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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 06/ 2/2010

'Beach Week' is upon us: the event and the book

By Valerie Strauss

“Beach Week” has two related meanings this year.

There are the annual celebrations held by exuberant high school graduates in various states who race to the closest beach for (mostly) unchaperoned fun that sometimes spills over into mayhem. The events consume an enormous amount of time and attention of parents who spend an inordinate amount of time structuring “contracts” of good behavior that their kids sign and often then ignore, securing housing and buying provisions.

And this year, “Beach Week” is something else: the new novel by Washington, D.C., author Susan Coll. It’s a hilarious look at what actually happens before and during “Beach Week,” which she lived through three times with each of her children. Coll’s fourth novel is a work of fiction but rings entirely too true. I talked to her about Beach Week:

beachweek.jpeg

Q) Why did you decide to write about Beach Week?
A) My initial motivation was to capture what seemed to me a climate of parental lunacy surrounding the issue of sending high school seniors off for a week of presumed debauchery at the beach. I went through this three times myself, each time attending multiple meetings with parents, with kids, even with the police. There was this massive generation of paperwork -- pledges for the kids to sign, legal documents for the parents, as if this felling of trees was going to actually regulate teenage behavior once they got in their cars and drove to the Eastern Shore. I wasn’t trying to make any moral statements about this, but rather simply highlight the absurdity of the situation.

Q) How did you research Beach Week?
A) Let’s just say the novel researched itself. Events transpired. That, plus, the subject matter was so ripe for satire that all I had to do was go to the meetings and take notes and collect the handouts, and I had all the material I needed. Also, whenever I told someone I was working on a book called “Beach Week,” I’d collect another crazy anecdote. I didn’t know how the book would end until a friend told me about an incident that had occurred at her kids’ school that involved a couple of dads who got in trouble while playing beer pong, which was like a little gift to a comic novelist.

Q) How much of the book really happened?
A) May I call my lawyer? No seriously, this is a work of fiction, and there isn’t a single character who resembles or is based on anyone I know. The events are an amalgam of a whole lot of things that either happened, or that I was told happened, or that I simply invented. Again, all I had to do was say “Beach Week” and run a metaphorical tape recorder. Just this week alone, I heard enough Beach Week horror stories to add an epilogue to the book. Someone told me about the kid from his high school class -- this was some 20 years ago, I’m guessing -- who had brought 100 cases of beer to Beach Week.

Q) I have read the book and thought it was hysterically funny. I laughed out loud in some places. Do you crack yourself up when you write?
A) Some of this material is simply funny, at the same time that some of it is deeply troubling. I included the list of things that kids are advised to bring to Beach Week, for example --admittedly I embellished a bit, but nevertheless -- that parents are so earnestly advising kids to bring change for laundry and parking meters, or paper and pen to leave each other notes and make shopping lists, or to bring umbrellas, is all very sweet but in my experience pretty much misses the point of what will actually occur.

I’ll admit that I did crack myself up writing about Charles, the dad who chaperones at the beach and has major regression issues. A copy editor pointed out that Charles had spent pages, perhaps chapters, walking around in his boxer shorts -- I’d forgotten to have him put his trousers back on when he removes them shortly before playing beer pong.

Q) What do you think of those contracts parents and students draw up and sign, the ones where the kids promise not to behave the way they know they are going to behave when they get to the beach? Do they ever work?
A) I found those contracts to be good comic fodder. Maybe they work in some cases. But I can tell you firsthand that there is no mathematical correlation between number of parent meetings held or contracts signed and an uneventful Beach Week that does not involve a middle of the night phone call from the police.

Q) Do parents really chaperone kids at Beach Week? Is this common?

A) It’s not uncommon for parents to chaperone, at least in my experience, but whether it serves any useful purpose is another question entirely. I’ve not heard of chaperones actually staying at the same beach house as kids, although perhaps some groups arrange things that way, and any trouble is likely to occur long after the chaperones are asleep.

The police who spoke at one of the parent meetings I attended did think having chaperones was a good idea, however.

Q) If you could ban Beach Week, would you?
A) In a perfect world there would be no Beach Week -- not as we’ve come to know it in the D.C. area anyway -- but I’m a realist and I think if kids are so inclined, they’ll still find ways to get in trouble. At the same time, and with the caveat that I can also be ridiculously naïve, I don’t think every kid who goes to Beach Week is intent on having a debauched celebration. The problem is that Beach Week has become so hyped that the party planning has evolved into a competitive sport.

Q) Is there one thing that you wish some parent had told you about Beach Week when you were actually living through it that you could pass on?
A) I’m really struggling with this question. No, is the short answer. After all those meetings, all those pledges and contracts and heart-to-heart talks, I don’t think there was a single aspect of the week that hadn’t been considered, scrutinized and potentially anticipated. If only I’d known there would be a comic novel at the end of the ordeal, I might have at least seen the silver lining.

Susan Coll has written three other novels: "Acceptance," "Rockville Park" and "KarlMarx.com." And she writes an amusing blog called “Alternate Sides,” about life’s travails through the prism of parking. Yes, parking. Somehow it works.

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By Valerie Strauss  | June 2, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Parents, Student Life  | Tags:  all about beach week, beach week, beach week is here, parents and beach week, planning for beach week, susan coll, susan coll novels  
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