Picture drawn by Maggie Stiefvater, 2009. Header made by S.F. Robertson, 2010.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Author Interview- Emily M. Danforth

1) How did you get the idea for The Miseducation of Cameron Post? What kind of research did you do to learn about places that try to "fix" homosexuality?

I knew, for many years, really, that I wanted to write some sort of first-person, character-driven coming-of-age novel set, at least partially, in eastern Montana—where I was born and raised—and carefully exploring emerging sexual identity and desire. I eventually found Cameron’s voice in a writing workshop at the University of Montana. At that point “she” wasn’t named Cameron and was, I thought, just the narrator of a short story (that never really went anywhere) but she became a character I wanted to stay with. Other pieces came rather randomly.

In 2005, as I was beginning my drafting process, working out the cast of characters and events, I became aware of Biblically-informed conversion/reparative “therapy” because of the media attention over a teenage boy from Tennessee who posted on his Myspace page about being forced, by his parents, to attend one of these reparative therapy summer camps. I was both horrified and intrigued and began my research into this practice shortly thereafter, knowing that it would be incorporated into Cameron’s narrative. As for the research itself, I did all kinds: from routinely visiting chat rooms and blogs and websites of organizations associated with Exodus International (the umbrella organization for many of these churches and groups) to reading books and other materials by proponents and practitioners of conversion/reparative therapy, to seeking out residence “rules” manuals and other materials specifically from live-in facilities, etc.

2) What are you currently working on? Can you tell us anything about it?

I’m working on a novel (tentatively titled Well, Well, Well…) that follows one copy of the infamous and historically banned novel, The Well of Loneliness, from the day it comes off the press in London in 1928 and is picked up by it’s author, the colorful Radclyffe Hall, to the day that 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 pretty unlikely that (should I be lucky enough to publish it) this particular novel will be marketed as YA.

3) You have an MFA in fiction and a PhD in creative writing. What prompted you to continue going to school to learn more about literature and writing? Do you feel it's helped you in your writing?

I took a couple of years “off” between undergrad and enrolling in the MFA program at the University of Montana-Missoula. I’d had some excellent creative writing instruction in college at Hofstra University, but I wanted to see if I would take the time to write on my own, to make it a priority, while not in school and thereby “forced to write” for a workshop or a grade. I did do some writing during those years (while working a full time job as an Aquatics Director at a YWCA, actually) and I eventually decided that I was serious enough about my writing to dedicate myself to properly learning technique and analysis (and just to being around other serious, dedicated writers—which is absolutely one of the benefits of an MFA program) for a couple of years. During my MFA I learned what it means to “read like a writer,” to read a piece of fiction and carefully consider its construction, the various elements of craft used to render it as a whole. I also wrote quite a lot of short fiction, which was essential in terms of allowing me to try out various modes of storytelling, to experiment with form and style, and then to move on to something new.

I continued on to get my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, not just to receive additional graduate level instruction in the craft of fiction writing, but specifically to gain experience teaching in the college classroom, to develop my pedagogy, and to commit myself to scholarly work in the analysis of contemporary fiction—specifically the recent American novel and LGBTQ fiction. Importantly, I was also able to carve-out time during my PhD to complete (and even to workshop portions of) The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which was then, for reasons too complicated to go into here, called Lucky Human, actually). Unquestionably both of these programs helped me to develop as a fiction writer (and as a teacher). Yes, yes, and yes. (Though I should mentioned that neither of the programs I attended were at all YA-specific in terms of approach.)

My standard “advice” about graduate level creative writing programs (particularly full time, residency programs) is that unless you’re independently wealthy, don’t enroll if you’re not offered some source of funding (other than student loans). You might get a fellowship, or a partial fellowship, or a research assistantship, or a teaching assistantship (which is crucial—if you ever plan to go on the academic job market—because it helps you gain necessary classroom teaching experience), or any combination thereof. But without those sources of funding, I’m just not sure that racking-up significant debt to earn an MFA is “worth it.” Though, ultimately, I guess it all depends on the program, your intentions, and how you make use of your time there. (There are also lots of great low-residency MFA/MA in CW options now, too.)

4) What is your favorite Jelly Belly jelly bean flavor (or flavors, if you're so inclined)?

Oh, Juicy Pear for sure, is my favorite. Though more than, say, a dozen Juicy Pear at a time and I get pretty queasy. I also enjoy many of the “sours” flavors (with the exception of the blue) as well as Sunkist Tangerine and Very Cherry (on occasion.)

5) You teach at Rhode Island College now. What's your favorite and least favorite aspect of teaching? Any funny anecdotes to share?

Favorite aspects: being in front of the class; reading/being inspired by, student work; introducing students to novels and stories and writers they’ve not encountered before; getting paid to talk about creative writing.

Least favorite aspects: grading (ugh, the worst) and lazy/sleepy/routinely disinterested and too-cool-for-school students. (Luckily I seem to have very few of those.) My anecdotes can never leave the classroom. We’re all sworn to secrecy about my bumbling, sometimes-embarrassing, always completely inelegant ways. Sorry.

6) What book(s) are you reading now, or are about to start?

I’ve just finished (for the second time) Karen Russell’s wonderful novel Swamplandia! (ee’ll soon be talking about it in my graduate workshop in the novel), and I’m now re-reading Sarah Waters’ fantastic novel Fingersmith, because we’ll soon be moving on to that book in the same workshop. I also just purchased Ryan Van Meter’s collection of linked, coming-of-age essays: If You Knew Then What I Know Now, which I’ve not yet made it through (in its entirety) but still can absolutely recommend. Van Meter’s essays are elegantly constructed and so nuanced and evocative.

7) On your website, there is a picture of you in a canoe. Is this your canoe, or someone else's? Why are you in the canoe? Was it a comfortable place to sleep (I ask because it looks like you're sleeping)? I want to know everything.

Everything, huh? Everything? That seems a very tall order. What I can tell you about that picture is that it was taken the summer immediately after I graduated from college (so just about exactly one decade ago), while I was working as a member of the swim staff for Camp Mohawk—a day camp in Westchester County, New York. Late in the summer, several of the eldest campers were allowed to go on a weeklong overnight excursion to The Ashokan Center, and I was lucky enough to get to go along as one of the four swim staff. I’m kind of a big nerd about things like this (not even kind of, I just am): things like rope bridges and windy trails through the woods and cabins with bunks, sing-alongs, goofy campfire games, ghost stories, sunlight glinting off the surface of a lake: all of that stuff makes me giddy. (And this was a week full of all of that stuff.)

So, the canoe in question actually belongs to the Ashokan Center and I was sort of napping in the sun, not really full-on sleeping. It’s important to mention that I was not “on duty” as a lifeguard at this point, either. (Just so that no one thinks I was literally sleeping on the job.) One of the counselors snapped that photo with a cheap, disposable B&W camera of mine. (I don’t even remember that woman’s name anymore, which makes me sort of sad, but we only knew each other for a few months one summer.) I had no idea, of course, before getting those photos developed, just how cool a shot it would end up being—the composition is really interesting, I think, particularly the dock and canoe in the background. Anyway—it’s coincidental that you asked about it, since, as I mentioned, this summer is its “10-year anniversary” as a photo, a moment, what have you, and I’ve been thinking about heading back to the Ashokan Center to see if I can re-create it a decade later. I don’t know: seems like it might be a fun adventure. I’ll keep you posted.

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