Allison's Book Bag

Not Just A Fat Camp Story

Posted on: January 22, 2015

For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

–James Baldwin

The above quote is a favorite of author Jennifer Ruden, whose debut novel Camp Utopia is about sixteen-year-old Baltimore teen Bethany Stern who knows the only way out of spending her summer at Camp Utopia is weight-loss. Desperate, she tries The Forgiveness Diet, whose infomercial promises that all she has to do is forgive her deadbeat dad, her scandalous sister, and the unrequited love of her life. When the diet fails Bethany bids farewell to the camp only to learn that running away isn’t as easy—or as healing—as it seems.


In my biographical research, I mostly found anecdotes and random facts about Jennifer Ruden. Throughout all my searches, what stood out most is that like many published authors she grew up liking to write. Ruden tells Examiner that she loved gathering stories from people. She loved curse words and raunchiness and people’s secrets. She typically embellished things and downright lied. And all these things helped her become a writer. She also shares with Literal Exposure that the first story she ever wrote was in kindergarten. It was about a hippo in ballet class that splits her pants. Ruden goes onto reveal that she recently took her kids to a trampoline park and, lo and behold, she split her pants.:-)

Despite her love of reading and writing, Ruden for years and years to be a veterinarian. She gave up on that dream when she flunked Biology and Chemistry because she didn’t study. According to Literal Exposure, she majored in Psychology so she could figure out why she was so crazy. “Turns out,” Ruden says, “I wasn’t crazy. I was just a writer!”

As an adult, Ruden has worked with teens in non-traditional settings. This has entailed teaching GED for many years, serving JenniferRudenas a reading specialist for teens with learning disabilities, and working in high school as a sort of book club leader. She tries to channel those voices in her writing, which she has taken seriously on and off for about forty years. Ruden states in her Bio that it also helps that she recalls her teenage years more intensely than any other time in her life.

As to what inspired her to first take writing seriously, Ruden tells Literal Exposure that she had a teacher in undergraduate who was getting an MFA in poetry. Ruden had no idea one could get an advanced degree in creative writing, but two years later she herself I was accepted into an MFA program. Now she balances a full-time job and family with writing. However, Ruden also notes in her Bio that she can go months without writing. “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….”


According to Ruden’s Bio, Camp Utopia is only partially a “fat camp” book. Ruden doesn’t think the setting could have been anywhere but a fat camp book, but she also hopes it reaches beyond the confines of Utopia. She herself has never been to a weight loss camp, and so even though she drew upon her own experience as an overweight teen, she wishes foremost for readers to connect with Bethany’s voice regardless of one’s own weight.

When it comes to the plot, Ruden included a cross-country trip because the camp felt so quintessentially California to her, but because she’s from Baltimore she couldn’t imagine beginning the book anywhere else. Also, if it were closer to Baltimore, Bethany would have just hitched a ride on the Turnpike to return to beloved TJ.

As for its roots in magic, Ruden picked up her knowledge from Google. 🙂 She also went to The Magic Shop in Albuquerque, which has a plethora of trick books, and a few magic shows around town too. If given a choice between going to the movies or seeing a magic show, Ruden would choose a magic show.

When it comes to characters, Ruden notes that she grew up in a very diverse city and attended a high school that was mostly African-American. She still lives in a diverse city, as well as teaches in a college that is mostly Hispanic. Therefore, she wanted to write a book whose cast of characters more inclusively reflected the world she inhabits. Other facts include:

  • Those who know Ruden say that she is Bethany’s voice. The name itself comes from Bethany Beach in Delaware, a favorite vacation spot.
  • TJ is loosely based on a really hot guy Ruden liked in early adulthood who had no interest in her.
  • Cambridge is a composite of many friends Ruden feels been blessed to have had over the years.
  • Gabe just slid up on his skateboard in her imagination one day.
  • Liliana reminds Ruden of her students, only raunchier.

Ruden says she told part of Bethany’s story through emails, instant message conversations, and GPS maps, because teens love tech. Well, there’s also the fact Ruden is an aspiring geek herself. When her iPad broke she wept and when she couldn’t get her GPS to work she nearly had a seizure. So, it seemed dishonest to write a contemporary book without technology.

Camp Utopia is Ruden’s debut novel. She has also published short stories and essays in literary publications, been named a finalist in Glimmertrain’s short fiction contest, won an Orlando award for creative nonfiction, received a nomination for the Pushcart prize two years in a row. She lives with her husband, two daughters, two basset hounds and cat in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’ll review Camp Utopia tomorrow. Save the date: January 23!

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