It’s been a big June for Gabe Durham. His new book. Fun Camp, was released by Publishing Genius, after original publisher Mud Luscious Press called it a day. In its kaleidoscopic, collage-centric view of a week in the life of a summer camp, Durham achieves moments both terrifying and hilarious. This on its own would merit all sorts of accolades, but evidently Durham’s fond of staying busy; this month has also seen his announcement of the creation of Boss Fight Books, a publisher dedicated to short books on video games. The Kickstarter campaign to fund the press has presently exceeded the $5000 goal by a factor of four. Not bad at all.
Did you have the weeklong structure in mind as you began to write Fun Camp, or did this start to come together after you’d written some of the pieces?
Definitely the latter. After I’d been working on these pieces for awhile, I collected what I had and showed them to several writers. There were maybe 60 pieces at this point. And as I sent off the doc file, I became aware that the order seemed way too random. I thought, “This needs an organizing principle, like Days of the Week.” And then after they read it, one of my readers said, “This needs an organizing principle. Have you considered Days of the Week?” And really, there was never another contender.
Were you drawing from some of your own experiences going to (or working at) a summer camp? Certain details — the percentages of meal portions, for one — felt all too specific.
Oh yeah, I was mining my own experience lots, though the idea of “food portioning as subconscious reward system” was invented. But I’m glad it sounds plausible!
The David Bazan thing happened in real life as described. So did the Family Matters skit. But more often, there was a healthy mix of reality and invention. I sort of don’t want to cop to this because a couple of people have praised my creativity for it, but the “warm fuzzies” (little notes campers send to each other) were plucked wholesale from the camp I went to in high school. The lake pirates came from that same camp. The “Japanese submarine” skit came from multiple camps.
How did you find the right tone for certain segments of it? “Holly’s Lament” has the quality of an aphorism, while the letters from Billy could stand as their own epistolary narrative.
I think maybe it’s the effect of generating a lot of material and then whittling like crazy, revising toward whatever feeling or idea I think is most interesting. So like you say, sometimes that becomes aphoristic, other times discursive, other times narrative. At a certain point in the generating of pieces, I became aware that the form allowed for certain opportunities that I hadn’t yet taken. For instance, I wrote many of the comment cards (Suggestion, Question, Complaint) specifically to give some of the weightier longer pieces more room to breathe.
In “Like the Salmonella & Brownie Batter Thing,” you write about the dangers of childhood. Was that based on a true incident?
Yes: Chubby Bunny was a beloved game where you tried to stuff as many marshmallows into your mouth as possible while still being able to say “chubby bunny.” It’s also true that a kid somewhere asphyxiated or choked while playing, and so it was explained to us that this year we would not be playing any Chubby Bunny.
Maybe rightly so–it’s tough to say. You can’t shut down all the activities during which children have died. The question, then, is whether the game is worth the risk. Our speaker in Fun Camp says yes, definitely, whereas I’m not married to Chubby Bunny. I never loved overeating mallows for the abundance of the chalky substance that keeps them all from sticking together in the bag.
Throughout the novel, I found a subtle narrative about faith, and the questioning of it — including the cameo by David Bazan. Was that a theme present from the outset?
Ha, well, no themes were present at the outset. But once I began exploring the camp as a space, I just started diving into some of my own camp experiences, which were dominated by their Christian context. There are times when I forget just how much of that material made it in here, and then I re-read and go, “There’s so much spiritual stuff.”
Fun Camp’s truth is that there’s an ideal every camper should be striving to be: A loud-singing hard-pranking food-throwing hellion who also does whatever he or she is told. And many religious corners also push a pretty rigid example of what a good kid is, when the truth is probably something closer to the lyrics of “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.” But I think what animated me here was less the questioning of faith itself but the question, “Where do we get off giving kids the impression we’re so sure of ourselves?” as well as some observations on spirituality as one of the many high-highs of adolescence.
How does “Al” fit into the overall narrative?
As with “Grogg Corners a Camper,” I had an idea for a very specific register, a way of speaking that didn’t quite exist. It was based on a mysterious and beautifully typewritten submission I read years ago while an intern at the Massachusetts Review. It was called “Billy,” about a boy in the Old West who’s fed up because everyone wants him to be like Billy the Kid. Billy gets an STD, kills a man, and flees town with his sweetheart. It was true that the story’s beauty came from an unintentional place, but I wasn’t making fun of her when I read “Billy” to anyone who’d listen.
In “Roy” (+ “Al” and “Richard”) our speaker is the camp nurse, who makes up stories to tell kids as she patches them up. It’s one of the most “out there” threads and a part of me is surprised it made it in, but books like Fun Camp ought only to be so tidy.
Fun Camp was originally slated to be published by Mud Luscious; since their closure, its publisher is now Publishing Genius. What was the process of finding a new publisher that close to its publication date like?
There was about a day and a half where I was really down about it. MLP had accepted a draft of the manuscript two years earlier, and it felt like this thing I’d waited for for so long was now suddenly not going to happen. Failure feelings, all that. But behind the scenes, both J.A. Tyler and Mike Young talked to Adam Robinson before I did, independently landing on the idea that it’d make a lot of sense for Adam to put my book out. I also had that idea, but didn’t want to move forward until the final word got out that MLP was no more. (A cool coincidence: Adam had been the one to do the layout for my book while it was at MLP, so he’d already read and liked it.)
I talked to Adam on the phone for an hour, and we had our agreement. I was so relieved. Adam designed a new cover with me cheerleading over email, and we had it off to the printers only a couple days behind schedule.
When did you first get the idea to start Boss Fight Books?
I had the big idea for Boss Fight just a few months ago. I wondered if “33 1/3 for games” existed, it didn’t, and I couldn’t believe it. Excitement would come later, but in the moment it felt more like a shrug: “Reckon it better be me then.” It’s been a blast since then.
I love games but was shamefully under-read when it game to games criticism, which is such a rich field. So I’ve been gorging myself. It’s also been really rewarding to work with Ken on covers, with Jesse Grce on the Kickstarter video, with our five authors on the beginnings of their books, and to correspond with readers about where they’d like to see the series go.
How did you go about selecting the first group of five authors?
Ken Baumann came first. He dared me to actually do the series; I dared him to write one. Michael Kimball was next–Adam Robinson told me about his Galaga obsession and I had to know more. Once I had my two literary guys in place, I knew I had to find some real game writers. I asked for recommendations on Facebook and they came flooding in: Anna, Darius, and Jon were all mentioned in that thread along with many others.
I read widely for a couple of weeks–everything I could find, including Anna’s fist book, Jon’s longform journalism in Kill Screen, and Darius’ influential “FUCK VIDEOGAMES” essay. When I was sure, I made my pitch to the authors, a crazy-long email outlining the whole plan. When they each graciously agreed to do it, I had my team. Now I just want to read everything they’ve been working on for Boss Fight, but patience, patience.