Books Magazine

Interview: Emily M. Danforth (Part 2)

By Storycarnivores @storycarnivores

Yesterday we presented Part 1 of our conversation with William C. Morris finalist Emily Danforth (click here to check it out). Welcome back, and enjoy the second part of our conversation with Ms. Danforth!

Story Carnivores: Cameron Post is such a dynamic, original character, with such a distinctive voice that it’s obvious some elements of her and her experiences are semi-autobiographical. How much of yourself is in the character, and in the novel, and how much of oneself do you think an author should put into his or her main character?

Emily Danforth
Emily Danforth: I don’t think there’s one satisfying answer to that question—or to the final part of your question, anyway. It depends on the character one is building, on the kind of novel one is writing, and on the writer in question. Given that The Miseducation of Cameron Post is, in part, a novel of time and place, and that Cam’s experience of that time and place (eastern Montana in the early 1990s) has significant similarities to my own (though I’m technically five years younger than Cameron—she’d actually be my sister’s age, not my own) it just made sense to mine from some of my own memories and experiences, particularly those regarding growing up queer in that kind of rural, western, predominately (socially/politically) conservative environment. The novel is part nostalgic-love letter to my past, but it’s not all love letter, of course, because aspects of those experiences were really difficult, even damaging. This novel is certainly autobiographically-informed, but it’s a mistake to read it thinking that Cam is the fictionalized version of me. I mean, you’re welcome to do that, of course, maybe doing that makes the book more interesting for some readers, but it’s just not very accurate to my own experiences (and anybody who knew me in high school will tell you that). I am not an orphan; I never went to conversion therapy (thank gawd); I, sadly, never knew a Jane Fonda or a Reverend Rick or even a Coley Taylor. These characters are built of pieces of people I’ve known, sure, but they’re also built of pieces of me combined with wholly imagined elements. That might not be a very satisfying answer, but it’s the most accurate one I’ve got. I think you can mine from your personal experience all you need to if it serves the story you’re writing. In this case, what served this story most, were my specific memories of growing up (and being a closeted queer) in that place and during that time.

SC: You say in a Youtube video that the two year waiting period for your book to come out felt like the two longest years of your life. What did you do during that time to make the wait a little less painful? Did you work on any other writing projects, and, on that note, are you currently working on a second novel?

ED: It did feel, at the time, incredibly, impossibly long, but I should add, here, that those two years were crucial, crucial years and I’m ultimately very glad that I had them. Those years feel long because you’re just so thrilled to have sold your first book—of course you are!—and so then having to wait for two years (ish) to hold it in your hands or see it on a shelf just feels like a really long time—longer, even, than it actually is in days or weeks. You’re like Veruca Salt and you want it now. However, in my experience, you need those years, that time, and you should be thankful for it. For me, part of the time was spent working on revisions with my editor to make this book as good as it could be, and part of it was spent doing all the completely necessary stuff that needs to get done before a book can be published and distributed—copyediting and formatting and cover designing and selecting and finessing and marketing and sending around review copies, and, you know, there’s a whole lot that goes into the process. It’s just because it was my first time through it, I think, that I was less prepared to explain to people (who inevitably asked) why it was that I had sold my novel in April of 2010 but that it wouldn’t be coming out until February of 2012. I didn’t understand the process very well myself. Now I do—and what’s more, I respect it. Those B+B folks know what they’re doing over there and I’m happy to let them do it.

I sold my book the spring before my final year in my PhD, so during that final year I was actively on the academic job market—which can feel like a full time job. During that year I was also teaching, co-directing the writers’ conference, and finishing my PhD requirements (like my defense), and so I was getting very little writing done of any kind. And then I graduated, sold my house, and moved across country with my wife to start a full time position as an Assistant Professor at Rhode Island College, and then the book came out, and there has been travel and promotion and just, you know, all kinds of stuff in relation to that (good stuff, you know, good stuff), but what all of this means is that for almost two years I’ve not written nearly as much as I’d like to have written.

However, I’m back on track, now, and yes, am working on a new novel. I can’t tell you many details yet, but it’s YA and it has queer characters and it involves the making of a controversial indie film. I’m wicked excited about it.

SC: This week marks the one year anniversary of the initial release of your novel. What has the last year been like for you? In what ways have your life changed, and in what ways has it stayed the same?

ED: This is how you can tell that I’m so delayed in getting these responses to you (sorry!)—it’s actually been about a year and 5 weeks at this point. (Thanks for being so patient with me.) 2012-2013 has been the year with the highest highs and lowest lows in the whole of my life thus far. I feel like a profoundly different person than the me I was on the day the novel came out last year, but it’s too soon, I think, to satisfactorily or succinctly tell you the exact ways in which I’ve changed. In general, though, the response to my novel has been overwhelming and just pretty darned wonderful. I’ve been thrilled and floored and tickled and, I don’t know, befuddled, by the attention paid to Cam Post—it’s been fantastic. All those years I spent in CW grad programs mean that I know a lot of talented writers, and I feel very lucky (and endlessly grateful) that I not only got to publish a novel with a wonderful imprint, but that people are actually reading the darned thing. This is just wonderful news for a writer—to know that people are reading and talking about your book.

However, with good so often comes bad. My father died very recently, (and though I’ve not yet processed that the way I know I eventually will), what I can say, now, is that so many clichés about death feel very true and important to me right now. They’re not new ideas, but they’ve taken on new life for me at this time. I’m more aware than ever that life is too short not to spend it doing what you love, and that success as defined by professional accolades or even financial wealth is often fleeting, or at least not very fulfilling in the long-term. You asked what’s stayed the same for me this year, and I can tell you, with certainty, it’s remembering that the writing is ultimately what’s most important to me—and this year has brought that into focus in ways I couldn’t have imagined. This whole journey started with me wanting to write fiction, to tell stories, really, and it’s only when I’m really devoting myself to my writing that I feel most at home, most grounded or centered or like myself—however you want to put it.

SC: Congratulations on your novel being named one of the 2012 William C. Morris finalists! What was your reaction when you found out? And what does this acknowledgment mean to you?

ED: Thank you so much! Oh, I was in a state of shock and delight. I was rushing around our loft, actually, getting ready to host a graduate reading that would have about 75 people in attendance, and I was behind schedule. I was trying to bake something, probably more than one thing, when my editor called me, and I didn’t recognize the number on my cell and kind of barked a hello because I thought it was someone late with a necessary delivery for the event. And then Alessandra said, “Emily—Emily? Are you okay? Are you on your way to teach or something?” And then I of course realized who it was, and didn’t even let her explain why she was calling before I launched into my own explanation about why I was so frantic. And then at some point I said, “Hey, wait—you probably didn’t call to hear about my hosting problems, did you?” and she laughed and said no and told me why she was calling and it was, of course, fantastic–that news made the rush and frenzy of the next few hours not such a big thing at all. I was floating through my obligations. The Morris Award committee has a legacy of honoring such beautiful, compelling, diverse debut YA titles, and so I’m of course humbled and honored and very grateful to have my book chosen as a finalist this year. It’s meaningful professionally, sure, but personally, too, to have my novel singled out for this honor.

SC: There are a lot of young adult novels that can entertain teenage readers, but I feel like The Miseducation of Cameron Post is one of those rare novels that has the ability to change teenagers’ lives. I know I would have really loved and identified with this book, and with Cameron, when I was in high school, terrified about my feelings and where they might take me. What has been your response from young readers, gay or straight, over the past year? And do you have any personal favorite gay young adult novels that inspired you along the way, and that you’d like to recommend?

ED: Thanks very much for saying so, that means a lot to me. Unquestionably another of the highlights from this year has been interacting with my readers—adult and teenage alike, but it’s particularly touching/inspiring to hear that Cam’s story has personally impacted a teen reader, especially one who identifies with various aspects of her experience. I didn’t really expect to get the kinds of personal reactions—via email and letters, most often—from teen readers that I’ve gotten since the book came out. I’ve heard from teenagers in rural areas—some of them out west, but in other regions, too—who talk about similarities between their own experiences and Cameron’s. Sometimes these similarities are good things, particularly small town customs or cultural events, but more often it’s upsetting to me that some of Cam’s experiences with bigotry and homophobia (in a world that’s 20 years removed) aren’t all that different than those of some of today’s teens who still feel unsafe coming out to their parents or classmates, or unable to ask the person they want to a dance, or to dress or act a certain way without being bullied or shamed or made to feel less-than or different or weird. One of my personal favorite responses is a handwritten letter from a thirteen-year-old reader who described herself as a “crooked girl” (in reaction to being not-straight but not otherwise defined) who told me that knowing Cam for the length of the book was really important to her. I got an email, just last week, from a college student at a very small liberal arts school who came out to her mom and friends after reading the book, because she so related to Cam and was inspired by her. I mean, those kinds of responses are just incredible, and they’re evidence of the ways that novels speak to us differently when we’re younger, I think. I still love novels, and become engrossed by them or am consumed by their style, their beauty, the world on the page, but I don’t know that I feel myself changed, as a person, by my relationship to very many novels, anymore. It’s the books I read when I was 10, 12, 16, that changed me in those kinds of profound ways—that shaped my humanity so crucially, that maybe even helped me to make specific decisions in my life. To think that Cameron Post is now doing that for some readers is really remarkable to me.

I will always, always recommend Annie On My Mind as a classic and crucial gay-YA novel. I wish that I’d found it when I was even younger, but I’m so glad I found it eventually (and that legions of other teen readers have done the same). I think there’s been some truly fantastic LGBTQ YA lit in the last decade or so. The Lambda children’s/YA finalists this year are a really diverse, interesting group of books that show the real range in LGBTQ YA (and trust me, I’m not just saying that because my book is amongst them). This kind of diversity of style and genre and approach speaks to good things ahead for LGBTQ characters in YA novels, I think. I’m excited about what’s to come.

SC: Let’s end with another fun one. If The Miseducation of Cameron Post were made into a movie, what young actress would you like to play Cameron? And is there any chance we might see your novel translated to the screen anytime soon?

ED: Well, in my dream world we would time machine back to the 1970s and have teenage Jodie Foster play Cam. I mean, teenage Jodie Foster would be perfect; a dream, really. However, probably not going to happen, right? Seems like that time machine might be better put to other purposes like saving lives or ending wars or something. So, I’m just not sure. I think it would be amazing if Cam Post became the career-defining role of some as-of-yet not terribly well known young actresses’ career. Maybe there’s a major casting call for unknown acting talent in Montana and Cam Post comes from that—that’d be perfect.

Not anytime soon, I’m afraid, but keep your fingers crossed that someday, someday, we’ll see Cam on film. I mean, Cam herself would love that, of course—nobody would love it more, really—not even me.

Thanks so very much to Emily for chatting with us. And be sure to pick up a copy of her wonderful novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post, on sale now!

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