Is it egomaniacal to say that I not only loved The Miseducation of Cameron Post but that this debut novel, published this week, reminded me of my own first novel, Prep? Here’s why: Cameron is a smart, observant teenager who’s overmatched, as so many of us were, by high school; the novel is set in a distinct place, in this case Miles City, Mont., a town of sandstone and sagebrush and cowgirls who drive pick-ups; over almost 500 pages, author Emily Danforth takes her sweet time telling Cameron’s story; and did I mention that the main character eventually finds herself at boarding school in the form of a de-gaying boot camp?
Danforth herself grew up in Miles City, Mont., and now lives in Providence, R.I., where she’s a professor at Rhode Island College. I’ve known her for a few years and—full disclosure—gave a blurb to this novel, though I promise it’s not just writerly chumminess that made me fall for it. It’s the terrific writing, the sharp observations, the dead-on depiction of the churning angst of being fifteen years old, and above all, the sense that this is a novel that needs to exist at this national and cultural moment. Last week, I interviewed Danforth about why she’s the person who had to write it.
Curtis Sittenfeld: I know that you started writing this book in 2005. Could you talk about the genesis of the idea?
Emily Danforth: I knew that I wanted to write a coming of age novel. Then I came across this Zach Stark controversy. Zach Stark was a 16-year-old who posted on his MySpace wall that he was being sent to a de-gaying camp, which is how he put it, by his parents, and then he posted the rules of this particular facility and what kind of clothing he could wear, what kind of music he was allowed to bring, those sorts of things. First it was passed around with his friends, and then it got passed around to activists on both sides, and at some point, someone emailed me about this and said, “You can go see this thing on the kid’s [Myspace] wall.” There was a postcard campaign to get [the camp] shut down. I think he was getting messages about, “I’ll meet you outside your house in an unmarked van. Your parents are not fit to be parents.”
Sittenfeld: Meeting him outside with the idea of preventing him from being sent to the camp?
Danforth: Yes. It was run by the Love In Action folks in Tennessee, which is one of the many organizations that fell under the umbrella of Exodus International, which is the world’s largest organization that does Christian ministry in the realm of conversion therapy or reparative therapy. I should say too that Zach didn’t say anything on his wall about being gay. He certainly wasn’t calling himself gay at that point or comfortable with that identity, but he was conflicted and confused the way many teenagers feel about their sexuality, and was horrified by the response on both sides.
I did eventually—and I don’t think this is the most important part of the story—I did have a very brief MySpace exchange with Zach Stark, and we talked a little bit about his time there, but he eventually shut down his MySpace page and did not want that sort of role anymore. But it was that story that made me think, “Ok, I know I want to do this story about a girl in Montana. I know it’s going to be a coming of age story, and now I know that I want to explore conversion therapy and see how that’s going to become part of Cameron’s story.” It was once an 850-page book. We followed Cameron for much longer than we do actually in this version.
Sittenfeld: Cam is gay; you mention in the little note in the advance copy of your book that I read that you are gay, and I would assume that you’re wary of conversion therapy. But I think it’s really striking how restrained the depiction of the conversion therapy school is. The adults running it are not evil. Did you consciously refrain from making them seem horrible?
Danforth: It’s completely deliberate, and I’m pleased that you asked this question. Early on, I heard some response from some bloggers who were like, “This is a dangerous book because the author refuses to condemn conversion therapy.” Nobody is purporting to say that I support conversion therapy, but there are certainly some readers who feel and will continue to feel that Cam needed to be my mouthpiece against this, in a way that is not interesting to me.
In reading a novel, I want to see a more full picture, and I don’t think all of the people that would devote their lives to doing this kind of work can be so easily pigeon-holed as just monsters. There’s something more complex there in that they really believe that they’re doing the Lord’s work.
Sittenfeld: What form did your research of conversion therapy take?
Danforth: Sometimes I was in chat rooms with people who were currently seeking some kind of treatment, either one-on-one with a pastor or they had gone through it before. There are various blogs that I went to.
Sittenfeld: In your research, did you ever assume an alternate identity? Or did you say, “I’m writing a novel about this. My name is Emily Danforth.”
Danforth: Oh no, I absolutely was not at all forthright. I would be sort of “lurking.” There was a program in Billings, Mont. that was being run by a church that was being used for a variety of sex addictions. I spent quite a bit of time talking to the woman who led that, and I always was basically doing this as if I was seeking treatment. I was never really saying, “I’m ready to be here, and I’m ready to be saved.” But certainly I was acting like I was willing.
Sittenfeld: Did you go to the program?
Danforth: I did go to one meeting, which I’d have to liken to the equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous. I was fairly active in a youth group when I was a teenager, and the details are not so much different. There was a devotional at the beginning, we were led through a series of prayers, there was a presentation based on a book that was written by one of the Exodus International authors. They read some passages from that. People shared stories of the struggles they’d had that week with same-sex attraction. There were cookies and coffee. I think some people went bowling afterward.
I remember having friends when I was in grad school in Montana saying, “Do you have my cell phone number? Because they’re going to try to lock you in a basement somewhere.” I know that people were being sort of silly, but also were really concerned because the idea of changing yourself in that way or feeling like you should be so ashamed that you’re living a life of sin is scary. But what was actually going on at this meeting was not frightening to me.
Sittenfeld: At the school in the novel, how much of it is based on research?
Danforth: A great deal of it comes from my imagination because I have not been to a live-in facility. There are live-in conversion therapy centers for adults. There’s a fairly active one in Kansas, and there was a part of me briefly that thought, “Could I do this?” But I think you have to stay for at least six months. I would have had to write some piece of immersion journalism. It wouldn’t have been what I needed for this novel. A lot of it is invented just because I’ve never been to one.
Sittenfeld: To me, this is a boarding school novel, and I’m curious if it is to you.
Danforth: I’m happy to claim it as a boarding school novel.
Sittenfeld: Then I’m here to say welcome to the club!
Danforth: hank you very much. Is there any sort of name badge?
Sittenfeld: You get a plaque.
Danforth: Well, I’m happy to be a member of the club. I’m going to start calling it my boarding school novel from now on. My big joke is that my friend calls it my “great big coming of gay-ge” novel, and that sort of stuck. So I decided instead of being annoyed about that just to claim it.
Sittenfeld: I want to shift to talking about Miles City, which is depicted in such a vivid way. Do you feel at all nervous about how the book will be received there?
Danforth: I worry about it, I think probably more than I should. I’m doing a reading in Miles City this summer, I think at the Miles City public library, and I keep thinking, “What’s that going to be like?” It’s not even about the conversion therapy, but there’s some frankness in the sex or make-out scenes, and the drug use, and people then knowing me, and my parents still live on Main Street [in Miles City]. I’m very very tied to that town. My entire family lives in Montana with the exception of me. People are going to look for me in Cam and other characters as well.
Sittenfeld: You mentioned Cam’s experience with coming out although it’s not even really that she comes out; it’s more that she’s found out. Can you talk a little bit about your own experience coming out?
Danforth: Cam is braver than I was. There’s no question. I felt like I had to leave Miles City [to come out]. I knew this thing about myself I think from the age of 8. Really early. But I just had this notion that I had to be essentially asexual and funny, that I could be those two things. And I would make jokes all the time, and I think my friends knew too when I would say things like, “Gonna be the world’s first non-religious nun.” So I just thought “I have to leave Miles City, and then I’ll get to college, and college will be an incredibly tolerant and diverse place, and I’ll come out on my first day.” I wasn’t quite that naïve, but I really was just about there.
So I went to school on Long Island at Hofstra, and it was a much more conservative campus than I had notions of. There was certainly a gay group, but it wasn’t like going to Oberlin or SUNY Purchase or something. And I did not come out my freshman year, although I kept making overtures toward coming out. The most absurd and embarrassing thing was like, I was a great friend to the gays, is how I would have put it. I would have lesbian friends, and they would be like, “Come on. Just between us. You are, right?” And I would be like, “No, you need to learn to be more tolerant. I am very supportive of you, but I myself am not.” And I look back now and cringe—just cringe.
Sittenfeld: Why did you resist coming out after your big college plans?
Danforth: Well, I wanted there to be a rainbow walkway or something. I kept waiting to be invited into the big gay group, and it just didn’t happen. But also, it felt theoretical, because I hadn’t actually done anything about it. So it was like, well, how can I come out until I’ve at least made out with somebody? How can you say I’m this thing? Who wants to be theoretically anything? And so there was this hesitancy. I can’t really blame it on anything but me not being okay with it myself. But then I came home in the summer and did this crazy summer of lifeguarding and wanted to brag: I’m away at college, and New York is so cool. I told some people I was lifeguarding with that I’d come out, which really wasn’t true, but I think I wanted to make like I had some sort of glamorous gay life that I didn’t have. And then it was easier to go back my sophomore year and be like, “Well, this is what I am.”
Sittenfeld: Your novel starts in 1989, which feels like a shockingly long time ago—that was the year I started high school. Do you feel like you know what it’s like to be a gay teenager in high school now?
Sittenfeld: Does it seem to you from afar like it’s dramatically different?
Danforth: It really does. One of the most obvious changes that I can’t speak to at all is the Internet. And I don’t like it when everybody’s all, “Ooh, the Internet,” but it really is [different]. You would be able to access this community from Miles City, Mont., and find all kinds of not just people to connect to, but information about different kinds of culture. And none of that was available. You’d sit through the worst movie if you heard there was a scene with any sort of inkling of some sort of lesbian sexuality. I would watch and rewatch Fried Green Tomatoes an embarrassing number of times. I would wear out the scenes in that because I was so desperate, like, “Where are the people like me reflected back to me? They have to be out there.” There certainly were no examples for me just living openly in my town at that time. There were the teachers that everyone heard the rumors about, blah blah blah. The lesbrarian, people were always talking about the lesbrarian. But I didn’t see any of that, and I was so desperate for it. And that wouldn’t be true at all for teenagers today.
Sittenfeld: Does this feel like a political novel to you? Do you worry you’ll be asked to be an activist more than a novelist?
Danforth: Like I said, a little bit of the early reception is I think people wanted me to be more of an activist, or they want the book to serve as a kind of activism that it doesn’t. I think fiction sometimes can be activism. I’m not sure that this book is.