Nick White will be at Square Books tomorrow evening signing copies of his debut novel “How to Survive a Summer.”
The story begins in the in the office of Will Dillard, a graduate student at an unnamed Midwestern university where he’s studying film. Will, through his officemates, learns about a movie that has just been released in theaters. It’s a slasher flick called “Proud Flesh.” But Will soon learns that the film is based on a camp he went to as a teenager. It was a conversion camp, a plays where boys would come, willingly or forced, to be “cured” of their homosexuality.
No one in Will’s life knows about his Mississippi life. They don’t even know he’s from Mississippi. The book shifts between the now and the then as Will relives the most traumatic experience of his life.
White is an Assistant Professor of English at Ohio State University. He grew up in a community called Possumneck in Attala County, not too far from Kosciusko. While the book isn’t based on himself or anyone in his own life, he did use his own experiences for inspiration. Like the main character, White comes from a deeply religious background with a father who was very active in the church.
The author does an excellent job of showing the human side of Will’s father. He isn’t some monster who hates his son for being gay. Will loves his father and is loved by him, but things aren’t always so simple. His dad clearly thinks he’s doing what’s best for the boy and is trying to help him the only way he knows how. Will wants to be helped. They both want for things to be different.
White began exploring the idea of the book whilst exploring his own past. He thought about what his life would have been like if he had realized his sexuality at a younger age, like the character in his book. He said that, as hard as it is to admit, he knows he would have willingly gone through conversion therapy if he had realized he was gay as a teenager, in the height of his religiosity. It was a scary though for him.
“I know that I would have broken myself a thousand different times in a thousand different ways in an attempt to fit in to the idea of faith that I held in my head at that time,” White said.
While researching the book, he poured over first-hand accounts of young people who had experienced conversion therapy and how it affected them into adulthood. He watched documentaries and there was even a recent 20/20 special about the phenomenon that really shook him up. He learned about camps allegedly whipping kids, using cattle prods and other cruel tools during their “treatment.”
“When I was first writing the book, I worried that people might think I was exaggerating or that my descriptions of what happens in the camp might be too farfetched,” White said. “Now I’m kinda worried that I was too tame with it.”
“How to Survive a Summer” deals with real issues regarding the LGBT community, told through a narrative dripping with Southern gothic flare. In the second chapter of the book, Will is a young boy and listens to his mother recount stories of where she grew up, a place called the Neck, the same place where Camp Levi would one day stand. She tells Will of bootleggers, wild women and a mother who liked to wander. This particular part of the book is where the author’s literary capabilities begin to flourish, taking readers on a tale featuring relatable characters, skillful storytelling and carefully chosen prose that is sustained throughout the length of the novel.
White’s debut is an unexpectedly beautiful work exploring how far we go for the things we believe in. “How to Survive a Summer” is welcome addition to both Southern literature and LGBT art.
“How to Survive a Summer” is on sale now at Square Books. Nick White will be signing copies of his novel at Off Square Books tomorrow, Monday, June 12 at 5 p.m.