Write the Stories You Want to Write
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris
How to Survive a Summer
by Nick White
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Nick White had just started an M.F.A.in Creative Writing at Ohio State University when he received a piece of advice that would change the way he saw himself and his writing.
|“I was in a workshop with Michelle Herman and she said ‘You’re writing the kinds of stories that you think you should write . . .'”
“I was in a workshop with Michelle Herman and she said ‘You’re writing the kinds of stories that you think you should write rather than the stories you want to write.’ It was true for my writing and my life. I was still in the closet at the time,” said White.
Returning to his Mississippi roots and grappling with his sexuality, White wrote his recently released novel How to Survive a Summer as “an alternative history for myself.”
The novel tells the story of Will Dillard, a Midwestern graduate student, who returns to Camp Levi in Mississippi, the site of a gay conversion camp where he spent the summer when he was fifteen, to better understand his experience there and the loss of a camper who died there.
“The story explores what my life would have looked like had I been outed. A lot of us who are gay still suffer through feelings of self-loathing. I think back then I might have thought this is a problem that needs to be solved and (gay conversion camp) will solve it. It is terrifying to think I could have experienced this sort of thing.”
White’s imaginative journey into an alternate history paid off with a novel that is in turns tender and gritty, funny and sad.
The story starts with Will as a graduate student in film studies when he hears about a new slasher movie, Proud Flesh, set in a gay conversion camp in Mississippi and discovers the writer was a former campmate of his at Camp Levi. The film is a device which “pushes everyone to confront what really happened at the camp.” Starting the narrative ten years after Will’s camp experience allowed him enough distance to explore the trauma with some perspective.
“I wanted my character to go back home and reconcile with a place that he felt had no room for him . . . .”
“I wanted my character to go back home and reconcile with a place that he felt had no room for him,” said White.
When Will returns to Mississippi to confront his past he encounters several of the people associated with the camp. The book deals with themes of redemption, forgiveness and family.
White explained that the idea of the sins of the father being visited on the son is at the core of gay conversion therapy.
“The idea is that the sins of your ancestors made you the way you are now. I love family history. As a child, I’d sit under the front porch and listen to my mom, aunt and grandmother talk about relatives that were gone. The idea that I should judge them or blame them was so hard for me to take that it was akin to murdering their spirit.”
Well aware of Southern stereotypes, White made sure that he fully developed his understanding of the characters including Will’s father (a preacher) and Mother Maude and Father Drake (who run Camp Levi).
“Anytime you write about a place there is always a worry that you might give in to the lowest common denominator, not because there are bad people, but, because it can be the easiest way to write,” said White.
He worked hard to avoid taking short cuts and ended up with interesting characters like Will’s preacher father, who wants “divine intervention” for his gay son, but is progressive when it comes to race relations, and Mother Maude, whose brother’s death by AIDS affected her so much that her hair fell out.
“That is how nervous her brother’s death made her. In her mind, she was doing a service for these boys,” said White.
The greatest challenge for White was getting the first draft completed. He knew where he wanted the book to end up and wrote towards that end, even though it was “a moving target.”
“Writing novels is a lot about lying to yourself so you can get it down on the page . . . .”
“You write until it no longer feels like you are pulling it out of thin air. Writing novels is a lot about lying to yourself so you can get it down on the page,” said White.
He’d print manuscript pages and retype them in order to do a closer reading of the work.
“They were not any problems that weren’t solved by time and perspective.”
White, who is Assistant Professor of English at Ohio State University, suggests that apprentice authors acquaint themselves with the range of literature and ask themselves what kinds of stories they want to tell.
“I tell students to take a story they love and retype it word for word. That way they understand the story on a psychic, molecular level. Each word, each punctuation mark was a specific artistic choice for the author and doing this exercise allows them to understand the universe of choices.”
White assures students that there is no one track to success and nobody is waiting to open the door that will get their stories into the New Yorker.
“Nothing matters as much as the writing does. If you protect your writing time you will eventually meet with success.”
With his novel on shelves and a collection of short stories coming out next year, White is just beginning to contemplate the subject of his next book.
|About the Author||
A native of Mississippi, Nick White is Assistant Professor of English at The Ohio State University. His short stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Guernica, The Hopkins Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. How to Survive a Summer is his first novel.
|About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
|Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.|