It’s no secret that we adore the work of Elaine Wolf, the “anti-bullying novelist”. Her work is powerful, important, and palpable. We’re so pleased to announce that she’s our third interview in the Summer Author Interview Series! And be sure to LIKE The Write Teacher on Facebook, and you’ll automatically be entered to win an autographed copy of CAMP.
TWT: Please describe to your readers where the inspiration for CAMP came from.
EW: Although CAMP is a novel about bullying, family relationships, and the damage caused by secrets, it’s primarily a mother-daughter story. A confluence of thoughts brought me to CAMP.
My mother died 24 years ago. She was a German immigrant who lost family in the concentration camps. I miss her terribly––and, as I get older, I’m increasingly sad that I don’t know her full story. Like the mother in CAMP, my mother never talked about her life in Germany.
While my mother was dying, I re-read Robert Cormier’s “The Moustache.” There’s a transformational line in that short story: “My parents exist outside of their relationship with me.” I thought about that a lot as I said goodbye to my mother. Who was she outside of her relationship with me and my siblings, I wondered. Who, really, was this woman I knew only as “Mom”? In CAMP, the mother holds a dark secret from her past. And the main character, 14-year-old Amy Becker, doesn’t find out who her mother really is––what her life was like outside of her role as Amy’s mother––until the end of the story.
Lastly, I’ve always been moved by the courage of immigrants and displaced persons who must cobble together splinters of the past to create new lives in foreign places. I often think about the trickle-down impact of war (and displacement) on future generations. In CAMP, Amy’s mother’s past severely affects her relationship with Amy.
TWT: As a former teacher, how often did you witness bullying in the classroom?
EW: The truth is, I didn’t witness bullying in the classroom, which is generally the least attractive stage for bullies because the classroom is a structured environment with a teacher close by. School bullying occurs mostly in the cafeteria, in the hallways, in restrooms, and at recess. Whenever there’s little supervision, the bullying machine gets into gear.
Summer camp, however, can be a tempting stage for bullies and a prison for victims. That’s because the camp environment is more relaxed than the school environment. Setting CAMP in a girls’ sleep-away camp, it was impossible not to write about bullying.
TWT: Do you think bullying is worse for children of today? Or the same?
EW: CAMP takes place in 1962–1963. Back then, bullying wasn’t part of our national dialogue. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t as serious a problem. A “mean girl” in 1963 was just as vicious as a “mean girl” in 2012. And the ringleader of the bullies in CAMP is as evil as any “alpha girl” today. However, in the 1960s, adults weren’t tuned in to bullying; they often said, “Oh, teenage girls are mean. It’s just a phase. They’ll grow out of it.” But now we know that all bullying is simply wrong. Bullies don’t “grow out of it,” and little bullies become big bullies unless we stop them. So we’re more proactive today. We’re more aware, and we take bullying more seriously. And that’s a good thing.
However, social media has added a new and dangerous dimension to bullying today. The main character in CAMP didn’t have to fear online bullying: her nemesis couldn’t text and post and tweet. Social media keeps the bullying machine revved up 24/7. And that’s a really bad thing.
TWT: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
EW: Oh, that’s an easy question. Believe it or not, the best advice I’ve ever received is a line from The Beatles song called “The End.” It’s on their “Abbey Road” album (1969). And here’s the advice: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Simple…and so true. If we all took those words to heart, our camps, schools, and communities would be kinder and gentler places for everyone.
TWT: What advice can you give to our aspiring writers and teachers?
EW: My advice is to never give up. I know that sounds hokey, but I really believe it.
Never give up on a manuscript that you know is good––even when agents and publishers say NO. I’m so glad I didn’t give up on CAMP. I knew it was a good story, so I revised and revised and revised. And when my agent said that editors loved the manuscript––the writing and the characters––but that bullying was too small a story, I put CAMP on the back burner, but I never took it off the stove. I revised yet again, and I found a different way into the story. The point is I never gave up. And when bullying finally made it to our national radar screen, my agent tried again. And this time, CAMP sold quickly.
To teachers I say: Never give up on a student. Everyone deserves a chance to learn and to grow and to become the best person she or he can be––even those hard-core kids with attitude like steel walls. If you can’t find a way to get in, speak with your colleagues. Ask for help. But don’t give up. Through the magic of Facebook, many of my former middle school and high school students have found me. I must admit that, when I was their teacher, I almost gave up on a few of them. And I’m so glad I didn’t! Now those students I was sure had never heard a word I said are quoting some of my “teaching expressions” online! They heard me, even when I didn’t think they had. I hope you find ways for each of your students to hear you.
TWT: Have you ever thought of making CAMP into a film, later down the line?
EW: Funny you should ask! I just heard from the film agent who’s working on that now. My New York literary agent works with a Los Angeles film agent. The film agent is a big fan of CAMP, and he’s got the book out there now. So stay tuned!
TWT: Who is your greatest teacher?
EW: That’s a good question. I suppose that my greatest teachers are my husband and my son. They both have tremendous integrity, and they both maintain really good balance in their lives. They work hard, and they play hard. They teach me, by example, to live more in the moment.
My students, too, were among my best teachers. I always felt that I learned so much from them.
TWT: How can we, as a society, end the vicious cycles with bullying?
EW: Before I answer that question, I must tell you that I’m neither a psychologist nor a bullying expert. But I am a former camp counselor and former public school teacher and school district program director. As CAMP is set in a girls’ sleep-away camp, and DANNY’S MOM (which will be published in November) is set in a high school, it was impossible not to write about bullying (as I said before).
I think the adults who work in camps and schools need to address bullying problems as soon as situations arise and certainly before they escalate––because once the bullying machine revs up, it’s hard to dismantle it. It’s important that we keep bullying front and center in our national dialogue, and it’s crucial that we involve children in this bullying conversation. I believe in systemic “bottom-up” cultural change; we can’t simply legislate ethics and morality and expect instant change (although I applaud anti-bullying legislation as an important step in this process). Adults are powerless to stop this bullying epidemic unless kids, too, say “NO!” to bullying behavior.
I’m so grateful that CAMP has given me a literal bully pulpit, a platform from which to keep the bullying conversation going so that, in concert with professionals in our communities, we’ll find ways to make our camps and schools safer for everyone. I hope CAMP finds its way into classrooms (grades 8 and up). I believe it’s a really good springboard to bullying conversations, and I’d love to visit schools around the country to participate in the dialogue. So, teachers, I encourage you to read CAMP––and let me know what you think. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I hope, too, that you’ll visit my website (authorelainewolf.com) for anti-bullying resources, as well as for more information about my novels and about me.