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4 min

The art of entertaining

Life (& death) is in the details

CAREENING CAPERS. Warren Dunford calls his popular mystery novels "comedy thrillers." Credit: (Paula Wilson)

“People who know me think his voice is exactly like mine,” says novelist Warren Dunford of his protagonist Mitchell Draper. “It’s very similar. I think he’s even more neurotic. I like to think he’s more naïve. He has to get into more awkward situations than I do. Certainly, he’s had a much more exciting life.”

Mitchell is about to embark on his third adventure in The Scene Stealer. Both Dunford’s first book, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture (published in 1998) and his second, Making A Killing, topped the gay bestseller lists in the US. The latter was also nominated for a 2001 Lambda Book Award. In The Scene Stealer, Mitchell is working as the screenwriter of an aging actress’s true story of her kidnapping. Things get creepy when the starlet, who is playing herself in the flick, is abducted again.

“For me, each book is a send-up of a movie genre,” says Dunford. “The first one is a mafia crime thriller. The second one is my version of a gothic murder mystery. And this one is a kidnapping drama. I read a lot in each genre before I write or while I’m writing to get to know all of the clichés of the genre so I can borrow them and turn them around and make fun of them while following the structure of that format.”

The Scene Stealer references work such as John Fowles’ The Collector, Stephen King’s Misery and Dunford’s previous books.

This time around, Mitchell is not only dealing with a kidnapping plot: A romance develops with a younger guy and he’s trying to write a script over which a squabbling director and starlet can’t agree. Meanwhile, his pals Ingrid and Ramir are having their own issues with their relationships and work.

Dunford will be reading at the Harbourfront Reading Series on Wed, Mar 2. He’s also part of the Wilde About Sappho tour that’s coming to Guelph on Sun, Mar 6. These events not only mark the Mon, Feb 28 publication of The Scene Stealer, but the reissue of the whole series with a unified design by his new publisher Cormorant Books.

Although he started reading Agatha Christie when he was 10 – and owns every book she ever published – Dunford isn’t really an admirer of mysteries.

“The funny thing is I find them sort of tiresome now as a general genre,” he says, “and for my books, I’ve coined the term ‘comedy thriller.’ When I hear the word ‘mystery’ it sounds really tired, mechanical, old-fashioned.”

And so he tries to add a dash of other genres – some humour, some romance – to make what he serves up more fresh and fun.

Not that he always wanted to be a novelist. When he started Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture he thought writing a book that was such obvious movie material would be his break into the film business.

Dunford grew up an only child in Mississauga and moved downtown when he was about 18 to study radio and television arts at Ryerson. The movies and TV seemed so much more glamorous than the suburbs. After graduating, he wrote scripts on spec for sitcoms and films, but all were rejected. He began writing his first book in 1992 and received more than 100 rejections before finding a publisher.

Even today, Dunford is a freelance copywriter who writes novels in his spare time. He began working on The Scene Stealer around the same time that he finished Making A Killing. His storylines are easily broken down into smaller chunks, so he’ll spend his Saturdays and Sundays working on a specific chapter or developing certain characters.

“The style of world he lives in,” Dunford says of Mitchell, “the kind of friendships he has, the kind of people he knows, does reflect what my life is like. I like to think it’s a very inclusive, diverse world…. I’m trying to honour my own reality with all of the books.”

It’s true that Dunford is well known in the world of gay fiction. He’s included in The Gay Detective Novel: Lesbian And Gay Main Characters And Themes In Mystery Fiction by American Judith A Markowitz, published in December 2004. But he says he writes for a broader audience and would like to be better known in them as well.

What’s unusual is that a Canadian is writing this type of popular genre.

“The idea that a Canadian novel could be a page-turner seems strange enough,” he says. “There aren’t that many Canadian novels that are intended to be entertaining. We obviously have great, serious literature, and some of it is quite compelling and becomes page-turners, but our culture really has not encouraged literature as entertainment yet.”

It may be fun, and people have had lots of nice things to say about them, but some critics have tried to spoil the party. For example, one reviewer had this to say about the dialogue in Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture: “It wouldn’t be so bad if the talkers offered the occasional incisive insight to break the monotony of their pop-cult knowingness, breezy irony and earnest success-craving, but they generally don’t, and their exhaustive chitchatting eventually loses much of its intended charm.” But then Ann Bancroft loved it, so there you go.

“I resent that sometimes,” says Dunford, of accusations of frothiness. “It gets my ire up because I do intend [my work] to be fun and fast, but sometimes, to me [those criticisms imply] it’s not written with care or intelligence. But to create that light effect is probably more challenging than creating something heavy because there has to be so much delicacy involved in telling the story.”

He would like to see his writing become self-sustaining, but the future will likely be more about art than commerce.

“It’s a way of me appreciating my own life and seeing my own world and telling my own version of reality,” he says. “That gets frustrating and vexatious too, but in the end that’s what art, I guess, is supposed to teach the artist, to be present and appreciate what’s here.”

* Warren Dunford reads with Hal Niedzviecki and John Lavery at Harbourfront’s Brigantine Room (235 Queens Quay W) at 7:30pm on Wed, Mar 2. Tix are $8; call (416) 973-4000. He’s also part of the Wilde About Sappho tour with Anna Camilleri, Dionne Brand, Sky Gilbert and RM Vaughan, which stops at Guelph’s Chalmers United Church (50 Quebec St) at 3pm on Sun, Mar 6. Tix are $10 advance; $12 at the door. There’s a post-reading gala for $40 (inclusive); call (519) 824-4120, ext 53147.