The PEN Ten with emily m. danforth
The PEN Ten Series is PEN America’s biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks with to emily m. danforth whose debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, was winner of The Montana Book Award and two High Plains Book Awards, and a finalist for the Morris Award and a Lambda Literary Award. emily is an Assistant Professor of English-Creative Writing at Rhode Island College in Providence. Her second novel, Side Talks With Girls, is forthcoming from HarperCollins.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
It’s tempting to answer this question by recounting anecdotes about times that others have recognized me as a writer, for my writing—especially early on, when I didn’t feel comfortable owning that title. Maybe this is because I’ve always felt so connected to writing that it’s difficult to tell you when it began to inform my sense of identity. The better question is: when didn’t it? For as long as I’ve had the ability to do it, really, I’ve been fulfilled and nurtured by writing, and also, of course, frustrated and made crazy by it. It feels so wholly personal to me—I don’t know, almost innate. But when someone else recognizes my writing or defines me as a writer—that can feel very significant, even now, all these years later.
For instance, and this is terrifically dated, but I remember that when I was in the sixth grade, my mother paid her secretary to type the prose section of my illustrated chapter book. (Typing was a skill that my mother had [then] managed to do without in her career, and one I’d yet to acquire). The “book” (which was later laminated by my teacher, every single page, and this felt tremendously glamorous and important) was, to my mind, a thriller about a single, blind woman who lived in a large house with her dog. Its plot (so much as it had one) was cobbled together from some of the salient details of a rather gruesome urban legend my sister had learned at church camp and my shoddy recollection of the plot of the Audrey Hepburn film Wait Until Dark (which I had never actually seen but had, for some reason, been told about, in detail, by my parents).
Anyway, I’m sure that my mother was very encouraging about this wretched project, as was, no doubt, my teacher, but it’s the reaction of the paid-per-page administrative assistant dutifully typing this thing in WordPerfect, after hours, on her office computer, that I remember. She was so kind and effusive in her praise, and so genuine, it seemed to me, when she told me that she loved it and that she wanted to know more and that I (and I remember this, word for word, two decades later) really had “a talent for writing.” I did this, I think, mostly because she wasn’t a teacher or one of my parents or a friend, so what she said carried real weight for me. (Of course: she was my mother’s paid employee and also a lovely, affable woman who may well have just been being kind. None of that mattered then, though. I kept that observation, her words, in my pocket for years.)
But the better moment, I think, is from my freshman year of college. I’d written a short story (my first “serious and literary”—though I didn’t really know what I meant by that—short story) for my first college-level creative writing course. I don’t remember many of the particulars of the workshop for that story, just that it went well enough. But my group of friends at the time, they then passed it around amongst them—my single, dot matrix-printed copy getting increasingly grubby with every changed-hand. And they were all so great about it, and excited, and now I was “the writer” in our group—and very proud about that, because they’d named me. (Except for one friend, that is. She didn’t much like the story. That particular friend is now my wife.)
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
Where is your favorite place to write?
It can be almost anywhere so long as it’s quiet (the closer to silent the better). But when I’m letting myself be choosy I like a small space, cramped even—stacks of books and papers and shelves with trinkets, preferably near to a window.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I have, yes, in college. Not my finest moment. I was active in a somewhat radical animal rights group, then, and also a queer activist group, and I so dearly wish that my arrest story had to do with either of those ventures. Sadly, it does not; nor is it particularly interesting to anyone other than a few college friends who occasionally ask me to trot it out for their amusement—they particularly like the part about me being handcuffed to a bench in the holding cell. I’m doing you a favor, I promise, by sparing you the pathetic details.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Broadly I’m obsessed with small, unexpected moments of connection between people, and also with all the ways we accept definition and/or struggle against it. Also (and the following’s a rather random list): Americana, ephemera, queerness, sense of place—I think each of those obsessions shows up in my writing.
My more specific obsessions tend to burn hot and then flame out. For instance, right now my freshman-year-short-story-hating wife, Erica, and I are in the middle of an endless and massive, full-scale, gutted-to-the-studs home renovation, and have been for months, so I wake up wondering if we’ll pass the electric inspection and go to sleep considering various shades of grey paint (there’s a joke to be made here, but I’ll leave it) for the main floor walls and the pros and cons of a skip trowel finish on the third floor ceiling. And every time the television’s on we seem to have landed on HGTV or D.I.Y. And there’s a stack of remodeling books and This Old House magazines next to the bed.
A few weeks ago Erica, said, “We have to find something else to talk about. Right now. We have to do it right now. Every conversation we have—every single one—we talk only about this house.” She travels for work and so we’re usually having conversations over the phone and they’re our only chance to connect in a day. On this particular night, we’d already been talking about a series of house-related mishaps and setbacks for twenty minutes or so. So right then, immediately, we stopped talking about the house. We talked, instead, about Beyonce’s new album. It was timely, and also a nice reprieve, but it didn’t last, of course. I’m still as obsessed as ever—maybe more so because we’re finally getting near the end of this project. I hope. We had a gas leak a few days ago. A major one. The air in the basement was 15% gas, so that’s not so good.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I came out to my mom via a handwritten letter—one that I mailed across country to Montana and then waited—endlessly, it seemed—for a response to. That felt pretty daring at the time. Come to think of it: I remember writing I think I might be gay in my journal in probably, I don’t know, sixth grade, seventh? That felt so fraught that I crossed out it in a messy scribble of blue ballpoint, lest it be read by someone else.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
To tell the truth in such a way that our work engages with questions of just what the hell we mean by “the truth”—how we’re arriving at it, defining it—for whom and at what time and why and how is this truth? And to tell stories, of course, to chronicle this messy, wonderful, sad existence. I think that David Foster Wallace observation about writing (he was talking fiction, in specific, but I’m not) needing to be “about what it fucking means to be a human being” covers it pretty well.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I think the public intellectual is alive and well on Twitter and Tumblr. I really do. I’m not being cute. I recently had a student tell me that the moment some “controversial” news story breaks, she can’t wait to see what Roxane Gay will have to say about it, because reading those words helps her to formulate her own response—even if it’s one in disagreement with Gay’s. (And you can insert plenty of other writer’s names where Roxane Gay’s is in this example.)
But as for a collective purpose: there’s a line in Dave Eggers’ novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity,about stasis being criminal with those with “the means to weave communion between people.” In thinking of how best to answer this question, I keep coming back to that—“to weave communion between people.” I’m not sure exactly how I’m intending it, here. I fear that it sounds too nicey-nice, too passive, which isn’t my intention—writers can and should agitate and expose and upset. But I still think there’s something there in thinking of “weaving communion” through writing.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 or Orwell’s 1984 seem like good places to start. Also, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s A Month and a Day: A Detention Diary.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Intent, intent, intent. Observation leaves much more room for those observing to reflect, consider, even meditate on what they’ve observed. Surveillance means the deck is already stacked against those being monitored.