Lee Gjertsen Malone is the author of Camp Shady Crook, a new middle grade novel for kids. She also has written The Last Boy at St. Edith's. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including MUSE and The Boston Globe Magazine, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Camp Shady Crook, and for your characters Archie and Vivian?
A: I’ve always loved con artist stories – even though I’d make a terrible con artist (I am the worst liar – my face is an open book). And I was thinking about how one of the coolest parts of con artist stories is how they reinvent themselves and create characters to pull of their cons.
And that got me thinking about summer camp, and how for many kids it represents an opportunity to be a slightly different version of yourself, surrounded by new people who don’t know who you are at home. Which, in the roundabout way my mind works, makes it the perfect setting for the kind of con artist story I always wanted to write.
As for characters, Archie sprang almost fully formed onto the page. His first chapter – since the book is told in alternating chapters –was the first thing I wrote when I originally had the idea, and it remains remarkably similar to the first draft.
Vivian was harder to find, as a character. What helped me was thinking of her as first and foremost a New York City kid. I grew up in the burbs, but I married a native New Yorker, and there’s a combination of worldliness/comfort with different situations crossed with a high level of suspicion that seems unique to people who grew up in big cities, especially NYC. And that is exactly Vivian.
Q: As you mentioned, the novel is set at a summer camp. How important is setting to you in your writing?
A: I love settings. I spend a lot of time thinking about settings, looking at pictures online, and visiting places that help me see where the action happens. In the case of Camp Shady Crook I took one of the most beautiful places I know – Vermont – and made it into a very disappointing and ugly setting for a camp. (Sorry Vermont.)
But through that research have this picture in my mind of what you might expect going to camp-- from movies, brochures, and listening to other people’s stories....and then the way disappointment would wash over you when you stepped off the bus at this camp!
Q: In our previous interview, you said you tend to write endings early on in the process. Was that the case this time around as well?
A: Yes, that is true. I’m not a outliner, and I’m not even a linear writer – I skip around a lot – so I’ve learned I need a destination in mind if I’m ever going to get through a story.
With Camp Shady Crook’s, I knew early on in the first draft the ending would be at the end of camp, because, that’s sort of an obvious conclusion to a camp story. I knew how I wanted the two main characters would stand with each other in terms of relationship.
And I actually wrote the last line within two weeks of starting the project, because it ties together one of their early experiences as rivals with how their relationship has progressed by the end.
Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?
A: Most of my stories are escapist, in the sense that they are an opportunity to read about kids doing things that most kids should probably never try. Often times people ask me about consequences and punishments and all that – usually grown up people. But kids know that my characters are going to get in trouble for what they do – kids know all about getting in trouble.
What I’m more interested in kids seeing is the internal consequences. That moment of “Oh no, what have I done?!??!” When readers talk to me about how Jeremy in my first book felt when his pranks hurt people he cared about, that’s when I feel like I’ve done my job. The same is true in this story. The kids make mistakes – a lot of mistakes – but the real lesson is in how they solve the problems they create and make amends.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m very close to finishing a project that is a bit of a secret, but I can tell you it involves a family of traveling magicians, a touristy beach town in coastal Maine, and identical twins -- even though as a twin, I swore I’d never write a twin story because I disliked them such much as a kid reader myself.
So I’m calling this a twin story for people who hate stories about twins. (Like me.)
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Lee Gjertsen Malone.