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.
TODAY IN SLATE
The Ebola Story
How our minds build narratives out of disaster.
The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola
PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer
The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics
A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers
Welcome to 13th Grade!
Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.
The Actual World
“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.