it doesn’t make you want to kill yourself. (Or go outside.)
Also–You know how in movies when the Weird Lady or the Funny Guy is speaking, they’ll cut to some kid rolling their eyes or some people at the business meeting cracking up? So that’s how you know what reaction you’re supposed to have? It can be galling. I already knew Weird Lady was weird when she said something weird. So a benefit of this form is that I never have to telegraph any reaction shots to the reader.
3. You’ve mentioned that this is part of a longer work scheduled to come out next year with Mud Luscious Press. How do these speeches interact with the complete novel?
The novel functions much like the pieces in Puerto del Sol: short speeches, letters, notes, soliloquies, sermons, etc. that followers campers, counselors, and staff through a week at camp.
If you’ve read any of the other books in MLP’s Art of the Novel(la) series like Matthias Svalina’s I Am a Productive Entrepreneur or Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby, you learn to expect liberal use of the word novel. There tends to be a lack of emphasis on plot, too, (though Robert Kloss might change that for Team MLP pretty soon). And I love plot. I am pro-plot. But in the case of this book, the absence of that constraint lets me take the book in whatever direction I need to, and allows me to explore voice, place, character, concept in a way I couldn’t have done in a traditional novel.
The book is still about a year away from publication. When it was accepted, it was over two years away. So an est. 3% of my life will have been spent between acceptance and publication of this book. I don’t know what that means but it means something. It’s like getting engaged and then going off to war. I keep a photo of my manuscript in my wallet and from time to time I take it out and show it to one of the fellas. And he’ll whistle and tell me she’s a looker.
4. I laugh every time I read this story, yet it’s definitely a dark, maybe-I’m-not-supposed-to-be-laughing kind of humor. Is this in keeping with the mood and voice of the full novel?
I’m glad to hear it. One of the things that sways me most as a reader is when I feel the writer’s sense of humor taking me somewhere I’d otherwise be less inclined to go: Donald Antrim, Sam Lipsyte, Jane Bowles, George Saunders, Joe Wenderoth–All these writers mitigate serious discomfort with humor.
I’m rereading my favorite Nicholson Baker book, The Anthologist. Here it’s not discomfort he’s mitigating, it’s boredom. I’m amazed by how much of this truly ecstatic and revelatory book is an essayistic defense of lyric poetry, something I don’t otherwise care much about. And yet I’ll follow him because of the irresistible voice, the spokenness of it, and the humor.
Writing FUN CAMP, I gave myself license to take as long as I want, to edit as much as I want, and to cut as deep as I want–so it’s pretty short, 20,000 words or so. To me, a wrought sentence and a funny sentence often amount to the same thing. And what got cut as I went along were the lines that felt like straight up jokes: schtick. The material that is fun to write in the moment but doesn’t hold up on the tenth edit.
5. I know you have an MFA from Amherst, and I’m always interested in how other people experience the MFA. How did you decide to go the MFA route? In what ways has graduate study influenced your work?
Friends and time, that’s the main thing. I left the MFA with three manuscripts worth of fiction. I don’t think I’d have written nearly as much on my own. It’d have felt too lonely if I was off slaving over short stories outside of any community. The friendly competition helped. Professors helped–Chris Bachelder in particular. Giving and receiving feedback helped. Taking the time to read lots helped.
In an MFA, you’re kind of auditioning lots of people for those you’d like to be your lifelong readers. I am on a couple of feedback teams that grew naturally out of the workshops at UMass: An email one with Rachel Glaser and Mike Young, and a brick-and-mortar one with Adam Cogbill and Jack Christian, who just last week won the Colorado Prize for poetry.
And it brought me to where I live now, Northampton, MA, a city I like a lot. It helps my writing to live in a city where writing creatively is considered a sane way to spend your time.
6. What other projects do you have in the works right now?
In early summer/late fall of last year, I picked a day more or less at random to write a book about: Thursday, September 22. And when the day came, I wrote out what happened to me and got 70+ family members and friends and other writers to tell me what happened to them.
Since then, I’ve scoured newspapers and websites and magazines and TV shows, and have become a sort of expert on this one specific day. A lot happened: A major Republican debate, the death of an R&B singer, a Facebook overhaul. It was also the day immediately after Troy Davis was killed by the state of Georgia.
Using a chronological account of my own day as the “spine,” the book pinballs from small and intimate scenes of people in their lives to major headline news and back again, employing reportage, history, and memoir and filtering it through my own lens and voice.
It’s a relief, working on this, to give fiction a rest for a little while.
But for the new book–this is really grown-up of me–I’m determined not to send chunks out to journals until I have a good handle on what I’m doing. Which feels quiet but necessary to better usher in 2013, Year of the Book.
For more writing and his latest updates, follow Gabe at his blog or on twitter (@GabeDurham).
Order your copy of Puerto del Sol 47.1 to read Gabe’s full story and the work of other great writers. Pre-orders available now: Puerto del Sol, Vol 47, No. 1: $10:00