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Edited by Judy Quinn -- 1/24/00
First fiction' grabs controversy--and readers--in the land of Latter-day Saints

A Great Mormon Novel

You wouldn't think a novel about gay issues, with the title Dancing Naked, would sell well in Utah, the key state for the conservative Mormon community, which lately has been in the news for opposition to same-sex marriage initiatives.

But that's been the case for the first novel by 35-year-old, Mormon-raised and now Washington State resident Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner. His book tells of a Mormon professor's confrontation of his past and his homophobia, following the "dancing naked" death of his 15-year-old son, who accidentally hangs himself during an aut rotic act.

The book is currently the #1 title in the state on Amazon.com and a strong seller at the state's chain stores as well as indies (it's the #2 seller, just behind Harry Potter books, at Salt Lake City's Sam Weller Books). Van Wagoner won a Utah Arts Council Publication Prize for his book, giving his publisher $5,000 toward publication, and late last year Dancing Naked was named the 1999 Utah Book of the Year, the first award presented by the newly established Utah Center for the Book.

Thanks to this award attention and growing sales, Salt-Lake-based small press Signature Books, which took the book after larger trade houses passed, just went back to press for 1,000 more copies, doubling the October 1999 release's initial 1,000-copy outlay.

Signature publicist Ron Priddis told PW that sales velocity of Dancing Naked is looking like that of 1990 Signature fiction hit and backlist performer The Backslider, Levi S. Peterson's saga about a sexually frustrated Mormon cowboy, which has sold 20,000 copies to date.

Both books reflect Signature's mission, to provide both fiction and nonfiction that address Mormon cultural issues and life more critically than might meet the approval of the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Priddis noted that the Church-affiliated Deseret bookstore chain is not carrying Dancing Naked. Contacted by PW, Deseret vice-president of retail Roger Toone confirmed that the chain indeed did not stock the book, although he said it would be special-ordered for any interested customers. "We're not banning the book by any means, but we don't think it has great sales potential," he said.

But apparently there are more than enough liberal Mormons in Utah, as well as non-Mormons interested in their state's dominant religion, to support Signature's books. Online bookselling particularly benefits from what might be surreptious buys.

"Signature d s a good job of giving a voice to writers who necessarily wouldn't get one in the peculiar environment we live in," said Barbara Hoagland, co-owner of the Salt Lake City indie bookstore King's English. She's already sold about 100 copies of the book, "quite a lot for a local author. Much of that's because of the wonderful reviews it has received. And, of course, being a bit controversial helps, too."

The Salt Lake Tribune began the buzz by praising the book as "a great Mormon novel" as well as one of the best books of the year. "It explores middle-class American culture through a prism of Mormon sexual misunderstandings," praised the newspaper.

Literary agent Jenny Bent, of Washington, D.C.“based Graybill & English, is now shopping paperback rights to the novel on behalf of Signature. The growing out-of-state reviews of the book confirm the book's potential appeal to all readers, not just those in Utah: "Dangerous and edgy, it is brutally honest in its exploration of the human spirit," praised the Bloomsbury Review.

Bent is also looking for a new home for a collection of short stories by Van Wagoner. And there's another Van Wagoner novel to come that's already making the Mormon church none too happy. The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported that a church official expressed displeasure to Van Wagoner after he heard about a reading of an early draft of The Hammerfest Fraternity, which centers around Latter-day Saints missionaries serving, as Van Wagoner did, in a Norwegian town in the Arctic Circle. The problem? It seems Van Wagoner has his missionaries "baptize" dead people to meet an annual conversion quota.

It's all part of Van Wagoner's intended comic tone, but may end up creating more of the controversy that is fueling sales of his current book.

A 'New' Author for Morrow

It was hardly the hype that surrounded the unmasking of the Anonymous author of Primary Colors.

And it certainly wasn't the major national news he first caused years ago with that Monkey Business with Donna Rice.

But former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart's revelation on Today and in USA Today on January 12 that he is John Blackthorn, author of the political novel I, Che Guevara, already has brought media interest and an online sales spike (it jumped from below #55,000 into the top 1000 on Amazon.com) for a book that was initially given scant attention, despite the publisher's heavy hints about its pseudonymous author's high profile. Morrow is now adding a second printing to the book's originally modest first run to meet this demand as well as reorders from bricks-and-mortar stores.

Although Hart will not tour for the book and is out of the country for the next month, he did as much media as he could in the days following the revelation, including an interview with Fox News Channel's Paula Zahn. On January 17, Time ran a review of the book with a newly taken author photo, a prominence that hardly would have been given to the unknown Blackthorn. Entertainment Weekly also ran a last-minute interview.

Hart wrote a previous Blackthorn novel for Morrow, 1999's 10,000-copy seller, Sins of the Fathers, which imagined a plot by Cuban refugees to blow up the 40th-anniversary celebrations of the Cuban revolution held that year.

Hart, now an international lawyer, used the pseudonym in order to write freely on Cuba and Castro, topics that, as it turns out, are particularly hot right now, thanks to the current interest in the fate of Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez.

"We thought that Cuba is always of interest and would help the book, but we couldn't have planned this," said Morrow publicist Tara Brown about the opportune, if inadvertent, tie-in.

Morrow convinced Hart to shed his pseudonym to provide a publicity hook for the launch of the new book. While the secret was originally given exclusively to Today and USA Today, Talk magazine let the cat out of the bag when Hart revealed his authorial alter ego in an interview with Arianna Huffington in its February 2000 issue, on newsstands now.

And PW spotted the value, if not the true author, of the book early on: in our November 8, 1999, review, PW noted, "Blackthorn's political drama is compelling and believable, written with style, clarity and conviction."

But how much more mileage Morrow will get out of its newly revealed author remains to be seen: Brown said the publisher planned at press time to still use the Blackthorn name on the two books Hart already has written and has no new (as yet) Blackthorn books under contract. --J.Q.

Booksellers Embrace'Heart'

Why not start the new year with a novel by one of our finest new voices?" suggests John Evans of Diesel bookstore in Oakland, Calif., in promo material for the January/February Book Sense 76 list.

His pick? Jane McCafferty's first novel One Heart, an October release from HarperCollins. Although copies in print are still in the low-five-figure range, the novel has sold well enough even before this attention to be in its second printing, with continuing and steady weekly orders. (At press time, and since an earlier version of this article ran in our e-mail PW Daily, two more printings have been ordered.)

McCafferty's tale of the explosion of secrets in the lives of two middle-aged sisters working as cooks at a boarding school/summer camp in upstate New York, earned "a number of passionate votes," said Book Sense's Carl Lennertz. Another early champion was Prairie Lights buyer Paul Ingram, who recently touted the book on NPR as one of his favorite books of last year.

Evans calls the book "a deeply compassionate, truthfully imagined tour de force of carefully rendered detail, dialogue, and humanity."

For acquiring editor Marjorie Braman, now v-p and executive editor at HarperCollins, the novel's success is the gratifying fruition of her initial and enthusiastic encounter with an early draft of the novel more than four years ago.

McCafferty took some time to develop the novel and was awarded a NEA fellowship (based on a partial manuscript), which helped her finish it. McCafferty's work has received accolades in the past: her debut collection, Director of the World & Other Stories, won a Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 1992. That book, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press (McCafferty currently teaches at nearby Carnegie Mellon University), is still in print. --J.Q.
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