“CAMP” by Lev AC Rosen explores toxic masculinity and its effects on the younger members of the LGBTQ+ community

From the author of Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts), a sweet yet sharp screwball comedy critique of MASC4MASC culture and toxic masculinity within the queer community.

Camp follows 16-year-old Randy Kapplehoff as he falls for another boy called Hudson while staying at Camp Outland, a camp for queer teens where Randy met all his best friends and takes to the stage in the big musical. The only problem is, Hudson is only into ‘straight-acting’ guys and barely knows that Randy exists.

This year, though, he decides things are going to be different. He gives up show tunes, unicorn bedsheets and nail polish and rebrands himself as the buff and masculine ‘Del’ to win over Hudson. The plan works, and the two teens grow close, but Randy is left questioning how much he’s wiling to change for love – and if it’s really love if he’s not being true to himself.

Lev wrote a widely shared article for The Guardian about the importance of LGBTQ+ sex education and his work has been acclaimed for its realistic, nuanced and unfiltered exploration of the realities of queer teen sexuality. Lev admits that his school sex education involved putting condoms on fruit and suggests that we need that we become much more creative – and fun!

Lev Rosen is the author of books for all ages. Two for adults: All Men of Genius (Amazon Best of the Month, Audie Award Finalist) and Depth (Amazon Best of the Year, Shamus Award Finalist, Kirkus Best Science Fiction for April). Two middle-grade books: Woundabout (illustrated by his brother, Ellis Rosen), and The Memory Wall. His first Young Adult Novel, Jack of Hearts (and other parts) was an American Library Association Rainbow List Top 10 of 2018.  His books have been sold around the world and translated into different languages as well as being featured on many best of the year lists, and nominated for awards. 

CAMP, his new book, will focus on the cause and effect of MASC4MASC culture and toxic masculinity within the gay male community and what effect this can have on the younger members of our community.

How would you describe this book?

Camp is about Randy Kapplehoff, a queer, nail polish wearing, unicorn loving theater kid, who for the past 4 summers has been attending Camp Outland, an LGBTQIA+ summer camp, and for the past 4 summers has been wildly in love with Hudson Aaronson-Lim, a masc4masc jock who doesn’t know Randy exists.  So this year, Randy comes back playing the ultimate role: Del, a masc4masc dream.  He plans to win Hudson’s heart as Del, and once they’re in love, gradually slide back into being himself, staying in love the whole time.  But as you might expect, things don’t go quite as planned.  

How long did it take you to write this book? Is it based on a true story?

It didn’t take too long.  I pitched it on spec (meaning just the first few chapters and an outline), but once it was bought, because of publishing deadlines and seasons and the differences between them in different countries, I had to finish it in about 3 months – “crashing it” we call it.  Normally there’s a lot more time.  But the book was already so alive in my head it wasn’t hard to get it out so fast.  And it’s not based on a true story, no.  I went to a summer camp, and physically Camp Outland is modeled on it, but I went to a Jewish summer camp.  Very very different.  

Where did you get your inspiration from?

Well the idea for Camp was to take those sixties screwball sex comedies with Doris Day and Rock Hudson and make them into a modern queer story.  I’d just written something with teens, and all the disguises and plans for love feels very teenage to me, so I made it YA, and I’d been wanting to do a summer camp book, and the ideas just clicked together.  It was exciting writing such a big queer book, too.  But yeah, the inspiration is Doris Day and Rock Hudson – hence the names (Doris Day’s real surname was Kapplehoff).  

You have written several books for different ages and of different genres. What do you most enjoy writing and which is your preferred target group?

I don’t have a preference – they’re each different and great in different ways, though what I gravitate towards does vary with my mood.  I think writing for adults is fun because adults are always trying to figure it out before you, everything is kind of a detective story with them – what’s going to happen next? – the predict things, they tell themselves they do things the same or differently, so writing for adults is like a dance, or a puzzle, trying to surprise the reader while staying true to the story.  Writing for teens is about creating friends.  Teens really feel books in a way adults don’t – there isn’t that distance, that awareness of the author: they’re just in the story, living it.  So you want characters that feel alive and leap off the page.  And with younger kids, it’s about discovery.  These kids are just learning story structure, just learning the complexities of narratives and how words can make you really feel things, so with them its about showing them something in a way they haven’t seen it.  It’s about finding the magic in the stories and world.  So they’re each fun to write – just depends on the kind of story you want to tell and how it wants to be written.  

Do you think there is enough LGBTQ+ representation in the book industry?

No.  I do not think there will be until there are as many books about queer people as there are books about straight people.  And that includes all books that have ever been written.  So we have some catching up to do.  

Do people read more during the quarantine? How do you spend your time these days?

I don’t know if people read more during quarantine.  I know the publishing industry is freaking out – people are getting laid off all over the place, books delayed for years.  Part of that is we rely so much on people browsing book stores and the happy accident of buying a book because it caught your eye (which is how a lot of sales are made), but part of it is that we don’t know if people are reading more.  I am!  I feel like people should be! But there’s a lot of options for at home entertainment this year.  So I’m reading, doing interviews like these, watching TV.  Probably the same stuff a lot of us are doing.  I still have my weekly Drag Race watching group!  We just all watch on zoom.

What book did you read recently that you will remember for a long time?

The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper.  I think it’s coming out in the UK right around now, and it’s just such a beautiful book that does so many things – the space race, but modern, thoughts on reality TV, living with a parent with anxiety, hidden dreams, first love… it’s astounding how much Stamper managed to weave together and still create this beautiful, heart-wrenching story of queer love.  

How has the LGBTQ+ community reacted to your latest book?

The queer community generally seemed to love Jack of Hearts (and other parts) my book about a queer teen sex advice columnist.  It definitely got a lot of pushback all over the place (it has an anal sex guide in it), but so many queer people have messaged me to let me know how much they wished they had it when they were a teen, or to ask for more specifics on the advice within the book.  So overall, I’ve been thrilled with how the queer community has responded.  

What is the most beautiful comment you have received?

The late great Arnost Lustig once called me a “little genius.”  Specifically, “you little genius, you.”  That’s probably the best thing I’ve ever heard.  But if you mean about my published work and not just class exercises, I think my favorite was an email I got from a guy asking about the blowjob advice in Jack of Hearts, and he ended it with “I promise I’m not actually a teenager, I’m in my 60s” and when I responded with “that’s exactly what two teenagers on each others shoulders in a trench coat would say” he sent me his photo for proof.  He was a DELIGHT to email with.  Best fan interaction I’ve ever had.  

What are your future plans?

Well, I’m trying to sell some more books, but nothing I can talk about yet.  Other than that, I’m just hoping to make it through the current chaos.  

L. C. Rosen said of CAMP:

‘The idea that started this was wanting to write a Doris Day/Rock Hudson style romance but as I wrote that, I realised that what I really wanted to talk about was the idea of the ‘special gay’ – that’s the gay guy who has been told by family and friends that they’re okay with his sexuality, because he’s ‘not like other gays. He conforms to gender stereotypes. He’s butch. People think he’s straight, and tell him so, as a compliment, and he feels special when he hears it.  And I was thinking about how so many of us are told that, and internalise it, and try to become masc, and then only go after masc guys, because they’re the only other ‘special gays’ out there. But I also wanted to explore how because of that, a lot of us end up playing at masculinity – for survival – instead of embracing the power of queerness, the power to step outside patriarchal gender expectations and be who we want to be. CAMP is about what happens when that power is taken away from us for survival? What does it mean to be masc vs just pretending to be masc? And is there really a difference?’’

Praise for Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts)

This Book Is FilthJulian Clary

Readers will be talking about Jack for years to comeDiva Magazine

Jack of Hearts might be the most important queer novel of the decade The Gay Times

Humane, sex-positive writing of the funniest, filthiest and most heartening kind The Guardian

Jack of Hearts is the book I needed growing up as an isolated gay teen in a straight boy’s world Riyadh Khalaf

The affirming, sex-positive, brilliant new book that puts the “adult” into young adult literatureAttitude Magazine

Jack of Hearts is sassy and unapologetically queer, and it dispenses sex advice that could be vital to young adult readers Matt Cain

For teenagers not yet ready to be as out and proud as Jack, his cheerful, filthy advice may well be invaluable Times Literary Supplement

A mix of queer as folk, Miss Marple and Sex and the City…I’ve been taking my time with this book because I don’t want it to end Divina De Camp

Jack of Hearts won my heart!…It’s the book about high school that gives you the sex ed class desperately lacking from high school education Courtney Act

A savvy, switched-on novel… approaches topics like topping and bottoming, virginity, blowjobs… with a sensitive and relatable hand. As a teenager, this advice is invaluable i News

Lev is originally from lower Manhattan and now lives in even lower Manhattan, right at the edge, with his husband and very small cat. You can find him online at LevACRosen.com and @LevACRosen

*all images are courtesy of Lev AC Rosen

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