THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST by emily m. danforth is the best type of book: heartbreaking, funny, and lyrical. It engulfs you in the emotional whirlwind of its prose, and by the end you come out chastened, seeing the world with different eyes.
The novel tells the coming-of-age story of 12-year-old Cameron, who, after the death of her parents, is shipped off to a fundamentalist boot camp to “cure” her homosexuality. It’s a Bildungsroman in the best sense, one that culminates in self-discovery and finding the courage to make your own rules.
I read the novel for a book club last year, and emily joined our discussion via Skype—a conversation that I wanted to revisit in the following interview.
NG: An L.A. Times review calls you a “talented wordsmith,” and I can’t think of a better way to put it. How have you cultivated your writing voice?
EMD: Thanks. I spend quite a lot of time on my sentences—getting the words just right, “fiddling with them”—so it’s fantastic to have people notice and respond to that. I really care about what’s happening at the sentence level in terms of style and variance. I want the sentences to do more than convey plot, move things along, supply information. Too many clunky or perfunctory sentences and too little style can kill a reading experience for me.
I’ve cultivated my voice by reading widely across genres and forms and experimenting with all kinds of approaches to storytelling. I wrote many terrible, terrible short stories as an undergrad and then in my MFA, and that is crucial to the way I write now. Each of those stories was its own small experiment in narrative building. Since each was only ten or fifteen pages, it didn’t feel too risky to fail and fail big while trying out a complicated structure that moved from past to present to the future, back to the present, or telling the story from the POV of the family vacuum cleaner.
NG: Why did you choose a first person point of view for Cameron’s story?
EMD: I don’t think it ever would have occurred to me to tell Cam’s story any other way—she had to tell it. There’s an immediate intimacy to a first-person narrative, and I wanted readers to specifically invest in Cam’s way of observing the world, of making meaning about her life and the lives of those around her. I felt like I could only do that effectively by being locked in her head. Even just to get at her emotional terrain and her confusion, her guilt—I wanted her own voice to convey all of that. I had a voice before I had a fully fleshed out character. The way Cameron narrated her story helped me figure out who she was as a character—what her story would be. That sounds kind of goofy, doesn’t it? But it’s true.
NG: I’m curious, do you write with a particular reader in mind?
EMD: Well, one answer is that I’m the only reader I have in mind. I try to please myself in terms of my own tastes and interests, which sounds a little vain. I just can’t write well—or at all, really—if I feel like too many people are standing behind me, looking over my shoulder at the computer screen in front of me, judging. While revising—both during grad school and in collaboration with my wonderful current editor, for instance—I am thinking of the notes I’ve received and how to satisfy the readers who gave them to me. So when I say I’m writing for me, I mean lots of versions of me as reader—and me as a teen reader is certainly one of those versions.
With CAM POST, I was also occasionally thinking of my fellow teens of the 1990s and their experiences coming of age at that time, and of my fellow Miles Citians (since Cam and I come from the same hometown) and what they would make of a particular scene in the book, a particular portrayal or mention of this town we shared for so many years.
I’m currently at work on a contemporary YA novel with queer characters, and I’ve absolutely been thinking about its potential teenage readers, hoping that I’m portraying the experiences of my characters accurately. Things change a bit once you have a book out. While writing the first book, I was really only hoping that somewhere out in the hazy yonder, there might be some readers for my work. Now, I actually know some of those readers—they’ve emailed or tweeted me, they’ve come to a reading or signing, and they’re waiting for the next book. It’s not only my mom and my wife any longer, so shit’s gotten a bit real when it comes to me thinking of an audience.
NG: I don’t mean to make you anxious, but I’m really looking forward to your next novel… Your sense of setting in the novel is impeccable. What writing techniques did you use to make Montana come alive in the book?
EMD: I’m very glad that my fictional Montana felt real to you. Crafting place comes down to using sensory detail that’s concrete and significant. When you’re at the fair with Cam, you smell the fry bread and the cotton candy and you hear the plink of the music from the Ferris Wheel and you see the way the Montana sky looks from a crappy metal car in a dinged-up carnival ride. It’s not about paragraph after paragraph of “description,” as I’ve heard students complain. It’s about having your characters moved through worlds that are alive with detail, that feel authentic and real because of it. Novelist Michael Kardos calls this “raw data.” You can tell readers, for instance, that Gatsby is a super wealthy dude who throws insanely extravagant parties every weekend; or, you can show us the crates of limes and lemons delivered to his house every Friday so that his staff can juice them with a special-made high-end juicer in prep for dozens and dozens of cocktails.
NG: You said before that the novel went through many transformations prior to publication. What is the biggest change that you made? How did it affect the rest of the book?
I lopped off the final third of the book before my agent even sent it around to editors. No spoilers, but there are about three hundred pages of Cam’s adventures post Quake Lake that are still waiting on my hard drive. The first material I wrote about Cam chronicled her life after Quake Lake, while she’s working in this mannequin factory in California (sounds weird—and is weird, which is part of why I loved it). It was born out of a short story that helped me establish Cam’s voice. That character (who was, at that time, not even named Cameron) had an elaborate backstory, which eventually became the novel that is CAM POST. Initially, I thought that it would be one massive novel. But I was having an impossible time fitting together the early material with the later material, and the ending wasn’t offering the kind of heft and feel I wanted it to have. The later material felt a bit too adult for YA. Cam is still technically a teenager in those sections, but her experiences and the voice felt incongruous with the rest of the novel. Initially it was unimaginable to leave off about a 1/3 of that story. I remember discussing it with my agent and thinking: no way in hell. No way. It’s one novel. Now those concerns seem distant to me, silly, even. The fact is: it wasn’t really working as one novel.
The material I cut is not lost; it just didn’t belong in this book. I had to write it all to figure out the parts that did work, that did belong, and that’s really the most important piece of this for me. None of the writing was wasted; it was crucial to the end result.
NG: I hope we find out what happens to Cam one day.
You teach writing at Rhode Island College. What is the most common mistake budding writers make?
EMD: I find that my students aren’t reading enough, nor widely enough. Fiction writers should read everything, take it all in, poetry, nonfiction, drama, and all kinds of fiction—novels, short stories, flash fiction. Read it, absorb it, and take in those styles and approaches. You don’t have to enjoy everything you read, but those books that challenge or disorient you can offer their own kinds of usefulness. I love it when someone’s surprising style of storytelling catches me off guard and makes me work as a reader. You can still learn plenty from the books that challenge or disappoint you.
I’m puzzled and, frankly, sometimes pissed off, when my students tell me that they don’t have time for reading or have no interest in reading; they just want to be published. This is another mistake I see in some young writers—putting the publishing cart before the writing horse. It’s wonderful how informed so many young writers are about the publishing world. But there’s a limit to the usefulness of all that knowledge—constantly reading the various blogs on publishing or seeking out info on book deals or “hot” agents. It becomes white noise if you’re not actually getting any writing done in the meantime.
NG: That’s sound advice. What would you say to the writer who has just finished a first draft of her book?
EMD: Celebrate the moment! Really. This is a huge deal and should be honored as such. The writing should be its own reward. If you’ve finished a draft, then take in that moment and have a glass of champagne, a bar of chocolate, or both to mark the occasion. We’ve all heard people say, “Oh, someday I’ll write a book—someday.” To actually have done it is something to be celebrated, no matter what comes next. I mean it sincerely. After that, take a breath and go back through the book with as critical an eye as possible. Make sure that you’ve read your entire book, start to end, as a complete book. I’ve never been able to do this without printing the whole thing and having at it with a pen. After you’ve made revisions, then pass it on to some trusted readers. Get some feedback that focuses on the technicalities of craft, that speaks to story, or character motivation, and get a sense of how various readers might respond to narrative choices within your genre. Do this before you try to secure an agent, submit it to contests, or self-publish—however you plan to get this book into the hands or onto the screens of readers.
Celebrate the success of finishing first, so that you’re refreshed and ready to go the distance prior to publication.
NG: Thank you so much for being our guest, emily.
About emily m. danforth: emily was born and raised Miles City, Montana—home of the “world famous” Bucking Horse Sale. She has an MFA in fiction from the University of Montana and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. She lives with her wife in Providence, where she teaches creative writing and literature courses at Rhode Island College and is co-editor of The Cupboard (Literary Pamphlet).