Danforth follows 2012’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post with Plain, Bad Heroine (Morrow, Oct.), a paean to queer romance, metafiction, and gothic horror.
In addition to being a horror novel, your book is a fantastic example of metafiction.
I was reading short stories by [Edith] Wharton and [Henry] James, where this apparatus that tells us we’re going to take pleasure in this awful thing that’s about to happen shows up repeatedly. I’m also really interested in found footage. What’s being manipulated and what’s authentic? There’s also something about the performance involved in social media. All of those things contribute to that element of the book.
The novel prominently features a real-life memoir by queer writer Mary MacLane. Why focus on her?
I consider myself somewhat of a scholar of early sapphic history, but I didn’t know of MacLane until I was in my 20s. She struck me as a brilliant early brander of her name. She got a lot of cushy gigs with the newspapers and magazines of the era. She was really quite a sensation for about a year. It was funny and felt really contemporary. I kept thinking, “How was this published in 1902?” She’s so honest about her sexual attraction to her former teacher. I didn’t expect the humor; there’s certain a meta quality to that book, not only because she’s talking directly to the devil to come and rescue her, but also she’s aware of the book that she’s making.
What inspired you to make MacLane’s memoir a cursed object in your story?
The thing that really sealed the deal was when I taught The Story of Mary MacLane one semester with a bunch of other coming-of-age narratives and several of my students were very scandalized by it. The direct address to the devil really bothered them. They felt like there was a very real wrongness to this idea. I never would’ve expected it. I thought maybe they would find the language kind of dry and difficult to understand contextually. I felt like I had to hand it to Mary MacLane.
Those reactions were a big part of it, but also, in 2014, my first novel was removed from a summer reading list by a school board in Delaware. It got me thinking about this idea of bad books. When you call a book bad, is that a moral objection? I think often it is. I was thinking about that and about the book as object, a thing that has sentience or a malevolent force. That just felt too deliciously gothic.