Jenny Ruden has published short stories and essays in Nerve, Salon, Eclectica Magazine, Literary Mama and High Desert Journal. She won an Orlando award for creative nonfiction, was named a finalist in Glimmertrain’s short fiction contest, and has been nominated for the Pushcart prize two years in a row. She has worked with teenagers for over ten years as a teacher of Reading, Writing and GED, and has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Oregon. She lives with her husband, two daughters, two basset hounds and cat in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
She does a flawless impersonation of a normal person. Don’t be fooled. She’s a writer.
- My neighbor growing up was named TJ. He was not a magician, though, and I never let his doves out (he only had a guinea pig)
- I grew up near Falls road and my family has lived in and around Baltimore for 4 generations. Having lived in many cities around the U.S. I am still charmed most by Baltimore
- Bethany is named after Bethany Beach in Delaware, a favorite vacation spot
- I’ve never been to fat camp, but as a teen I would stare at the ads in the back of magazines and wish I could attend.
- I’ve always been a bit intrigued by counter-culture and even hit the punk scene a little hard myself. I shaved my head and drove a pink car. Yet, I was also a cheerleader. I think there’s a little bit of misfit in all of us, and I have always been drawn to that misfit in my characters.
Q&A with Jenny:
1. You’ve worked with teenagers for over fifteen years. What has your experience taught you about how they connect and what they connect to? How did that influence your writing?
I have worked with teens in non-traditional settings almost exclusively. In other words, I never taught high school formally, but I did teach GED for many years. I also worked in high school as a sort of book club leader and as a reading specialist for teens with learning disabilities. I think this allowed me to see teens in a different way than, say, a teacher or parent or even friend. For the most part, the teens ignored me, which was wonderful. This allowed me to hear their voices unedited. Therefore I tried to channel those voices in my writing. What also helped is that I remember my teenage years more intensely than any other time in my life. I sometimes forget to wear matching socks, but, for some reason, I vividly remember my junior and senior years of high school.
2. Is Camp Utopia a “fat camp” book?
Yes and no. I don’t think the story could have happened anywhere else, but I do hope it reaches beyond the confines of “Utopia.” After all, I’ve never been to a weight loss camp, and even though I drew upon my experience as an overweight teen, I hope readers will connect with Bethany’s voice regardless of one’s own weight because, really, who cares. I think what’s more defining is the feeling of leaving home for the first time—all the angst and self-doubt that can inspire. Plus, I think summer camp is awesome. Where else can you get such an eclectic group of people who, under other circumstances, would never meet? I love all the drama such a situation evokes.
3. Some of Bethany’s story is told through emails, instant message conversations, and GPS maps. What led you to incorporate these story elements?
Most teens love tech and though I am very far from my teenage years, I’m an aspiring geek myself. Last week, when my iPad broke, I wept like an infant. Then, when I couldn’t get my GPS to work, I nearly had a seizure. HOW WILL I FIND MY OWN WAY, I screamed. SIRI, I NEED YOU! Anyway, it would seem dishonest to write a contemporary book without technology, in my view. Plus, I love a good road trip and although we have GPS to guide us, we still get lost. That’s what makes technology so complicated. It never works perfectly. Technology is very human in that way.
4. Bethany is from Baltimore, but finds herself trapped for the summer at a weight-loss camp held at an elite university in California. Why the cross-country trip?
Perhaps because I am from Baltimore I couldn’t imagine beginning the book anywhere else. However, the camp felt so quintessentially California to me. It just wouldn’t have worked to have had Utopia in Buffalo or Ohio. Plus, if it were closer to Baltimore, Bethany would have just hitched a ride on the Turnpike to return to beloved TJ. I can totally see her doing that.
5. Camp Utopia has some roots in magic—where did you pick up your expertise on the Balducci levitation?
There’s this great tool called Google. I don’t think I could have written the book without it! I also went to The Magic Shop in Albuquerque, which has its own cult of followers and a plethora of trick books. I went to a few magic shows around town too. One in particular was very impressive. The magician was originally from Albuquerque and he’d “made it” in Vegas. He’d returned for a show and did a lot of great tricks (color changing clothing, flash-powder, and doves were featured heavily). Unlike TJ, I also love Penn & Teller and have seen them live twice. Truthfully, if given a choice between going to the movies or seeing a magic show, I would choose a magic show. I’m a little obsessed with it.
6. You poke some fun at our weakness towards infomercials and how we believe what we see on TV. Why do you think Americans will buy (and buy into) anything?
I think this occurs for the same reason a 40 year old woman (who shall remain nameless) finds herself frequenting magic shows. Most people want to believe in something—even if it defies logic. I see it in my students. I see it in my children. I see it in myself. I try to be a wise consumer. I’ve taught media criticism and yet, I just spent $100 on a ninja blender. It will probably die in a week. Perhaps more pointedly, people will do anything to lose weight. Deep down we all know it’s about portion control and exercise and genetics, sure, but maybe, just maybe, this (insert fat suit, pill, weight-loss tea, diet) will work. The diet industry reaps 20 BILLION dollars in profit EVERY year. Not because people think these far-fetched promises won’t work, but because people think they will.
7. Your characters are diverse and relatable. Are any, especially Bethany, based on anyone in particular?
People have told me they think Bethany’s voice is mine, but I think she’s funnier and braver.
Cambridge is a composite of many friends I’ve been blessed to have had over the years.
Gabe just slid up on his skateboard in my imagination one day. I wish I had a Gabe in my young life. TJ is loosely based on a really hot guy I liked in early adulthood who had no interest in me whatsoever. Liliana reminds me of many of my students, only raunchier.
Even Hollywood has some roots in those girls we’ve all encountered in one capacity or another. I grew up in a very diverse city (Baltimore) and attended a high school that was mostly African-American. I now live in a diverse city (Albuquerque) and teach in a college that is mostly Hispanic. I wanted to write a book whose cast of characters more inclusively reflected the world I inhabit.
8. Cult teen dramas about misfits like Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, and Huge still have loyal fans. Why do you think they’ve developed the followings they have, and how would Camp Utopia appeal to them?
I think it’s universal to worry about one’s place in the sun. We all worry that our inner “freak” or “misfit” is showing and shove them back inside. Then we get lonely and watch TV about other people struggling with their inner freak or misfit. I say, let ‘em out. Sign them up for camp. Nothing can live without sunlight.
9. Camp Utopia on screen: any plans for a film version? Who do you envision in the roles?
I totally hope someone makes a movie of this. I don’t know the famous people who would play the campers because none of them really look like famous people in my imagination. Hollywood would be easy to cast, though. Just choose an actress who isn’t fat, but one tabloids love to claim is. No shortage of those. As for the adults, I think Miley Cyrus would make a good Miss Marcia and I always pictured Bethany’s dad as a Jack Black type. Taylor Lautner maybe for TJ?
10. What inspires you as a writer? Where do you write? Any special rituals or advice for other writers?
People inspire me to write more than anything, but, as far as my writing process is concerned, I tend to hold everything in. I don’t write a scene 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 lock myself in a room and write like a maniac. It’s not a good process or even a healthy one, but it’s mine and you don’t want to f*ck with your process.