In 2012, Emily Danforth published her novel, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” following the story of a young girl in Montana who discovers her sexuality and is sent to a conversion therapy program. The novel was well-received critically, and it opened up a conversation for and about rural queerness and how living in sparsely populated, conservative places in the United States shapes those experiences. The book was adapted into a film starring Chloe Grace Moretz, which is scheduled to premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah in January.
Danforth is writing her next novel on a yearlong sabbatical from teaching creative writing and literature courses at Rhode Island College, and took some time out of her busy day to chat with Autostraddle staff writer Molly Priddy, also a Montanan, about the upcoming film.
And to help set the mood of growing up queer in the ’90s, we’re peppering in some of Emily’s own pictures from her childhood in Miles City, Montana through her college years, because they’re sweet and amazing and all of the captions are her own. For example:
Autostraddle: Tell us a little bit about your role in the film’s production!
Emily Danforth: In the official credited capacity I believe I’m listed as a consultant, but really I just think Desi (writer and director Desiree Akhavan) and Cecilia (screenplay writer Cecilia Frugiuele) just have been super generous including me on things. I didn’t write the screenplay, though I saw it and made notes, but I’ve been talking to Desi about this in one form or another for several years. It took a while before she had time to pursue this, and then a long time to get the option, write the screenplay and get funding sources.
This all happened unbelievably fast. Between August of 2016, when Desi actually came with me to Montana to filming in October of that year to now, it really does all feel like the most unreal of unreals.
I didn’t get to be at the set for the whole shoot, because I was teaching last year. I went once with my wife Erica and we got to go for a few days. I was in a daze of disbelief, touching people like, “Are you real?”
I’m not going to write that you went around set touching people.
Thank you for editing me, I didn’t actually touch anyone; I was just looking.
What has it been like to think up a little queer character from Montana with whom others identify and see her not only come to life in a book, but now on screen?
Cam’s readers and Cam’s fans are a small group but they’re such a dedicated group. It’s maybe not always people I would expect, either! It’s interesting to me is the 45-year-old person from New Jersey, a father of three who heard about it on NPR. He wrote me this really lovely letter! Probably not the reader I had in my head, but it’s awesome. Readers have taken Cam and made her their own.
Someone born of your own mind, like Cam, her taking on a new life for people independent of you and your thoughts, is that bizarre?
It is! But not in a bad way. I’ve only seen a taste of it, but a couple high schoolers during a visit to a school, approached me in the hallway and told me about some Cam fan fiction. This is not such a big franchise that in my wildest dreams did I think that Cam fan fiction existed, but it does.
Do you still talk to Cam?
There are a lot of unpublished pages of Cam’s story and I think about those sometimes. Where the book ends, I’m very pleased with that version, but it wasn’t ever the version I had in my head for the many years writing it. That wasn’t the end, it was more of the middle of the story. If it wasn’t for my agent kicking some sense into me I’d still be writing, Cam would be 87, and it would be “The Continuing Adventures of Cameron Post.”
I do think about her sometimes, I have this sense of my version of her unfinished story which maybe I’ll do something with that sometime. She does circle back to Montana eventually, after life in California.
Well that’s true, people do come back to Montana.
They do. Like a magnet you’re drawn back. I get it, I become my sappiest when I’m there. I feel infected by Montana in good and bad ways. I’m confronting this really specifically right now because my mom is moving out here to Rhode Island and she’s a lifelong Montanan. She was the anchoring reason for me to go back to Miles City, so now there’s really no reason. I’ll be back in Montana for sure, though.
[Several minutes of discussion about who we know in common, as all Montanans must do.]
It’s getting more acceptable for kids in Montana to identify as things other than straight. What I found striking about Cam’s situation, though, is that when I came out, it wasn’t as accepting, and I was very afraid I would be sent to a place like the conversion camp in your book.
People laughed at this a little bit, or didn’t take me seriously when I said it when the book came out five years ago, but they kind of get it now. I’ve always considered it kind of a historical novel, and that was interesting to me when people would so identify with Cam, and it’s upsetting because this is still what life looks like for them.
The conversion therapy, that felt like a very specific kind of therapy that I knew about back then. It was surprising to me the number of people who say, “No, this is still pretty close to what things look like for me,” and not just Montana readers but teen readers.
Did you ever think that Cam might be friends with the campers on But I’m a Cheerleader?
Cam would like to be friends with any gay or queer-identifying person she could find. But really, that was the one pop culture touchstone about conversion therapy. As a young queer person, I was soaking up every good or bad lesbian movie I could find, and that was a good one.
There’s just so many more options in terms of finding queer content today. That too feels fundamental – Cam going to the VHS store felt like a declaration, and that does not exist anymore, you don’t have to be ashamed that you rented Personal Best and the video guy at the store knows about it.
I think about how this book is a piece of history, and we don’t see a movement in local Montana schools about queer people existing. It’s important to remember what life was like before the internet here. To live that life and have that life in all of its horrible idiosyncrasies written down is so important.
Yeah! One of the reasons that I even write fiction about queer people is this notion of capturing histories. On a broader scale, having to learn about all the queer people and history we lost to time because it wasn’t recorded, and queer movements I didn’t know about, I had that feeling of, ‘Why didn’t anybody ever tell me about this? Why am I in my dorm room at 3 a.m. reading this?’
On a more micro level, I had a great aunt who did a bunch of things for the military, back when women did not do this. By the time I would have known her, she was a great aunt, but years later, right when I came out, I learned she had all kinds of relationships with women, and there was a treasure trove of letters she had received. I was like, this should clearly be mine. I have an aunt, who shall not be named, who took it upon herself to burn those letters. She took it upon herself to erase queer history that she was uncomfortable with. I will never see those, I won’t know that part of the story. Think about all the people across the country who have similar stories.
Getting back to the movie, the book is set in Montana; is that the case for the film?
The hardest loss for me, and the one I fought the longest for, was that I really wanted it to be set in Montana, but there just was not a budget for it. They were hoping they could film at least a couple scenes there and cheat the rest, but it’s really hard to cheat Montana. People know. So it’s sort of upstate New York; I’ve seen a cut of the film and it’s sort of placeless in the film, they’re small-town Americans and it’s the ’90s.
Montana or not, I think that the film’s interpretation of God’s Promise, the conversion therapy center, is spot on.
Let’s talk about the actor playing Cam!
Chloe Grace Moretz, I think she’s great, she does a really beautiful job. The whole cast — I really think people gave beautiful performances, I feel really lucky about all of that.
It’s premiering at Sundance?
Yes! And it’ll be distributed at some point in 2018, but that’ll depend partially on what happens at Sundance. I’m going with my wife and a bunch of family members. I don’t know what that’s going to be like! We’ll get up on the mountain with all the fancy people – we’re excited, everybody’s excited.
I have a friend who’s gone to the festival for several years and she’s like, “You just have to be cool” and I’m like, “Have you met me? I’m not going to be cool if I’m on the bus with like Idris Elba!” I’m going to do my best to act normal.
People will be like, ‘You’re shaming Montana!’ by being uncool around stars, like I haven’t done that already in my 37 years. This time you’re really shaming Montana.
So, your new book includes queer history mixed in with current elements?
Now, nobody’s ever going to believe me but I’ve been writing this for years and it’s about the making of a queer movie, an idea I had before Cam was going to be a movie.
The movie that they’re making is based on a novel about the queer history of a women’s boarding school in Rhode Island. There are ghosts and there’s a contemporary story of the three queer girls involved making this movie and then the historical story of the boarding school.
That sounds awesome.
Thank you! I’m excited about it!
For more information on Emily Danforth, Cameron Post, and more, visit www.emdanforth.com.