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.




Full-Assed Friday: Best In Shelter

Hey. It’s Full-Assed Friday. And I have a guest post. Sweet!

When Julie Davidoski from Go Guilty Pleasures first contacted me about doing a guest post I was pretty psyched. Her timing is so good she oughtta be a drummer. I’m working a second gig this week and have clashing show tunes duking it out for my last remaining brain cells. It’s not pretty. I’ve spent the past hour trying to write a coherent introduction for her post.

Julie claims that she doesn’t do much that’s full-assed, but I beg to differ. She certainly saved my ass this week. Here, she interviews her friend who works with an excellent pet rescue shelter in our state.

Best in Shelter

by Julie Davidoski

 Unlike our beloved Accidental Stepmom, I don’t do a whole lotta things full-assed. Don’t believe me? Examine the 4-foot tall weeds in my backyard, or, if you dare, my spice cupboard. When it comes to raising my dog, Uncle Jesse, however, my derriere is unequivocally rotund.

Uncle Jesse is a multi-generational Australian labradoodle I purchased in 2010 from a well-respected breeder, after hours (days, weeks) of research to find a dog compatible with my husband’s allergies. I wouldn’t trade Uncle Jesse for anything (not even a lifetime supply of champagne and E.L. Fudge cookies), but I often question my decision not to adopt.

Recently, I interviewed friend and animal advocate, Jennifer Brewer. I’m excited to share our conversation, with the sincere hope that you might spread the word.


J. Davidoski: Tell us about your organization. Also why that does or does not make you a better person than me.

J. Brewer: 1. No way I’m a better person than you. 1a. Actually, there’s no way I’d admit to being a better person while you’re blogging about me. 2. I’m involved with 11th Hour Rescue in Rockaway, NJ. They pull high risk animals from shelters, and find them homes. They do not euthanize;  even difficult to place dogs are kept until they are adopted.

J. Davidoski: How did you get involved?

J. Brewer: My husband and I are supreme dog lovers. During the five years we lived in an apartment that didn’t allow pets, he converted me from a “pedigree” dog person to a “shelter” dog person. He told me about the feeling of rescuing a dog’s life. He’s persuasive.

When we bought a home, I went online to find a rescue, and I found 11th Hour. I decided we would adopt from them.

J. Davidoski: So you were always an animal lover? Remember our Janis Joplin jackets with the fake fur trim? Could we have gotten more attention with real fur?

J. Brewer: We couldn’t have gotten more attention no matter what we tried.

J. Davidoski: What should you be wary of before adopting a dog, and specifically a shelter dog?

J. Brewer: Spend time with the animal BEFORE you commit. #2 – if a shelter doesn’t ask for references, walk away. They don’t tell you the truth about the animal’s history.

J. Davidoski: Like that unpaid parking ticket [your dog] Shunderson had. What about parents? Are there other considerations?

J. Brewer: Parents should adopt animals. Teach your kids about generosity and compassion. Like every activity with your kids, be involved – make sure you’re getting the right animal. Many people just want a puppy…now. They have no plan for after Christmas, when their kids won’t pick up the poop in the blizzard.

J. Davidoski: Related question: If you could send one message to potential pet owners, what would it be? (Besides picking an awesome name, like, I don’t know, Uncle Jesse.)

J. Brewer: Shelters are never fuller than at the beginning of the year – when the holiday glow has worn off and people have abandoned their now unwanted presents.

J. Davidoski: So if I have a Slap-Chop, will they take that, too?

J. Brewer: You’re on your own with that shitty gift. And, let me just say, that pitbulls are FABULOUS. They were bred to be nanny dogs, to watch children and love their families.

J. Davidoski: Hey. That reminds me. Though I don’t know why. What kind of dog do you have?

J. Brewer: Well… I… er… have a pit.

Editor’s Note: Brewer owns a gorgeous pitbull-mix, Shunderson, a former shelter dog. He’s one of the sweetest pooches I’ve ever met. He’s twice the size of my boy, and puts up with Uncle Jesse’s sassiness like a saint.

Jennifer and Shunderson


J. Davidoski: Do you get dirty looks at the dog park?

J. Brewer: I wish that was all we got. People ask us to leave, to leash Shunderson until they can take their dog out. Ridiculous. Do I have enough money to let my dog maul someone????

J. Davidoski: Very similar to what happens when I go outside without make-up.

J. Brewer: You go outside without make-up????

J. Davidoski. Well. No. But imagine! What’s the biggest obstacle in overcoming the number of unwanted pets?

J. Brewer: People think shelter dogs are bad. They’re far less damaged than most people I know. Besides, TONS of shelter dogs are surrendered by breeders and pet stores who couldn’t unload them. If you want a certain breed or age, the right dog can be rescued. Purebred puppies are stuck in shelters, too. And they’re euthanized.

J. Davidoski: After reading this article, people will be dying to know how they can get involved.

J. Brewer: Donations. $10 matters. Dropping off old towels and blankets. Bleach and paper towels are the biggest request of every shelter. But the best way is to go on and find the rescue nearest you. If you want a dog, ADOPT. The average cost of basic food, supplies, care and training for a shelter dog or cat is $700 to $875 annually. I hope people donate… and to local shelters. I love the ASPCA, but they have LOTS of donations.

J. Davidoski: Yes, that’s why I asked – people think their donations get lost in the sauce.

J. Brewer: For pet owners, when you go to Petsmart, give the buck at checkout to help homeless animals. They can’t get jobs. They can’t collect unemployment. There’s no bailout for pitbulls.

J. Davidoski: They can’t even play guitars and write signs asking for money.

J. Brewer: Exactly. If you can’t donate or volunteer, spay or neuter your pet. The world needs animals, just not anymore than it already has.

J.Davidoski: Okay. I am so keeping you from [more] booze. Is there anything else you would like to share?

J. Brewer. More than FIVE MILLION animals are killed in U.S. shelters EVERY YEAR.


J. Davidoski: I am picking up what you are putting down. Thank you!!!

J. Brewer: Crazy dog lady, over and out.


I hope you’ll take a minute to check out Julie’s blog and the shelter site:

Julie Davidoski: Go Guilty Pleasures

The Shelter: 11th Hour Rescue



Full-Assed Friday: Ural

My friend Jason drives a Ural.

A Russian-designed sidecar motorcycle. That he commutes to the city in.


I think it’s badass, and therefore a fine candidate for Full-Assed Friday.

Jason was kind enough to meet me between shows on a Wednesday and for the small bribe of a grande triple-shot iced vanilla latté, talk to me about his Full-Assed commuter vehicle.

So. Why a Ural?

Well, first of all it’s cool. But when my wife and I moved to New Jersey we thought we were going to need a second car. I knew it would be a beater and I was going to end up being the one who drove it, so I suggested this instead, because you can pretty much drive them year-round.

What’s the history of the Ural?

Supposedly in about 1940, before the Nazi invasion of Russia, Stalin’s engineers got ahold of five BMW R71’s from Swiss intermediaries. They reverse engineered them and made the Ural. They were manufactured in Leningrad until the mid 1940’s, when production was moved to a town called Irbit, in the Ural mountains. They were purely for military use until the 1950’s and then they began making consumer models, but still only for sale in the Soviet Union. They gradually began to export them to European countries, but it wasn’t until after the collapse of the Soviet Union- somewhere around ’91 or ’92- that they began to export them to the US. Today the US is the largest importer of them in the world.

How has the design changed over time?

The only significant change is they upgraded the electrical system on the newer models. It has an electric start now, which it didn’t used to have, but it still has the old kick start. It has an Italian alternator now- a Denso- and a disc brake on the front. The metallurgy is better, just from the evolution of metallurgy. Other than that it’s the same bike.

What model do you have?

Mine is a 2007, which I bought at Adirondack Ural. There aren’t very many of these around, and so not many people that deal with them. It’s more like an ATV that you can ride on the street than a motorcycle. Because they’re so unique and uncommon, it tends to be a pretty eccentric group of people who ride them. There’s an online community of Ural owners who are a wealth of information. They’re the ones who made it possible for me to get the bike back on the road after my accident.


Tell me about your accident.

I was stopped, facing a van in a turn lane. We were both making opposite left turns. Everything looked clear and I went but a car came flying from behind the van right at me. The car hit my sidecar side, I flew off, and then the bike flipped. I wasn’t hurt.

I got zero help from my insurance company, but everybody on site was great. The guy that hit me and another witness got out and helped me right the bike and move it off the road, out of the spewing gasoline.

How did the people in the online community help?

They basically made it possible for me to do the repairs. There just aren’t many people who know how to service Urals, so you really rely on the community. I didn’t have the mechanical knowledge before this, and with their help I did everything except the body work.

It is normally a high maintenance kind of bike?

Definitely. It will run pretty much all the time, but in order for it to run well you have to do a lot of tinkering. The good thing is that you can fix it. A Ural comes with a set of tools and you can do just about any mechanical repairs or tweaking on it that you need to with these tools. That’s a big draw to a Ural. It was designed for soldiers to ride, and they needed to be able to fix it in the field while being shot at. It’s so simple it’s like a giant lawnmower.

What’s the draw to motorcycles for you?

I grew up with them. My grandpa was a biker. I rode a motorcycle before I rode a bicycle. I started on motorcycles at age five and didn’t ride a bicycle until I was about thirteen.

What kind of motorcycle did you have at age five?

It was a Suzuki RM50 that belonged to my neighbor. We were in Detroit and moved out to the country when I was five, and my neighbor was a big Motocross guy. He was sponsored by Honda and placed 8th nationally in the AMA one year. A farmer near us let him set up a track in a corner of a field he wasn’t using, and he taught me how to ride.

Your grandpa was a biker- was he affiliated?

There was a big biker war across the Detroit River with Canada that he was somehow involved in. I think he may have been in and out of clubs, but he was mostly done with that by the time I can remember. He and my grandma still had the lifestyle though. He was covered in tattoos and had this really long ZZ Top beard. I didn’t even know his real name until I was in my teens. It was just “we’re going to Nana and The Beard’s house.”

What kind of bikes did he have?

The one constant that he had up until he passed away was a 1947 mint condition original Indian Chief.


Nice! What happened to it?

He willed it to me, but they didn’t have any savings because, you know, they were bikers. So we sold it so my grandma could get the proceeds. He also had a Road King for a while, a Goldwing, a BMW. The Indian Chief was the constant though, and it only came out on special occaisions. Like they would go for rides on Memorial Day.

How did your grandpa influence you?

He took away the taboo on motorcycles for me. There’s a stigma attached to them which I see past- it’s just a way of life to me. I feel more comfortable on a motorcycle than I do in a car. The first time I ever went fast I was six years old and sitting on his gas tank. He took me screaming past my house at over a hundred miles an hour and as my dad tells the story, he could hear me wailing away over the engine having the time of my life, and my mother started crying. Dad knew I was doomed to ride from then on.

From my dad’s whole side of the family I get that independence thing: be your own person, and if you don’t think something is right, don’t do it. Speak up.

The Ural isn’t a very fast bike, is it?

No. The fastest I’ve ever had it going is 63 miles per hour. It’s kind of like a Jeep in that it may not go very fast, but you can take it anywhere. The frame is all one piece, the side car doesn’t come off. That makes it very sturdy. Then the sidecar has an engageable drive. Most sidecars are just passive, but with this, you can flip a lever, engage the drive, and then it’s like a three-wheeler. You can take it over sand, dirt, rocks, snow, anything.

Who rides in the side car?

My dog will get in it happily up until the point that I start the engine. My wife rides in it and also my friend Emile when we commute in together.

Does your wife like it?

She likes it better now since the accident, because it looks cooler. When I had the body work done I got a custom paint job, put more chrome on it, got to trick it out a little bit. Before the accident, she said she felt like an old person in a bathtub, because it kind of looked like an old man’s bike. But now she says she feels like an eccentric person in a bathtub.

Do you have any trips planned for it?

I want to take it up Mount Washington. I’ve also had a lifelong dream to ride a motorcycle across the country- I probably get that from my grandpa. He had taken the Indian cross-country four or five times.

Through my friend Jake I found out that there’s a network of back roads and two-tracks called the Trans American Trail. It goes from Tennessee to Oregon and barely ever hits pavement. I’ve been planning that trip for a while but it keeps getting pushed back because of life and work. There’s a similar network of roads called the Puppy Dog Route that runs through Vermont, and I’m planning a four day trip there in October. That will be the test. If I can make it through that, I have no concerns about doing the Trans American Trail.

Are all those back roads still there in Vermont since the hurricane?

I guess I’m going to find out! I’m confident that I’ll be able to get through- or around- anything in the Ural. And if I start running out of time, I can just bail and head back.

How about all y’all- do you have a favorite motorcycle story to share? Ever ridden in a side car? What’s your ideal commuter vehicle?

Full-assed Friday is a regular feature on this blog. It’s where I share something interesting, funny, or just plain different. I take suggestions and do guest posts. If you’re interested, contact me at accidentalstepmom at g mail dot com.