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It’s time again for the Burlington Book Festival, which kicks off on the evening of Friday, September 21, and runs through Sunday, September 23. Since there’s no way you can take in all the readings and workshops happening in Burlington this weekend, we’ve spotlighted two outstanding writers and prepared a rough-and-ready guide. Find the whole schedule at burlingtonbookfestival.com.
A lesbian comes of age in the heartland
The titular narrator of emily m. danforth’s debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012), is 12 when she first kisses a girl. The next day, when she learns both her parents have died in an accident, Cameron’s first reaction is relief — because now they’ll never know.
Set in Miles City, Mont., in the early 1990s, the novel takes the irreverent Cameron from junior high to first love, and from her consummation of a crush on a cowgirl to its disastrous consequence: banishment to an academy called God’s Promise for “sexually broken” teens.
The topic could easily lend itself to broad satire, but danforth (who prefers to lowercase her name) took a subtler route. The novel’s Christian ideologues are fleshed-out characters. As for Cameron’s fellow “disciples,” they include a Native American who insists he’s “pre-gender” and a pot-growing girl named Jane Fonda.
Cameron Post is told in such descriptive literary prose, and pulls so few punches — danforth’s teen characters drink, toke, cuss and make out — that some readers may be surprised to learn it’s a young-adult novel. On National Public Radio, Malinda Lo called it “a skillfully and beautifully written story” that’s “certainly also meant for adult readers.”
Thirty-two-year-old danforth, who lives in Providence, R.I., and teaches at Rhode Island College, will read from the book as part of the Women’s Work series at Phoenix Books in Burlington on Sunday at 2 p.m. We spoke to her on the phone.
SEVEN DAYS: You’ve said in interviews that Cameron Post is not you. Where did the inspiration for this character come from?
EMILY M. DANFORTH: She is a character who is informed by my own experience, but to even call her a fictional version of me would be a stretch. The thing that me and Cameron have most in common is that we both grew up gay in a town in eastern Montana at a time when that was certainly not embraced.
I was back in my old teenage bedroom, and I read a series of articles about the case of a 16-year-old boy in Tennessee named Zach Stark who was being sent to conversion-therapy camp, and it caught the attention of the national media. What was interesting to me in that story, as a fiction writer, was the ways in which [Stark] was conflicted. At that time, he wasn’t fully embracing the word “gay.” He was calling himself Christian, and he didn’t see how he could be both of those things. I started doing research because of that.
SD: When writing about people who try to “pray away the gay,” or conservative Christians in general, it can be hard to resist villainous stereotypes. How did you get into the skins of these characters?
ED: The early drafts of many of those characters were pretty caricature-ish I had to go back to the drawing board with several of them and figure out, how do I make them people, and not puppets for some kind of message? If you choose to devote your life to this, you’re convinced this is helping the people you’re offering this to. It comes from this incredibly misguided but this good impulse. [Cameron’s] Aunt Ruth believes she’s the only person looking out for the eternal salvation of her niece.
SD: Miles City is where you grew up. Is it still as conservative as it’s portrayed in the book? How has your book been received there?
ED: It’s come a long way in terms of LGBTQ visibility in the town. I did not know anyone who was out in my entire adolescence in Miles City. Certainly there are now people who feel more comfortable being open about it. I’m going back [there] in a few weeks for a community conversation about bullying and diversity. That’s a conversation that I can’t imagine even having happened 20 years ago.
People have been really supportive and excited. People I didn’t even know that well in high school, several of them told me they have gone out and bought the book, and they braced themselves, but they were pleasantly surprised. I think of it in part as a love letter to Miles City, as difficult as parts of growing up there were.
SD: You and your agent tried pitching this book to editors of adult fiction before selling it as young adult. How is YA changing? What makes it especially receptive to a book like this?
ED: I don’t think of “young adult” as a genre. I think of it as a marketing category. One of the few universals is that it features adolescents. There is a lot of gray area in terms of readership, the audience for these books. I think there’s something universal about a coming-of-age story. I’ve felt very embraced by all kinds of readers. [I’ve heard from] gentlemen in their forties who said, “I never would have found this book if I hadn’t read the NPR review.”
SD: Have you heard from teen readers?
ED: I do have teenagers who have told me that “some of my experiences are like Cam’s. My parents were not welcoming to my queer identity or my attractions because of the way religion was practiced in our household.” That hasn’t, sadly, changed for a lot of teenagers. [But today] it’s much easier to log on to the internet and find some sort of community that’s gonna offer you representations. The book is exposing [present-day teens] to this [early 1990s] queer culture, this past that they didn’t know was out there. I do think they’re relating to it.
A Pulitzer winner contemplates the vast unknown
Poets, says Tracy K. Smith, are lucky. In an interview with Ploughshares earlier this year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet insisted, “Joy is a part of my process. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that poetry, as a practice, necessitates a sense of joy. It’s exhilarating to come into contact with the things we write into being.”
It’s a refreshing sentiment, and one that pervades Smith’s latest book of verse, Life on Mars (2011). In the collection, an eager curiosity allows Smith to move freely between the extremes of the familiar and unfamiliar — between, for instance, David Bowie and Mars. She is uniquely able to retain a sense of down-to-earth human struggle within a Kubrickian universe.
In the poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” we are seamlessly transported from Charlton Heston to Moses to the far reaches of the Hubble Space Telescope’s sight — and back to the poet’s father’s tobacco pipe — in a matter of seconds. In that poem, Smith envisions Heston asking the speaker, “Will you fight to stay alive here, riding the earth / Toward God-knows where?” Instantly, the setting changes:
…I think of Atlantis buried under ice, gone
One day from sight, the shore from which it rose now glacial and stark.
Our eyes adjust to the dark.
This graceful teleportation is perhaps an inborn gift; for Smith, the known and the unknown, the near and the far, seem always to have occupied a shared space. Her father was an engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope when she was a young girl. And she wrote Life on Mars while living in the space between two unknowns: pregnant in the wake of her father’s death. But, as Smith told Ploughshares, beyond her own personal experience, she thinks it’s “quite natural to use versions of what we know or have experienced as the framework for imagining what we cannot know, and what we have not yet experienced. That’s why metaphor exists.”
Smith has done well for herself in this world that we all know. She is the author of two other collections of poetry — Duende (2007), which won both the 2006 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and an Essence Literary Award; and The Body’s Question (2003), which won the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. From 1997 to 1999, she was a Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, and she currently teaches creative writing at Princeton University.
Smith will read at BBF as part of the sixth annual Grace Paley Poetry Series on Saturday, September 22, at 4 p.m. in the Film House at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center.
More writers to catch at BBF — and what to ask them at the Q&A
(Saturday, 1 p.m., Film House, Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center)
Out this year: Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama
Ask her: I hear they made your first graphic memoir, Fun Home, into a musical (to be workshopped at Manhattan’s Public Theater in October). How do cartoon panels translate into songs?
(Sunday, 1 p.m., Phoenix Books, Burlington)
Out this year: Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black & White
Ask her: What can the controversial Van Vechten — a white writer who based his career on popularizing African American urban culture — teach us about race relations in today’s U.S.?
(Saturday, 11 a.m., Black Box Theater, Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center)
Known for: Seedfolks (the 2005 Vermont Reads selection) and numerous other award-winning children’s books. His dad was celebrated kids author Sid Fleischman.
Ask him: Your website says you have a forthcoming “campaign-trail comedy for adults” about a president desperate to win reelection. Tell us more.
(Saturday, 4 p.m., Black Box Theater, Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center)
Out this year: The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan
Ask him: Your reporting from Afghanistan has been credited with leading to the firing of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. Do journalists still have power in a digital age, and if so, how should they use it?
(Saturday, 11 a.m., Film House Theater, Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center)
Out this year: A July 19 Rolling Stone article called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”
Ask him: In Rolling Stone, you describe our position in regard to global warming as “almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless.” What does this mean? Should I be learning how to start fires with flint instead of debating the purchase of an iPhone 5?
(Saturday, 3 p.m., Black Box Theater, Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center)
Known for: A slew of fiction, nonfiction and poetry books. The Passages of H.M. was published in 2010; the Vermont author’s next novel is “a contemporary ghost story set on Lake Champlain.”
Ask him: How did it feel having Helen Mirren speak your dialogue (in the film version of The Last Station)?
HOWARD FRANK MOSHER
(Saturday, 3 p.m., Film House Theater, Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center)
Out this year: The Great Northern Express: A Writer’s Journey Home
Ask him: You’re known for your fiction set in the Northeast Kingdom, but your latest is the memoir of a road trip back to your native state. If Jay Craven adapts this one to film, who do you want to play you?
Attendance at the BBF is mandatory for some Burlington-area college students; for others, it’s a chance to earn extra credit. Though there are a lot of great events and presentations to attend, it can be tough to figure out how to survive three days of them. Here are 10 tips that will help you weather the BBF.
If you can score extra points by reading at a poetry jam event, bring a haiku. It will take you about 15 seconds.
If you still don’t understand what Vermont poet laureate Sydney Lea’s poems are about, always have a plate of food so no one will expect you to talk.
Go to the Video Blogging for Beginners seminar and talk about your video blog on YouTube with three views. Don’t have one yet? Make one and tell your parents; it’ll have at least two by Saturday.
You can probably skip Bill McKibben’s presentation if you just rent An Inconvenient Truth … but then you have to listen to Al Gore, so, honestly, just go to the presentation.
If you realize you’ve spent all your time at college drinking and playing Halo, rather than in literary pursuits, make up a plot for a manuscript and tell everyone you’re stuck in the middle. No one will ask any more questions.
Alcohol will be your friend.
Don’t go to the Afternoon With Jane Austen and ask where she is. Go home and Google her name … like I wish I had.
Go to Claire Samuel and Tim Brookes’ So You’re Thinking of Self-Publishing? seminar and bring up one of Brookes’ books. You’ll get an automatic A in his class. (Joking aside, Brookes should be commended for his work in getting Champlain College students into self-publishing.)
If you get tired on Saturday, go to the prearranged nap event at the Fletcher Free Library at 1 p.m. The room will be labeled “Video Book Trailers: The Nuts and Bolts” and the presenter is a guy named Mike Garris.
If all else fails, pay someone to go for you. It’s what I’ve done for the last three years.
If you want to self-publish ... check out Saturday’s free workshops (10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) at the Fletcher Free Library under the auspices of Tim Brookes, Champlain College’s indie- publishing guru. They cover everything from the “big questions” to promotional websites, blogging and book trailers.
If you’ve worn out your copy of Pride and Prejudice and shudder at the news that it will soon be available in a special “erotic edition” ... come meet Jane Austen “in the flesh.” OK, not really. But on Sunday at Champlain College’s Hauke Family Campus Center (1 to 5 p.m.), the Jane Austen Society of North America will host an afternoon devoted to “channeling,” “imagining” and “dressing Jane Austen.”
If you want to know how present-day women writers are faring ... attend Sunday’s Vermont Women Writers Panel at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts’ Amy E. Tarrant Gallery (3 p.m.), with Alison Bechdel, Tanya Lee Stone and Madeleine Kunin.
If you wish your kids found reading as interesting as video games ... take them to Sunday’s Words Come Alive! workshops at the Flynn’s Chase Studio (1 to 2:50 p.m.), where children ages 6 to 9 use dance and theater to bring books to life.