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 dailyxtra.ca. 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.