Camp Utopia and the Forgiveness Diet: Author Interview & Giveaway

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.




Go Play With Yourself. And Don’t Lick the Minivan.

One of my favorite writers has a new book out. She’s Canadian, eh?* The book’s been out for a week or so up there and is totally smoking Calgary as we speak. Today is the US release date, so to celebrate I’m giving away a copy. And I’m listening to Rush while I’m writing this. That’s like, Canadian squared.

You’re welcome.

Leanne Shirtliffe’s new book is Don’t Lick the Minivan- and Other Things I Never Thought I’d Say to My Kids.

That’s a change from the original working title, which was Get That Train Off Your Penis. (Man, if I had a dollar for every time I said that. . . ) Fret not, there is still a chapter with that title.

Leanne rocks because:

  • She writes with the unique perspective that only a parent of twins who gave birth to them in Thailand could have.
  • There is a complete absence of mean-spirited snark in this book.
  • There is an abundance of ironic, tongue-in-cheek, smart humor that comes from a genuine love for her family.
  • It’s hilarious.

Did you know the rule stating that subjects of passport photos must have their eyes open also applies to newborns? She can tell you all about that.

Here are some other gems I learned from Leanne’s book:

  • If you maim your child, your spouse will help you out more.
  • If you need assistance while changing a baby’s diaper in an airplane bathroom, light a cigarette.
  • Lazy parenting creates kids who are self-starters.
  • Never tell your child that the ice cream truck sells ice cream. Tell them it sells vegetables.

Leanne also writes about depression. The post-partum kind that shows up late, and then returns again even later. How real it is, and how she deals with it. It’s more prevalent than people are owning up to, and you don’t have to just be a bio parent to experience it. Most importantly, it’s not the end of the world. Leanne’s book is as full of hope as it is humor.

Oh right. The giveaway!

In a fit of total unoriginality, I have decided that to enter the giveaway you should leave a comment in the comments section about something you have once said to a kid, or heard someone else say to a kid, that you never thought anyone would–or perhaps should– say to a kid.

Here’s mine:

When we first got custody of our kids, within six weeks I was out of town on an extended trip to open a show booked long before all this happened.

I was standing downstage center with the rest of my crew, rigging up the center cluster to hang when I got a call from #3.

She was having a rough day for an eight-year-old. She was being forced to do chores along with everyone else when she didn’t want to. She was sure she was the most oppressed little girl in the world, that her life was completely unfair. She said CC had told her to finish cleaning her room and then – of all the nerve!– was forcing her to go to the park with the family.

#3: Nobody understands what it’s like to be me!

I’ve been there. Sometimes you just need to be alone. In my mind I was picturing her at the park and activities she could do by herself while still keeping her father off her case by going with the family. Swings, maybe, or hobby horse.

And in a lull in the activity around me, downstage center surrounded by stagehands, I said to my new step-daugher:

Maybe you should just go play with yourself.

Damn prepositions.

no lick

What have you said or heard that you never thought would be said to a kid?

Leave a comment in the comments section through Friday, May 24 at midnight EST and I will pick a winner purely on whatever the hell I feel like doing. If you don’t have a funny story and you’re just a desperate mom who needs a laugh, put that in there. If the winner lives in the US, they have a choice of hardcover or electronic version; if they’re outside the US, it’s electronic.

Go buy Don’t Lick the Minivan!

*not to be alarmed, they took all the errant u‘s out in the book. That’s why I can still say she’s my “favorite” and not my “favourite”.

WINNERS UPDATE: I decided to award two books, because I felt like it. One goes to Alexandra-who-needs-to-start-her-own-blog-because-she’s-funny and one goes to Misty from Misty’s Laws because I was afraid she was going to sue me  she really needs this book. If you didn’t win, please go buy the book because it’s truly fantastic.

Recipe For Joy

“Look for the similarities, not the differences.”

Fifteen years ago someone gave me this counsel and it is perhaps the most important piece of advice I’ve ever received. Yes, even more important than don’t eat crackers in bed and don’t make out with someone immediately after eating Oreos.

When we look for the similarities between ourselves and others, we find common ground; we connect and help each other. When we seek only our differences, all we do is isolate: we make ourselves stagnant.

I’m always looking for similarities with other parents. This step-parenting thing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done; connecting with other people who also believe raising kids is a challenge– one that we can meet– helps me keep going. Especially if they also make me laugh. It’s one of the main reasons I blog.

Today I have the great pleasure of introducing you to Robin Davis, author of Recipe For Joy: A Stepmom’s Story of Finding Faith, Following Love, and Feeding a Family.

Robin is awesome. Former assistant editor at Bon Appetit, former restaurant critic and food writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, and current food editor at The Columbus Dispatch, she is also a smart and lovely lady who converted to Catholicism, has a strong and abiding faith, and is stepmom to three. In spite of her impressive credentials, she still agreed to be on my blog.

It seems that both Robin and I used to have the same list of Nevers. We were never going to get married, have children, move away from the west coast, or join an organized religion. Life, apparently, had other plans for each of us.

In Recipe For Joy Robin tells the story of feeling the pull of family drawing her back to Ohio after her father’s death. While there on sabbatical from the Chronicle she met a man named Ken at an alumni dinner, and learned he was a widower raising his three young children on his own. Despite Robin’s Nevers they  started dating. Which soon led to having to interact with his kids–something she had little experience with.

When Robin first started spending time with the children, she turned to the thing she felt most comfortable with: food.

This is a beautifully written, intensely honest book with moments that made me laugh out loud. The chapters correspond to parts of a meal, and a recipe concludes each chapter. Robin was gracious enough to give me an interview.



JM: What’s your current favorite ingredient in your cooking?

Robin: Right now, it’s probably asparagus. I love it grilled, roasted, in quiche or pasta. But in another couple of weeks, it’s going to be locally-grown strawberries. I won’t be able to get enough of them for the short season they’re here.

JM: In the book, you speak of the first meal you had together with Ken and the kids (hamburgers). Did you ever cook a meal just for him while you were dating?
Robin: Yes, often! When I first moved to Columbus, I was technically on sabbatical from the San Francisco Chronicle. I worked part time as a buyer for a local gourmet cookware store and wrote freelance for a few publications. But I had lots of time to cook. For one of our first dates, I packed us a picnic lunch with shrimp cocktail, cold poached salmon, asparagus, flourless chocolate cake. We ate it outside at a local park. So romantic!

JM: I love that you bonded with the kids through the thing you were most comfortable with: food. I’m not nearly a fraction of the cook that you are and my kids mostly hate anything that doesn’t involve sugar. What do you recommend for picky eaters?

Robin: Start with where they are and try not to make food a battlefield. The meal I described above? That was great for Ken and I, but the kids wouldn’t touch it (still wouldn’t eat the poached salmon). When I met them, Ben was 10 and the twins were 8. I first had to figure out what they liked and then see if I could expand their palates little by little. But that was my way of getting to know them, almost like a game. I couldn’t take their reactions to the food personally, which was hard for me. What I ended up doing was making sure there was always one thing on the table that they liked, that was familiar to them, even if it was just grapes or plain pasta or rice. If they wanted, they could just eat that (after they tried whatever else was on the table). And if they were still hungry, they could get a cup of yogurt out of the fridge.

JM: had hot sauce in my eye  was moved to tears many times while reading this book, and one part that resonated very strongly with me was your phrase “It flattened me,” in regards to the basic day-to-day tasks that grow exponentially when you suddenly find yourself with a family. I thought I was the only one.

Several times in the book you refer to how stony your heart had become. Do you feel like you were shutting down in reaction to the stress of the situation, or do you feel like you were that way before and just didn’t recognize it?

Robin: For me, it took someone (my sister) pointing out that I was crying all the time because, as strange as it sounds, I didn’t think anyone could see what a mess I’d become.

I was stony first out of self-preservation. I put up walls because I was afraid the children wouldn’t like me. And then when they did like me, I worked hard at not trying to be a replacement mother because no one could ever replace their mother. For a long time, I wouldn’t say, “I love you” to them because I never wanted them to feel obligated to say it back to me if they didn’t feel it. Of course, all that really did was put up a wall between us. If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t love them openly and with abandon, with no fear of what their reaction would be. Instead, I hoped they would see how much I loved them because I cooked and cleaned for them. That’s a recipe for failure.

JM: I’ve seen many articles lately where people tell stepmoms “You knew what you were getting into. You signed up for this”. And yet, nobody knows what it’s going to be like ahead of time. Even bio parents don’t know what parenting is going to be like. Do you feel like you were constantly redefining your role as a stepmom?

Robin: A friend who has biological as well as stepchildren tells me she thinks being a stepmom is way harder than being a biological mom. Someone else always has the trump card in any situation, and it’s not you.

Like you, I had a clear idea of what I would be going in: A perfect, never jealous, stepmother always with the right answer to every situation. I remember telling myself that I would stand firm in who I was and how I would interact with them. But I grew, and the kids changed. And of course, I learned what worked and what didn’t. What worked best was just being me and not trying to be perfect.

JM: I appreciate that you wrote a book that can help people through a rough patch. I think it’s tremendous that you put into words how hard it can be, because it will help others not feel so far off the mark when they’re not in love with their situation, and reminds us that everything changes.



Anyone who enjoys exploring the connections that bind families together, who finds solace in the kitchen, or who has questions about faith should grab a copy of Recipe For Joy. But if you know a stepmom, particularly one who is having a hard time, you should get a copy for her. It is a tremendous gift to know you’re not alone.

Click this link to buy the book – get it for only $10 through May 19

Click this link for some of Robin’s other recipes.


What’s your favorite food to make to connect with your family?