Emily M. Danforth: Exploring Compelling Young Adult Characters
Author: Brent Taylor
April 10, 2012
“What I hope The Miseducation of Cameron Post offers to its readers is a nuanced picture of a particular time and place as seen through the eyes of a young woman discovering her sexuality and her voice.”
Last month, Harper Collins published creative writing professor Emily M. Danforth’s debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. About a girl growing up Miles City, Montana, and what happens when her aunt unearths one of her deepest secrets, the novel eloquently portrays life in a small town with small-minded people. In a market where sassy gay male protagonists reign supreme, Cameron Post is a refreshing character to read about—she’s a lesbian.
Danforth, a former resident of the town where her novel is set, sat down to answer a few questions about writing and growing up gay in Miles City, Montana.
Your prose in The Miseducation of Cameron Post is absolutely beautiful. Who or what do you credit with teaching you the most you know about writing?
Thank you very much for saying so. I credit so many teachers and mentors and other writers with helping to shape my style and approach to fiction. I was encouraged to begin thinking carefully about craft and construction during undergraduate fiction workshops atHofstraUniversity, particularly those of Paul Zimmerman, Eric Brogger, and Julia Markus. A couple of years later I was able to build on that early instruction while in the MFA in fiction program at the University of Montana, and later the PhD in Creative Writing program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In both of those graduate programs I not only did a whole lot of fiction writing, I was also asked to read widely (and nearly constantly); and that process, learning to read “like a writer,” to examine technique and construction in a diverse range of works—novels and short stories and prose poems and screenplays—will make anyone a better writer, or at least one much more attentive to craft.
Your book is set in Miles City, Montana, which is also your hometown. Miles City isn’t the ideal place for a young lesbian to grow up, as we learn in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, but Cameron—your protagonist—didn’t seem to hate it. What was your experience, growing up in Miles City and gay, like?
Well, in a few crucial ways, some of my experiences growing up gay in Miles City in the 1990s were a lot like Cam’s, at least in the sense that I always felt like I was on the periphery of so many of those adolescent rites of passage that all my straight friends were enjoying fully and in the open; and also that I was so, so hungry to find queer representation. There were plenty of things to appreciate about my adolescence in Miles City, things Cam appreciates as well—local events and attractions and certain aspects of the culture, not to mention all that open range surrounding us, the ease of getting lost to the world for a while if you want to. But even while I was able to appreciate some aspects of small town life, I always knew that I’d leave Miles City after graduation, and while some of that simply had to do with wanting to live in a more urban area, some of it also had to do with not feeling, at that time, like I could live openly as a lesbian there. I didn’t know a single out and proud LGBTQ person until college, and there was a near-constant undercurrent of homophobic jokes and attitudes that permeated so much of the landscape of my high school experience. This often wasn’t actually overt homophobia, but that’s mostly because there wasn’t an out target to direct it toward. Instead it took the form of comments and innuendos about queers or dykes or fags, and that kind of homophobia is so insidious because it feels nearly impossible to effectively confront or address. It’s in the insult that’s muttered under someone’s breath as you pass in the hallway, the constant reminders that LGBTQ folks are perverts or weirdos or just “less than” everybody else—just something to be mocked or scorned. Because of this culture, and also not personally knowing a single out gay person, (as well as my own internalized homophobia): I stayed closeted throughout high school. I was the “funny, A-sexual” kid (really I was–voted class clown and best sense of humor, even) who made jokes so people thought of me in terms of my clownishness, and not, I reasoned, in terms of any rumors or suspicions about my love interests. I know that Miles City has changed in some significant ways in the 14 years since I graduated, even just in terms of LGBTQ visibility, but I also know just how not-unique my experiences in high school were/are. We can’t just point our fingers at certain places on the map as being the problems, the loci, for sanctioned homophobia; it’s much more systemic than that.
How integral was it that the story would be set in the Midwest? Do you think you could’ve set it in a larger city, and still get across the ideas and themes you accomplished?
I actually think of Montana as being part of the American West and not the Midwest, and I think most Montanans would agree with me. I suppose that might seem like a kind of annoying quibble with your question, but really it speaks to the kind of “cowboy culture” (however performative it may sometimes be) and regionalism that’s so specific to that place, and certainly this novel is one very concerned with establishing place-as-character. It’s probably also important to remember that The Miseducation of Cameron Post isn’t just set in a very particular place, but it’s also set during a particular time—the very early 1990s—and so many of the themes of the novel really are bound up in both of those things: the culture and ideologies and practices of a particular time and place. Unquestionably this novel “belongs to” Cameron Post’s version ofMontana as it is funneled through her character’s point-of-view (one informed both by experience and reflection). I can’t imagine the novel being set elsewhere: it really “belongs to” Montana; though I can, of course, imagine Cameron as character moving to other places and confronting her own inexperience with the whole of the world outside of Miles City. She has to do some of that, in fact, during the second half of the novel, even though it’s still set in Montana.
You teach creative writing and literature courses at Rhode Island College in Providence. What’s one piece of advice on writing that you always give to students?
Read everything you can get your hands on, in all genres. Poets should read novels and novelists should read chapbooks and you should also read the books that challenge your expectations for just how they should “work” or what those forms should “do.” It’s great fun, of course, to read books that inspire or entertain, but I think it’s equally important to read books that confuse or confront all of your notions about how a “good” novel or short story collection, whatever, should function, and then to examine why and how your expectations have been confronted or confused. Read for technique, read for pleasure, read for knowledge. And then write and write a lot.
On that same note, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to teenagers who, when they come out,—or are found out, like Cameron Post—don’t have a yellow-brick road paved for them?
I’m going to sound my most clichéd and preachy here, so forgive me (and please stay with me), but you must know that you’re absolutely not alone in this. There are so many individuals (and organizations and programs) out there to support you and guide you through this process—even though it might sometimes seem like they’re not visible or accessible enough to you right now, where you live, in your house, with your family or at your school. (We know this too, and believe me: good people are working to improve this everyday.) If your family isn’t supportive then seek out friends or a teacher or mentor. If those don’t seem like viable options, at the very least get online and find the wealth of resources and communities there to welcome you. If you feel like you’re in crisis and are afraid to talk with family or friends then please, please contact The Trevor Project. But you don’t have to be in crisis, of course, to want to find a community. There are many of these, but TrevorSpace (a social networking site for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth ages 13 through 24 and their friends and allies) is a good place to start. And, of course check out the It Gets Better Project. Finally, just know that there’s not a “right way” to do this—to come out or to first fall in love or to make sense of the confusing mess, frankly, that is attraction and identity and desire, all of that. Don’t think that you’re “doing it wrong “or should know more than you do. Really—nobody does, and those people who act like they do are just, well, acting. This stuff is messy and weird and it’s okay if you haven’t sorted it all out yet. You have time, I promise.
Cameron never seems to run out of girls to crush on. Was this you in high school?
Oh for sure, though I was much less brave Cam is in terms of pursuing, even tentatively, most of those crushes. Adolescent crushes are just so all-consuming and fraught, aren’t they? Especially for closeted kids. It’s all new and it’s all intense and it’s so easy to lose yourself to the fantasy of it, particularly if fantasy is all you feel safe exploring. There’s something wonderful too, I think about the fleeting, even-momentary, crush. You know, the kind that lasts just the length of someone—maybe a stranger on the street, a person in line at the coffee shop—tucking her hair or saying a word just so?
What traits do you and Cameron Post share?
We’re both a little bit obsessed with queer pop culture, though certainly there’s more for me to choose from now than there was for Cam, and also her level of obsession was very consistent and my level of obsession comes in waves depending on how consumed I am with other things. We’re both avid swimmers, though Cam’s in much better shape than I am: the benefits of youth! (However, I do have the benefit of an indoor, year-round pool and Cam only had the man made lake.) We’re both fairly optimistic and sometimes unabashedly romantic, I think, even when it gets us in trouble. We might also both be prematurely nostalgic about some things.
Do you think lesbian teens are underrepresented in contemporary young adult fiction? What sets The Miseducation of Cameron Post apart from any other gay YA novel out there?
Absolutely, but I also think that compelling LGBTQ characters are underrepresented in fiction in general, be it YA or not. I’m certainly not “blaming this” on anyone or anything in specific. There are unquestionably fewer authors who identify as LGBTQ writing novels than there are authors who identify as straight, and even if one does identify as LGBTQ: that doesn’t necessarily mean that s/he will be interested in writing stories with lesbian or gay or trans or undecided characters. (Though it’s always worth remembering that there are several straight authors who have written fantastic novels featuring compelling LGBTQ characters.) I’m mostly drawn to character-driven fiction, which means that I want the main characters (and even some of the side characters) in the novels I read to be nuanced and rounded and complicated, not stock, not flat, not easily reducible to just a handful of specific traits. I hope Cameron is this kind of character—complex, messy, not “of a type.”
As to the second part of your question: I think it’s tricky to answer since part of the necessary discussion must be just what makes a novel a “gay novel?” Is it the characters’ sexualities, their situations, the themes explored, the author’s own lived identity? Is it all of the above? One of the above? Something else entirely? What I hope The Miseducation of Cameron Post offers to its readers is a nuanced picture of a particular time and place as seen through the eyes of a young woman discovering her sexuality and her voice. The time is the very early 1990s, the place is Montana, and the teenager in question has, in the space of 48 hours, kissed her first girl and become an orphan. This is absolutely a novel that deals with adolescent rites of passage—like the first kiss I just mentioned, and dating in high school, going to prom, making-out in a movie theater, goofing off just because you can—in those ways it’s quintessentially a coming-of-age story. It also, as a form, has lots of things in common with the sentimental novel of instruction (though it’s a kind of “queering” of that form), and the orphan narrative, and the picaresque novel. Certainly it’s a novel of place. It’s a novel that closely examines religiously-informed conversion/reparative therapy as an attempt to alter sexuality and gender identity. It’s also a novel that is very concerned with the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture And hey, if that’s not enough: it has a Ferris Wheel scene; it prominently features some cowboy shenanigans; and one of its characters is a girl named Jane Fonda.
Do you have any other books in the works? Do you think your future novels will also feature LGBT characters?
I’m working on a couple of novels right now, and both concern the lives of non-straight characters—though one of them has a very large “cast” and so features a few straight characters, too. That novel (the latter) is tentatively titled Well, Well, Well… It follows one copy of the (historically banned) “first lesbian” novel, The Well of Loneliness, from the day it comes off the press in London in 1928 and is picked up by its author, the colorful Radclyffe Hall, to the day it—well, I can’t say what happens to it, but suffice it to say that we follow this copy of the book as it passes hands from one character to the next for 100 years. The characters are mix of fictionalized versions of “real people,” like actress/provocateur Tallulah Bankhead (who was friends with Hall), and also those who are complete inventions. The structure is kaleidoscopic, with this individual copy of Hall’s novel as the fulcrum around which these various narratives and worlds collide. However, some sections also make use of material from The Well of Loneliness, reshaping or altering particular scenes or moments from that book so that they comment on the action in my novel. It’s always been important to me that my second novel be unlike my first in terms of approach, plot, and structure, and certainly this book is all of those things.
I’m sure I’ll always write about LGBTQ characters, absolutely. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is very much a coming-of-age novel—that’s the form it was always meant to take—but there are, of course, a variety of ways to present the full and complicated lives of non-straight characters in fiction beyond the coming-of-age narrative, and I want to try them all. Desire and attraction and sexuality are always, to my mind, pretty messy and interesting, so even if I write a novel about a thirty-something who is fully out of the closet and has been for years (and all her friends, colleagues, and family know it and are accepting and blah, blah, blah) that doesn’t mean that there’s no “queer” component to the story, it’s just a different kind of story about a different kind of character than is the coming-of-age novel.