A while back, I had the distinct pleasure of being contacted by author Jenny Ruden to read her new novel, Camp Utopia and the Forgiveness Diet. I wish I could get this book into the hands of pretty much everyone in the country. Oh, and Canada. And New Zealand. And Australia, and the UK and….
On Goodreads I wrote: This book, in a word, rocks. In three words, it rocks out loud. More words?
The story centers on 16-year old Bethany, an overweight girl with a perfect sister, an absent father who seemingly has forgotten about her, and an unrequited passion for the boy across the street: her best friend and talented magician, TJ.
The summer that The Forgiveness Diet is sweeping the nation, Bethany’s mother enrolls her at Camp Utopia, a high-profile fat camp clear on the other coast– from which she escapes. But thank god this isn’t a “big girl gets skinny then everyone loves her and they all live happily ever after” book. The excellent ending has nothing to do with the number on the scale.
First off, it’s funny. Ruden has a real gift with her characters. Bethany is real and raw, funny and flawed; the kind of person I’d be thrilled to have assigned to me as my camp roommate all summer. The voices of all these unique characters come through clearly and weave a very rich story.
Camp Utopia is not just funny. It tackles a lot of heavy issues with the right blend of weight and levity: Body image. Family relationships. First crushes. Emotional eating. Forgiveness. Anger. Changing. Speaking up for yourself. Stepping up.
Two things I found refreshing in this book:
1) Emotional eating is presented with total honestly. There seems to be far more written on the problem of not eating, girls struggling with anorexia. This voice from the other end of the spectrum is important, and more relatable for a lot of us.
2) This book has references to several “taboo” topics: drugs, alcohol, sex. These things are not hidden, nor made monumental, but are shown in their regular, matter-of-fact light, –just like teenagers encounter them in real life. How they affect the characters is not obscured.
Camp Utopia is a really enjoyable read that carries an important message about self-respect and how it dictates all areas of your life.
Jenny took some time to answer my questions last month.
Me: There’s a lot of call for more diverse books in YA & children’s literature these days. How do you feel Camp Utopia answers this call?
Jenny: I feel the diversity conversation is one that children’s literature really needed to address. I was very tired of reading about the same white characters living in these fairly bland neighborhoods. I like to think Camp Utopia mirrors the world I inhabit in that it offers a colorful cast of characters who are as diverse in background and dress size as they are economically. I think camp, generally, allows us to meet people that we might ordinarily never come in contact with, so I exploited that notion in the novel. I also understood that because one shares the same sexual orientation, background, or economic status doesn’t mean that they will necessarily get along either. In fact, a diverse list of characters will often inspire conflict and tension, but, as a writer, that’s really good news.
Me: Which of your characters was the most fun to write and why?
Jenny: I loved writing TJ. It was too easy to make him the bad guy because he did not reciprocate Bethany’s feelings. TJ was just not of this world—he was moody and mysterious and ambitious. He could also do really cool things like train doves and levitate. Who wouldn’t want that in a character?
Me: How big do you feel the teen eating disorder problem is? Are enough of the right people aware of it to address it?
Jenny: According to NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association)
Over one-half of teenage girls and nearly one-third of teenage boys use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, vomiting, and taking laxatives.
Likewise, of 185 female students on a college campus, 58% felt pressure to be a certain weight, and of the 83% that dieted for weight loss, 44% were of normal weight.
Needless to say, I think most women –MOST—have an unhealthy relationship with food and a toxic relationship with their bodies. I think it starts before the teen years and extends into adulthood. As a society and a culture we are obsessed, fanatical, about bodies: not health, but bodies. We comment on others, punish our own. I think people know this, but still remain “unaware” of the problem because it’s so deeply ingrained. Creating awareness about the problem would involve a form of “unlearning,” which is arguably harder than learning.
Me: What do you think is the biggest obstacle to addressing an eating disorder?
Jenny: Like any mental health issue, I think there is a great deal of shame involved and very few resources. I also think that so many of us have disordered eating and don’t even know it. If it’s not bulimia or anorexia, we think we’re ok. In the book, however, Bethany would chew food and then spit it out. I’ve had several women write to me and tell me that they too do that or have done it for years.
Me: What do you feel are the advantages to treating a serious subject with great humor?
Jenny: I think we listen better after we laugh, for one thing. Likewise, I think we want to be entertained when we read. I know I sure do. And though the book tackles some lofty subjects, I still crack up at the funny parts.
Me: What kind of research did you have to do to write this book?
Jenny: My research mainly consisted of 1. Growing up as an overweight child and teen 2. Countless hours of listening to women talk about food/weight 3. Google
For most everything I relied on my imagination.
Me: Do you have any personal ties either to Northern California or Baltimore?
Jenny: I grew up in Baltimore. My entire family still live there and has been there for generations. I love the city and I miss it and, in truth, Baltimore reminds me NOTHING of Northern California. I never lived in San Francisco, but I’ve spent a lot of time in Southern California as well as some time in Northern California and Oregon. In my mind, San Francisco and Baltimore couldn’t be any more different, so I liked the contrast between the two.
Me: Can you talk a little bit about the connection that Bethany eventually makes between not speaking her truth and emotional eating?
Jenny: I don’t want to suggest that all people eat for emotional reasons, but, yes Bethany sure does. In essence, Bethany was burdened by all these secrets yet she never said anything. She would write emails and think these elaborate fantasies, but her actual words were half-hearted, blustery, and mostly unspoken. Food was a stand-in for so many things, so many emotions that she literally kept swallowing. Eventually it all unraveled because eventually, it always does.
Me: How long did it take you to write Camp Utopia?
Jenny: It took about 2 years to write it and another 2 years of trying to find it a home with a publisher.
Me: Have you always been a writer?
Jenny: Yes, but it took many years of avoiding it to finally come to the realization. As Lorrie Moore says in the famous essay, HOW TO BE A WRITER, “First, try to be something, anything, else.”
Me: What are you working on now?
Jenny: I don’t write every day. I can go months without writing. Considering I have a full-time job and a family, it’s easy to do. Then, after I’ve daydreamed for about a year, ran several traffic signals, stared out random windows for approximately 2400 hours, lost track of a thousand of conversations, washed the same load of laundry four times in a row, I just kind of explode. I’m getting ready to explode now.
Me: Do you think you’ll write more about any of the characters in Camp Utopia?
Jenny: Sometimes I think I’d like to write about TJ. The other characters I think are done. They got their happy ending. I miss them all, but when they’re gone they make room for other voices.
Me: About your writing: Word, or Scrivener? Coffee, tea, or wine? Heavy metal, show tunes, or jazz? Milk chocolate, or dark?
I use Word. I drink criminal amounts of coffee and tea. I do drink beer, but not while writing. I prefer to write with no music. Afterwards, there’s music: show tunes, pop, and hardcore rap, but I don’t like any sound while I’m writing. Sometimes the dog will snore. I like dark chocolate but tend to munch on dry cereal.
Me: Who do you hope this book reaches, and what message do you hope they get out of it?
Jenny: I wanted to reach people and let them know that good things will happen. Beautiful and spectacular things. These things will happen even if you’re not a size 2—if you’re not rich. Even if you’re not straight or white or particularly smart, there is so much to be revealed in this world. And though life’s nothing like the movies or commercials or the romance novels, it’s messy and awkward and fucked up, yes, but it’s totally better.
And guess what, y’all? I’m going to give away two copies of Camp Utopia. If you want in, just leave a comment in the comment section about whether or not you ever use emotional eating as a coping mechanism. If you read my blog, you already know that I do, and my soother of choice is anything with dark chocolate. I’ll pick two commenters to win a copy of the book.