I would like to know your thoughts on the topic of guilt and contradictory feelings and how you explored those during your writing process.
I’m not sure if I understand the question, entirely (sorry for that—that’s one of the limitations, I suppose, of answering the questions this way and not just getting to be in a room with you chatting. Ah well, I’ll give it a go.) I honestly don’t have much to say about Cam’s feelings of guilt and confusion that’s not already there, in scene or passages of narration, in the novel.
You watch her wrestle with various kinds of guilt throughout the novel, and finally put some of that to rest at the end, there in Quake Lake. What I tried to do was, again, be pretty honest about her guilt and her areas of personal conflict and, as you say, “contradictory feelings.”
Cam, like all of us, doesn’t have everything figured out, and she’s fairly honest about that, I think, throughout the novel. She has desires and attractions that she doesn’t feel comfortable with, or that cause her more guilt, but still she acts on them again and again. And she does other things, too—the shoplifting, the dollhouse stuff—to try to bury some of this, or process it, but it’s all, frankly, sort of a mess and she just keeps pushing through it day by day. Until, of course, her stint at God’s Promise forces her to think about some of these things in ways she was previously good at avoiding.
After I finished the book, in a state of emotional distress/euphoria, I immediately went online to Google everything and see what was real and it was so satisfying to find “Cameron’s tumblr,” pictures of Miles City and so much more on your website. And that Quake Lake is real! My favorite was the video of the dollhouse. I’d love to hear the story of the real life dollhouse and also what inspired you to provide such rich content online.
Thanks so much! I’m thrilled, thrilled, thrilled that you located that extra content and have gotten some enjoyment out of it. Sometimes you put stuff up on the internet, you know, and you think: has anyone other than my web guy and my family ever even seen this stuff? Shouting into the void and all. (And yes, Quake Lake is very real and if you’re ever in Montana you should go. You must: it’s a supremely creepy place.)
At some point, shortly after the book sold, I was tooling around other author’s websites and trying to get ideas for my own, and I was always really jazzed about coming across “bonus content,” when I did, on those sites— especially if the author herself had a hand in it. (Carolyn Parkhurst had—or maybe still has—an entire website or blog written as if it belonged to one of her characters, who happens to be a very successful novelist. I loved that so much.) So I knew that I’d want to do that with my own website. And, I mean, I was as caught up in Cam’s world (for lots of years, while writing the book) as are, now, some of the folks who’ve read it. More so, I’m sure, since I was building it from memory and invention. It’s part love letter to my youth and to Miles City—though a bittersweet love letter, to be sure, so it was really fun to come up with more content for readers. It let me showcase some of my “favorite bits” from the novel. And I’m so excited that it did for you, as a reader, exactly what I wanted it to do.
As far as the “real dollhouse,” it’s not exactly the one described in the novel, of course (that came first, I found this “model” dollhouse for the video long after the book was already in galley form) but I thought it would be fun to offer some visuals to readers who sought them out. I would love it if someday someone would make me a real, scale, as described in the novel, Cam Post dollhouse. That would be one helluva labor of love, but I’d love it. I always wanted an authentic Victorian dollhouse—an intricate one—as child, as a teen, but I never got one.
Cam definitely focused more on the emotional side rather than the political side of being a lesbian, is there a reason for that?
I’m not sure that it’s so easy to reduce it to that binary—the political and the emotional, either or, sides of a coin. If the personal truly is political, then how do we separate those things, how do we extract those one of those from the other? Isn’t Cam making out with another girl in a barn during this time period a kind of political act, necessarily, given the culture around her? Or would it only be “political” if there was an audience—if it was staged as a protest or advertised as such? Does it need to be more confrontational, more transgressive?
For teenage readers who pick up the book today, Cam’s world is not, in fact, their world. I actually think of the book as a kind of historical novel.
My answer is that Cam’s not ready to take any of that on. She’s battling her own fear and shame about her desires and sense of self. I think Cam’s own answer to your question, though, comes on page 99 (and in the pages thereafter), when she’s discussing Lindsey Lloyd’s political passions and influence: as she puts it, she hasn’t “thought much” about any of that. Cam’s “lesbianism” (such as it is) is one born of desire, of her various attractions and actions on those attractions. It’s not that she’s not interested in feminism or theories of gender, of sexuality, of queerness, it’s that she hasn’t yet been exposed to any of that in any real way, and while of course queer desire is necessarily politicized, Cam wouldn’t put it that way. She doesn’t yet have access to that discourse.
I think there are many teenagers today who do have a mastery of those discourses, and Lindsey is an example of a teenager from that time period who, while often more interested in bluster than critical thought, is attempting a role as a kind of burgeoning activist, but Cam’s only real influence of this kind is Lindsey.
This is something that I was trying to “get at” in this novel in terms of its treatment of time and place. While there are certainly some universal themes of adolescence that translate well, I think, for teenage readers who pick up the book today, Cam’s world is not, in fact, their world. I actually think of the book as a kind of historical novel. Cam’s almost entirely cut off from the diverse kinds of queer culture that one can seek out, even if only online, today (Lindsey’s her one lifeline to those kinds of culture—beyond movie rentals, of course) and besides, politically and socially, the landscape of the very early 1990s is not, in fact, our landscape today, even just in terms of queer visibility, those twenty years are a looooong twenty years of change.
I mean, George H. W. Bush would be Cam’s president in this novel. Can you imagine him saying that he believes gay people should be able to get married? Are you kidding me? (In fact, when the novel opens, Reagan would still have been in his very final months as President.) This was a very different time for LGBTQ rights. Of course there was queer activism then, of course, but in terms of Cam having a real sense of it, given the town and state in which she lives, given her guardians, her age, what she’s told the Bible says about her: Lindsey is really all she’s got. And she’s very young, and she’s filled with guilt— some of that, as I explained in an earlier question, tied to her parents’ death— and it’s enough, I think, just for her to have to acknowledge and act on these desires she is not only told to suppress, but that part of her wants to suppress, to deny, just to more easily “get along” in the world. She’s young, frankly, and she’s just trying to figure shit out as she goes along.
What made you decide to write a lesbian coming of age novel? Does the book reflect any of your personal experiences?
I think I covered the “personal experiences” part in some other questions, but I’ll say here, too, that I’ve long been wholly enamored of the American literary tradition of the coming-of-age novel. I’ve read these novels since I was a very young reader and I still return to them again and again. I love books that chronicle a character’s initial attempts to make sense of the world and their place in it. I always knew that my first novel would tackle this material in some capacity, that it would be a coming of age novel. There are all kinds of ways to approach this material, to get at these themes, and I didn’t always know what shape mine would take, just that I’d write one. And I really do feel like I knew that early on, I mean, by high school, for sure. Despite that there are many, many excellent coming of age novels, and despite that some of those novels even chronicle the development of queer protagonists, I don’t feel like I’d yet read Cameron Post’s story as I wanted it told. And, as Toni Morrison says, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
I had a NARTH therapist for about three months and I know that the religion aspect with the psychobabble can have some long-lasting effects, but I’ve found that music played a huge part in my being okay with myself after my sessions. Cameron seemed to not have ever bought into the nonsense because of what Lindsey told her.
I’m glad to hear that music served that purpose for you, it’s powerful stuff, isn’t it—or it can be, anyway. I think, yes, that Lindsey’s strength, her determination to live some brave new way in the world — even when Cam recognizes it as somewhat performative — is crucial to Cam. Lindsey’s world, though she’s never experienced it firsthand, seems to be this other, waiting, option, basically, away from God’s Promise — Cam knows it’s out there, this one other life, in specific, and that’s important, in itself, but it also helps her realize that if there’s at least one other possibility for “how to live in this world as a girl who likes girls,” there’s got to be others too, right? It’s not just Lydia’s way or Lindsey’s way, there have to be alternatives to those, too, at that’s comforting to her, it gives her something to hold onto. And then, yes, just Lindsey’s micro lessons about queer history and culture, as insufferable as some of them likely were (if Lindsey got to pontificating, I mean) also gave Cam a sense of a wider queer community, one that she could potentially join if she could just last her time at God’s Promise.
What was the most challenging scene to write?
There were a few, really. The scene with Rick when he’s in Cam’s dorm room explaining the situation with Mark, that one was a challenge, it took some drafts. (Same with Mark’s actual breakdown during group session, actually. That one looked very different with each successive revision until I finally got the shape of it.) The entirety of the scene at Coley’s apartment—The Hunger/ sex/drunken cowboys scene, that is — that one was a challenge because it’s really pretty long—nearly twenty pages of actual, moment-by-moment scene, or close to, from the time Cam knocks on her door. And there were all kinds of things I wanted to get right in my portrayal there—the desire, the tension, so it took some finessing.
Do you miss Wilcoxson’s ice cream and Taco John’s potato oles? (from a fellow Montanan)
Yes I do, fellow Montanan: yes I do. I lived in Nebraska for five years before moving to Providence and I could still get potato oles there — I haven’t really been away from them for too, too long, so the longing isn’t as strong. (I mean, I’m not Jamie Lowry, you know, I only ate them a couple of times a year, at most. But they did certainly turn up with regularity in the eating habits of my adolescence.) But Wilcoxin’s: so good. There’s a toy store in Miles City, Discovery Pond, it’s right on Main Street, and they still serve it, and have a nice variety, so I sometimes get it when I’m back visiting. I’ve undoubtedly since had as good (maybe better) hard ice cream, you know, local stuff, handmade, whatever — but Wilcoxin’s tastes of my youth and always will.
Do you think Margot eventually took Cameron in?
Do you think so? You do, don’t you? I like that. I like you. BUT, in material that I’ve written of Cam once she’s left Quake Lake, she doesn’t actually live with Margot, though she is helped out by her. Margot is the character who gets her this very weird job in this high end maternity mannequin factory— I mentioned that in my answer to a different question, I think. She helps Cam, certainly, she’s there for her, but she does not step in to fill the parental role.
I really enjoyed the Adam-Cameron banter, especially how they addressed (in a tongue-in-cheek manner) the tonkenization of indigenous identity and misappropriation of indigenous culture. Did you struggle with writing about Adam in a way that wouldn’t fall into the same meta-like trap of tonkenization, especially given the demographics of the characters?
What inspired the character of Adam?
Adam came to me in pieces, like lots of my characters, I suppose, but I was excited about the chance to use him to show the ways in which conversion therapy not only fails Cam or Jane, but also fails someone who comes from a culture that offers an identity category not only beyond those being sanctioned at Promise, but those “sanctioned” in much of the larger American culture.
I mean, Adam doesn’t give a shit about Biblical sin— his entire conception of being operates beyond most of the social and political structures of the country he lives in, much to his father’s annoyance/embarrassment. Also, I felt like it was important that every character in the novel not to be a white character, but, frankly, Montana is not a terrifically racially diverse state—according to the 2011 census it’s 87.5% white, and that number would have been even higher in 1991 — so I did worry that Adam might feel, to readers, like the token native character.
To work against that I did what I always do with main characters and tried to render him as completely and multi- dimensionally as I could, making sure that he was pretty crucial to Cam’s time at Promise, that he didn’t just fade from the novel after a single scene. I try not to deal in caricatures or stereotypes with any of my characters, frankly, but I’m glad to hear that having Adam comment on the commodification/misappropriation of indigenous culture added to his authenticity, and to their relationship. I mean, that’s where I start from, trying to render someone’s humanity in a scene, making him/her feel whole through dialogue and action and concrete, specific details of dress or mannerism.
How long did it take you to write the book and how long did it take to get published? Did you encounter any added difficulty in getting published because of its queer content?
These questions necessitate long, thoughtful answers, I think—but I’ve given them before, I swear. (Lots of people, not surprisingly, have these questions.) So I’ve cut and pasted, here, a lengthy answer that I gave about the publication process during an interview with the Debut Review, and then also part of an answer I gave when Malinda Lo interviewed me for her YA Pride Series this summer on her blog.
I “discovered” Cam’s voice, and some of the elements of her situation, in a short story I wrote during my MFA (at UMT in Missoula), but didn’t actively begin the process of shaping that material into a novel until my first couple of years in the Ph.D in Creative Writing program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I didn’t work on it consistently during that time—I was also doing course work, writing short fiction, teaching, and so on— but I’d work on chapters or “chunks” and then workshop some of those and let some time pass, then get back after it. By the summer of 2008 I had over 700 pages “toward” a novel, but I wasn’t yet willing to call it a draft (it was missing crucial scenes and other kids of “connective tissue.”)
At exactly that time, in June, I took over duties as the Assistant Director of the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference (NSWC). NSWC director, novelist Timothy Schaffert, had read some sections from my manuscript—including the opening chapter—and he put in a good word with literary agent Jessica Regel, who was attending the conference as faculty, co-running a publishing workshop. (Jessica is at JVNLA, the same agency Tim’s agent is at—this is so often how these things work, these kinds of connections—and so his recommendation had a bit of weight to it, I suppose.) Anyway, I was to drive Jessica from Lincoln to Omaha so that she could catch her flight, and I managed to do a rather absurd job of that easy delivery— nearly running out of gas, getting us a little lost. (I should mention that I was flying to Massachusetts the next day to get married. So, you know—a lot going on.)
During that car ride, Jessica mentioned that Tim had told her a little about the book, and then she asked me to, essentially, pitch it to her. I know that, for a lot of fiction writers, this might seem like a dream scenario, but I was exhausted and therefore hopped-up on caffeine and we were nearly out of gas in the blazing Nebraska sun and I was panicking a little about that—this was not my dream scenario. I remember saying things like, “Well, it’s about this girl who, you know, she’s an orphan and she likes girls and she has this dollhouse and she gets sent to conversion therapy and Jane Fonda is there, but not the real Jane Fonda, and …” Really. It was awful. I mean, what novelist wants to summarize her novel? My standard definition for a novel is that the good ones don’t allow themselves to be very effectively summarized. And since I hadn’t even written a query letter (or anything of that nature), I didn’t have the rhetoric down, the approach.
Anyway, Timothy’s word must have meant much more to Jessica than did my inane blathering, because she told me to send her the first chapter (once I got back from my wedding, of course). So I did, and she liked it lots. But the issue was that I still wasn’t actually finished writing—or so I thought—so Jessica waited for a couple of months and then finally just asked me to send her the material that I was happy with. So I sent her what I then saw as parts 1 and 2 (which was still nearly 500 pages), and soon after we had a couple of discussions about how she actually felt that the novel was complete as is; that what I saw as just the resolution to part two could be finessed into being the actual resolution to the whole of the novel. So this was, you know, both completely thrilling and also took some getting used to. I’d had a particular conception of the arc of the novel for so long that ending Cam’s story any earlier felt rather impossible. But I thought about it, made a few revisions, and ultimately respected Jessica’s opinion, which was, basically, that we give it a go, and if editors passed because they felt like there was no real ending, or that the current ending didn’t work, we’d revisit the pages I wasn’t yet satisfied with.
So then we sent to several first-round places and we got several really nice passes (for various reasons) and even more suggestions that we “try it as YA.” This happened again and again—really, several editors said that they loved the book but that they couldn’t “get away with it” as adult and that we should send it to so and so at their YA division. This reaction was a surprise to me—at least the first few times (not so much by the fifth). This was mostly due to the fact that I just didn’t know enough about the diversity and depth of YA publishing at that time, and also because I’d read so many coming-of-age novels that were marketed as literary adult fiction and I felt like mine could potentially fit in there somewhere. However, ultimately what I wanted was for my book to find an audience, and I was equally excited to think of this book being marketed to and read by teens—especially when I thought of 15- or 15-year-old me and what this novel would have meant to her.
At some point Jessica and I had a formal conversation about all of this. I really hadn’t thought very “strategically” about this part of the process. I wanted to tell Cameron’s story, to create a novel that would allow you to live in her world, to see her wrestle with identity formation (and death and love and sex and …) Other things too, of course, but potential audience and the ins and outs of publication were just not the things that guided me as I’d worked on this book for all those months. Lots of writers have talked about this—about eventually having to take off the creative hat and put on the business/marketing/professional writer hat—but since this was my first book, it was all brand-new to me and I didn’t know exactly where to find that hat. (Or if I even owned it.)
So then we eventually sent the book around again, this time to some YA editors. This is going to sound a bit new-age-y, but the energy really was different, better, this time around, and soon thereafter Alessandra Balzer at Balzer + Bray made an offer. We spoke on the phone and she was charming and funny and really “got” all of the things about Cam’s story that were important to me. This will probably sound a bit naïve, but really it was that she talked about this book—about my book—the way I talk to people about novels that I love. There was something very genuine there, in her response, and I knew that she was the person, and Balzer + Bray was the imprint, to make all of this happen. No question. And really, everything since that decision has been a dream. It’s all been new and whirl-windy and sometimes quite overwhelming, but I feel pretty damn lucky about it every single day. (And if the many email messages I’ve received from teenage readers are any indication, this novel was absolutely published with the correct “designation.”)
And as for its queer content as a YA book, in fact, the specifics of Cam’s “miseducation” — her time in conversion/reparative therapy, that is — actually probably made the book more saleable than less, simply because it’s an intriguing and unfortunately timely topic. My experiences with everyone who worked on the publication of this book were overwhelmingly positive and supportive, and never once was I asked to tone down or change content because it was too controversial or risqué or what- have-you. There was simply no pushback regarding the queer content anywhere in the process (as I’m aware of it, anyway).
Was it difficult to end the book at Quake Lake?
How did you decide to end the book where you did? Would you ever consider writing about what happened to Cameron later in life?
How did you go about writing the ending? Did you have a couple options you tested out, or did you know from the beginning this was how it needed to end? When you get to know a character like Cameron, it’s hard to say goodbye as the reader. As the writer did you want to just keep going?
Well, fact is, I did “keep going.” There are another two to three hundred pages of Cam’s (mis)adventures filed away on my hard drive. I actually began the book at what I thought would be a place much closer to its ending and then worked backward from that, though not in a linear fashion, it’s just that I discovered Cam’s voice and some elements of her character while writing a short story that I later thought would become a scene that happens after Cam leaves Quake Lake.
It’s complicated, all of this, and probably too much to go into here, but while I knew pretty early on that Cam would eventually visit the lake, absolutely, and have some sort of ritual there — try to find some peace from that experience — I initially thought that might be the end of the second part of the book, and that it would be a four part book. So part one would have been everything in Miles City; part two would have been God’s Promise; and part three would have been this life she leads after leaving Promise — it involves a maternity mannequin factory in southern California, that’s all I’m saying; and then part four would have been her return to Miles City to deal with Ruth, who by that time was very, very sick with complications from her NF.
But, I mean, that novel would have been 1000 pages, easy. And it became clear to me at some point—through the advice of my agent, mostly—that that novel was not going to end up being this novel. But that this novel could still work. So, all of that is to say: the final chapter, the final moments, in fact, of that scene, went through many, many revisions (both before they even got to my editor and then with her—it was a section we worked on quite a lot) and material was cut and material was added and finally we got to something that I’m very proud of and that I think works for this novel.
But, I haven’t fully said goodbye to Cameron. I’m very happy to be writing something else right now—a completely different book, no traces of Cameron Post to speak of—but she’s still around on my hard drive. I don’t know, for sure, what will become of those pages, but perhaps, someday, a companion book — “the rest of her story.”
Now it’s your turn. Did you have a Lindsey Lloyd? Do you think Coley Taylor is queer? What happens next? Were you struck by how long ago the 90’s are in queer years? Had you heard of The Hunger before this book and if not have you checked it out since? What was your favorite part? What are all of your feelings you’ve ever had about this book? Don’t you think Emily Danforth is amazing for answering so many questions? You guys, she started answering questions at 9AM EST and now it’s 10PM EST, just saying.
Oh and, Sonia F., email carrie [at] autostraddle [dot] com with your full name and shipping address, because Lindsey Lloyd has a care package for you!