LC Rosen on ‘Camp’ and writing YA fiction for LGBTQ+ teens

The author's first novel Jack of Hearts instantly became part of the queer canon. His latest novel addresses the aftermath of coming out of the closet. 

Author L. C Rosen. Image: Penguin/Ryan MacEachern

When Lev Rosen was growing up, there weren’t many books for teenagers featuring gay characters. The genre of Young Adult as we know it today was in its relative infancy, and Rosen, a queer kid not fully aware of his sexuality, was in need of some LGBTQ+ characters. Then he discovered Mercedes Lackey's 90s fantasy series The Last Herald Mage

“That was the first time I was exposed to queer characters in a book,” he says over a Zoom call. “It's deeply problematic and I’m not going to sugarcoat that – there's a gang rape scene, and one characters dies and is reincarnated into a 16-year-old and his lover, another man, is 40 or something – but it still holds a place in my heart because it is the first representation I had.” 

It opened his eyes to the possibities of queer relationships and as an adult Rosen – who now lives in lower Manhattan with his husband and their cat, who makes a number of appearances during our call – is paying that forward. The author of two Young Adult books for LGBTQ+ readers, Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) and Camp, published in May this year, Rosen is helping recalibrate and rethink the type of queer stories available to LGBTQ+ teenagers (not to mention a large handful of adults, too). 

“I feel like for a lot of people, especially straight people, they read a coming out story and they see it as an ending,” he says. “But coming out is just the start. The idea that once you're out everything is happy is not at all accurate and I don't think it's a healthy thing to be telling teenagers. I'm interested in what happens afterwards.”

'The character of Jack wasn’t just out and proud but luxuriated in his sexual identity'

With Jack of Hearts, Rosen provided queer young people some much needed education. The book follows Jack, a sexually active and sex-positive teen, who starts a sex advice column only to be on the receiving end of threatening letters that try to blackmail him into suppressing his sexuality. The book doesn’t feature overt sex scenes, but does include no-nonsense advice to readers about different sexual practices, including BDSM and anal sex. 

In the UK the book was met with a positive reaction, with Gay Times calling it “the most important queer novel of the decade”. In the United States, things weren’t as simple. While Jack of Hearts was an American Library Association Rainbow List Top 10 of 2018, Rosen says that there was “a silent ban” of the novel with some teachers simply not adding it to shelves.

This was the sort of censorship that the book encountered. “Over the course of the year after the book came out, I was hearing from people who stumbled across it that weren't aware of it from the beginnin,” he continues. “It was very hidden away. It was a matter of people being quiet.”

Undoubtedly, the frank discussions of sex were part of the resistance to Jack of Hearts, but it’s likely that Rosen’s unwillingness to write a soft coming-of-age story also played a part. The character of Jack wasn’t just out and proud but luxuriated in his sexual identity; he didn’t fit the palatable, sexless box that many queer characters find themselves trapped in.

'this "I'm pretending to be someone to seduce someone but I fall in love with them" story, and I wanted to make it queer'

Rosen’s new novel, Camp, is the same. Set in Camp Outland, a fictional summer camp for LGBTQ+ teens, we meet Randy, a musical theatre kid who has spent the past year butching up so that his crush, a masculine “straight-acting” muscled deity called Hudson, will notice him. Rebranding himself “Del”, Randy has to figure out just how much he’s willing to give up and change to nab the boy of his dreams. “I wanted to do a sort of 1960s Rock Hudson, Doris Day, screwball sex comedy/battle of the sexes thing,” Rosen explains, “this ‘I'm pretending to be someone to seduce someone but I fall in love with them’ story, and I wanted to make it queer.’ 

As someone who went to a Jewish summer camp as a teenager every year, even returning during his summer vacations from College to be a counselor, Rosen shares that most of the homophobia he experienced growing up came from that experience. “This was a fun way to reclaim it,” he says. "I joked about how I took all my homophobic bullies and made them super gay, but I didn't; they weren't even worth writing about because they were boring.” 

Indeed, Rosen’s cast of campers are a delightful and inclusive bunch of people from all different gender identities, sexualities and racial backgrounds. Randy’s friends include George, a fabulous actor with painted nails, and Ashleigh, a demisexual girl who has a crush on the (straight) lifeguard at the camp. 

But the toxicity of homophobia has managed to plant roots even in the utopian-sounding Camp Outland, as shown in both Randy’s transformation into Del and Hudson’s narrative arc, an uplifting but ultimately realistic one that doesn’t shy away from the difficulties faced by queer teens. Hudson’s subscription to masc4masc culture – the notion that masculine, straight-acting queer men are somehow superior to femme stereotypes of queer men – is central to the novel, as is the reason why such beliefs exist.

'Queer kids aren't necessarily going to talk about their queerness with sincerity in front of a bunch of straight people'

It’s an internalised homophobia that Rosen has experienced himself. “When I first came out, I had this mentality that I was not going to be a stereotype because those people are weak-willed. I was going to be better than that,” he admits. “I think a lot of kids feel this: when you come out, you're a queer teenager. It feels like an opportunity to try on different versions of yourself is unavailable to you because everyone will always see you as the queer kid. I remember when I came out in high school girls who had never spoken to me before suddenly wanted to go shoe shopping with me. Even positive stereotypes feel extremely limiting and terrible. 

“So in an effort to push myself away from that I decided to not be anything stereotypical so that people see me as a human being, not realising people's inability to see me as a human being was on them, not me.”

Rosen points out that just because people are LGBTQ+, they are not “‘removed from the patriarchal values straight culture pushes on them”. However, queerness is a way to reject these heteronormative ideologies and in order to demonstrate that he needed a wholly queer space: the summer camp. 

“The book needed to be set in a queer space, and it needed to be in a space where people were actively aware of and talking about their queerness in a way that felt safe to them,” he says. “Queer kids aren't necessarily going to talk about their queerness with sincerity in front of a bunch of straight people because those conversations are not necessarily for them. That's not to say the book isn't for them; I think being able to eavesdrop in on those conversations would be a gift to any straight person. But I knew it needed to be this queer space so these kids could have these adult conversations.”

Anyone familiar with RuPaul’s Drag Race will know that one of the show’s titular soundbites is “We’re all born naked and the rest is drag”. That mentality is at the heart of Rosen’s novel. “I wanted to make sure this idea of trying on personalities as a teenager and getting to experiment with what it is to be masc was just as much drag as being feminine,” Rosen explains. "But for that to follow through, everyone has to be learning about themselves. So if Randy's going to try on this masculine persona, he has to learn something from it that he likes; it's not just a misery.”

Like Jack of Hearts, Camp also provides LGBTQ+ readers with lessons. This time they’re not so sexually instructive: the campers at Camp Outland learn about LGBTQ+ history, particularly that which happened before Stonewall. “What lot of queer people today end up learning is that the Stonewall riots are when gay rights happened and that Oscar Wilde was gay and put in prison,” Rosen says. But in Camp, we are introduced to the Mattachine Society, a real group of gay and lesbian people who marched on Washington in 1965 and who believed that conforming to heteronormativity was the easiest way for queer people to find acceptance. “So the idea of masc4masc and queer conformity is something we've been discussing for decades,” Rosen adds. “It isn't a new thing.” 

As someone who came out when they were 13, having knowledge and understanding of these histories would have been transformative. As would have the depictions of LGBTQ+ people from all parts of the community. I didn’t have a group of queer friends until my twenties, and I can’t count the amount of times that I limited and altered my behaviour in order to avoid the stereotypes I assumed would lead to my rejection. It’s sad, too, that I didn’t learn about sex in a safe, considered and positive way, either. 

But the biggest lesson that Rosen’s books teach, especially Camp, is that life as a queer person isn’t all Pride parades. Camp is celebratory and fabulous and everything a young LGBTQ+ person could wish for, but it’s also bittersweet because when camp ends reality begins again. “I get that you want to reassure kids everything outside the closet is wonderful,” Rosen says, “but there is a space between wonderful rainbows and cowering in the closet, and that's the space we occupy. I hope that kids take away that they get to be themselves, they get to find their family and the people they can be themselves around and in the meanwhile, fight homophobia as best as you can – do what you can to survive. It's a process, not flipping a switch.” 

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more