When I heard about David Clark’s The Death of a Disco Dancer, which was recently published by Zarahemla Books, I tracked down his contact information because I remembered his Irreantum short story, and I was very intrigued by the premise of the novel, and there were some things I wanted to ask him about. I’m very pleased that he agreed to do an interview:
The very first question that came to mind when I saw the title was: why is it titled after a song by the Smiths? Let me restate that: why is it titled after a *great* song by the Smiths. One of my personal favorites.
“Death of a Disco Dancer” is definitely one of my all-time Smith’s favorites; actually, it’s one of my all-time favorite songs, period. As I was writing the novel, I knew that there would be death — physical, intellectual and social — that a few of the different characters would experience. I also knew that one of the characters, the narrator’s Grandmother, would suffer from dementia and would be obsessed with a Saturday Night Fever album cover (which I’ve always thought was an absolutely hilarious and ridiculous image, in a very ‘70s sort of way). So, with these ideas percolating in the back of my mind — that there are different types of “death” or catastrophe in life — and the fact that the narrator’s grandmother was obsessed with arguably the most recognizable pop culture image of the somewhat unfortunate disco era, as I was driving home from work one day, the Smiths’ “Death of a Disco Dancer” came on. The first line of the song, says, very heavily and melancholically, “The death of a disco dancer, well it happens a lot ‘round here…” And, with that, it just clicked. I thought it was, like any great Smith’s song, goofy, ridiculous, enigmatic and yet poignant, and it seemed like a perfect match for the entire tone of the novel. From then on, despite a universality of raised eyebrows from those I shared the novel with, I knew there could be no other title.
And then let’s get this out of the way: “How Soon is Now” is their best song, yes or no? And if no, what candidates would you offer up instead?
I definitely agree. I think that any discussion of great Smith’s songs has to start and end with “How Soon is Now.” In fact, I was just driving in the car and it came on the radio. It’s one of those songs that is so good, was so cutting edge, that it always manages to sound contemporary.
A bunch of people have asked me if there will be a sequel to The Death of a Disco Dancer or if I can see myself further exploring any of these characters in a future novel. I’ve joked with others (and I’m only half kidding) that I think it would be a lot of fun to follow the narrator, Todd Whitman (who is both an 11 year-old and a forty-something year-old in the novel), through his teenage years, through a Mormon mission and into marriage, in novels all named after other songs by the Smith’s. “Girlfriend in a Coma,” “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” “Panic,” “This Charming Man,” “There is a Light that Never Goes Out.” I could go on and on.
What else is The Death of a Disco Dancer about?
The main thing I wanted to explore in this novel was a Mormon kid who believes (or thinks he believes) what he has been taught and how he reconciles that belief (or suspicion of belief) with the challenges of becoming a somewhat normal, red-blooded, American teenage boy, without the didacticism and fairytale endings that seem to have been so prevalent in LDS fiction. That idea — that the life experience of a suburban, non-Wasatch-front, non-dystopian, LDS pre-teen boy in a loving, believing, functional family could be worthy of “literature” – was really what I wanted to explore.
Also, although the novel is mostly about an 11-year old boy, Todd Whitman, I think it is, in large part, about the quiet, dedicated lives of mothers and grandmothers — the kinds of mothers and grandmothers that do the yeoman’s work of family building, who never seem to get the glory, but without whom everything would collapse. Wallace Stegner, maybe my favorite author of all time, in his book, The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail, wrote about the Mormon pioneers that, “Their women were incredible.” I think he was basically saying, “Yeah, the story of the Mormon migration is an amazing story, but it wasn’t all just Brigham Young and brawn, they would have never made it, this religion would have never made it, without the incredible strength and determination of their women.” And, I think that two of the main characters of the book, Grandma Carter and Linda Whitman, the narrator’s grandmother and mother, respectively, are both pretty simple and pretty normal, but also pretty incredible. Henry David Thoreau wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” To paraphrase (and counter, to a certain extent) Thoreau, I think that it could be said that “the mass of mothers and grandmothers lead lives of quiet dedication.” That’s certainly the case with Grandma Carter and Linda Whitman.
Another theme that runs throughout the book is that spiritual growth and understanding, more often than not, come not in sudden electric bursts of light and understanding, but, as we plod through the various climates of life (sometimes its cloudy, sometimes there are deadly storms, sometimes it’s sunny and picture perfect, but much of the time it’s partly cloudy with a chance of rain). So, I think that life’s most meaningful growth and understanding comes subtly and with nuance, over extended periods of time. In other words, life is marathon, not a sprint, especially when it comes to an understanding of spiritual and familial things and how those two ultimately tie together. I have always loved Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare — “slow and steady wins the race” — and I think that this is what the narrator, Todd Whitman, ultimately learns and is something that his Grandma Carter and his mother learned themselves too.
Why did you choose to set the novel in the summer of 1981?
The bulk of the novel occurs in 1981 but it is really set in the present day, as the narrator, Todd Whitman, now a forty-something year-old father, returns home to his boyhood home in Arizona with his other grown siblings to remove his dying mother from hospice and take her home to die in her own home, in her own bed. As Todd keeps watch over his dying mother, he reflects back on the pivotal Summer of 1981 — the summer before the culture shock of junior high school (school dances and showers in after gym class), the summer before becoming a Deacon and a boy scout, the summer his live-in grandmother fully succumbed to Alzheimer’s, the summer he lost his grandfather and the summer he first started noticing girls (and one in particular). So, because I knew that the narrator had to be both in his forties in the present day and an eleven years-old, the early ‘80s had to be part of the novel. And, it just so happens that I randomly chose 1981, but given the number of pop culture and other references throughout the novel, I knew that for it to be authentic, I had to choose a year. And, 1981 — the peak and really the beginning of the end of the disco era, seemed like the perfect time for a novel that deals with “death” on different levels.
Also, for whatever reason, even though I’m not a fan of disco at all, early on in the process, I thought it would be fun, given the fact that the Bee Gees, John Travolta and a Saturday Night Fever album cover would all be referenced throughout the novel, to name the chapters after actual then-contemporary (i.e., pre-1982) disco songs. So, for practical reasons, I needed to “pick a date” if you will. It was fun to research the disco songs of the era and then use them as chapter titles. With one exception (the chapter entitled “The Death of a Disco Dancer”), each of the chapters are, in fact, named for a real disco song. And, that explains why instead of a table of contents, there is a “playlist.”
What led to you writing the novel? What was the process like for you?
When I was at BYU, as an American Studies major, I took a “Literature of the American West” survey course taught by Richard Cracroft that included some Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner and something called “Mormon literature.” Although I had been a Mormon all my life, I had never heard of any “Mormon literature.” The class opened a whole new world to me. Before that class, it had never crossed my mind that my life experience — growing up in the suburban West as a Mormon — might be worth writing about. And from then on, I always knew that someday I would write something about that experience.
The process really started with experimenting with some short story writing, parts of which ultimately became a part of this novel and then it really went forward only in fits and starts. I can’t write sporadically, and I can’t write with a detailed outline. I have to have large, successive blocks of time to really wrestle with my ideas before I can write with any coherence or flow. About a year ago I was completely burned out of my job as the general counsel of a large international company, so I quit and took a self-imposed sabbatical for about nine months and did some things I’ve always wanted to do, including taking the sporadically written beginnings of the novel and building upon it until it ultimately became The Death of a Disco Dancer.
How did you get a blurb from Richard Cracroft? What do you think he means when he states that your novel “takes Mormon literary fiction another big step forward”?
As I mentioned, I took a survey course from Professor Cracroft early in my BYU career and was fortunate enough to have chosen a major that I truly loved –American Studies. The beauty with that major was that it was a “cafeteria-style” major. I was free to choose classes from the Humanities, History, English, Art and Political Science disciplines and I found myself gravitating to the English and American History courses, in particular. And, in large measure, I then chose classes based on who was teaching. I took several classes from Frank Fox, Neil York, Arthur Bassett and Professor Cracroft and enjoyed all of them and, at the time, Professor Cracroft also happened to be the faculty advisor for the American Studies major. Over the years, I’ve asked him to read things and he has always been such a gracious, generous man and such an advocate for Mormon literature that I thought I would see if he would be interested in reviewing the manuscript of the novel, which he did. So, in one way or another, I don’t think the book would exist without him. If I hadn’t have taken that class all those years ago, it probably wouldn’t exist. And, if he hadn’t reviewed it and given me the confidence and encouragement to move forward with it, it probably would have never been finished.
As far as the “big step forward,” I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that, you would have to ask him, but I’m guessing it’s what I was alluding to before. I’m no expert in Mormon literature or literary criticism at all, but what I see from the sidelines is a tendency in contemporary LDS fiction toward either the science fiction and dystopian genres, or a tendency toward the historical fiction, romance and chick lit genres. And, there’s nothing wrong with that. What I think is missing, to a large degree, however, is a realistic, contemporary treatment of the LDS experience from a believer’s point of view. At times, LDS fiction has seemed so didactic, formulaic and sugar-coated as to be unrealistic, or so determined to be “realistic” that it tended to completely over-compensate and be antagonistic toward mainstream Mormon culture and/or the Church. I really wanted to write something about a normal LDS boy and his experience in a realistic, relatively normal, believing LDS family and explore whether that kind of a story is compelling enough to be considered literature. That “experiment,” if you will, led to The Death of a Disco Dancer. I think Professor Cracroft sees that uniqueness in this novel — that the mainstream LDS experience in and of itself is worthy of literary treatment. So, I’m guessing that’s what he means by the “big step.”
The major irony in all this is that I don’t think it’s a story that the traditional LDS publishers have the guts to publish or sell. And, in my mind, that’s symptomatic of a larger obstacle in the future development of a truly “Mormon literature.” The most frustrating comment I received was from another publisher that publishes almost exclusively LDS titles and LDS based fiction. This particular publisher told me that the content was “inappropriate for our readership.” Obviously, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but I think sometimes there is a certain hypocrisy in popular Mormon culture. Does anyone really think, for example, that if a realistic movie about the Book of Mormon were ever made that it could not be R-rated? Figures like J. Golden Kimball (and his beloved use of colorful language), Orrin Porter Rockwell (and his mythic status as Mormon avenger) and professional football players too numerous to name (who earn their fame by, arguably, breaking the Sabbath) are revered figures in Mormon culture, but if an author (speaking through a teenage narrator with a real teenage voice) makes a reference to testicles, or, heaven forbid, uses the word “balls” or “nuts,” it’s considered “too edgy” or “inappropriate.” That’s been frustrating, but I also think it’s pretty funny. So, maybe the “big step forward” is that I’ve managed to write a novel that is faith promoting, maybe even testimony building, maybe even “virtuous, lovely or of good report” but also manages to use a few tried and true (and maybe even some new) slang terms for testicles and other bodily functions to get there.
What other works have you written?
The Death of a Disco Dancer is my first novel. I’ve had a couple of stories published: “Rock, Squeak, Wheeze” in Sunstone and “Candle” in Irreantum.
What works (of any form or genre) are really connecting with you in the world of Mormon art and beyond right now?
About a year ago, my sister introduced me to the music of a collective group of LDS musicians that recorded an album and performs as “The Lower Lights.” They perform hymns in what they call a “revival” style. The music is very earthy, organic, folksy and almost bluesy. The music is fantastic and they play with fervor and passion. Imagine standing, clapping and stomping your feet to… a hymn. It’s unusual but it works so well. They’ve released one album together, which is fantastic. Theirs is the type of LDS art that I’m most interested in — that which meets the definition of the 13th Article of Faith but interprets life through a totally unique lens within the LDS experience. See www.thelowerlights.com.
Another artist that I’m really high on right now is Kent Christensen, an LDS artist that splits his time between New York and Sundance and regularly exhibits in London and Salt Lake City. For the last few years, he has been painting well known images of candy, cakes and other treats that he likens to “Mormon heroin.” At first glance, his art looks like “pop art” and I guess it is, to a certain extent, but his work while both funny and playful also always has a deeper meaning and is quite thought-provoking. See www.kentchristensen.com
What’s next for you on the creative front?
I’m about one-third of the way finished with my second novel, a legal thriller that draws on my fifteen years in the trenches as a corporate transactional lawyer in some of America’s biggest corporate law firms and companies.
David Clark has been a corporate attorney, specializing in mergers and acquisitions for over fifteen years. He has had stories published in Sunstone and Irreantum and has been an award winner and finalist in the Brookie and D.K. Brown Memorial Fiction Contest. David has a B.A. in American Studies from Brigham Young University. While at BYU, he served as Editor of the now defunct American Studies Forum. David also has a J.D. from George Washington University, where he served as Articles Editor of the George Washington Journal of International Law & Economics. After graduating from GW, he lived in New York City and then San Diego before returning to his hometown, Mesa, Arizona, where he lives with his wife Robin Cash Clark and their four children. David has worked at some of the nation’s most prominent law firms and was formerly the general counsel of a major international media company. The Death of a Disco Dancer is his first novel.