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Notes on Summer Camp

Author Jessica Goodman talks about her latest novel, summer camp, and collaborating with Deuxmoi.

By Literature

Jessica Goodman by Allie Holloway.

Jessica Goodman will concede that spending the summer months at a lakeside camp has its own thrill. The freedom, atmosphere, and the friendships formed hold a weight that most relationships can’t compare with.

Part of that thrill is found in “The Counselors,” Goodman’s third and newest novel published by Penguin Teen. Told in two converging timelines (“NOW” and “THEN” chapters), the story follows Goldie Easton, a lifelong camper of Alpine Lake whose dark secret prevents her from being truthful with her friends.

The nearby town of Roxwood is still reeling from a tragedy dating back a few months before the plot. “Evil doesn’t exist at Camp Alpine Lake,” the prologue opens. This is what Easton believes from the start, naïve to the unraveling secrets beneath the high-dollar summer camp. After a teen is found dead in the lake one night, the death hits closer to home, her home, than anyone could expect. Not everything is as it seems at the glamorous getaway, something Goldie hesitates to admit as the summer drastically changes.

Ahead of the release of “The Counselors,” Goodman spoke to F Newsmagazine about her favorite memories of her own time at camp, female friendships, and a sneak peek at her collaborative book with celebrity gossip Instagram, @deuxmoi.

Note: Spoilers for “The Counselors” are ahead.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Vienne Molinaro: “The Counselors” is so rich with many different dynamics, character studies, and plot lines that all weave into each other. How long does a story like this take to marinate and subsequently write?

Jessica Goodman: So I started working on this book in maybe February 2020, I think? So right before the pandemic I came up with the idea that I wanted to write a thriller about summer camp, and I really didn’t start getting into the plot and what it would be until maybe the end of that year. And then we sold a sample of the book (maybe the first fifty pages) to my publisher in early 2021. So basically, it took about a year from coming up with the idea, to selling the book, but I didn’t really write the whole book until after we sold it in the beginning of 2021, so it took a long time from coming up with the idea, to actually figuring out what the plot was going to be, and then even when I was editing with my editor, she came up with a lot of the ideas of how to make the plot a lot better, how to make it a lot stronger. For example: the book is told in an alternate timeline. We have “NOW” chapters and “THEN” chapters, and originally the “THEN” chapters were just flashbacks that were scattered throughout the book. It was my editor’s idea to take those out and make them their own timeline, and I’m really glad we did that, I think it adds a lot more to the book.

VM: On the cover that comes with Penguin’s press copy of the book, there is an anecdote about the time you had with your mother at Camp Osceola [in San Bernardino, California]. Are there any specific summer camp memories that inspired moments from the book?

JG: Definitely! I mean, none of the murder, none of the bad villains were real villains in my camp experience, but I really wanted to incorporate very specific camp moments into this book, because I feel like the more specific the details are, the more you feel like you’re actually there. So little things, like the idea of “Cookie Patrol,” which is like: Every night, campers ride around in a golf cart with one of the senior counselors and hand out midnight snacks to every cabin. That was something my camp did! It was always so cool when you got picked to go on Cookie Patrol, it was so much fun. Spending time in the lake, and how cool the lifeguards are. That was very indicative of my own experience. Everyone wanted to be a lifeguard, spending time in the lake was the best part. So little details like that I really tried to incorporate as much as possible. Camp was such a profound and important part of my life and my childhood, so I really wanted to capture the atmospheric elements of being in the woods without your parents and how freeing that feels.

VM: Once Goldie’s ex-boyfriend Heller is found at the lake, Goldie finds herself reminiscing on their past, their fallout after everything on New Year’s Day, and even states that she believed they would have gone back to each other. If Heller was still alive, do you think he and Goldie would have reconciled, or that he would come clean with everything?

JG: I don’t think they would have reconciled in a romantic way. I think that that would limit Goldie in a lot of ways, and I want her to leave this town and experience the world outside of this place, but I think if he were still alive, they would have found this sense of peace and forgiveness that she was really looking for. She doesn’t get the closure she desires from him, and I think that’s really hard, and I did that on purpose, because I feel like a lot of people don’t get closure when someone passes away. Death is complicated for a lot of reasons, but it’s hard when someone dies and you don’t have only positive feelings about them, and I think that that’s a really real feeling. You’re wondering, “What do I do with all of my complex, nuanced feelings about someone who is no longer here?” I think we have a tendency to celebrate the dead, which we of course should in every way, but we tend to not always acknowledge that people are complicated and nuanced. I wanted Goldie to fit with those feelings and try to figure out what to do with them.

VM: The friendship between Goldie, Ava, and Imogen, at times, feels like its own character. What is most important to you when writing this kind of dynamic?

JG: I love writing female friendships, that’s why I write. With this friendship, I really wanted to explore the kind of “tripod” friendship, because when I was a teenager, and even a preteen, I was involved in lots of “three best friends” friendships, and that dynamic is really complicated and really hard, and somebody always feels like they’re being left out, even if they’re not, even if the other people feel like they’re being left out. I really wanted to write about that, what it feels like to be left out, and to even do the leaving out sometimes. It’s a really intense relationship. I love writing young female friendships because they’re so formative and important, and really set the foundation for most of my relationships moving forward. The first time I experienced real love was between my female friends. That kind of utter devotion and frustration I feel like comes up a lot when you’re really young and your friends are the most important things in your life. Goldie is in this interesting time in her life where her friends have always been her rocks, but she feels like she can’t share everything with them. While doing that, she realizes that they haven’t been sharing everything with her. So it’s kind of this interesting separation: she realizes that they’re all growing up, apart from each other, and how do they still stay close and connected while also becoming their own people. I love writing about friendship at this age, because it’s so fluid and ever-changing and interesting and difficult and tragic in a lot of ways, and I just find that there’s endless inspiration in the wells of female friendships.

VM: The book concludes with a plan to rebuild Camp Alpine Lake after the disastrous fire. What do you imagine the new Camp Alpine Lake to look like?

JG: I think there’s a couple ways this could go. No matter what happens, Goldie will probably be there to help rebuild in some way, but in my dream world, she goes off and has her own life, but I don’t think that would be that interesting for story purposes. I can imagine her parents finding a way to start a new camp, and start it under new pretenses with a new outlook, and make it a little more equal. Not having this bizarre admissions process, and just having it be more like a summer camp instead of this elite oasis. I think it’d be probably a little more integrated into the town, also.

VM: I’ve often heard the word “atmospheric” when the story is being described, almost cinematically. How has your writing developed visually since having “They Wish They Were Us” and “Anon Pls” picked up by HBO?

JG: I don’t think my writing has changed that much in that way. I’ve always been a very visual writer, and I really like to write as if I was watching it. I think my first book, “They Wish They Were Us”, feels that way. I don’t think it’s changed, but I often wonder if one of these shows gets made and I see it on the screen if that looks the way that I write. I love reading books that then become TV shows or movies and envisioning them in my own head, and then seeing what they turn into. I always find it really fun to see how people change and adapt different content, but I don’t think my writing has changed that much.

VM: What I’ve noticed about much of your work is how it references a lot of things that teenagers are acquainted or familiar with. Is this a product of your journalistic research experience, or just intuitive writing?

JG: I try to make my work pretty timeless, for the most part. I’m not very hip in terms of TikTok and speaking in the “language of the teens” as they speak in the world, so I don’t try to incorporate very trendy slang or a lot of social media, or a lot of “new” forms of emerging social media, because I feel like it would feel really inauthentic. I really just try to focus on making my characters feel as real as possible: Living in the world in a not super tech-savvy way, but in a way that feels real. My characters are on Instagram, they’re on some social media, or they’re calling a rideshare app, but I really try hard not to have them do very specific TikTok challenges and things like that — things that would date it in a very specific time. My favorite YA books are the ones I could pick up now and would still feel pretty timeless. I try to deal with modern themes and modern takes on the way that we see the world, too. Some books hold up and some books don’t, especially when we’re talking about different cultural issues or representation. I hope that my work does stand the test of time. I’ve only been publishing for three years, so we’ll see how that goes.

VM: How do you feel about the “least likely to” rule when it comes to the culprit? How do you decide who is going to be the killer (or killers)?

JG: I think with all of my books, I’ve known from the beginning who I wanted the killer to be, and kind of work backwards from there. Once I know who it is, I have to work hard not to make it so obvious. My editors will really help me throw breadcrumbs in there to help people find a way, but also red herrings to make sure people don’t find out too easily. I think it’s kind of a group effort. I think when I’m starting out, I often do try to think, “who is the least likely person to do this?” I don’t want to just make them the villain because they’re the least likely, they need to have a reason as well, even if that reason is hidden from readers in the beginning.

VM: Recently, it was announced that you and [celebrity gossip] Instagram account Deuxmoi would be writing a book together titled, “Anon Pls”. Is there anything you can tell us about it while it’s still in development?

JG: “Anon Pls” is a book that I am co writing with Deuxmoi, who is the Instagram that chronicles celebrity gossip, and Deuxmoi themselves is also anonymous. The biggest question I get is, “Do I know who Deuxmoi is?” and the answer is no, I do not know. It is not young adult, and it’s actually not a thriller, and it’s not really a mystery, but the book is basically about a young woman who decides to start an anonymous celebrity Instagram account after feeling totally run down by her job in the fashion world, then she gets into all these crazy hijinks that come along with running the account. A lot of the story is based on real life events, real life people, it’s really fun! 

Jessica Goodman is a writer and former op-ed editor of Cosmopolitan. “The Counselors is out now, published by Razorbill and Penguin Teen.

Vienne Molinaro is a contributing writer at F Newsmagazine and can be reached at [email protected].

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