Midwestern Gothic staffer Meghan Chou talked with author Nick White about his book How to Survive a Summer, exploring nontraditional queer spaces, outsmarting the hurdles to keep writing, and more.
MC: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Nick White: I’ve called the Midwest home for most of my twenties. I moved to Ohio when I was twenty-three because I had been accepted into Ohio State’s MFA program. After I graduated, I went on to the University of Nebraska to earn a Ph.D.—technically, Nebraska is considered the Great Plains, but I always thought of it as further adventures in “the Middle West.” During my last year, I was offered the teaching job back at Ohio State, which I gladly accepted. The Midwest has become my home.
MC: Will Dillard, the main character in How to Survive a Summer, is a graduate student from the Midwest who reflects on his traumatic memories at a teenage gay-to-straight conversion camp in Mississippi. Between the South and the Midwest, what regional differences did you explore in How to Survive a Summer with regards to the attitude towards queer youth?
NW: I wanted to set the book in the Midwest and in the South—primarily because both spaces have been home to me, a gay man of a particular age, and because both seem to be unpopular locales to set queer dramas. I think there was this assumption—which is slowly being chipped away at—that if you are gay and from a small town or rural area, then your best bet for a happy life is to get thee to a metropolis. While this migration to urban centers can certainly be beneficial to many of us in the queer community, there are others, myself included, that love living in a small town, or in what people refer to as “flyover country.” I find it exciting to explore queerness in places and spaces that have traditionally been seen as not having room for it.
As far as attitudes toward queerness, the Midwest and the South have some differences. Living in Nebraska, Ohio, and Mississippi, I have spent most of my life in red states. But I never came out while I was in Mississippi—I am not sure if that is because of the place, itself, or because of my proximity to my family, who are very religious and conservative. Either way, I felt safer in Columbus—safe enough, at least, to start facing up to questions I had long since tried to ignore.
MC: Many gay-to-straight conversion camps follow the misguided notion that one can “pray away the gay.” In addition to this aspect, what role does religion play in the telling of Will Dillard’s story and in understanding the cultural differences between the Deep South and Midwest?
NW: The South is home to many evangelical churches, particularly the Baptist Church, which played a huge role in my growth and development. In the book, Will’s journey to Camp Levi, the conversion camp, is one that both he and his father see as a necessary step for him. They are both true believers, as I once was. They believe they know the Gospel and want to do what is “right.” Will is not sent to Camp Levi because his father doesn’t love him; on the contrary, Rev. Dillard loves his son a great deal and feels he is doing his best for him, and that’s what, in my mind, makes the decision to send one’s child to conversion therapy so complicated and fraught. When Mother Maude and Father Drake appear in town, asking for money to help jumpstart their camp, both father and son see this as nothing less than a sign from God. Mother Maude and Father Drake offer what both men have been seeking: deliverance.
MC: The release of a horror movie, called Proud Flesh, triggers Dillard’s search for closure. Proud Flesh draws inspiration from events that transpired at the Mississippi conversion camp, Camp Levi. The gay serial killer central to the movie wears a princess mask, which the gay community around the country begins to wear with pride. Why did you choose a princess mask as the symbol of terror and solidarity?
NW: I think I wanted to illustrate, in some way, the resiliency of queer culture, how many in our community can take something that is deemed offensive (such as this princess mask, or even the word “queer”) and reclaim and repurpose it.
MC: Why did people react to Proud Flesh with pride and not offense? In other words, what about the horror movie brought about feelings of solidarity?
NW: Well, at first, the movie caused much offense, and I don’t know that Bevy ever bought the reinterpretation. I’m not sure that many people reacted with pride, either. When Will and the others see the movie in Memphis, the audience boos at the end. I think the movie becomes, at best, a mild curiosity—something to see with people and cheer and jeer. There’s a campiness to it that many find appealing, a kind of “it’s so bad that it’s good” response.
I tried to be very careful that the book didn’t come down one way or another on it. I wanted the movie to be one of those enduring mysteries that the reader will still ponder about once she has finished reading.
MC: Will’s family appears progressive in some ways—his father is forward-thinking on the topic of race, his mother lived in an all-female woodland community—yet neither can accept their son’s sexuality. How does the portrayal of Will’s parents shed light on the homophobia towards and mistreatment of queer youth?
NW: I didn’t want the parents, particularly the father, to be two-dimensional, flat. I wanted to show him to be a thoughtful and conflicted man. He was very naïve about the depth and breadth of racism in his community, just as he was about his son’s sexuality. I wanted to show that, as the years passed, the father had the capacity to grow and, what’s perhaps the hardest thing for people to do, change his mind. He may never be comfortable with his son’s queerness, but he is determined to stay in his life, no matter what.
MC: What is one piece of advice you give your students at Ohio State University about writing?
NW: Respect the work. What I mean by this is, I think, make sure you remember that the putting of the words onto paper, then revising the hell out of it, is all that matters. There’s so much in our world that wants to keep us from writing, and half the battle, I think, is finding out ways to outsmart the hurdles and get back to the desk. Do it. Do it as much as you can, for as long as you can. Then, once you’re finished with that project, move along to the next one. Don’t look back.
MC: What’s next for you?
NW: I am finishing up a story collection with should be out soon with Penguin, and dabbling with a new novel.
A native of Mississippi, Nick White currently teaches creative writing at the Ohio State University. His fiction can be found in The Kenyon Review, Guernica, The Literary Review, Indiana Review, Day One, and elsewhere. His debut novel, How to Survive a Summer, was published by Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin-Random House.