An Interview with Alex Award winner emily m. danforth, author of Plain Bad Heroines

Each year, the Alex Award committee works to select ten titles published for adult readers that might have special appeal to young adults, ages 12-18. One of the 2021 selections is Plain Bad Heroines by emily m. danforth.

Plain Bad Heroines is a stunning piece of fiction. Like the finest of pastries, each layer is carefully crafted and just as delightful to bite into. The story centers around Brookhants School for Girls, and the narrative oscillates between the turn of the twentieth century and the present day. In 1902, the world was abuzz around young Mary MacLane and her memoir The Story of Mary MacLane, which unabashedly addressed MacLane’s sexuality and feminism. The story focuses on what happens when the girls (and their teachers) at Brookhants take up MacLane’s book, and the tragic events behind Brookhants’ closing. It also spins around the present day story of another young writer, Merritt Emmons, who has retold the Brookhants story, and it tracks the happenings surrounding the movie being made of Merritt’s book. Everything is haunted, everyone is in love and queer, and everything about this book will surprise and impress you.

Author emily m. danforth graciously agreed to share some thoughts, and we are so grateful for her time and for her work.

THE HUB: The Alex Award is a longtime favorite because it recognizes the transitional or fluid quality of both young adult readers and also of literature. What has it meant to you that your book was highlighted in this way? What do you think makes your book attractive to teen readers?

DANFORTH: It’s such an honor! I feel really lucky and proud to have Plain Bad Heroines recognized in such excellent company. I always try look for the Alex Award winners, every year—in part because I’ve enjoyed so many of the novels recognized by this award in the past.

I think maybe the blending of genre with the contemporary queer Hollywood/celesbian storyline about twenty-somethings might be of particular appeal to teenage readers. Also, possibly the tongue-in-cheek narration, illustrations, and nested plot. There are a number of disparate elements in this novel that speak to many kinds of readers: fans of Gothic Fiction and horror; fans of Sapphic romance; readers of metafiction and historical fiction.

THE HUB: As your response makes clear, there is lots going on in this novel, and the narrative voice undeniably adds an additional layer. Was that voice there from the start, or did it have to evolve?

DANFORTH: No, no, it wasn’t there from the start at all. In fact, finally landing on that winking tone, the voice of a narrator who’s taking you, dear Readers, firmly by the hand to pull you through this twisting story—dead ends and dark alleys and all—was key to my being able to figure out how to write this story. I tried a more self-serious narrator—or a less winking one, at any rate—and it just didn’t work for the material, which leans more Edward Gorey Gothic than, you know, The Mysteries of Udolpho or Dracula Gothic. 

I remember reading a number of late 19th/early 20th century ghost stories while I was still in early days on this book, creepy tales by writers like Edith Wharton and Henry James, and I was struck by how many of those stories feature a setup wherein a group of people have gathered for some reason or another and are inspired to tell each other scary stories, and then we, the reader, essentially get to read one of those stories. There’s phrasing like, “We were put in the mood for a scare, so. . .” I love that! There’s such pleasure being taken in the artifice of telling these tales, in the communal act of gathering to share them and to delight in the terror of them, and I wanted to capture some of the feel of that with my narrator, who is having one hell of a good time telling you this mad story.

Plain Bad Heroines Cover Art

THE HUB: Plain Bad Heroines is a book about a book, and about a movie being made on that book, and about a book being written about that movie being made, and about a book – the book – that connects them all. And despite its obvious proximity to Hollywood, I selfishly kind of want this book to stay a book — with all its multiplicity and depth. That said, I can see it being an attractive option for movie-makers. So, is there any talk of seeing Merritt and Audrey and Harper (and Alex and Libby, of course) on the big screen?

DANFORTH: There has been lots of talk, and interest, yes, and some of that interest had been really exciting for several months and then ultimately hasn’t gone anywhere, which is pretty typical. Right now, I’m working closely with a fantastic producer and production company with notable horror chops, and we’re taking a run at selling it as a limited series, with the goal of me staying very attached to the project as it moves through the process, so fingers crossed, and wish us luck, and we’ll see. I mean, as you noted in your question, Plain Bad Heroines is itself a novel partly about adapting a book for the movies, so I clearly have a keen interest in this area. But I have to tell you: Hollywood just baffles and frustrates me. Continuously. (But it enchants me, too—and there’s the rub.)

THE HUB: Perhaps the reason I don’t daydream about a movie version of this book is because the descriptions are already so vivid. Here’s an example: 

It can, dear Readers, be difficult to appreciate blatant hypocrisy when one of your ten-year-old arms is hanging out in the space where the passenger-side window should be (but it’s not, because it’s rolled down, of course), your skin touching the sun-hot slick metal of the curve of a mint-condition Jaguar’s door, your hand holding a fast-dripping strawberry ice-cream cone, the road clicking beneath you, green leaves twittering the sunlight above you, and the summer day pressing against you ever so gloriously as Elaine speed you into it. (373)

And of course, there is Brookhants and Spite Manor and the Orangerie and the orchard, and so much more. How did you build such convincing imagery and architecture in so many different ways?

DANFORTH: The passage you excerpted was there from some of the earliest drafts of the book, so I’m glad to know that it worked its effect on you! (I knew that it stuck around so long for a reason.)

For me, developing a strong sense of place has been key to both of the novels I’ve written thus far. I do this partly just because I’m so drawn to imagery and rich description, as a reader—especially in novels—but also because I agree with Eudora Welty that “place is the ground conductor” for all other elements of a novel—place works on all those other elements, interacts with them, changes or conflicts with them. Get the sense of place right and watch how it unlocks your characters, your plot, your themes. And in a work of Gothic Horror, you have to be thinking about atmosphere—about the way the fog drapes over the branches in the woods, about the way the shadows flicker down the stairwell and the blue heads of the hydrangeas hang heavy on their stems after the rain. 

Also, I’m a sucker for architectural detail. My wife and I have lived in (and renovated) old houses for the last twenty years or so. (Really before that for me, because I grew up in a massive, historic house that my parents painstakingly renovated by hand, for years.) Currently, we live in a former Progressive Spiritualist Lyceum from 1921—so, you know, I wrote much of Plain Bad Heroines in a building where spiritualists once gathered to commune with the dead. Not too shabby a place to tap into a little atmosphere. 

But I did do a lot of research, too. I mean, it was research I generally loved doing, because it aligns with my other interests, but I did things like watch an hour-long presentation from a gilded-age mansion in Boston about turn of the twentieth century technological innovations. I learned a lot about indoor plumbing and bathroom styles in early 20th century homes, and about favored hot house flowers and also poisonous and/or  intoxicating plants. I read Victorian era flower dictionaries and 100-year old boarding school annuals and trolled the online Wellesley archives for pictures of their 1902 women’s crew teams.

I live in Rhode Island, and there are several local spots and structures that I fictionalized and sculpted in the book, including The Columbus Theater, on Broadway (the setting for Noel’s concert, near the end of the novel) and The Windmill House in Little Compton, which was part of my inspiration behind Spite Manor.

 The other part of my inspiration for Spite Manor was, of course, The Spite Tower—which readers might be surprised to know is based on a real structure in Little Compton, Rhode Island—one built in 1905. It’s a place that’s inspired lots of rumors and legends, but probably can be attributed to something very simple: the need for a well. Even still, the fact that locals claim it as Spite Tower, despite its more pedestrian origins, it telling in regard to our love for lore about feuding neighbors and grudges.

THE HUB: What’s next for you? Are you able to share any highlights of what you’re working on?

DANFORTH: I’m about 65 pages (and one heck of an involved outline, which is very new for me) into a psychological thriller I’m calling The Winter Swimmers. I think of it as my The Woman in the Window meets The Talented Mr. Ripley novel, and I’m determined for it to clock-in at under 400 pages and to be built of relatively short chapters. Anyone who’s read either of my first two novels probably wouldn’t call those goals hallmarks of my “style” as a novelist, so it’s been both challenging and fun, frankly, trying to keep to them as I draft this book. Not to worry, though: it will still be very, very gay and also concerned with literary scandal. I mean, I am who I am. I’m also working on some personal essays, which may or may not become a book-shaped something or other, at some point in the future. This is also new territory for me, as a writer. Or it’s territory I don’t visit very frequently, at any rate. I’m really loving the writing of them.

Thanks again to the generous and insightful emily m. danforth. Want to hear more from emily? Member-manager Sara Beth continues the conversation on her site.