I’m so excited to have two of my favorite gay YA sophomores on the site today, chatting about their newest books! Lev Rosen is the author of Jack of Hearts (and other parts) and Camp, the latter of which released this past Tuesday (along with Jack‘s redesigned paperback), and Cale Dietrich is the author of The Love Interest and the upcoming The Friend Scheme, which releases on July 28! Make sure to check out all four of those titles, and to read on below for their conversation about the books, toxic masculinity, internalized homophobia, and more:
Lev: Hi Cale! I’m so excited to talk to you about your forthcoming novel, The Friend Scheme, and my new novel, Camp, which came out on Tuesday. I really loved your last book The Love Interest, so getting to read The Friend Scheme was very exciting! And I love the setup – closeted son of a mafia family falls for a guy who he knows is the son of the rival mafia family who may be seducing him to destroy his family. Love, lust, trust, betrayal, family loyalty. Who could say no to all that? But let’s get this out of the way: There’s a minor character named Lev in The Friend Scheme, and he’s a shmuck. Should I be deeply insulted or merely offended?
Cale: Hi Lev! First up: DEEPLY OFFENDED. Obviously. Just kidding, that schmuck Lev has nothing to do with you, because I adore you. Jack and Camp are two of my all time favourite-YA books, they’re so smart and really explore the modern queer identity while being fun and romantic. I love them. I’m so happy I get to talk to you about Camp! One of the things I loved most about it was its exploration of masculinity, and the complicated relationship it has with being queer. Was this something you’d always wanted to explore in a novel, or did something inspire you?
Lev: WELL! I shall be deeply offended then. Let me get out my burn book…
And yeah, Camp is so much about navigating patriarchal gender nonsense as a queer man, and how somehow, even when we’re out and proud, that straight mindset can creep in and cause a lot of pain. But the original inspiration was actually old Doris Day/Rock Hudson 60s screwball sex comedies. And, if I’m being honest, the post-modern redo of those movies, Down With Love. That was the big inspiration – I wanted a contemporary queer YA version of those movies, because I love those movies. I love Down With Love. But of course, those movies center around the idea of “the battle of the sexes” – very 60s. And making that queer wasn’t going to work quite right, until I realized it could be battle of the masc/femme. And once that occurred to me, everything fell into place – masc4masc stuff, the summer camp setting. I always love exploring post-coming out stuff, though, so I imagine something would have snuck in there eventually. I just knew it needed to be in a queer space to work. If you’re out in the world with this, straight people are going to seriously interfere and try to tell you that masc gays are better, or femme gays are more fabulous, really try to put you in a category. In an entirely queer space, the characters can play with these ideas of gender performance and it can be seen as just exploring identity. Straight people seldom let queer kids do that. And queer community was so interesting to me in your book, The Friend Scheme, as well, because it’s Matt’s lack of queer community that really kind of puts him in this impossible situation – he’s closeted and has no queer friends, so the first one that comes along becomes his everything, his entire community, and he has to rely on that one person so much that it becomes dangerous. I was wondering if that was intentional? Like, did you go into this wanting to show the dangers of being an isolated queer person?
Cale: AHHH. I wonder who else is in that burn book!
INTERESTING. You mention that the straights in relation to saying masc gays are better, or femme gays are more fabulous etc, but what do you think about the pressures of being masculine coming from within the gay community itself? To me it feels like there is a lot of pressure on social media and the like within the gay world to live up to a certain standard of masculinity, (which is really rubbish). I understood why Randy decided to act more masc to attract Hudson – scroll Instagram and you’ll see a specific type of gay sexuality continually heralded as the most attractive – the buff, masc gym gay. I’m just wondering where you think the pressure on gay guys to be masculine is coming from — is it from straight people, or is it from other gay men?
As for TFS and Matt being isolated, absolutely! I think we were both trying to explore queer masculinity in two different ways, which I think is so great and I’m so bummed we no longer share a release date so we could be a double feature! To me, Matt’s whole story is about him not living up to the kind of man his father wants him to be, and a lot of that has to be with his masculinity. As much as he tries to push himself into the guy that his family set out for him, he only really finds happiness once he starts accepting he isn’t the kind of guy his dad wants him to be. I was trying to explore that feeling through a genre story. And to answer your question: it was intentional! I did want to show how that lack of support and community can be incredibly painful, especially when you’re cut off from them by being closeted. I ratcheted things up to fit the genre, but mostly I was trying to explore how that feels. I don’t want to spoil anything but hopefully the epilogue shows how things can improve once you’ve found a queer community!
Lev: The Burn Book is large and long. Top of the list right now is whoever is responsible for the pre-9AM jackhammering directly outside my window during all this social distancing. They are a terrible human being.
And yeah, Camp deals with that internalized homophobia, too, the way the community can essentially take part in that! But I think that problem isn’t exactly exclusive to the gay community. It’s a problem of patriarchy and toxic masculinity – being queer doesn’t save you from that. It can even make it worse; when Hudson starts to explore why he values masculinity so much, it comes out that it’s a form of protection. A lot of “masc4masc” guys think it makes them better because it makes them pass as straight, it makes them acceptable to straight people – which is something I don’t think queer people need to be worrying about. Because while being queer doesn’t save you from the patriarchy, it gives you an opportunity to sidestep it. Being gay is a gift. When you come out, you have a chance to step aside from all that nonsense and look at patriarchy and say “okay, so I’m not into ladies like they want me to be, which makes me less of a man, supposedly, but… what if all those ideas were nonsense? What if everything is meaningless and behaviors we attribute to genders are made up? What if I get to be whatever I want, and fuck gender conforming?” Being given that opportunity – and I genuinely think its a lot harder for straight people to be given it – is a gift. Sadly, its not one a lot of gay people unwrap because coming out is so traumatic for them that they cling to the patriarchy even harder than straight people do, hoping it will make them not actually straight again (well, probably some of them), but make them essentially “count as” straight in the eyes of society. And that sucks so hard for them. There’s nothing wrong with being “masc-acting” and queer (in Camp, Brad fills that role, that’s just who he is, there’s no performance). But to be trapped feeling like you have to be masc acting, like it effects your value as a human being? That’s awful. So I actually feel sorry for those guys on instagram. I mean, I have no problem with a guy who’s built and bearded or whatever (I, myself am bearded, and I DO have a build). But a guy who says he’s “manly” or “masc” – that’s where it gets sad for me. And those guys being more praised for their masculinity by the community makes me sad, too. Like… we were all given this gift guys. Unwrap it.
And yes! Friend Scheme is all about a very old school, very blunt form of masculinity. I keep thinking “murder is masculine,” so you should see if that can be the tagline of your novel. I think, in fact, Matt’s whole story is about having that gay gift I talk about – his queerness is what allows him to see himself outside this mold they try to put him in, this future they want for him. And I love how you somehow manage to combine that exciting mafioso action with what is essentially a really sweet romance. You did it in The Love Interest, too. And they’re both about how these guys know they’re not who they’re supposed to be and fall for a guy who they know they can’t trust. It makes me think about dating in the closet, how you want to be with this person but also by being with them you’re kind of giving them the power to destroy your life. Is that why that theme comes up for you? Do you think dating as a queer person is more fraught with issues of distrust?
Cale: This is such a good answer!!! I agree with everything you say. It’s such a complicated issue, and I’m so happy that you explore it in Camp, as I think it’s a question that’s extremely relevant to modern queer people. I’m such a fan of yours!! Ah!
Omgosh, “murder is masculine,” is the perfect tagline for TFS! I love it! And I totally agree about Matt having the gay gift that you talk about – it is 100% what I was going for! I wanted to explore exactly what you talk about in your answer — I feel like being queer does force you to have these sorts of conversations with yourself, and makes you see yourself outside of the mold people try to put you in. That leads to a lot of questioning and growth. As for the danger of dating in the closet – that has appealed to me as it just made sense for the characters and the stories I was trying to tell – it definitely adds a layer of distrust and danger and that’s what my books are sort of built on! But my book three hero is out and proud, so I think I’ve explored closeted characters as much as I would like to (for a while, anyway).
I’m really curious, what would be your response to someone who says that they have a preference for masc guys?
Lev: I mean, I think I’d say that’s fine. Randy clearly is into Hudson is who is masc… but I think it’s also worth interrogating your own desires. Some people are like “that’s my type, tee-hee, don’t need to think about it,” but if your type is hyper-specific, it worth taking a moment to wonder why. Are you attracted to guys like that because society has always told you to be? Because they represent something you want to be? Because you think being seen with them in public, or by your parents, is what will make people accept you? Is your lust determined by societal approval? Lust isn’t just lizard-brain. Or it can be, but then it gets tempered. I think a lot of about guys who are into plus size women, but never ever admit it. It’s a different issue and I’m not the one to talk about it, but it’s something that happens a lot and at least part of the reason why has to do with societal pressure to punish women for being fat. Likewise, there’s a lot of societal pressure to punish gay men for not being a certain way. And sometimes that effects desire. So if you’re into muscles cause you’re into muscles, cool. But if you’re into “straight-acting” guys, or even just full on straight guys (and many of us have been at some point), ask yourself why. Why do you want someone you know will never want you? Why do you want someone who represents something you’ll never be but which culture is constantly telling you to be? And this can be applied to more than just “masc.”
That being said, I did want to show a character whose masc-ness wasn’t about performance and trying to be the “special gay” who isn’t like those other gays, all in your face, etc. That’s why Brad is there. He’s just as butch as Hudson, but it’s not an entire identity for him. He lets the guy he likes put nail polish on him because it makes that guy happy, he doesn’t care about what his partner is like, socially – even if he clearly likes a man with body hair. And I think that’s the distinction. Are you into a type of guy because of something physical only, or are you into a guy because of something social – some conception of things? A lot of stuff can end up being either, so it’s really about YOU. (and in case anyone is wondering, saying you’re not into a guy because they’re a certain race is always a racist social thing). So yeah, I’d say to a guy “why?” and see what he says. Especially since ‘masc’ is one of those terms that can mean different things to different people. There, that was a long meandering way of getting to the answer. But hey, long meandering way of getting to the answer is just another word for novel.
But I think on that note our word count here is probably becoming perhaps too long and meandering, so I just wanted to say thank you again for talking with me! It was a lot of fun and I’m so excited for people to get their hands on The Friend Scheme. It’s a really fun, sexy novel.
Cale: No, thank you for talking to me! Camp is such a wonderful, important and fun book. I’m so happy teens (and everyone else) will be able to get it starting today!