Thursday, June 26, 2014

E-interview with Jeffrey Round Part 2

I recently did an e-interview with Canadian author and novelist Jeffrey Round for regarding his new novel, Pumpkin Eater. Here is the second part of the interview in its entirety, with minor excisions only. 
Novelist Jeffrey Round

JKM: In reading Pumpkin Eater, I thought you did an excellent job. It’s full of smart mystery writing and complex characterization. While the main mystery is flummoxing for the reader, the real crisis for Dan Sharp lies elsewhere. Sharp is trying to adjust to his son, Ked, becoming a teenager. He is also trying to work on a missing persons case he doesn’t really want, and then is roped into working for a famous personality- again, a gig he doesn’t want. The core of Sharp’s personal life may also be in flux. He is trying to make his relationship work as well. His boyfriend Trevor may stay with him in Toronto, or may move back to B.C. The outcome of his relationship remains a question mark throughout.
JKM: I was reminded of Joss Whedon saying recently that we watch stories to see the protagonist suffer. That is, they endure and have to overcome various obstacles. The reporter, of course, disagreed with Whedon’s philosophy, but I found this philosophy interesting. Whedon even went as far as to say that they called Buffy the Vampire Slayer ‘Jimmy Stewart’ (as in from It’s A Wonderful Life), until they made her life miserable. And when
JKM: On that note, do you think that Dan Sharp suffers in Pumpkin Head? [Editor’s note: I don’t know why I wrote Pumpkin Head again.]
JR: Sic: Pumpkin Eater--though I'm growing fond of Pumpkin Head as a title. Do I have to give you credit if I republish it under that name?
JKM: I’ll want royalties, and lots of them. And could you provide an example of why you do or don’t think Sharp suffers?
JR: Dan suffers in wanting to do right by others who can't help or stand up for themselves as well as he feels he can for them. Anywhere you see Dan identifying with someone is where you will find he puts himself through the mill. He is a fixer and a sorter-out of problems, because he identifies with the struggles of others to such a great degree that you often want to tell him to relax and back off a bit. Not that he would.
JR: Two obvious examples of Dan's sufferings are in his desire to make things easier for Trevor, his boyfriend, so Trevor can stay with him despite his urge to bolt and return to his idyllic west coast life in the Southern Gulf Islands. Another is when Dan literally puts himself in the young fugitive, Gaetan's, place by lying down in the dirt inside the burned-out slaughterhouse.
JKM: For myself, I found that Sharp was getting by too lightly in the first two thirds of the story. Keep in mind that in Lake on the Mountain, Sharp more or less slid into an alcoholic Hades in certain parts. In Pumpkin Eater, Sharp is uncertain with his boyfriend Trevor. There was a hint that Kedrick may be in danger from the same serial killer who was seeking out teenage boys and whom Sharp was trying to track down. I thought for certain that Kedrick would be imperilled by the ending. Sharp was also forgetting about a lot of his commitments in his personal life, with little consequence. I am glad that this levity changed, though, particularly in the last third, with Sharp having to face up to certain realities, both emotional and familial.
JR: Clearly, you do believe in Josh Whedon's dictum that readers read and watchers watch to see characters suffer and struggle! And right you are—what interest would a book or movie, hold if a character has nothing to achieve?
JKM: I wonder—since Dan is reformed alcoholic who is now working too much at the cost of his family life—perhaps he has traded one addiction for another? Has he traded alcoholism for workaholism with much the same consequences? What are your thoughts on this idea?
JR: Since Dan had made the promise to his son to give up drinking in Lake On The Mountain, it didn't make sense for him to slide back so easily in this, the second book of the series. He is a man of his word, after all! He may be a lot of things, but wishy-washy is not one of them. So, yes, Dan's compulsion is to help others no matter the cost to himself and his personal life. That becomes his driving force, especially now that he has put his alcoholism on hold. It's a higher calling, if you like. I suspect we all have one under our everyday, mundane existence.
JKM: Also, I realized I was hungry for more of Dan's love life. He humours the idea of the gay bar scene but does not play in this scene. Thoughts?
JR: As with many people with alcoholic tendencies, Dan knows that avoiding bars is essential to staying on the right side of sobriety. That is his primary reason for avoiding that scene. In his drinking days, he would have found himself searching for love in all the wrong places, as the song goes, and as a result finding at best a temporary substitute for it while under the influence, which can be another form of addiction, whether sexual or emotional. Having a son is Dan's saving grace in many ways, because it gives him a reason to be a better person. One of the ways he tries to be a better dad is to create a good, healthy relationship for himself. Unfortunately, like many emotionally abused people, Dan tends to accept anyone who will have him rather than setting out to choose the person who is best for him. This is a learning process, and I think he is getting better at it. His son tends to tell him when he's dating users and losers, as does his best friend Donny, though we tend not always to listen to words of advice from the people around us, who often know us better than we know ourselves.
JKM: As well, what kind of a man do you think Dan needs?
JR: Dan would thrive best in a relationship with someone who is strong and secure in himself. While Dan is genuinely good natured and giving, the problem arises when he meets takers and abusers like the emotionally-stunted Doctor Bill in Lake On The Mountain. He needs someone who is happy to give in return, which is really saying he needs a well-balanced, kind and generous partner. You might think that's what we all need, but some people gravitate to partners who will dominate them because they aren't attracted to someone who plays fair in love, whereas others don't want equals because they're looking for someone to pander to their needs. It's all in the balance, but as we grow and evolve so do the needs we place on our relationships to provide one kind of companionship over another. But then again as a writer I'm looking for the dramas and tensions in people's lives more than the way things are made easy for them.
JKM: Alternately, what kind of guy does he think he need? 

JR: I think Dan would agree with my assessment, though it might take him a while to get to the point where he will figure out who is right for him, as opposed to the partners who make him feel good because he thinks he can fix their lives. He is still in the I'll-Fix-That stage of partnership, taking on orphans and foundlings because he feels sorry for them.

JKM: In your charming letter to the reader, you indicate a fondness for Dan, his son Jed (sic: Ked), and other characters in Pumpkin Eater.
JR: (Keep in mind that letter was meant for prospective reviewers of advance reading copies and will not be found in the general edition.)
JKM: When you devised the first book, how far did you envision the series going after The Lake On The Mountain?
JR: I quickly grew fond of Dan and his family while writing the first book, but at the time I did not envision a series. (In fact, I never set out to write mysteries at all, comic or serious. In both cases, the idea more or less thrust itself on me.) After the first book was done, I kept going back to Dan in my mind the way you might repeat words a good friend has said that ring true with you. When another mystery scenario presented itself, I first tried to cast it in the Bradford Fairfax mode (a series I was already much further along in), but it wouldn't stick. Keep in mind Brad is my lighter side, whereas Dan tackles the darker aspects of my imagination. A novel about paedophilia did not present itself well in a camp vein, which is how I see the Fairfax books.
“After the first book was done, I kept going back to Dan [Sharp] in my mind the way you might repeat words a good friend has said that ring true with you.”
JKM: As for other characters, do you have any favourites? Mine was Jags Rohmer, due to his complexity as a rock star who has much simmering under the surface. Oh—and once again, I must protest, as I did when I wanted more of Zach in the Brad Fairfax series. This time I want to see more of Kedrick’s development.
JR: Ah, that's the father in you coming to the fore. I suspect you'll have plenty of that to dwell on in your personal life in the years to come! As for favourite characters, I always enjoy Donny's point of view. He often surprises me with what he comes out with, as I see him as the voice of reason.
JR: Jags was fun to write, but I really enjoyed getting inside the head of Marilyn, the faded movie star, because she is so outrageous I could have her say almost anything and it would be believable. I also enjoyed creating Gaetan, the abused boy. He was a composite of several boys I grew up with who were equally aggressive and damaged without fully understanding why. Like Dan, I side with outcasts and the downtrodden.
JKM: Do you have any favourite scenes in Pumpkin Eater? I was particularly fond of Kedrick coming out as straight to his father.
JR: I often have a favourite scene in my books. In this case, it is the scene where Dan goes searching for the abused boy, Gaetan, in the burned-out slaughterhouse. After finding only traces of him, Dan tries to put himself physically in Gaetan's place by lying down in the dirt to feel what he must have felt. My favourite scenes in my work, or anyone else's, often have strong tactile elements to them. It probably has something to do with how physical objects and places can have strong emotional associations for me as well as for the characters.
JKM: Pumpkin Eater was set in 2008. The next novel, The Jade Butterfly, occurs in 1989. Will the series continue to move back and forth in time in this fashion? Why?
JR: As you may recall, Lake On The Mountain began in 1987 then quickly jumped forward twenty years. The Jade Butterfly does the same thing. While the prologue setting up the mystery takes place at Tiananmen Square the night of the revolt in 1989, by the first chapter we're already in Toronto in 2009. I don't seem to have much control over these things once the story is set in motion.
JKM: Full disclosure, here. Your novel has some similar elements to my first novel. You like using weather as a character—particularly, a summer heat wave. You also like writing about the moral compasses of police officers. As well, you depict characters who are pedophiles. In addition, you refer to music throughout. You refer to Tubular Bells throughout. Coincidentally, Mike Oldfield and Tubular Bells I and II were major influences on my earlier writing and still maintain a certain trance-like grip over my writing routine if I dare play this music.
JR: I'm not surprised, given my predilection for the short piece of yours I read a while back.
[Editor’s note: The horror story in question, “Glimpses through the trees”, appeared in Curtain Call: The Rolling Darkness Revue 2010.]
JKM: Thank you for having a predilection for that story. Do you yourself play music while writing?
JR: I always write to music. I use it much like a film soundtrack to help me achieve emotional states relating to the images I'm seeing in my head. If it's something jazzy, I'll play Dizzy Gillespie. For The Honey Locust, which is largely about the Siege of Sarajevo, I used a lot of dark, modern classical pieces by composers like Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki.
JKM:  While I would like to take credit and say that great minds think alike, I am curious how these elements came together. That is, did you think of them in advance, or did these elements propagate themselves the further you got into the novel?
JR: I believe atmosphere is very important in the telling of a story. As well, I am very affected by my surroundings: both weather and physical locale. The movie Babette's Feast, for instance, could never work in a place like Mexico where the sun shines all the time. It had to be somewhere drab and oppressive. So in effect the weather and the locale take on personalities, and in so doing they may well seem to be characters. Each of the Bradford Fairfax books takes place in a gay locale of one sort or another, and I need to get to know them before I write the story. Eventually, they too take on the qualities of a character. I react differently to each of them. There will be forthcoming books set in Palm Springs and San Francisco, for instance, but while I love the former, I'm not overly fond of the latter, so it remains to be seen how that will work out in the writing. I didn't consciously set out to like or dislike any of the places I use as settings, but my reactions guide me in how I tell the story, even while I can disguise it as a reaction by the characters in the story rather than portraying it as my own.
JKM: Your characters even create rules for surviving a horror movie. Some of the grisly details of the murder victims are also not far from horror tropes.
JR: As for the horror references, I use these much the same as I used the fairy tale themes, largely to set the atmosphere of this story, which deals strongly with child abuse. I think there are repressed issues of sex and sexuality in many childhood stories (for instance, think of Georgie Porgie, who kissed the girls and made them cry, but ran away when the boys came around), but on the whole I wanted to convey the sense of unease many of us experience in childhood as the world at large is thrust upon us and we must increasingly make sense of what we are being told in various stories, however they are encoded as fairy tales or moral lessons.
JKM: I’m curious. Why the horror film references? [Editor’s note: It should be noted that, in an odd cosmic coincidence, a large yellow spider crawled across the screen of my laptop just before I hit “Send” on this e-mail].
JR: I love cosmic coincidences and tend to find them in all of my stories. Zach (in the Bradford Fairfax books) is a true believer in them.
JKM: This reminds me. Are you still giving thought, in the back of your mind, about writing a horror novel someday? 
JR: I think Pumpkin Eater is as close as I am likely to get for now.
JKM: In closing, two last questions. What do you hope readers get out of Pumpkin Eater?
JR: The same as with all of my books: I hope readers genuinely enjoy the writing and crafting of the story, and all that entails. If there is a lesson, or moral, then it is that youthful sexuality should not be ignored or denied or abused. Rather, it should be carefully educated, informed and promoted as a positive element of our being that can come into play at some point in each person's development.
JKM: And do you want to give any hint about what Dan Sharp might endure next?
JR: In The Jade Butterfly, Dan is asked to find a woman who disappeared 20 years earlier in the Tiananmen Square events. In doing so, he finds himself getting involved with her brother, a Chinese diplomat who has only recently come out of the closet, but fears being forced to return to China where homosexuality is frowned upon. On the surface, it's a story of repression of Third World sexuality, though there's much more going on underneath, as always. J

E-interview with jeffrey Round Part 1

Jeffrey Round
Photo credit: Brian Liu
Jeffrey Round is a Canadian writer who likes good writing across the board and writes his own novels accordingly, whether humorous, campy mystery, compelling literary works or serious suspense mystery. His credentials include the lauded A Cage of Bones, about a model who descends into the inferno of the professional modeling world, the campy-yet-literary Brad Fairfax series (The P-Town Murders, Death in Key West and Vanished in Vallarta), and the praised literary work, The Honey Locust, which portrays a Canadian photographer’s journey and the Bosnian Conflict. Round’s newest series of books focus on Dan Sharp, a missing persons investigator. The books thus far are Lake On The Mountain (Dundurn Books), for which he won the Lambda Literary Award. The latest installment is Pumpkin Eater (also from Dundurn Books).
I did an e-interview with Jeffrey Round for Here is part one of the e-interview, with minor excisions only.
JKM: Jeff, since we have discussed your other works at length, I am eager to talk about your new novel, Pumpkin Eater, the second of the Dan Sharp series.
JR: I agree. It's a good idea to concentrate on the new book and explore it in depth.
JKM: Your protagonist, Dan Sharp, it should be noted, is a missing persons investigator with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who also happens to be a gay single dad. Can you recall the main impetus, or inspiration, for Pumpkin Head (JR—sic: Pumpkin Eater)?
JR: I'm going to lump these two thoughts together and make the leap that you are asking whether Dan's diagnosis was the impetus for the new book along with his being a single gay dad. In fact, I like using Dan's illness and fatherhood as a means of exploring the extremes of his character, but they were not the impetus for the story. There were a number of factors that contributed to the story's genesis, but only tangentially. First, the burning of the real life slaughterhouse that Dan explores in the opening scene of the book was an incident that stood out in my mind (though that was not arson, as it is in the book) largely because I once posed there for a modelling shoot in the early 1990's (One of those photographs is on the back cover of A Cage of Bones, coincidentally.).
JKM: Where was the slaughterhouse in real life?
JR: The slaughterhouse was at Keele and St. Clair Ave. in the city's west end, now the site of a swank new condo. It's pretty much where I said it was in the book, but there was no arson involved, not even a suspicion.
JKM: What was another inspiration?
JR: Another was the death of a friend to breast cancer not long before I began writing the story; she became the inspiration for the character Domingo once the writing got under way.
JKM: This friend who passed away from cancer inspired the Domingo character—I'm sorry for your loss. What similarities exist between Domingo and this real-life person?
JR: The woman who inspired the character was a long-time friend, so I knew her pretty well. She, too, was a lesbian of colour, and had a passion for what we might call psychic phenomena, though she didn't consider herself intuitively gifted in the way Domingo is. Nor would she have used any such abilities in an invasive way, however well meaning, as Dan feels Domingo has done, and which is why he distanced himself from the friendship a number of years before her return to his life. Oddly, I did not want to introduce this aspect into the Dan Sharp stories (it's all through the Bradford Fairfax series, via Zach), but eventually felt it would be appropriate so long as it did not become an overriding theme.
JKM: And what kind of cancer did the real-life person have?
JR: As with the character in the story, my friend had breast cancer and died of it in her fifties.  
JKM: What was another factor that contributed to the story's genesis, albeit tangentially?
JR: Other than that, a chance reading of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a copy of which I found on the sidewalk several years ago, gave me a sense of how brilliant the horror genre can be (of which this book [Pumpkin Eater] contains elements, though it is a mystery.) In general, however, I dislike the assigning of genres to books overall. I think of Shelley's book as goth lit and the Dan Sharp books as literary noir, but those are just fun tags. A good book is a good book. I hate the sort of thinking that says one category is by nature superior to another.
JKM: Were you on the Danforth when you found this copy of Frankenstein?
JR: I was just south of it on a residential street near my home in Leslieville. I like how people carefully present their used books in the hopes they will find new homes rather than throw them out.
JKM: How do you feel about the final result that is Pumpkin Eater?
JR: I never let a book go (out of my hands) until I am satisfied it is the best it can be and, usually, the book I am writing at any given time is the book I love most during that period, though I seldom reread my books afterward for fear of finding them not being as good as I remember. I just hope that others will find them as rewarding on a first reading as I do while writing them, which is as close to a first reading of our own books as any writer is likely to get. 
JKM: We’ve talked about your other novels—from impressive literary feats such as A Cage of Bones and The Honey Locust—to fun romps such as the Brad Fairfax series. The Sharp series is interesting new territory. It’s grimmer than Fairfax, certainly, and has tropes of the mystery genre.
JR: When people ask about the two series side by side, I always remind them that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Twelfth Night, and probably felt no need to favour one over the other. Sometimes you want to listen to Richard Strauss and at other times Adele, just as sometimes you want sushi and at others you might crave a slice of pizza or Cordon bleu.
“When people ask about the two series side by side, I always remind them that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Twelfth Night, and probably felt no need to favour one over the other. Sometimes you want to listen to Richard Strauss and at other times Adele, just as sometimes you want sushi and at others you might crave a slice of pizza or Cordon bleu.”
JR: It's also intriguing to note the way things are discussed in the different “genres.” Where the word “trope” in mystery writing denotes something that might be defined as a convention, in more lofty, literary circles a “trope” has connotations of being a cliché best avoided at all cost. I don't think Shakespeare worried about such things.
JKM: At times, I was reminded of the grittiness of Ian Rankin’s Detective Inspector Rebus series. Have you read any Ian Rankin?
JR: I have read two Ian Rankin books, one just recently, the other a few years ago, some time after I wrote my first mystery. What I think Rankin does well is keep things moving and pages turning. There is seldom a dull moment in his books when it comes to pacing. It's interesting to note that Rankin was a punk musician, whereas my musical background is classical (though these days I'm a musical omnivore.) Rankin's forte is a basic chord progression with lots of force behind the notes (I'm talking about his writing, not his music, which I haven't heard), whereas my preference is for subtlety and complexity, interspersing force with intimacy, grittiness with fun. I'm not saying Rankin isn't capable of that, but I don't find it in his writing and I don't believe it's his intention to write in that fashion. For me, grittiness is an embellishment, not a default colouration.
“...My preference is for subtlety and complexity, interspersing force with intimacy, grittiness with fun.”
JKM: For you, where did Dan Sharp come from and, hence, the genesis of the series?
JR: Dan Sharp comes, literally and figuratively, from Sudbury. If you know Sudbury, or at least knew it when I was growing up there as a pre-teen, you would find the backbone of Dan's character as it was being formed by the environment and the people in his past. Sudbury is a mining town and, back then at least, it was full of the grit you speak of. It can still seem very bleak and oppressive, being surrounded by a ring of mostly barren mountains. (The most likely theory is that it lies in the impact crater of a meteorite.) While it was lacking in culture (though some might call illegal drugs, rock music and hanging out at shopping malls a form of culture) I loved growing up there. It was very multi-ethnic, especially with Europeans who fled in the aftermath of WWII. Although the skin tones were mostly variations on white, I heard a lot of different languages spoken and ate a lot of non-WASP food for an Anglo-Saxon kid. Now there's a theatre and a publishing house, but there was nothing like that when I lived there. Dan was the sort of kid I went to school with, and would have been drawn to, and he would clearly have been working class, though we would never have made distinctions like that. There were some pretty tough kids there, and others who may have been abused. I had friends whose parents were alcoholics; I recall a girl named Shirley who had a boy's haircut and wore dungarees and who came to school looking alternately frightened and angry; another girl named Pelka, whose father emigrated from Yugoslavia and who drank battery acid to try to kill himself. I knew that world and mingled with it every day at school. I never thought any of them odd—merely interesting or dull, friendly or dangerous. Nor did I ever look down on any of them.
JKM: What’s the first thing you imagine when you think of Dan Sharp?
JR: Strength under pressure. He excels when someone needs him.
E-interview continued in Part 2.