1. Your debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is a self-described GAYge novel – a coming-of-age novel featuring an LGBTQ character. What made you want to write a coming-of-age story when there are so many out there already? What did you bring to the table that no one else did before you?
I think the coming-of-age novel is an appealing tradition (especially for a debut novelist) for a couple of reasons, 1) Since—like so many other writers’ coming-of-age novels—Cam Post is semi-autobiographical (which I know you’ll ask about it a minute), it covers some particular experiences from my own adolescence that I’d already processed and was ready to reflect on (in what I hope is a nuanced way) in my fiction. In other words: I felt equipped to realistically and render these experiences, to sort them out in fiction. Many of these moments are fairly universal, which is appealing—adolescence can be such an emotion-rich, complicated time full of tons of brand new experiences: it’s no surprise that so many writers gravitate to it.
2) It’s a very malleable “form” (if we even agree that it’s a form). Generally in these novels an adolescent (or even a pre-teen) protagonist experiences various rites-of-passage and attempts to sort out her/his identity and understanding of self, particularly as it pertains to entering/enacting “adulthood.” But To Kill a Mockingbird is not Catcher in the Rye is not The Virgin Suicides is not White Oleander is not Sag Harbor is not Where Things Come Back--and yet I would argue that all of these are successful examples of the “coming-of-age” novel. (There are plenty of “coming-of-age” memoirs and essay collections and short story collections, too. Julie Orringer’s fantastic How to Breathe Underwater is a great example of the latter.) While some of the thematic elements might be the same or similar in each of these novels (innocence vs. experience, for instance), the stylistic approaches, the casts of characters, the individual situations that shape the protagonists’ “comings of age”—these are all very distinct. All stories have been written before, all forms have been used, all plots already been generated. Each year probably three-dozen (or more) variations on the Cinderella story appear in novel form: and still readers respond to many of them, not necessarily because they recognize that plot immediately—or at least not always—but rather because it lends itself well to being “made over.” I don’t approach my fiction thinking “what can I do that no one else has ever done” in/with a novel? That’s a daunting task, to be sure, one that would likely stop me from ever thinking I could ever write fiction again. Instead, I focus on creating complicated, messy, “real” characters and putting them in equally complicated/messy situations. I also tend to spend a lot of time exploring place and the ways in which particular places inform our lives—even our options for living said lives.
That labeling “coming-of-GAYge” is a little bit cheeky and comes with a story. My good friend Dave Madden (he recently published a wonderful nonfiction book—The Authentic Animal—about the history of/subculture around taxidermy) and I were in the PhD in English-Creative Writing program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and we coined that term together one afternoon shortly after I’d sold the book. Dave has fairly specific ideas about coming-of-age novels (not a fan, in general), and even more specific ideas about the “coming-out” novel—mostly that he sees that form as no longer particularly relevant or interesting in the face of, say, the many coming-out novels already published and more recent works of “post-gay” fiction. (Writer David Leavitt coined this term in a 2005 essay for the New York Times, categorizing it as “…novels and stories whose authors, rather than making a character's homosexuality the fulcrum on which the plot turns, either take it for granted, look at it as part of something larger or ignore it altogether.” http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=990DE1D6163DF934A25754C0A9639C8B63&pagewanted=all)
Anyway, I think the “coming out” novel is a fairly particular form, one wherein the protagonist typically works up to declaring or enacting (to characters in the novel who had previously assumed her/his heterosexuality—as we tend to do in a heteronormative society) her/his non-straight identity/sexuality (queerness) in one or more specific scenes or moments, and then spends the rest of the novel dealing with the consequences of those actions and hopefully reconciling them (though certainly not always). There is a kind of “formula” there: public declaration followed by consequences (and there’s also usually much shame and guilt involved, too—not surprisingly). As Leavitt might say, this announcement or reveal becomes the fulcrum on which the plot turns. I think these novels were crucial for the LGBTQ community (such as it is---a problematic label, to be sure) in that these stories do have a universal quality, they do speak to so many of us—coming-out as anything other than straight is so often fraught and even dangerous for teens (and adults, too—depending on location and situation). However, for those interested in the many, many other stories of LGBTQ lives that might be explored and reflected in our contemporary fiction, these novels, after awhile, maybe begin to feel like just not enough. (It’s the feeling of been there, seen that, is that really all there is?)
While you might point to its origins in some of these literary traditions, I don’t think my novel actually is a coming out novel—coming-of-age, yes; coming out, no. I suggest this for a variety of reasons, a crucial one being that Cam is found out, she doesn’t actually work up to an official “coming out” moment, and also because her sexuality is in fact less an issue for her than it is those around her. It’s important to remember that sexuality—especially burgeoning sexuality—is confusing whether you’re gay or straight or bi or questioning or whatever—it’s messy and complicated and it doesn’t always “work the same” on any given day. Certainly Cam’s coming to terms with all of this, trying to sort out her desires and how society/her family/friends might view those desires, but while she is dealing with quite a bit of guilt over her parents’ deaths, she’s not the kind of self-loathing protagonist that you might assume her to be (before reading the novel). She’s got more verve/humor than that, I think, and even for all her relentless questioning: a stronger, more secure sense of self. Also, this novel offers a fairly specific portrait of reparative/conversion therapy, one that’s not been treated in quite this way in the novels I know of that touch on it. Finally, it prominently features a rather large cast of fairly complicated characters and a place and time—Montana in the early 1990s—that’s treated as a kind of character, too: all of these things make it a very distinct novel, I hope.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post is considered to be vaguely memoir-ish in its base. How much of your life did you put into this novel? What about growing up LGBTQ made writing this book a necessity?
This novel is autobiographical most specifically in terms of its rendering of a particular time and place—Montana in the early 1990s—as seen through the eyes of a closeted gay girl who grew up there. I was a closeted gay girl in small (cattle/ranching) town Montana in the early 1990s and so absolutely some of own my attractions, fears, guilt, desires from that time informed the way I constructed Cameron as a character. We have other things in common, too—both of us swimmers and one-time lifeguards, both of us a little pop culture obsessed (particularly lesbian pop culture); but in all kinds of really significant ways, Cameron Post is just not me—not even teenage me. For starters: I’m not an orphan and I was never sent to conversion therapy (thankfully on both counts). It’s impossible to offer a specific number on the percentage of “my life” that ended up in this novel—certainly my own experiences and memories and belief-systems informed the whole thing, simply through the act of writing it.
Growing up LGBTQ in a time and place where that was not only not sanctioned, it wasn’t even talked about (I didn’t personally know anyone who identified as anything other than straight—anyone at all—until college) meant that I missed out on a lot of the “big teenage stuff” that was/is so celebrated in the popular culture (that I was then obsessed with). Those rites of passage that were “supposed to be” meaningful (crucial, even)—the first kisses and dances and dates—just weren’t an option to me as a girl who liked girls in eastern Montana in the 1990s. The reason that Cameron Post so obsessively seeks out queer representations in the movies she rents—a half-second kiss between two women in one, maybe just a series of romantic “glances” in another—is because it’s so necessary (at that age in particular) to see various options for the way you love, the way you desire, reflected back at you in the culture that surrounds you: it’s part of how you recognize and form your own identity. That process of always having to seek out cultural representations—to find them, or to “make” them by queering culture so that it speaks to you—can be both exhausting and lonely. Sure, it can also build community—as it does between Lindsey and Cam in my novel—but it’s a constant reminder that the way you love and express love is not “the norm.” Instead it’s other/less-than/wrong/sinful/different (take your pick). All of this is part of the thematic scaffolding upon which my novel is built.
2. Your novel deals with some hard topics that occur in Aunt Ruth’s attempts to change Cameron. How hard is it to write about a character going through being “fixed” like that? Was any of it therapeutic in some ways?
I don’t think that I’d call writing the God’s Promise sections of the book “therapeutic.” I’ve (luckily) never personally had conversion/reparative therapy forced on me so it wasn’t like I was using this novel to “work through” any of that from my own life. I did however, do a considerable amount of research on the topic and was often horrified by the personal accounts of teens (and adults) who had spent weeks, sometimes years, unsuccessfully trying to rid themselves of homosexual desire/thought/attraction through a variety of exercises, devotionals/prayers, and behavior-modifications. I also chatted online or via email with some of these people and their stories are as upsetting as you’d imagine—particularly the shame and guilt they felt when they just couldn’t change their thoughts or attractions, their core senses of identity, no matter how hard they “worked the program.”
3. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is your debut novel, which makes it the novel that introduces you into the publishing world. What has the experience been like? Was it hard to enter into traditional publishing with a book focusing on an LGBTQ character?
Publishing Cam Post has been almost entirely a “dream” experience and I feel so incredibly lucky to have such smart, dedicated people on my side making/keeping it that way. I think your readers are likely well aware that traditionally publishing any novel presents a host of challenges, and that plenty of excellent fiction goes unpublished because of some of those challenges. However, I can’t say loudly enough or often enough that I, personally, experienced absolutely no bias against my novel’s characters or themes, while attempting to sell it; nor did my agent (the most excellent Jessica Regel) ever suggest that this novel would maybe be better suited to an indie press specializing in feminist or LGBTQ titles. Those presses do amazing work and regularly publish important fiction and nonfiction, but they also, necessarily, tend to reach much more specific/smaller audiences. And though my manuscript bounced around for a little while before it found its home, never once did any of the editors who passed on it suggest that their hesitations had anything to do with Cam’s emerging sexuality or the novels’ themes. Frankly, I think my experience is really quite the opposite: Cam’s specific situation, her burgeoning sexuality, the conversion therapy she’s forced to endure, all of that material made this novel more attractive/interesting to publishers. As you noted: there are many coming-of-age novels published each year and I think the story of Cam’s particular sexual awakening and identity-formation stands out because she’s a young woman attracted to other women, because she’s trying to negotiate an identity as something other than heterosexual and finding incredible resistance at many fronts. My editor—Alessandra Balzer—has been such a champion of this book since day one, and really absolutely every person I’ve worked with at Balzer + (I realize my very good fortune and am thankful for it daily.)
4. Are you currently writing anything else? If so, does it feature an LGBTQ protagonist or other LGBTQ characters?
I’m working on a couple of novels right now and they both feature LGBTQ protagonists and other queer (or non-straight) characters. Though one of the novels would likely (if sold—fingers crossed) be marketed to adult audiences, the other is a much better fit for YA. It focuses on the lives of the various cast and crew members involved in filming a controversial movie based on the unexpected romance of two girls who fall in love at their women’s college in the 1920s. The POV rotates through several of the novel’s characters, and many of them are varying degrees of “non-straight.”
5. What do you hope for teen readers to get out of Cameron’s story? Do you write with them in mind, or another audience entirely?
The only audience member I write with in mind is me: really and truly—at least for the first several drafts. I would shut down entirely and feel it impossible to compose fiction if I imagined an audience and tried to anticipate their various reactions to a scene I’d just finished or a character I was developing. I try to remain true to the characters I’ve created, to their various situations—I feel beholden to them and I try not to force my own “writerly agenda” on them, rather I try to give them room on the page to surprise me. I don’t, however, feel beholden to prospective readers: I just can’t bring the audience to the desk with me when it’s time to write. I try to fully inhabit the world I’m creating on the page, and there’s barely room for me there to chronicle this world, let alone a myriad of additional voices and opinions. I value my readers so much, and it’s been an absolute pleasure (and surprise!) to hear from so many of them since Cam Post was released in February, but that all has to come later in the process for me.
I hope that both teen and adult readers find points of connection in Cam’s story—her crushes, her specific brand of humor, her overwhelming desire to make sense of her place in the world—that it resonates with them and possibly even holds up a mirror. I hope that readers recognize her world, in some ways, anyway, as now a part of history—the lack of resources for non-straight youth or even available LGBTQ culture to consume—but also see the unfortunate ways in which we haven’t come so far in two decades. (At least not far enough.) Mostly I hope that readers feel, upon completion, that after viewing the world through Cam’s eyes for 400+ pages, something of that experience now remains with them in their own sense(s) of the world. I think that’s what compelling fiction does for me, anyway: it lingers beyond its pages and colors my view, often in ways I can’t fully name or categorize.
6. As an LGBTQ author, what do you have to say to other writers who are LGBTQ and/or aspire to write LGBTQ works in regards to publishing and writing? What about in regards to pulling from life experiences for novels – especially for coming-of-age tales?
Part of my advice is universal for all writers, whether or not they identify as LGBTQ: read everything you can get your hands on (especially the books that confuse/confound/surprise you) and then write and write and write. Remember that wanting to publish is not the same thing as wanting to write—and that neither of those things is the same as actually sitting down and writing. After that, it’s really about devoting yourself to your craft and to finishing particular projects. I don’t believe in arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approaches to novel writing; any rules that I might give you about how to approach your material or how to sell your novel will undoubtedly have lots of good/important exceptions. What I’ll say is this: there are absolutely agents and editors and publishers out there excited about fiction featuring non-straight characters. But you can’t focus on publication from the outset. I just don’t think that’s any way to develop as a writer. Focus on story, focus on characterization and the nuances of language—focus on your fiction. And then revise. And then get some people to read it. Then revise some more. After that: start doing the necessary research into publication (and it does take some research). But don’t start there: start with story.
All pictures found on Emily Danforth's awesome website. I am not responsible for the artful pictures of her and her occasional canoe. For more information about her and her book (or for another Emily + canoe picture), go to the website.