Garrard Conley grew up in North Arkansas, in Cherokee Village and then Mountain Home, where his father, a Southern Baptist preacher, would scour the morning headlines for evidence of the coming rapture to use in his sermons. So when Conley was outed as gay to his parents at 19, things didn't go well. In his just-published memoir, "Boy Erased" (Riverhead Books), Conley writes of his self-awakening and the moments leading up to his outing, events that ultimately landed him in "treatment" at a Memphis branch of Love in Action, the largest "ex-gay" therapy organization in the country. Garth Greenwell, who recently visited Arkansas for the Literary Festival, says that Conley's story is "an urgent reminder that America remains a place where queer people have to fight for their lives."
Conley, who teaches English literature at the American College of Sofia in Sofia, Bulgaria, returns to Arkansas to read from "Boy Erased" at the Clinton Presidential Center* at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 24. To prepare for his homecoming, we asked him a few questions.
You're embarking on a book tour that will take you from New York to San Francisco to Chicago and other cities all over the country, but one of your first stops will be Little Rock. What does it mean to you to come back to Arkansas to tell your story?
Telling my story in Arkansas is important for me both symbolically and politically. Symbolically, because the book in many ways is about facing history and coming to terms with where I grew up and how I have made a life for myself both inside and outside of the state. I tend to enjoy grappling with hard truths, perhaps because I ran away from them for so long. For about eight years I didn't even want to speak about my experience of growing up in Arkansas. I felt deeply ashamed of how ignorant I had been as a teen. What kind of 19-year-old agrees to attend "ex-gay" therapy? But now I love the liminal spaces that make up so much of my presence in Arkansas. I'm both queer and Southern, Christ-haunted and nonpracticing. I believe that doubt (I mean the doubt we encounter in religious texts) is an extremely important element in religious experience, and I prize it above most other worldviews, so one of my goals is to help usher in more doubt in the Arkansan communities where I grew up.
Despite the difficulties you've faced, you've written of a strained fondness for your hometown. What was beautiful about growing up in Arkansas?
My teen years were spent in Cherokee Village, home of several beautiful lakes, once referred to as the "Mecca of the Ozarks." My parents owned a house on Lake Thunderbird, and on weekends my parents and I would board our pontoon boat and speed across the lake and relax in the sun. Afternoons after finishing homework, I would walk trails through the hills around our house, where I spent much of my time thinking about life and love and God and sexuality. I believe those moments on the trail could be considered a form of meditation, and this practice later helped me reach a kind of mental stability in the years after "ex-gay" therapy.
A common thread of successful writers across multiple genres is the ability to turn what might be the detriment of geography into a benefit or a selling point. How has being from Arkansas impacted your career as an author?
I don't know if I've ever been good at selling myself. My father was a car salesman before he became a preacher, and I suppose I learned a few things from him in terms of charm. But most non-Southerners who first meet me, when I tell them I'm from Arkansas, usually say something along the lines of, "I'm so sorry." It's incredibly condescending to be told this. I want to teach the culture at large that there are other types of diversity in the South. Sure, there can be horrendous violence against queer bodies and shocking anti-LGBTQ legislation, but I can name hundreds of individuals living in the South who fight for LGBTQ rights every day of their lives. Take a place like Lucie's Place, the only operating LGBTQ homeless shelter in Arkansas. Watching someone hold their own and fight for trans rights in this state, to name only one example, can be incredibly inspiring and is doing the good work of bringing real equality to this country.
You've said that literature saved you as a closeted youth. What writers and works rescued you? What did you find in these books that spoke to you? Were there any other outlets that provided relief and escape?
I've always been an avid reader. Each summer of my elementary school days I would read about 100 R.L. Stine books. I couldn't get enough murder plots. Then, as I grew older and started to understand that I had an attraction to other men, I felt a bit disconnected from traditional narratives. That's when I started playing video games like "Final Fantasy VIII," with narratives and characters that felt very queer. "Final Fantasy VIII," which features in my book as a kind of escape for my closeted self, contained a spiky haired character wearing a fur jacket and a beautiful sword, and he was absolutely beautiful to a young me. In terms of books that helped me both during and after my time in Love in Action, I can very firmly say that Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" was the book that first taught me how bigotry operated. I remember reading about Hester Prynne, who's forced to wear a scarlet letter "A" to stand for the "shameful" adultery she committed, and I had such a shock of recognition I began to sob. I used that book as a kind of Bible to get me through the tough times.
"Boy Erased" is the latest in a high-profile list of well-received books that have LGBTQ themes, coming on the heels of Hanya Yanagihara's "A Little Life" and Garth Greenwell's "What Belongs to You." The timing of your book's release seems right both critically and commercially. Why do you think that is? Why is there a public hunger for these books now, and what's driving their publication?
I think a certain number of erudite queer readers are championing queer books in intelligent ways — through social media and word of mouth — and people are listening because these tastemakers make good cases for reading these books. Hanya's book is in many ways a success because queer readers taught nonqueer readers how to recognize the coded queer traditions within the text.
We're having this conversation the week of your book's release. How have you prepared your family and friends for this moment? How have you prepared yourself?
I haven't done much preparing. Before I wrote the majority of the book, I spent many nights worrying about how I was going to portray my family. As you probably know, spilling your family secrets makes you a very bad Southern boy. I am breaking a taboo by writing this book. Certain inevitable frustrations are going to occur. But I wrote this book out of love. I love my family, and in fact I dedicated this book to my parents, but I am also concerned with the culture at large, and the culture at large needs to know what goes on in a family like mine, what could possibly make a family want to send their child to conversion therapy. I am in a unique position to explain liberal and conservative camps to each other.
"Boy Erased" contains some tender moments of love and kindness between you and your family, including your parents and your grandparents, none of whom are portrayed as pure antagonists, and, in fact, they are often, right through the book's final pages, shown as navigating personal struggles that are parallel and tied to, in many ways, your own. In addition to the hardships, you also write about some very happy moments from your childhood, and your book is dedicated to your parents. How important — and how difficult — was it for you to show that balance of love and struggle?
It was extremely important to demonstrate the love I share with my family. I believe this is a key ingredient in why I was able to successfully recover from my therapy sessions. In the only writing workshop session where I shared a chapter of the book, I had only one guiding question for feedback: Did you see my father as a three-dimensional character? When I heard that the answer was yes, I knew I could go about writing the rest of the book. I knew the story wouldn't be complete if it didn't try to address the question of why we do harmful things to the people we love, often out of love.
You write that the only openly gay person you'd met before college was your mother's hairdresser. Outside of church, what else informed your perception of what being gay means?
I didn't have many LGBTQ influences when I was growing up. Most people in my hometown believed that gay people ended up dying of AIDS in some gutter somewhere. I also didn't want to look on the Internet for the answers, because I believed I might be possessed by a demon if I did this. There just weren't any outlets for expression.
Who do you see as the target audience for "Boy Erased"?
The book has connected well with teens and college students, though I hope the book also speaks to both liberal and conservative audiences of any age, because I wanted this book to be a document of our times, a kind of reflection of what our country does to its people and why it operates the way it does.
What would you say to your 16-year-old self? To any 16-year-old growing up in a rural setting and struggling with sexuality or identity?
Hold on. Keep reading. Keep learning. Some day you will make it out. But don't forget where you came from. There are people like you who haven't made it out, and these people need your help.*A previous version of this story mistakenly said this event was at the Clinton School of Public Service. It's at the Clinton Presidential Center, sponsored by the Clinton Foundation.