Elizabeth Kelly – The Last Summer of the Camperdowns

Photo by Ned Kolmijalk

Photo by Ned Kolmijalk

In her devilishly witty, pulse-quickening second novel, The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, Elizabeth Kelly shadows the upper-crust Camperdown clan over the course of a summer in 1972 as they cope with a heinous crime committed too close to home.

The Camperdowns are such a dysfunctional lot!

I think dysfunction is something that more exists in corporations and political parties—it seems like such an industrial-strength label to pin on the family. Families, by nature, are roiling, eccentric, idiosyncratic; they tend to follow their own peculiar internal logic despite the best efforts of the world. I’m not compelled to write about ordinary dilemmas or thinking. When it comes to fiction, I like ample helpings of gaiety and cha cha cha (to quote Marx—Groucho, not Karl) in both language and content—offset by the gloaming. I’m also interested in character rather than dysfunction. When considered within the context of some conventional ideas of efficiency or functionality, the Camperdowns may falter, but when evaluated from the standpoint of universal human experience? Let’s face it. We all think the family next door is crazy. It never seems to occur to us that we are the family next door.

Riddle James Camperdown is a hoot. Why tell the story through her 12-year-old eyes?

In many ways, I’ve never advanced intellectually or emotionally beyond the age of 12 or 13. I still love animals the way children do, close my eyes during kissing scenes in movies, love candy, hate chores… so from the angle of perspective, Riddle came naturally to me. I was never more confident than when I was her age and thought I had all the answers—embarrassingly so. It’s interesting to me that you say the novel is being told through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl. It is in spirit, but technically, the story is narrated by a woman in her 30s. I wanted Riddle (the adult) and Riddle (the child) to seamlessly merge into the singular voice that we carry around in our heads regardless of how we change.

What dark corner of your imagination did Gula come from? He’s a terrifyingly creepy character—and not just to children.

Gula has his origins in my childhood. When I was four or five, there was a man who lived near us in a house that was small, dark, and dilapidated. He used to emerge once a day to walk his mistreated dog. He wore a long brown army coat regardless of the weather. He spoke to no one, had a face like death, and was terrifying. I didn’t talk about him to anyone, and it was that internalization of terror that I wanted to re-create in Riddle’s relationship to Gula. It was important to humanize him, too. I did feel some pity for Gula, though I never apologize for feeling sympathy for the misery of monsters—it’s compassion that separates us from them.

The novel is hilariously dry.

When it comes to self-analysis, my philosophy is best expressed in the immortal lyrics of the theme song to the prehistoric TV show Rawhide: “Ride ’em, rope ’em, brand ’em, don’t try to understand ’em.” It also does double-duty as my best parenting advice.

Originally published in Publishers Weekly on April 26, 2013

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