The Best Novel About a “De-Gaying Camp” Ever Written
Emily Danforth’s new book, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, is a fantastic addition to the coming-of-age canon.
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.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s fourth novel, Sisterland, will be published in June.