It’s the last day of this season’s 2012 YA Debut Interview series—and the last book I’m featuring for Winter/Spring 2012! As I’ve been saying in every post these past two weeks, my favorite part about a new year (besides building a wobbly tower of unrealistic expectations for how much I’ll write in the coming year, yay!) is the thought of all the new voices I’ll get to discover. I hope you’ve enjoyed the new series of short interviews on this blog featuring some of these new voices. (And I hope you’ve entered the giveaways accompanying these interviews—some are still open.) And don’t forget: On Monday there will be a chance to win a pre-order of your choice.
But now! The last Winter/Spring 2012 YA debut interview…
Read on to see how Emily M. Danforth answered my questions about writing The Miseducation of Cameron Post and more (and if you comment on this post, you could win a signed ARC and stickers!)…
2012 YA Debut Interview:
Emily M. Danforth, author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Balzer + Bray/ HarperCollins, forthcoming February 7, 2012)
I’ll start with the dreaded question you may be hearing already from strangers on elevators, long-lost family members, and your doctor while you’re sitting on the examination table in the paper gown during your next checkup: “So what’s your book about?”
Ugh: the dreaded question the second I get in the door, not even an hors d’oeuvres round to ease me in. But if you’re forcing me, here you go (remembering that you asked for this):
I have the following on my website, but I think it’s apt, I really do. (And I intend it with no snark—not even a little—just with my complete and total agreement with what’s being said.) In her useful (and wholly quotable) book on the craft of fiction writing, Mystery & Manners, Flannery O’Connor wrote: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word of the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anyone asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.”
So, there’s that. But, I understand how unsatisfying an answer that is, of course it is. I just hate reducing a novel to a summary or a synopsis. If I could get at everything I was attempting to “get at” with The Miseducation of Cameron Post (heretofore tMoCP) in a summary, I’d have just written a summary, you know? A novel is the experience of reading it, not its plot synopsis. However, since I’m undoubtedly annoying some folks right now (and forgive me that, please), here’s the jacket copy:
When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.
But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to live with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.
Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship—one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, 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 just who that is.
THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.
So, now there’s that. And I’ll also offer this: my novel is a voice-driven coming-of-age story told from the point of view of its recently-orphaned eponymous narrator, Cameron Post. I started with her voice, and built a character around that, and I wanted to use this novel to watch her make sense of the world and her place in it from a young age. I love these kinds of books: I return to them again and again. If you think about the classification broadly, and I do, the “coming of age novel” covers a wide range of styles and approaches, from Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao to Jane Fitch’s White Oleander to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, or Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle and Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping. And that’s without even mentioning the perennial favorites of To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye. (And the titles I’ve listed barely scrape the surface.) These books have been sold to adults and to teens, as literary fiction and as popular fiction. Some of them, like Nick Burd’s excellent The Vast Fields of Ordinary, have been sold and marketed as YA, many others have not. My novel follows Cameron from the age of 12 to the age of 17, and though she’s telling the story of those years with a little reflective distance, it’s not much. I imagine her to be a narrator who’s just barely hit her twenties, now looking back. So she’s certainly not fully yet dealt with all of this stuff, or put it behind her.
In my experience, every book wants to be written differently—and each one behaves differently from the one before it. Some novels like it out of order, and some rigidly insist on being written from start to finish. Some novels come out fast; others are excruciatingly slow. Some novels torment you, and some sing you to sleep. What did your novel want? Was there ever a moment when it misbehaved?
Something tricky for me was negotiating the balance between wanting The Miseducation of Cameron Post to reside firmly in the land of the voice-driven, American, coming-of-age novel—a tradition that I so love—and also effectively utilizing the months of research I’d done concerning Biblically informed conversion/reparative therapy as a way to “change” sexual attraction/orientation/identity. In case you’re not clear as to what I mean by this: these are the people who believe that with strict, theologically-based instruction, therapy, and personal faith, one can change one’s sexual orientation/identity/attraction(s); or, at the very least, suppress all “sinful same-sex attractions” and go on to live happy and productive “Christ-centered” lives. As horrifying as I find this practice (and system of beliefs)—particularly when forced upon adolescents, as it is in my novel—I wasn’t writing an angry polemic against conversion therapy—this isn’t Down with Conversion Therapy: The Manifesto (though I would happily read that)—it’s a novel, and as such, using my characters merely as puppets so that I might rail against conversion therapy for two hundred pages wasn’t only unappealing, it’s not, to my mind, actually writing fiction. At least not the kind of fiction I admire.
For all kinds of complicated reasons (like cultural and religious conditioning and heteronormativity) some adolescents (and adults) really do want these kinds of “therapies” (I use the term loosely) to change them; they’re desperate for them to do so. They want their extreme faith and willingness to adhere to sets of strict guidelines—guidelines concerning everything from how to dress to how to speak to how to manage “unwanted, sinful thoughts”—to make them free from any same-sex attraction. And when this doesn’t happen, or when, more often, they can’t maintain the charade of “change” (which is really what it is—a charade, a performance) they believe that it’s because they didn’t have true enough faith, or because they didn’t work the system as effectively as they should have. They believe that they have failed—not that their system of change is a complete failure from the outset. (Which, of course, it is.) But rather that they are responsible—this is what they’re told by those in charge of these programs; which is pretty handy, if you think about it: “No, there’s nothing wrong with our methods, it’s YOU who doesn’t have faith enough, strength of will enough, to change.”
This is, of course, not a position I take (as an out lesbian in a committed, eleven-year relationship with the same woman). However, as uncomfortable as it frequently made me, to write this novel I had to explore the mindsets of the people who are proponents of these kinds of “treatments.” Why do they cling to them? Why, with everything else we’ve stopped taking literally from the Bible (such as all the Leviticus “laws” concerning things like not wearing clothing made of mixed fabrics and putting all adulterers to death, no questions asked), do some Christians take a few passages concerning “a man who lies with another man” out of context and into contemporary practice? Why do this?
Moreover, as uncomfortable as it was, I wanted to attempt to get at the situation of people who just aren’t sure about any of this—especially teenagers. They’re confused about their emerging sexuality, they’re confused about their systems of belief, their religious ideology—Cameron Post isn’t at all sure what to believe, or who to believe, or should she believe in anything at all? (Don’t most of us struggle with this?) I felt like it was important to chronicle that confusion, not just to make my eponymous narrator my mouthpiece and have her, as a teenager, speak eloquently about why conversion therapy is not only absurd but is, quite frankly, akin to torture. She problematizes the practice from the start, and she does find her voice, but it’s a process, and one I wanted to represent accurately. All of that—getting the rhetoric of these therapies right, and effectively using my research without just dumping information on the page, as well as giving more “credit” to some characters than I’d give to similar people in “real life”—was challenging. And, finally, importantly: there’s much more to Cameron’s story than her being sent to this facility. I understand that, for some readers (maybe most), conversion therapy is the hook, the thing that might first interest them in my book, cause them to notice it; but for me it’s really just one part of Cam’s story. I’m equally interested in the quiet moments—and the novel has many of them—first kisses, strange obsessions, the small ways we make sense of our world when we’re that age. I love all of that material, and to me it’s not just the texture of this novel, it is the novel.
What is the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
The coursework associated with my Ph.D in English, as well as the creative writing workshops and literature courses I was concurrently teaching at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I mean, they weren’t so much a distraction as a useful and important thing I was doing with my life, but all of that was, you know, something that kept me from spending as much time with this novel as I might have otherwise. (Also, for the sake of honesty: the invention of the DVR, my subsequent purchase of said machine, and cable television.)
Tell us about the place—as in the physical location: a messy office, a comfy couch, a certain corner table at the café—where you spent most of your time writing this book.
I wrote this novel in my home office in Lincoln, Nebraska—which is no longer where I live. While I miss that room, I actually sort of like that TMoCP—my first novel—will always “belong to” that space. The office was the very first room my wife and I completely gutted and remodeled in that house, which was also the first property we owned together (Lincoln was a place of many firsts for us). It was a Victorian from 1900 and was actually built for the in-laws of then Governor Thayer—his house, the former gubernatorial mansion, was next door. Given that ours was a house in need of many, many major renovations—renovations that we drew out over the course of five years—the fact that we tackled the office first tells you two things: 1) It was among the very worst rooms: horse-hair plaster that crumbled in chunks from the walls if you happened to, oh, walk past them; vines literally pushing their way through cracks and into the room from the-overgrown side yard; decades-old water damage covered by a piece of likely 1960s-era orange and pink floral-print fabric. It was, as they say, a mess. 2) That my wife is incredibly supportive of my writing. (Because, trust me, the kitchen was just as bad, possibly worse, and we didn’t start our renovations there.) The office was huge, with plenty of room for us both to have desks, bookshelves, an antique drafting table, and space to spare. It was also filled with natural light from three giant windows—those Victorian windows that run nearly the length of the wall and pop with fancy trim. (We were able to keep an ornamental orange tree—and have it bear its sweet white blossoms and then its tiny fruit, again and again—in all that light.)
One of those windows was directly next to my desk: as in I could rest my mug of coffee on its windowsill (which I often did). Just outside this window was a Fire Bush (do not make inappropriate Lohan jokes here), the kind that sparks aflame with bright red leaves in late October. And once its leaves fell off and it was just a puffy nest of sticks, that bush was always—I mean always—chock-full of blue jays and cardinals. (See photos below.) Sometimes there were as many as two or three of each kind of bird, which—against the backdrop of grey and snow, during a bleak and seemingly endless winter in Nebraska, the whole world feeling like it’s on mute—was an incredible thing to be able to look out my window and see, not five feet from where I sat at my computer.
What was the moment when the upcoming publication of your novel felt “real” for the first time—when you got your editorial letter, when you saw the cover, when you held the ARC in your hands… or something else? Or if it doesn’t feel “real” yet, when do you think it will?
The thing is, it’s felt “real” a whole bunch of times (each that you mentioned in your question, actually), but that feeling never seems to last very long. It’s not, for me, anyway, something that suddenly felt real and then stayed that way. I guess I need to be continually reminded of its reality. So, for instance, the very afternoon that I accepted the offer from Balzer + Bray, probably not two hours later, my wonderful editor, Alessandra Balzer—who I knew, at that point, based on one brief phone conversation—sent me the loveliest welcome and I’m so excited to work with you and we all dig your novel email, and receiving that from her, especially seeing the @HARPERCOLLINS email address, was a moment of “realness.” I think I even printed that email and put it on the fridge. (Yes: I’m that person.) But that feeling didn’t last. And then, when the editorial letter came and it was on stationery with HarperCollins letterhead, for sure: another moment where all of this seemed to be “for real,” and actually happening to me. (Apparently seeing official publishing house logos, etc, helps me with this process of acceptance.) But, that moment didn’t last, either. Same with seeing the cover and getting the box of ARCs. Same with seeing my book available for pre-order in various places. (For whatever reason, I was especially pumped about finding it in the i-tunes bookstore.) Each has been a complete delight, I’m excited every time, but I can’t say that I completely believe the whole thing yet. I think—and I know this must be a writer cliché, it must—but I think I have to physically see my book on a shelf somewhere, for sale, before I’m going to believe that I wrote and published a novel. I think that will be the moment. Let’s hope.
Dream question: If you could go on book tour anywhere in the world, with any two authors (living or dead), and serve any item of food at your book signing… where would you go, who with, and what delicious treat would you serve your fans?
The writer friends I have are much too fantastic and excellent a group for me to pick and choose among them, so I’ll go with two writers I don’t know (or, in one case, can’t know, because he died in 1984): Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Not only are they both writers I admire so much, I like that they were friends with such a long history (friends who quarreled, to be certain, but then how many friends with long histories don’t?). This works for my book-tour fantasy because I’m the newbie in this relationship. Sure, they’re going to have decades’ worth of inside jokes and plenty of Monroeville, Alabama, stories for which I’ll have no context (I can only playfully reference the Maycomb of To Kill a Mockingbird so many times before they’re gonna catch on), but I get to be not only the exciting and unknown new addition to this trio, but also the neutral party: should old wounds resurface between them I’ll be Switzerland. In my fantasy, our tour together takes place after Capote and Lee have spent their time in Holcomb, Kansas, doing the research that would become Capote’s In Cold Blood, but before that book actually comes out—so early 1960s. (How my novel fits into this fantasy—it being set in the early 1990s and all—don’t ask. We’ll pretend, for the purposes of said fantasy, that I’ve written speculative 1990s that will turn out to be eerily, remarkably, accurate.) So on this tour: Truman Capote will read from the beginning of In Cold Blood (which he actually did, quite a lot and to much praise, before he actually finished writing it); Harper Lee will read from To Kill a Mockingbird; and you know what I’ll be reading from. We’ll be doing a sweeping tour of the US, hitting every major city in every single state—Anchorage to Cleveland—a real literary lollapalooza. Oh, we’ll be sick of each other by Billings, Montana—no question—but we’ll work it out. We have our ways: marathon sessions of the board game Clue on our tour bus; escaping one another in the back row of some late-night picture show; valium. Sometimes we serve flaky (lard) crust southern fruit pies (peach and apple and berry), and good coffee/sweet tea at our readings. Other times it’s daintier, much more elegant fare: petit fours and hand-dipped truffle chocolates and fizzy beverages made with soda water and natural syrups in flavors like pomegranate-lime and ginger-orange-blueberry. Two of us do not take ourselves very seriously at all, but only two. I’m saying nothing more about that.
emily m. danforth has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana and a Ph.D in English-Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her first novel, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post—a Booklist starred review—is forthcoming (February 2012) from Balzer+Bray/ HarperCollins Publishers. emily’s short fiction has also been published in a variety of literary magazines, both print and online. She teaches creative writing and literature courses at Rhode Island College in Providence and is also co-editor of The Cupboard, a quarterly pamphlet of innovative prose eagerly awaiting your submissions.
emily was born and raised in Miles City, Montana, a town best known for its Bucking Horse Sale—which was once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for hosting the most intoxicated people, per capita, of any US event. She has an eraser collection, an iced-coffee addiction, and a penchant for neologisms, which can be something of a scandalamity for some readers.
Visit her at www.emdanforth.com.
Read emily’s blog at somuchflotsam.tumblr.com.
Follow @emdanforth on Twitter.
Do you want a chance to win The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth? Emily is giving away a signed ARC and stickers to ONE LUCKY COMMENTER on this post. Just comment below and you’re entered to win.
(If you tweet about this giveaway you get +1 extra entry… just let me know you did.)
RULES: One winner will be chosen randomly. The giveaway to win a signed ARC and stickers of The Miseducation of Cameron Post ends Friday, December 23 at 5:00 p.m. EST. To win this giveaway, you must have a US mailing address. Be sure to include your email in the comment form (it is private and only I will see it), so I know how to reach you if you win.
And hey! Come back on Monday for a chance to win a pre-order of your choice from the ten featured Winter/Spring 2012 debuts!