Set in the early 1990s amid the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of an underground gay scene in Moscow, Paul David Gould’s debut thriller Last Dance at the Discotheque for Deviants is a heartfelt elegy to being young and to a Russia of a more hopeful era. Last Dance was published on 8 June by Unbound.
Hi Paul! Congratulations on the very recent publication of your debut novel Last Dance at the Discotheque for Deviants! How did you celebrate your big day, and what plans do you have to promote your novel and meet your readers?
Hi Wendy! First of all, thank you for inviting me to this Q&A. It’s great to be in touch. To be honest, I didn’t celebrate that much on publication day itself. Thing is, the ‘publication experience’ has taken place in stages over the past year, from being accepted, to meeting the publishers, to seeing the book cover design, seeing proofs and then copies being mailed out to early buyers ahead of June 8.
As for what plans for promotion – how long have you got? I won’t list everything, but I’ve done a few Qs&As now, and next in my diary are a couple of bookshop events (reading an extract, signing copies and cracking open a few bottles) in Brighton, where I live. Oh, and I’ve even had a couple of T-shirts done (copied from the fans of A Little Life).
In fact, I’m planning to wear one of those T-shirts at the ‘Big Indie Book Launch’ at Foyles in London on the evening of July 5. Now you ask, I’m getting nervous about that event, because it’s a big deal getting a gig at Foyles’ flagship store on Charing Cross Road – and I'm not sure how often a debut novelist would normally get to take part in an event there. In this case, it’s a joint event with 12 authors, hosted by Literally PR, and my publishers had to pitch to get a slot in the event. I’m sure it’ll be buzzing, though apart from media and publishing types, I don’t know who’s going to turn up!
Where did the inspiration come from for Last Dance?
I spent a few years in Russia in the early 1990s, and it was an extraordinary time. I really was a witness to history – I was there for an attempted military coup, for the collapse of the USSR, for the shift to capitalism. Russia was opening up to the West back then – the opposite of now – and becoming a ‘normal’ country. Or so we hoped.
What came first for you – setting, plot, characters or something completely different, and which aspect did you find the most challenging?
Oh, it was the setting that came first. No question about that. This was a project (and I originally tried to write it as a film script, by the way) that I had in mind specifically to capture that time and place. It had to be all about Russia in the early 1990s. The characters came next, I’d say, based loosely on people I knew – I say ‘loosely’ because they’re often ‘composites’ of people I met or versions of myself.
And I’d say plot was the most challenging thing. Plot is underrated in literary circles, and I’ve heard the term ‘plot driven’ as if that’s a lower form of fiction. Well, sorry, but plot is really hard: it can’t be just a series of incidents; every detail needs to fit together and serve a purpose, be that as a clue or a red herring or foreshadowing later incidents.
That said, it’s also challenging to write dialogue that isn’t too on-the-nose, that doesn’t just tell the reader what they need to know. And it’s VERY hard to avoid clichés or to evoke emotion without just stating ‘he was sad, he was elated’ – as the oft-repeated advice goes, you need to ‘show, not tell’.
You employ four narrators: three young, gay men - who are all navigating life in 1990's Moscow and experiencing the city’s underground gay scene with all its secrecy, debauchery, fear and joy - and a middle-aged woman. Which character did you find the easiest to write, and why?
Funnily enough, the character I found easiest to write was the 50-something mother of one of the young, gay men! I found myself channelling some grumpy, indignant Yorkshire woman – maybe because I’m a grumpy, indignant, 50-something Yorkshireman!
But as for the three men: Jamie is a more confident, more laddish version of myself, while Kostya is a more naïve, timid, unworldly version of myself. For each of those two, I tapped into my own experiences. Dima, on the other hand, is an unattainable out-of-my-league superhunk, nothing like me!
Last Dance feels very personal and authentic, and your attention to detail and historical context are precise and arresting. Is your novel as nostalgic as it feels, and is the final version what you imagined it would be?
Ah, thanks Wendy! Yes, I’ve tried to incorporate lots of detail that I remember or recorded in my diaries at the time. And yes, it IS nostalgic, like you say, a kind of elegy for youth (I’m in my fifties but looking back to my twenties). It’s nostalgic about university days, but also an elegy for the lost hopes of a better Russia.
The final version has changed from what I originally wrote, though the ending is the same and the plot twists (no spoilers here!) are the same. What changed came during a very exacting edit and has made the novel better, I feel.
You speak very highly of the Faber Academy creative writing course – can you tell us why you found it so transformational to your writing?
There are a lot of creative writing courses out there. Some of them focus on poetry or short stories or literary criticism – which is not what I wanted. The great thing about Faber’s Writing a Novel course is that it ISN’T about poetry or short stories or studying Jane Austen – it's about writing a novel. You’re taught by established novelists, with talks by editors and agents, and you’re expected to have a novel in progress, and to present extracts from it to your coursemates, all of whom offer plenty of advice.
Last Dance at the Discotheque for Deviants is one of the first releases from Unbound Firsts. Can you tell us a bit about your path to publication, and about how you secured your agent, Gordon Wise at Curtis Brown?
I was lucky to get signed by an agent like Gordon Wise, and my experience wasn’t typical, I have to admit. He found me through the Faber Academy course, which is well regarded in the publishing industry. Otherwise, the path to finding an agent can be quite laborious, with lots of internet searching, writing emails and sending synopses. However, even with Gordon on side, Last Dance was rejected more than 30 times. And the feedback from the publishers who passed could be contradictory: some said it was too literary, some too commercial; some said Russia was too topical, some said too niche.
I’ve lost count of the redrafts or rewrites I did – something like 12 drafts in all. The first redraft I did was self-imposed; I said to myself, "Let’s make all the improvements I can think of" – which included everything from description to dialogue and tweaks to the plot. But then Gordon also pushed me to do a further rewrite – incorporating some additional plot tweaks – before he was ready to submit it to publishers.
More rewrites followed in response to the publishers’ rejections. In one case, I was asked to re-order the chapters and to change the ending - I did all that, and they still passed on it! Even after the novel was accepted by Unbound, I did one really exacting rewrite with an editor who questioned every plot point, every bit of dialogue. That was challenging – but the result was an improved product.
As for finding the right publisher, it was Gordon who steered me towards Unbound’s UK-wide competition to find unpublished novelists of colour. On top of that, I applaud Unbound for being supportive of writers from working-class backgrounds, who are underrepresented in the media and publishing.
Which novelists have influenced your writing, and what debut novels have you enjoyed?
Ah, I hesitate when I’m asked about writers who influenced me, because I don’t want to sound like I think I’m as good as them! Still, I would say the late Andrea Levy, who used four viewpoint characters in Small Island. I would also name-check Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, because it’s about rejection and a love that cannot be. And from Russian literature, I’m a fan of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, because it captures everything from the big picture of war to the minutiae of domestic discord. Debut novels I’ve enjoyed recently include Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
Looking ahead, Paul, what can we look forward to from you next?
I’m working – very slowly – on a second novel that fuses memoir (that is, my upbringing as a mixed-race boy who never knew his black birth father) with a fantasy about making music in Motown in the late 1960s.
And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2024?
1) To write a novel, you’ve got to want it bad: it’s not enough to think you’re ‘literary’ or artistic. It’s not enough to be talented or well read – it's a LOT of work.
2) Don’t be afraid to make it autobiographical. Lots of first novels are.
3) Don’t get it right; get it written: 10 pages of clichéed babble is better than a blank page – and you can always rewrite it, and you will need to!
4) Know your characters; believe in them and the story they have to tell.