Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Apocalypse Now: An interview with emily m. danforth, author of THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST

I'm so pleased to feature emily m. danforth, whose debut novel, THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, publishes today! In case you haven't read the wonderful reviews it's been getting, here is a brief description:

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief she’ll never have to tell them that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief soon turns to heartbreak, as Cam is forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and not making waves, and Cam becomes an expert at this—especially at avoiding any questions about her sexuality.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. To Cam’s surprise, she and Coley become best friends—while Cam secretly dreams of something more. Just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, her secret is exposed. Ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self—even if she’s not quite sure who that is.


I was lucky enough to read this book pre-publication and ask emily some questions about her beautifully written novel.

You were born and raised in Miles City, Montana. What prompted you to set THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST in your hometown rather than a fictional town based in the same area?

My answer is in two parts. (Probably some of you will want to just skip part two. I’m totally fine with that. In fact: just about everyone should skip part two.)

a) I think it’s absolutely accurate to call THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST an autobiographical novel. And the details that are most autobiographical (because there is also a great deal, in fact, a majority, of wholly invented material) are the details of place. Frankly, Miles City has a really colorful and fascinating history as a cattle/cowboy town, and a very particular geography and culture, and I was interested in exploring some of that in my novel. The (world-famous) Bucking Horse Sale, for instance, really does take place in Miles City each and every May, and it’s such a throwback kind of western, good-timin’ cowboy event (you should check it out if you get the chance: http://www.buckinghorsesale.com) that I knew I would just have to write a scene that takes place at BHS. So while I could have created some fictional town with some invented name and then have given it some event like Bucking Horse Sale, but not actually named that event Bucking Horse Sale, the question is: why? Why do that? Because I’m afraid that people will think I’m writing memoir otherwise? Or because I’m afraid of annoying current and former Miles Citians? As a fiction writer I’m drawn to the practice of using real places—towns or attractions that readers can absolutely find on a map and arrange to visit, if they’re so inclined—but then coloring those places in such a way that it renders them as a fictionalized versions of themselves.

I understand that this might be disappointing for some readers who want every street name or video rental place, whatever, to match exactly to reality—though businesses close and re-open al
l the time, right, so there isn’t a “fixed” reality that a novel can capture and hold ever, because “the real world” will always keep changing—but more importantly, we each experience a place—be it a town or a museum or a carnival, the world’s largest ball of twine, whatever—as funneled through our completely unique and personal set of judgments and expectations, experiences and associations. I suppose this is a convoluted way of saying that we create our own reality(ies), and that mine can never be identical to anyone else’s, but that also helps to explain my approach to fiction: the Miles City in my novel can only ever belong fully to Cameron Post, it’s hers, because she’s not only our first-person narrator and protagonist, she’s also a character with very particular sensibilities of place. So yes, it’s Miles City, but not THE Miles City. That’s my distinction. It’s Cameron Post’s Miles City.

-->b) There’s no way to tell this part succinctly so I’ll just say this: the wonderful Canadian writer Alice Munro has a (fairly widely anthologized) short story titled “Miles City, Montana,” and part of that story is in fact set in a town Munro calls Miles City—ostensibly “the” Miles City. (My Miles City, I might say, feeling like a territorial fiction writer.) I love Alice Munro’s short fiction, I do, but I came upon the story in question as a young writer and have always taken issue with what I see as a blatant misrepresentation of one specific aspect of our town. Now, undoubtedly Munro would tell you that she was just fictionalizing a place to suit the needs of her story (as I just advocated for above), and I take no issue with that. I get it. I like it. I write fiction that way, too. However, as a writer who was born and raised in Miles City, a writer whose parents in fact still live there, I decided to make this specific location (in my novel) bear much more resemblance to the reality of the last hundred years or so of local history. And so, you see, it just had to be Miles City. It had to.

As someone who grew up in the '90s, I feel that you captured that period so well; the pop culture references were dropped in so seamlessly that I often felt like I had traveled back to my own teenage years. Did you have to research a lot or was it all in your head, so to speak? Was there a specific reason you set the book in the '90s?

-->
Thanks for saying so. It’s nice to hear that from a fellow '90’s teen (they were the landscape of my adolescence, too). I guess I wouldn’t call some of the preparatory work that I did while writing this novel research so much as reminding. I had a clear sense of some of the prominent cultural trends and ideologies of that decade, the sensibilities, but I misremembered some of the details, of course. For instance, a couple of times I had a movie in mind for Cameron’s VHS rental obsession, and I would even write it into a scene, and then I’d look it up on IMDB and realize that I was a few years off, that it had come out later in the 1990s than I had thought, same thing with some songs.

I wanted to set the novel in the 1990s, the
early 1990s, not only because a kind of early nostalgia for that time, I guess—though certainly I’ll willingly admit to that—but also because I’ve long been marveling at just how much has changed (for the better) during the last two decades in terms of LGBTQ visibility and advocacy. There’s lots of cultural “evidence” of this, but I’ll just given the example of the internet. It can be easy, I think, given the ubiquity of internet even by 1996, to misremember it as this enormous site of social change (and, of course, of community-building, of information dissemination) throughout the entirety of the 1990s. But that’s just not the case for the very early 1990s. So for Cam, this world of information is just around the corner, certainly, but not quite there; not yet in any way that can directly benefit her, anyway. I guess what I’m getting at here is that one of the things I wanted to do most in the novel was to chronicle this very particular slice of history—a time and a place—as viewed through the eyes of one character.

In the summary on your website, you describe the novel as not just "coming of age" but coming of GAYge. There's been more and more talk about how the LGBTQ community is portrayed in YA novels - or, more specifically, arguments from editors and readers alike that there is a serious lack of YA books with LGBTQ protagonists and characters. What are your thoughts on this topic? Is the range of books improving? Did you set out to write an LGBTQ book or did the book come first, the label later?
-->I’m being a little bit cheeky with coming-of-GAYge. I mean, it’s true, yes, that Cameron’s journey is one to all kinds of self-acceptance, including an acceptance of her sexuality, but it’s also just sort of funny to play with portmanteaus. I came up with that term, or maybe my friend Dave came up with it, I don’t remember, but it was when we were having a conversation about the book (when it was still decidedly in-progress) a few years ago. Whatever its exact origins in that conversation, I’ve been using it ever since.

But as to your question, yes, absolutely, I do think that the range of YA books with LGBTQ protagonists is increasing and diversifying. Certainly if the publishing professionals that I’ve worked closely with are any indication-- from my agent to my editor to the whole team, really, at B+B--there’s no question that there are plenty of people within the publishing industry absolutely committed to telling all kinds of stories from all kinds of perspectives. It seems to me that we’re, right now, somewhere in the middle of the golden age of YA publishing, and thus novels with certain characters or storylines are now viable in ways they mightn’t have been even five years ago. This is certainly not to suggest that things are perfect, but are they improving? Absolutely.

-->
As for setting out to “write an LGBTQ book,” I guess I’m just not sure how to answer that. I “set out” to write a coming-of-age story wherein the protagonist has to recognize and then confront and (hopefully) reconcile her sexuality within a culture that not only doesn’t outwardly seem to support said sexuality (and identity, and attraction, and desire, and, and, and…), but in fact has many systems and structures which deny her various identities and/or attempt to change them into what’s sanctioned and upheld: heteronormativity. I’m conflicted about a category like “LGBTQ book” because I’m just not really sure of the factors required of such a classification. Are all books with LGBTQ characters “LGBTQ books?” If a book pushes against any aspect of heteronormativity is it, necessarily, an “LGBTQ book?” The part of me that embraces that classification (LGBTQ book) is the part that knows it might help some readers to find my novel: readers who wouldn’t have otherwise; readers who might then come to identify with its characters or situations; readers who might feel that the novel reflects back to them one or more of their own “essential truths,” or perhaps challenges those truths in interesting ways. But the part of me that bristles at such a classification, or label, as you put it, is the part that knows the novel form to be, as Henry James famously called it, “a loose, baggy monster.” And John Gardner talks about the need for a novel (in order, he said, to “be” a novel) to attempt to get at the complexity of the world (a tall order, to be sure). There are lots of ways to do this on the page, but the point is that some of the novel’s power, to my mind, comes from its irreducibility: that it’s not ever just one thing; that it can’t be. So I guess my answer is: sure, my novel is an “LGBTQ book,” and it’s also a coming of age story, and a novel of instruction or development, and a novel of place, and… You know what I’m saying, here.

I have to admit, I knew very little about religious conversion therapy before reading your novel. It's a pretty heavy topic, to say the least. What was your experience researching and writing about it?

I would venture that you’re not going to be the only reader to go into this book without knowing much about conversion therapy, at least in this kind of detail: that’s one of the things that made me want to explore it so fully. I didn’t invent conversion therapy for this novel. I wish that I had, I guess. It would be nice for it not to be a part, however small, of the fabric of our culture, but that’s not the case. There are absolutely churches and religious officials and parents, people in positions of influence and authority, who believe in religiously-informed conversion therapy as a viable form of “treatment” for “same sex attraction disorder.” Most of these people also believe that if you don’t seek out this kind of “help” you’re going to hell. (My apologies, but I have to use an overabundance of scare quotes when talking about this subject. It’s just the way it goes.) I mean, obviously, when we’re talking about a population who refers to any variation from the strictest enactment of heterosexuality as “same sex attraction disorder,” we can assume that there’s not a whole lot of room for fluidity of desire or identity or expression.

My experience of researching this topic was often upsetting and always baffling. There’s absolutely zero credible (rigorous/thorough) scientific evidence to suggest that such “therapies” are effective at changing attraction or desire or identity in the least. And, in fact, there is much evidence that such “therapies” cause all kinds of harm to those who partake in them. (You can reference the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association—or a whole host of other, credible, scientific organizations—for studies and statements about this very topic.) The question we need to be asking is a simple one, and it’s definitely not: Does conversion therapy work or might it work? Instead it’s: “Why are we (is anyone) actively treating something that is not an illness.” I am not “sick with homosexuality.” No one is. The problem is not that a certain percentage of the population is somehow “sick with” non-conforming gender identities or non-heterosexual attractions. The problem is in believing that this is somehow a sickness in the first place. Let’s start there. (Of course: I tried not to be nearly so dogmatic in my novel as I’m being here.)

How are you celebrating your book's release?

I actually have the bulk of my teaching load on Tuesdays, so on its official release date of February 7, I’ll be teaching an intro to creative writing class and a graduate workshop in fiction at Rhode Island College. Which is, in some ways, probably the perfect way to celebrate. I get to talk about writing and books with some very smart writers at all stages of the process. And then later in the week I’ll be one of the visiting writers at Hendrix College in Arkansas, so that will be my first official event, post-release, and I’m very excited to meet those students. Also, at some point, I think my wife and I are going to try to sneak over to Al Forno, which is this AMAZING local restaurant in Providence. That will be the private, grilled-pizza-filled, celebration. We want to have a party too, and I’m sure we will, but not until later in the spring; in May, maybe, so we can use the outdoors, light some candles, string some lights—do it up garden-style.

And since this is The Lucky 13s blog, I have to ask: what's your favorite superstition?

This one's easy (and fun, thanks for asking it): I love to throw salt over my shoulder after I've spilled it. And since I do most of the cooking in our house, and since I can be quite a messy cook, there's usually an occasion to throw Kosher salt or sea-salt or just table salt over my shoulder on nearly a weekly basis. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thanks to the Lucky 13s for hosting me!

emily m. danforth was born and raised in Miles City, Montana. She has an MFA in fiction from the University of Montana and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where she's worked as the assistant director of the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference. She teaches creative writing and literature courses at Rhode Island College and is coeditor of The Cupboard. This is her first novel.

You can connect with emily via her website, Twitter, or Facebook.

And you can purchase her book online through the following websites:

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

This interview was conducted by Lucky 13s member Brandy Colbert as part of an ongoing series of interviews with The Apocalypsies – YA, MG, and children’s book authors debuting in 2012.

-->


-->

5 comments:

  1. Hello! My first visit, will visit you again. Seriously, I thoroughly enjoyed your posts. Congrats for your work. If you wish to follow back that would be great I'm at http://nelsonsouzza.blogspot.com
    Thanks for sharing!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ooh, I'd heard a little about CAMERON POST but now I'm dying to read it. Great interview!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Fantastic interview! Thanks so much for your in-depth answers. I've always been a little torn about using real towns vs fictional ones, especially when it comes to smaller communities, and your take on the subject was extremely insightful. Best wishes for the book!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I LOVE that the book takes place in the '90s, and I love this interview -- great job, Brandy. And thanks for the thoughtful responses, Emily. A pleasure to read.

    ReplyDelete