“The gay sensibility informs everything,” Jeffrey Round says. “We are the heroes, the villains, the victims — we are the ordinary, everyday person on the street.”
Round is talking about the world he created for Brad Fairfax, the star of a multi-novel project he’s been working on for half a decade.
The novels started slowly — publishers were weary and reception was initially cold — but interest in Fairfax, a gay special agent with a penchant for travel, is on the rise. In fact, in the small world of Canadian queer publishing, his books are fast becoming sugar-coated, beach-read literary mainstays.
Vanished in Vallarta, the latest thriller starring Fairfax, exemplifies Round’s style, combining travelogue with adventure. Round deliberately sets his mysteries — arguably closeted literary novels — in queer resorts.
Vallarta is the third book in a seven-part series published by Cormorant Books. The series came about after years of knocking on publishers’ doors.
Rewind two decades to a younger Round. As a model in his 20s, he fled heartbreak by going overseas, eventually fictionalizing his experiences in A Cage of Bones, his first novel. Cadent, cautionary and sometimes overwrought, the coming-out story depicts a model who abandons suburban Toronto to descend into the inferno of the modelling profession.
Round admits that his love of writing got in the way when he wrote the original 1,000-page manuscript for Cage, later paring his prose down to 300 pages for marketability. After three years of rejections from Canadian houses, Round looked elsewhere, despite wanting to publish here first. Within three months, both a British and American publisher expressed interest.
It was British publishing house Gay Men’s Press that published Cage. Because the book received generally positive reviews, except in Toronto (as has been the case with most of Round’s books since, he says), Round expected publishers to pounce on his second book, gay literary novel Queerzone.
“I gave up on that one and thought ‘What I’m not getting is markets,’” Round recalls. “‘Okay, what sells? Well, books about heterosexuals sell, love stories sell, books about war sell.’”
Round started writing about a Canadian photographer who, fleeing the Bosnian War, seeks solace with her family in rural Ontario. The book would become The Honey Locust, eventually published last fall.
“When I couldn’t sell Locust, I thought ‘Where’s the market?’” Round remembers. “‘The market is the US, basically, for English-language books. Then write something for the US. Stop writing for Canada, stop writing for Europe, stop writing for here and there.’”
Round and his then-new boyfriend visited Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 2003. Round experienced an epiphany while stepping out of a Jacuzzi. He looked out the window and saw a man spying on them with binoculars.
“I flashed him,” Round says. “Then I had a flash of my own — somebody being spied on, somebody being shot at. This whole mystery unravelled before my eyes.”
Round returned home, dizzy with inspiration. Resolute that he wouldn’t spend another five years working on unsellable material, he wrote fast, finishing The P-town Murders in 18 days.
The Fairfax motif, replete with hot cops, drag queens, burned-out heirs, shady nightclub owners, tough-as-nails lesbians and literary references, was born.
Haworth Press published P-Town in summer 2007. Three months later, a larger company bought Haworth and closed its fiction arm. Later that year, Round’s agent resold P-Town to Cormorant. Publisher and editor Marc Côté asked for a series.
Ostensibly mysterious and suspenseful, the books include many rewarding asides, particularly about queer life. Round admits he sees Oscar Wilde as his ideal reader and aims to titillate, amuse and shock the dandy. Certainly Wilde would appreciate the bawdy references, depictions of well-endowed men and portrayals of the love that dare shout its name.
Round is currently penning commercial thrillers and a young adult novel set in Mexico, all under pseudonyms. As he works on about three books a year, Round doesn’t want to saturate the market.
“It’s a tough market,” Round says. “You have to write everything you can to get published and be noticed. You’re “known” for writing one sort of book, then you can narrow it down and follow that path, if you want. But why not do everything? Earlier generations of Canadian literary writers looked down on ‘genre’ writing, whereas I think it’s the new frontier. Thus, Bradford Fairfax and his ‘Neon Noir.’”
“I love doing both,” Round says of literary and genre fiction. “Obviously, the Fairfax books make me laugh more, but my idea of fun is writing a really extraordinarily beautiful passage.”
Luckily for readers, Round manages to do so in either style.
Vanished in Vallarta is scheduled to come out this June.