Katia Raina

The Magic Mirror

Q & A with emily danforth: “Start with Story”

After I contacted emily (and yes, she prefers her name in lowercase letters,) and initiated this exchange with her, I could see a little bit better why someone like her would come up with an amazing, eye-opening, stereotype-shattering book like “Cameron Post.”

I hope that after reading her answers to my questions, you will see that’s just the way emily comes across: like a wise, humble and original person, just like her character Cameron.

I learned so much from reading emily’s book and from “talking” to her. I hope you will too.

KR: Can you tell us about your discovery that you’re a writer? Was it sudden or was it gradual? Can you walk us a bit along your road toward writing “Cameron Post?” How many drafts did it take? Was it your first manuscript? How long did it take you to write the book? (I told you I had many, many questions).

emily: Well, like a lot of writers I’ve been at this since I was very young—writing weird little short stories and hand-illustrated books and plays, you know, a little of this and a little of that—much avid reading thrown in, too. Then, in college, I took several creative writing classes and began to “own” the identity of writer a bit more. (Well, writer of short stories, anyway). Then I took a couple of years “off” between undergrad and enrolling in the MFA program at the University of Montana-Missoula. 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 a whole lot more 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.

During the first year of that program I wrote some short pieces toward such a novel, things here and there, but didn’t really have a voice or a main character that I was satisfied with until I wrote (for the fiction workshop of the wonderful visiting writer Danzy Senna) what I thought was a completely unrelated short story about a girl from eastern Montana who ends up working at this nutty maternity mannequin factory in Pasadena, CA. The story was called “Lucky Human,” because that’s the name of a real (and somewhat well-known) mannequin factory in China that, in my story, had a business relationship with the California factory.

Anyway, the character from that story became, after lots more writing and rewriting, Cameron Post. In writing that story I’d stumbled upon her voice, just not her past, the things that drove her to eventually working at this weird job, cut off from her family. I remember Danzy actually saying, in her response to “Lucky Human,” that the piece didn’t really work yet as a short story (for all kinds of reasons), but that she wondered if it was from something longer, maybe from a novel I was working on.

So I continued to work on pages toward this novel without knowing much more, really, than that it would be a coming-of-age story and that the protagonist would be orphaned early on. (I was also reading a lot of sentimental women’s fiction—novels of instruction—from the 19th century at this time and I wanted to play with some of those themes/tropes).

In 2006 I finished my MFA and then continued on to get my PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Importantly, I was also able to carve out time during my PhD to complete (and even to workshop portions of) that novel I’d started during my MFA—the book that would become The Miseducation of Cameron Post (which was then called Lucky Human, actually). I didn’t really have a solid draft until the end of my third year in the PhD program, and even then I was still revising fairly significantly. (Though of course I wasn’t working on this novel exclusively, either—I was writing short fiction and completing coursework and teaching).

All told it took me about 4 years to get the book to a place to secure an agent and start the ball rolling toward publication. And yes: it was my first novel-length manuscript. I’d written and published short fiction in a variety of journals, and had also completed a fairly terrible collection of short stories as my MFA thesis, but this was the first manuscript that I’d really call a proper book.

KR: You pursued not only graduate degree in creative writing, but you went for a PhD in it as well! That’s quite a gutsy-crazy-wonderful decision in my opinion. Was the decision a hard one for you? Why did you go that route and what have you gained from it?

 emily: It wasn’t a “hard” decision at all to pursue graduate study in creative writing (getting in can be tricky—I had to apply twice to MFA programs—but not, for me, anyway, wanting to go.) But I want to be clear that I chose to enroll in an MFA program because I wanted to surround myself with a community of serious writers and do nothing but eat, sleep, and drink (a whole lot of drinking, actually) literary fiction writing/reading/craft-based analysis for two years, which is pretty much exactly what I did. I didn’t necessarily have dreams of getting an agent or selling a novel (or even writing a novel) or landing a teaching job (or even wanting one) as a result of completing a two-year MFA program. I was surprisingly realistic, I think, about the venture.

It was during the MFA that I discovered I really loved teaching creative writing (I had the opportunity to co-teach a creative writing workshop during the winter session) and so I decided to apply for PhD in Creative Writing programs (there aren’t nearly so many of those as there are MFAs). I did this not just to receive additional graduate level instruction in the craft of fiction writing, but also 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.

In other words: I discovered during my MFA that I didn’t just want to be a fiction writer, I wanted to be both an academic and a fiction writer (or an academic fiction writer) and specifically to teach creative writing and contemporary literature courses at the college level.

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.)

KR: As I said in my little book review of Cameron Post on this blog, the thing that struck me the most about your story was its freshness and authenticity. If you reflect on it for a moment, what would you say helped you achieve this? Did some of the unique detail come from people you had known and some of your own life experiences? Or was it something more?

emily: Thanks so much for saying so. Certainly I drew from parts of my own “coming-of-age” as a closeted lesbian teen in cowboy country Montana to inform the novel. I’ve mentioned in other interviews that I think of this book as an autobiographical novel, but what I mean by that, what I’ve really pulled from my own past, are the details of time and place.

In terms of setting, specifically, anyone who has any familiarity with Miles City will recognize some of the local attractions—the swimming hole, the Bucking Horse Sale, the Montana Theater, etc—but each of those locations has also been fictionalized. Also, I did an incredible amount of research into conversion/reparative therapy: 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 said therapies, to seeking out residence “rules” manuals and other materials specifically from live-in facilities, etc.

While lots of that research just didn’t actually “make it to the page” for various reasons, it absolutely informed my writing of the entire God’s Promise section of the novel and I think maybe/hopefully speaks to some of the “authenticity” you mentioned in your review.

KR: Even though, again, in my opinion, the book is compassionate to the players on all sides of the homosexuality issue, I would imagine this story pissed a lot of people off and had to have touched a nerve. Did you have issues with censorship, calls to ban your book, etc.?

 emily: Well, no, not really, not yet, anyway. Certainly no one from my publishing house ever made any moves to censor or “tone down” any aspects of the novel. I have received some strange, unfortunate, angry emails from various people who’ve read about the book (but, interestingly/unsurprisingly—have not actually read the book—just read/heard about it) but no, to my knowledge, larger calls to ban it.

However, it has only been out since February so it may just be that it’s not been around long enough to inspire this kind of reaction.  (Or maybe, hopefully, it’s just not going to get that reaction.)

Also, while it’s larger boycotts or book burnings or what-have-you that make the news, much more often it’s just one librarian or teacher or a small staff of individuals deciding not to order or include a particular title for their own reasons; and yes, sometimes those reasons might in fact be bigoted or homophobic or just overly-cautious/sensitive about what is and isn’t “appropriate” for a YA novel. It’s not always the big flashy school board decisions to ban certain titles that ultimately “count,” it’s when, quietly, this local library and that school library and this indie bookstore, etc, simply decide not to have a book on their shelves—not to make it accessible to teenage readers for “moral” reasons.

KR: What’s next? What are you working on now?

emily: I’m working on a couple of novels, actually. One of them follows one copy of the infamous and frequently banned novel, The Well of Loneliness, from the day it comes off the production line in London in 1928, to the day 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, and also those who are complete inventions.

The other is a contemporary YA (with interspersed historical sections) that follows the very exciting exploits of some adolescent actresses (and a college-age writer who’s too cool for school) on the set of a controversial film. I won’t tell you anything more (yet) other than that, in my dream world, it will be published under the title CELESBIAN! (All caps with the exclamation point).

 KR: What’s your writing day like? And do you write every single day, no exception? Do you ever get stuck? What comes easy for you, and what have you really had to work hard to master? (Yeah, many questions, and I am trying to restrain myself here, really really trying….)

 emily: I do not write every single day—during the academic year I simply cannot make that happen. (Well, at least not this year—my first as a full time assistant professor.) However, when I’m deep in a project I sometimes write for 14 hours a day. Really. And I’ll do this for weeks and weeks—maybe not 14 each day, but 7, 10, whatever—long, long days really getting material down on the page. I tend to revise sentences (I think of them as lines—though I’m not much of a poet) as I go—and then start out the next day again revising the material from the day before, so this all takes quite awhile. I sometimes think I’d like to be a writer who works each day, but it’s just not a method that serves me well at this point in my career. (But ah the joy of summers “off!”)

When I’m invested in a project I rarely get “stuck.” I mean, I might get confused about how best to write a scene, or just what scene I need, or where I need to “go with” a character or a situation, but I don’t see those moments as getting stuck so much as just part of the writing process. That’s what the “work” of it is—figuring that stuff out. If I feel myself losing motivation for a project for too long that typically tells me that I’m just not invested enough in that project to sustain it (at least for right now).

KR: Let’s conclude this interview with a word of advice for us writer types. What do you think you did right up to now?

 emily: Well, shoot, since you’re asking me to toot my own horn here. Um, how about this: I think I focused, first and foremost, on the craft of fiction writing (and before that—on the active, active reading of fiction) long before I worried, or even thought, about possible publication. I always tell my students to read everything they can get their hands on–especially the books that confuse, confound, and surprise or challenge them—those that push against their expectations for what a novel is or might be, or what a short story can or “should” do. And then I tell them to write and write and write.

I also ask them to remember that wanting to publish is not the same thing as wanting to write—and that neither of those things is the same as actually sitting down and writing. After that, it’s really about devoting yourself to your craft and to finishing particular projects.

I don’t believe in arbitrary, one-size-fits-all approaches to novel writing—any rules that I might give you about how to approach your material or how to sell your novel will undoubtedly have lots of good/important exceptions. What I’ll say is this: you can’t focus on publication from the outset; I just don’t think that’s any way to develop as a writer. Focus on story, focus on characterization and the nuances of language—focus on your fiction. And then revise. And then get some people to read it. Then revise some more. After that: start doing the necessary research into publication (and it does take some research.) But don’t start there: start with story.

Thank you emily, not only for the time and thought you have put into these answers, not only for the sage advice, and for sharing the details of your journey, thank you for the inspiration — and, as I said before, thank you for your book.

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May 28, 2012 - Posted by | Contemporary History, Interviews

2 Comments »

  1. I loved learning about emily (yes, I remembered to write her name lower case). It was great reading about her writing journey and the advice she had for us writers. I’ve been curious about MFA’s.

    Cameron Post is on my wish list. I can’t wait to read it.

    Comment by Medeia Sharif | May 28, 2012 | Reply

    • Now even more so than before, right Medeia? 🙂 I am glad you liked the interview. And yes, I feel like I am still influenced by that book, weeks after I read it.

      Comment by Katia Raina | May 29, 2012 | Reply


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