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.