Thank you, Sourcebooks Fire, for inviting me to be a part of the blog tour celebrating the release of The Summer I Wasn’t Me!
(And psssst — don’t miss the link for the giveaway at the bottom of the page!)
The Summer I Wasn’t Me
By Jessica Verdi
Release date: April 1, 2014
Lexi has a secret…
Ever since her mom found out she was in love with a girl, seventeen-year-old Lexi’s afraid that what’s left of her family is going to fall apart for good.
You are on the road to truth. Help is on the way.
The road signs leading to New Horizons summer camp promise a new life for Lexi—she swears she can change. She can learn to like boys. But denying her feelings is harder than she thinks. And when she falls heads over heels for one of her fellow campers, Lexi will have to risk her mother’s approval for the one person who might love her no matter what.
I’m thrilled to be participating in the blog tour for this terrific young adult novel! Author Jessica Verdi was kind enough to answer my rambling questions for a Q&A:
What inspired you to write this particular story?
When I was toying with ideas for the topic of my second novel, this story really called out to me. I’ve always been fascinated by these so-called conversion camps, places where religious leaders claim they can turn gay kids straight. There is no doubt in my mind that they’re claiming to do the impossible, and that telling LGBTQ kids there’s something wrong with them is nothing short of abuse, but the root behind these camps actually, in a twisted way, stems from a good place. The parents who send their kids to these programs truly believe their children are on the wrong path in life and that they will go to hell if they don’t make a change. These parents are desperate to “save” their kids, in their own misguided way. This is something that has long intrigued me, and a world I knew I wanted to explore in the book.
But it all came together for me when, funnily enough, I was listening to Lady Gaga’s song “Hair.” The chorus of that song goes, “I just want to be myself and I want you to love me for who I am.” And I started thinking about all the kids who aren’t loved for who they are, and that made me so sad. And I knew I had to tell Lexi’s story.
How did you come up with the concept for New Horizons?
Sadly, New Horizons isn’t a concept I came up with on my own. These camps do exist, and have for quite some time. Every single “exercise” or “technique” they use in the book (the role playing, the Father Wound discussions, the gender teachings…) is a real method that came from my research. California and New Jersey have recently outlawed the use of reparative therapy on youths, but there are still 48 states (in our own country alone) to go.
What message would you hope your readers would take from this story?
On a very basic level, I hope Lexi’s story will help readers to know that they are perfect the way they are. And if someone is telling you otherwise (whether they’re criticizing your sexuality, your appearance, your disability, your hobbies and interests, or anything else) they’re the ones who have to take a long, hard look at themselves, and maybe start to make some new choices, not you.
A few about writing:
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
It actually took me a little while before I knew I wanted to be a writer. When I was 27 (5 years ago) I got the idea for a novel. I was pursuing an acting career in New York at the time, and once I started putting the story in my head down on paper, it all clicked for me—this was the way I was really meant to be using my creativity. There’s something so personal and free about writing that you don’t get in acting. When you’re an actor, you have to audition for roles, you have to wait for someone to cast you in something in order for you to even get permission to start. But when you’re writing, you can still be creative, a storyteller, an entertainer, but you get to do it on your own terms.
How did you get started?
After I finished that first novel, I knew it wasn’t quite good enough and I needed to learn more, so I applied for graduate school. In 2010 I started the MFA program in Writing for Children at The New School, and by graduation in 2012 I had an agent and a book deal!
What advice would you give teens who are interested in writing?
Just do it. I think we all get better with each book we write, and the only way to really develop your skills is to just keep writing and writing. I was also once given a great piece of advice that I’ll pass on here: Finish what you start. You often don’t know what a story really is until you get to the end of the first draft and can step away from it, look at it, and see the pieces fall together. Then you go back and revise, and it almost always ends up working better (and usually much differently) than you could have imagined when you started. But you won’t really know until you get to the end, so keep going! If it’s a project you’re really interested in and excited about, don’t give up at page 40 when it gets hard. You might be giving up on something amazing.
And on a lighter note:
What book(s) influenced you the most as a teen?
I’ll never forget the first time I read Wicked by Gregory Maguire. I was in high school, and thought it was a masterpiece (I still do). The writing is stunning, the story is dark and political and raw, and I was so inspired by how Maguire was able to take something so concretely ingrained in the collective consciousness and turn it into something new, making us all question what we thought we knew about Oz all along. I think everyone should read this book—and no, seeing the musical won’t suffice. Sure, the songs are great, but the story has been so drastically altered it barely resembles the book.
Which part of the New Horizons dress code would you have the most trouble with?
Hahaha great question! Um, all of it? 🙂 I’m not a huge fan of pink, and nightgowns are just the worst. But most of all, I’d hate someone telling me what I have to wear. Uniforms, dress codes, black tie events… those things have never exactly gelled well with me. Like Lexi, I like having freedom in how I present myself to the world.
What’s your Monopoly strategy?
Play eagerly for ten minutes and then get super bored and wish someone would just win already so the game can end. Hahaha
Thank you, Jessica, for taking the time to answer my questions!
The Summer I Wasn’t Me takes a surprisingly nuanced approach to a topic that could easily have been handled in a judgmental or even scornful way.
After all, who here thinks a “degayifying” camp is a good idea? The thought of sending a bunch of teens to spend a summer “learning” to be straight, learning how to deny their own feelings and sublimate everything they want into a bizarrely old-fashioned view of “normal” is really abhorrent (well, certainly to me it is).
And yet, in The Summer I Wasn’t Me, it’s not that simple.
Main character Lexi has a very good reason for wanting to attend New Horizons. For her, it’s a last-ditch chance to reconnect with her mother and salvage what’s left of her family. After her father’s death, Lexi watched and suffered as her mother drowned in grief, and discovering that Lexi is gay has sent her over the edge. Misguided or not, Lexi firmly believes that if she can turn herself into the daughter her mother needs, they can be close again and rebuild their relationship.
But as we progress up the mountain, hints that this place is not quite as natural as it first seemed begin to emerge. The tree branches above us have been pruned back from the road. The narrow strip of grass that buffers the road from the tree line has been cropped. Flowers sprout in patterns too perfect to be accidental.
Someone has gone to a lot of trouble to manipulate the raw landscape into some preconceived idea of what nature should look like. Goosebumps trickle across the back of my neck as I realize that’s exactly what they’re going to do to me too.
Others have their own reasons for being at New Horizons as well. Carolyn came out to her family a while ago, and her parents are totally supportive — but after getting her heart not just broken but positively mauled by the girl she loved, Carolyn is convinced that if she allows herself to become involved only with boys, she’ll never risk getting hurt that way ever again. For Matthew, who is happily involved in a great relationship with a boy and completely comfortable in his own skin, attending New Horizons is part of an ultimatum from his father: Complete the program, or don’t bother coming home.
The camp program itself is awful, with its emphasis on traditional gender roles so over the top that girls are required to dress in pink and boys in blue. A camper’s gayness is attributed to the fact that her mother dresses in a “mannish” style and her father didn’t assert himself enough as the head of the household, resulting in the girl’s “confusion” about what men and women are supposed to be.
But as author Jessica Verdi shows, it’s too simplistic to laugh at the teens who come to New Horizons, either hoping to change their lives or being forced into going through the program. They all have wounds to heal, they all have something at stake, and they’re all trying to make the best of a bad situation.
I loved the view into Lexi’s psyche, as we see her struggles and come to understand why this girl from a small Southern town would feel the need to at least try to be straight — even while knowing deep-down that she’ll be lying to herself and everyone around her if she succeeds. Lexi is smart and caring, yearning for love yet also desperate to do whatever it takes to help her mother, even if it means completely denying herself.
The further we get into the book, the more we come to understand the characters, their needs, and how they ended up in this place. Even for those we might feel are misguided, it’s hard not to empathize and to feel indignant on their behalf.
The only discordant note for me in The Summer I Wasn’t Me is the introduction of a plot thread concerning corruption and sexual coercion among the camp administration. In my opinion, this just muddies the waters. While an interesting twist, it felt a bit tangential to the main point of the story. The emphasis of the book is on the teens participating in the program and what they get out of it — which may not have anything to do with what the program is designed to do. I felt that the point about the futility of the program and the needless humiliations it imposes is made strongly just by means of seeing how the summer is managed and the types of activities that the campers are required to engage in; it’s not necessary to have a sexual predator involved in order to show that the camp is a bad idea and does not have a chance of achieving its goals.
But that’s a minor quibble in a book that overall is spot-on in its message and absolutely full of heart.
I found The Summer I Wasn’t Me to be moving, well-constructed and nicely paced, with fully fleshed-out characters facing unique and varied challenges. I came to care for them all a great deal, and the subject matter is dealt with honestly and compassionately. I certainly recommend this book highly, for adult and teen readers, and hope that it will have great success in inspiring conversations and sensitivity amongst its readers. Most of all, I hope this fine book lands in the hands of a teen who really needs it, to see that life is full of options and that love and acceptance starts with loving and accepting oneself.
To enter the giveaway for a copy of The Summer I Wasn’t Me, click on the link below:
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