I'm having far too much fun for a writer's festival, but then this is no ordinary writer's festival. This is the Authors' Village at Palm Springs Pride, where I spent the afternoon yakking with Violet Quill co-founder Felice Picano (Twelve O'Clock Tales), celebrity photographer (and life partner of director John Schlesinger) Michael Childers (Icons and Legends) and Mark Abramson (California Dreamers.)

Later, with Michael, I attended the book signing at Just Fabulous for Scotty Bowers, whose Hollywood tell-all, Full Service, literally tells all when it comes to Hollywood stars and their sexual proclivities. Can't wait to read it!

Following that, a celebrity fundraiser for HRC (Human Rights Campaign) working for LGBT rights in America had me walking the lawn of a Palm Springs mansion along with stars Zuzanna Szadkowski (Gossip Girl) and Andrew Rannells (The New Normal), as well as looking around to find Lorna Luft (aka Liza Minnelli's sister-sorry, Lorna!), who was said to be somewhere in the vicinity.

Maybe things will calm down tomorrow. I hope not!


Howdy, all!

I finally made it to Palm Springs. I'll be featured in the Author's Village Sat, Nov 3 (1 pm) and Sun, Nov 4 (3 pm.) Drop by and say hello!

Weather is glorious (as always.) Can't wait to meet some of my favourite writers, including Michael Nava, author of the Henry Rios series.

This event is hosted, as always, by the generosity of Q Trading.


I thought I missed the era for practicing civil disobedience on Castro. Turns out I was wrong. I was in a bar when the Giants won last night and a crowd spilled out onto the street and stopped traffic for an hour, while performing acrobatics and tossing toilet paper rolls over power lines. It was a happy crowd, I might add. Elsewhere in the city there were bonfires being lit and pandemonium ensued.


What frills, what frocks!
What furs, what rocks!
That French champagne!
So good for the brain!
(Cole Porter)

Thanks to The International Festival of Authors and the fine folks at Dundurn Books for a very swell party at the Harbour Castle Hilton tonight.


If you can picture Jimi Hendrix playing a mandolin and fronting the Pat Metheny Group then you have a vague idea of how the Hamilton de Holanda Quintet comes across. de Holanda's impressive virtuosity was on display last night at Toronto's Koerner Hall in honour of Brazil National Day. Thanks to my friends Peter and Arnon of Melohawk for the treat.


It's a memorable day when you can hear a "new" Barbra Streisand song recorded in 1971.

This is an outtake of a Randy Newman song from the Stoney End album, still one of my favourites, made back when her voice was effortlessly brilliant sounding:


The single track will be followed up next month with Release Me, an album of outtakes.


While the world went to the London Games, contrarion that I am I went in a distinctly different direction: Ville de Quebec. All signs of Quebec's claims to being a Distinct Society were vital, present, and free.

For those who don't know, Quebec City is Canada's Florence--a tiny jewel of Old World charm, beauty and culture. With its cobblestone streets, stone chateaux, ancient fortresses, horse-drawn caleches, and historic battlefields, the city is vibrant and alive.

On any given evening in summer you can take in a variety of street performances, an outdoor showing of Cirque du Soleil  beneath the girders of an underpass, and Robert Lepage's famed Le Moulin a images  ("Image Mill".) This spectacle of light and sound is an impressionistic portrayal of 400 years of the city's history projected across 81 grain silos down on the waterfront.

That's the equivalent of 25 IMAX theatres, if you're trying to visualize it. It's very grand. Very impressive. And free.

Catch it if you can.


If you're a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Johnny Lee Miller, or Mary Shelley, you might want to run to catch this: http://www.cineplex.com/Events/NationalTheatre/Home.aspx

Only one more showing this week.

It's brilliant and proves just how powerful words can still be when used well.

Spooks--Death of a Series (13 May 2002--23 October 2011)

Every once in a while, a TV series grabs me by the throat. Mostly, I give in rather than resist. But I expect a lot in return. Fans of the show know that the BBC's Spooks can boast of some of the finest writing, acting, and directing on TV. For ten seasons, the story followed the professional and private lives of a group of MI5 operatives, with one man, Harry Pearce, the head of counter-terrorism, at its core. The show enjoyed a healthy following at home and abroad.

For seven years, the series got better with each season. Season eight remained strong, even while veering slightly off course to concentrate on CIA involvement in the UK. (The show was re-branded as MI-5 for American audiences, who seem to prefer things a bit more literal and a lot more obvious. I give you the disastrous Little Britain USA and the American Queer As Folk, if you need further proof.)

I was glad when series eight ended, though, hoping one lesser year would not turn into two, and praying the American flirtation would soon be over. In fact, far worse lay just ahead. One of the series' trademarks is the sudden and unexpected endings that befall some of its more popular characters. This, we are to believe, is what actually happens to spies. While it was maddening to see them go, the leavings were usually spectacular in dramatic terms.

The challenge, of course, was to fill those roles in a way that the previous agents would not be missed too much. For eight years, they hit the bulls-eye every time. Tom became Adam became Lucas; Zoe became Fiona became Ros. And you held your breath, because it just got better. With Peter Firth as Harry Pearce, the one holdout year after year, the series had casting magic.

Then disaster struck. Someone at Kudos, the show's producers, must have decided the show needed sprucing up. They hired a writing duo whose process is best described as schizophrenic. Asked to describe the process, the writers revealed their preference for a tag-team approach. Each takes turns writing five pages before passing the script along to the other. Even more revealing, at least to me, was their idolization of Joss Whedon, the new king of Hollywood blockbusters. From subtle and layered, the show suddenly became little more than an action cartoon.

The new writers seemed to think it great fun to take liberties with the characters in ways that appalled and dismayed anyone who had enjoyed the careful building of each agent's psychological profile and background. The adage seemed to be, when in need of tension turn one of your best characters into a villain. Preferably one who has not been set up in any way to show such traits previously. The inept desecration and dispatching of Lucas North's character as a terrorist infiltrator in season nine was not the first nail in the show's coffin, but it would prove its most unpopular with many.

In the show's final two seasons, cheap tricks and shock tactics abound: improbable plot turnarounds, an over-reliance on technology, and action spat out at machine-gun speed. Tellingly, characters are relegated to stating the obvious to one another to keep the story rolling: "Hey, Tariq, better answer that phone. It might be the bad guy calling." Because we might not be able to figure it out, otherwise, right?

Where previously plot resolutions came from character, suddenly they were the result of "new" technology that sounds sketchy at best and unbelievable at worst. Realistic threats are ditched in favour of dime store hobgoblins, like fake bio-toxins and imaginary ethno-genetic bombs. Even the erstwhile Peter Firth, as director Harry Pearce, the only actor to make it through all ten seasons, looks unconvinced by much of what he has to say.

Never before has such a great series gone so thoroughly and regrettably down in flames. It would be akin to putting the sequel to A Streetcar Named Desire in the hands of Sacha Baron Cohen. Who would do such a thing?

Kudos and BBC, you have a lot to answer for.


Jeffrey Round is a writer of contemporary fiction, equally at home in different genres. His first two books, A Cage of Bones and The P-town Murders, were listed on AfterElton's Top 100 Gay Books. His most recent Dundurn title is Lake On The Mountain, a literary-thriller and first in the Dan Sharp Mystery series. He is author of the Bradford Fairfax comic mystery series, whose style he describes as "a cross between Oscar Wilde and Agatha Christie." He is also a film/stage director, television producer, and songwriter. Jeffrey’s Blog, A Writer's Half-Life, has been syndicated online. Visit his website: www.jeffreyround.com.

High Tea and Anti-Launch

Thanks to all who attended my High Tea Garden Party and Anti-Launch for Lake On The Mountain this weekend. I'm grateful for your support and for making it such a fun afternoon. Loved all those gloves and hats, ladies and gentlemen! Special thanks to Brenda Rantala-Sykes for coming all the way from Sudbury just to cut the crusts off sandwiches ;) and of course to Master of Ceremonies David Tronetti for his inimitable contribution. You rock!


It was my week to hang out with some very Cool Canuck Chicks. First up was Luba Goy, one of our national icons, whose Luba Simply Luba was on at the Berkeley Theatre. Her one-woman show gave us an afternoon of laughs and joy, Luba-style, as La Goy traced her roots from a German work camp, where she was born and where her parents had been incarcerated, all the way across the waves to Canada. Touching and true. And it didn't hurt to tipple a glass or five with Luba and friends afterwards at the Distillery District.

Next I had the great pleasure to hang out with Farzana Doctor, author of Six Meters of Pavement, currently short-listed for a Lambda Award. We got together mid-week at the 40th anniversary party of Dundurn Books in the Arts and Letters Club. The Farz and I yucked it up in front of the camera and, amid all the frippery, managed to carry on some pretty feisty conversations about the Recently Single status we've both acquired. If we both go on to gain a Bit Notorious status as well, it won't bother us one bit.

Finally, my week was complete with a long-awaited visit from Canada's reigning Queen of Crime, Gail Bowen, on tour with hubby and long-time companion (44 years!), Ted, while promoting Kaleidoscope, Gail's thirteenth Joanne Kilbourn mystery from M&S. Always the gallant host, Ted stirred and shook a bucketful of martinis, while Gail and I yacked on (and on) about the current state of Canadian publishing, and then some. Not only is she one of the great mystery authors, she's also a terrific gal to know and hang out with!


This month I signed a contract with Dundurn to publish Pumpkin Eater, the sequel to Lake On The Mountain, my first Dan Sharp mystery. I love working with the folks at Dundurn. They're a great group of dedicated professionals.

I'm also currently a quarter of the way through a third book, The Jade Butterfly, which opens in Tiananmen Square the night of the massacre. Jump forward 20 years, when Dan is challenged to find a woman who disappeared in the fighting, landing him squarely on his own gritty Toronto turf. If you think you know Toronto, follow Dan around for a bit. You don't know Toronto! Even I'm a little shocked by some of the places he ends up.

Although I've been longing to get back to more traditional literary writing, I really enjoy writing in this breezy, jaded voice. Judging from the readers' notes I'm getting, I can tell others like it too. I think of these books as my "dark" mysteries, as opposed to the lighter Bradford Fairfax mysteries where mostly all's well that ends well. There's more to come in that series too, as I've got two more books just waiting to reach the starting gate.

When that happens, you'll be the first to hear about it. After me, of course.


Here is my Bookends interview with Justine Lewkowic, taped last month at Sleuth of Baker Street, Toronto's crime specialty bookstore. I felt right at home among the thousands of mystery titles and Sherlock Holmes memorabilia.

Justine was fun, insightful and probing in her questions, and the occasional curve ball she threw at me, as we discussed my newest book, a literary thriller entitled Lake On The Mountain  (Dundurn Press), which takes place jointly in Toronto and Ontario's Prince Edward County.

While it's not hard for me to talk about the writing process, I don't often get asked about my personal life in relation to where the work comes from. Like many writers, I tend to disappear behind my writing and my characters, so readers often assume they are one and the same. Not so. In this case, I welcomed the opportunity to be candid on topics that other interviewers might shy away from.

Among other things, Justine and I discussed sources of inspiration, anger management therapy, honesty, sex and sexuality, and growing up gay in Sudbury (my hometown.)

Have a look and leave a note to say what you think: http://bookendstv.com/.

Sherlock vs. Downton Abbey

While everyone else has been engrossed in Downton Abbey, a new version of Upstairs, Downstairs, I've been absorbed with the 21st century reinvention of Sherlock Holmes as Sherlock, easily one of the most fun, well-written series in a decade.

I watched season one of Downton Abbey because of Maggie Smith, always a joy, and cast here as the formidable Dowager Countess trying to ensure that her granddaughter marry a "suitable" husband. I loved Smith and enjoyed the series, but not enough to return.

My reluctance comes from a suspicion of soap operas, that strange hybrid that is neither drama nor opera. I want things to build, explode and resolve in one episode, rather than have to return week after week to discover what Annie, Fanny and Manny were up to since I last saw them. If I want long, drawn-out sagas, I simply ask my friends what's been going on in their love lives and drink tea while pretending to listen.

Sherlock was created by writer/producer Steven Moffat, and writer/actor Mark Gatiss, who plays Sherlock's troublesome brother, Mycroft. The pair worked together on the revised Doctor Who series. (Nothing like the old one. If you haven't seen the recent version with Matt Smith--a comic genius--don’t write it off.)

The BBC has long been known for pairing actors, especially in comedic roles. Think ofJennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous, Aidan Gillen and Craig Kelly in Queer As Folk (before it got turned into a soap opera-with-an-agenda in the US version), David Walliams and Matt Lucas in Little Britain. And now here are Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock and his sidekick John Watson. The pairing doesn't get much better, either as actors or characters.

While reinventing nearly everything wholesale, it's to the producers' credit that they've remained charmingly true to Conan Doyle's books, beginning with A Study In Pink, a sly retelling of Holmes's first case, A Study In Scarlet. The result is a delirious rewriting of the original stories, as when The Hound of the Baskervilles comes back as The Hounds of Baskerville, an experiment in genetic modification and then some.

For serious fun, this is as good as it gets. Here is Holmes in A Scandal in Belgravia, going off to Buckingham Palace draped in a bed sheet, as angry and imperious as a queen at being forced to do something he doesn't want to do. Elsewhere, he informs two young girls asking him to investigate their grandfather's disappearance that, contrary to what their parents may have said, "People don’t go to Heaven; they’re put in a special box and burned," while John Watson looks on, appalled by his friend's social ineptness.

Of course, it's the twenty-first century, so no one believes two men living together are not gay. And who is to say they’re not? The oddball pairing of Holmes with Watson in the 19th century may simply have been a case of arrested sexual development. Here, the gay subtext, which is more often ubertext, gets some of the best play in the series, as the two are constantly mistaken for a couple. In fact they are a couple, whatever may or may not go on after the lights go out. In any case, the love between the two men is palpable, if unspoken, from show one.

(Initially, A Study in Pink was shot as a one-off rather than a series pilot, but was later re-made. While it's been decried in some quarters as being low budget, it's still quite good. In fact, the original ending is far more moving than in the remake, with Watson standing pensively in the shadows after having rescued his new friend, Sherlock.)

As with the Hardys, Frank and Joe, and my Fairfax series, featuring Brad and his blue-haired amour Zachary, the series really is about the pairing of the two men. The crime and the criminals come second. But make no mistake, these crimes and their solutions are dead clever. They have to be, for that is the essence of Sherlock Holmes.

Still, it's the interplay of Holmes, all reason, and Watson, the long-suffering that makes everything work. The pairing propels us along with them, envious and yearning to share in their adventures for real, while wishing we had friends as true as these. That’s the secret of Sherlock.

Jeffrey Round is a Toronto writer and filmmaker. His most recent book is the mystery-thriller Lake On The Mountain, from Dundurn Books. Visit: www.jeffreyround.com.

Cable Me Fabulous

It was my week to be a star on cable TV, thanks to the exposure generated by my book, Lake On The Mountain. There it was, the first day of spring, and I found myself a guest on daytime Toronto, Rogers' morning talk show. Host Val Cole was gracious and very comfortable to chat with, which was fortunate as this was a live seven-minute segment with no rehearsal! I managed to be both conscious and alert the entire time as we chatted up the book, so good for me.

Later that week, my house was taken over by funny gal Liz Stembridge and crew (of one, but what the heck!) from the show foQus with Deb Pearce. (Those Rogers folks have got to get it together with their upper and lower case issues.) Liz was a one-woman riot in a very small space (my living room.) While discussing the book and the recent interest from SONY Pictures, we also managed to come up with a small but telling cameo for Liz, should I by any chance get to write, direct and cast the film. (Hey, you never know! If you're curious, it involves Liz wearing an old housedress and swinging a couple of cats by the tail. Animal rights people, back down. They'll be rubber cats!)

And finally (or maybe not), I got to spout my stuff at Sleuth of Baker Street, Toronto's renowned mystery specialty bookstore, newly located at 907 Millwood Ave. There, amid the works of every great mystery author, not to mention several of Sherlock Holmes's deerstalker caps, I got to chat with Justine Lewkowicz, the intrepid host of Bookends. Fortunately, this is an edited show, as I blew my very first question: How do you know when to reveal the clues in a mystery? For me, it's a purely intuitive process, so I didn't have an answer. Turns out that was my answer. Things loosened up and got a bit easier after that. I'm a writer, after all, so I like to think about what I'm saying before I say it, but once I start I can just keep rolling along.

Jeffrey Round is a Toronto novelist and filmmaker. His most recent book is the mystery-thriller Lake On The Mountain, from Dundurn Books. Visit: www.jeffreyround.com.

Like Mother like … Son?

My mother just published her first piece of professional writing at the age of 82. The article, entitled "The Fun in Fungi," was given a two-page spread in the March 2012 issue of More of Our Canada magazine.

My mother started collecting ceramic mushrooms more than a quarter century ago. The pieces, life-size, lifelike reproductions, were made in Lantz, Nova Scotia. Originally designed for museums, word spread of their artistry and uniqueness, and collectors sought them out. My mother is one of those who now take pride and pleasure in their collections. She owns more than one hundred.

As far as publishing goes, I suppose you could say my mother is a late bloomer, but it's probably more accurate to say she has a unique sense of timing. I remind myself that this is the same woman who returned from a trip to New Mexico some years ago to announce she'd just taken a ride across five counties in a hot air balloon. Apparently, it was something she'd wanted to do for years. While I'm happy to have writing in common with my mother, I doubt I will add ballooning to the equation.

When she showed me her article, my mother told me how proud she was of her writing skills. It was a good, straightforward telling of her love of collecting, along with a short history of the ceramic pieces. In fact, I was as much impressed with the writing as the fact that she'd got it published in one of her favourite magazines.

Still, the writer in me wanted to know more. Was there anything she'd do differently? I asked, knowing my own fondness for textual revisions. She thought this over a moment then said, yes, in fact there was something she would have done differently: "I’d send them a different picture of me."

"Why?" I wondered, thinking the photo an accurate portrait of her standing in front of her display case. She hesitated. "Well, I’d send them something a little younger," she said.

Ah, but of course. There was that family resemblance again.

Jeffrey Round is a Toronto novelist and filmmaker. His most recent book, Lake On The Mountain, was published by Dundurn Books in January. Visit: www.jeffreyround.com.

When SONY Pictures Comes Calling...

Recently I got a bit of exciting news. One morning, early, I found a nondescript email sitting in my in-box. It was so nondescript that I almost overlooked it. It turned out to be from a producer's assistant at SONY Pictures. He was inquiring about the film rights to my new novel, Lake On The Mountain, published last month by Dundurn Press.

My first inclination was to think it a joke. It was too soon after publication for anyone even to have heard of it, I thought, but on re-reading the note it seemed genuine enough. Besides, it's a good book with a solid storyline. Why should it be so hard to believe that someone might want to turn it into a film?

At that point, unlike others who might have jumped up and down, then shouted from the rafters and quickly Facebooked all three-thousand of their closest friends, I did what any good WASP would do: I went into Shut Down Mode.

First things first, I told myself. I began to fold all the clothes lying scattered around my bedroom. (If you've seen my bedroom -- not that many of you have -- you'll know that entails a lot of work.) Then, once I'd obsessively folded and refolded everything, I went downstairs and washed my dishes till they squeaked. All that in order not to think about what I’d just read.

For me, Shut Down Mode occurs when emotions threaten to overwhelm. It "doesn’t do" to get too happy, too sad, too overjoyed, too…well, too anything. Think of the Queen of England. Have you ever heard her let out a really good belly laugh? Not bloody likely, though I’m sure she's dying to. It's not that I don't feel things. Or that Liz doesn't either, but we both find it necessary not to be seen to be Out of Control. Disaster could strike. And besides, we might look ridiculous.

I have a friend who once told me I needed to learn to celebrate my victories, small and large. "Because frankly," said he, with a tone that was all gloom and doom, "as a writer you probably won’t see too many of them." A good pessimist, he knew whereof he spoke.

I just shrugged. I didn't understand this "celebrate" mentality.

"You just go right on to the next thing as though nothing happened," he said. "Why not stop and enjoy it?"

"But what's the point of celebrating something that's already over?" said I, a good realist.

Of course, the truth is that stopping to celebrate would mean admitting I had an emotional attachment to the outcome, something both Sherlock Holmes and I won't easily admit to, if we admit to it at all. "Cry at the birth, Rejoice at the death," A.J.M. Smith advises with poetic whimsy in The Wisdom of Old Jellyroll. When it's over, it's over; let it go.

It would also be an admission that maybe nothing will come of this email inquiry from SONY. And I would have no control over that, either. Somewhere in my subconscious, I must have decided it's better not to get excited, lest that excitement later prove to have been misguided, like a beauty queen stripped of her crown for louche behaviour. If you don't care about the potential outcome, you can't be robbed of it when it turns out to be nothing.

I admit it's a pretty grim outlook, but it feels safe. And, as a result, my laundry gets done really well, when I bother to do it. Just in case, however, I've made one small concession, one celebratory gesture to acknowledge this episode. I have allowed myself, if only in my mind, to start casting the film. "Build it and they will come," right? Or in this case, the film corollary: "Cast it and they will shoot."

In the meantime, now that my clothes are folded into a reasonable semblance of order, I can get back to my writing -- the one place where I really am in control.

Jeffrey Round is a Toronto novelist and filmmaker. His most recent book, Lake On The Mountain, was published by Dundurn Books in January. Visit: www.jeffreyround.com.

Sunny California

On my way to sunny California, where it was 6 degrees Celsius recently. What's up with that? No matter. I'm on my way there to brainstorm a new dramatic series, not lie on the beach.

Remembering Artist Steve Walker

Dying at 50 shouldn't seem so terrible. After all, you've had the best of it--your best-looking years, your randiest sex years, your most fun years. Maybe even your most productive years. Yet isn't that the time of life when you expect to sit back and coast on your accomplishments, the decade you did all that hard work for?

I don't know how Steve Walker would have viewed his fifties. He'd achieved success on his own terms: his paintings were commanding respectable sums and he was living off the profits. He must have felt gratified that his work was accepted and appreciated. But Steve wasn't the type to stop and think about glory. I sometimes think all he really wanted was to be left alone to paint.

I first encountered Steve in 1990, when he was Artist in Residence at the People With AIDS foundation, and I was an editor for Xtra! Magazine. I noticed two things about him right off--one, he was very attractive in that blond, Nordic way that normally didn't appeal to me, and two, he didn't acknowledge the presence of others, even when you stared right at him.

Steve's fame grew through the '90s. The gay community was quick to claim him, even if Toronto's arts community was not. His iconographic paintings of young men appealed to the "body beautiful" mentality of gay men at the time, even as AIDS was taking its greatest toll in North America.

His work appeared on books covers and in calendar reproductions, attesting to its popularity. Despite Steve's outward success, I often saw him working in a clothing store on Yonge Street, looking embarrassed and out of place. Artists still had to pay the bills, after all.

I eventually came to count Steve as a friend and enjoyed talking to him when we ran into one another, however infrequently. We had things in common: both loners, obsessively devoted to our artistic disciplines, and both somewhat inclined to suffer fools badly. Read: anti-social. Yet that was only on the surface.

Steve wasn't the sort of person to approach you, though he was receptive if you approached him. If you had something engaging to say, he would reciprocate. I once introduced him to a friend, another painter, thinking they'd have things in common. My friend tended to the florid when discussing art. Steve was more businesslike, not given to artsy statements. He was a "mood" man. He didn't want to hear about "beauty" and "grace" and "style". Fireworks resulted.

I admired Steve's art and artistic process. He created a gay cannon with a form of super-realism. His images were indelible and easily identifiable as a "Walker." Other artists were envious of his success and quick to criticize his limitations. He seemed to paint the same piece over and over, in endless variations: young men, touching or not touching, in casual clothes, with beautiful skin tones in cool environments.

Mood was everything in a Walker painting. Well, until you stopped and noticed just how accomplished his craft was, how striking the composition and the Rembrandt lighting. "How is that original?" other artists demanded. Steve hated such questions, hated the assumption behind them that his art was somehow "less" because he painted in a tradition that included artists like Alex Coleville and Andrew Wyeth.

That was another thing we had in common: feeling isolated from what was in vogue in Toronto's arts scene. Steve seldom saw himself in a painting, while I seldom saw myself on page or stage. We both set out to change that, each in our own way. Finding greater acceptance elsewhere was partly what led Steve to Costa Rica, a bit of Latin paradise we both loved. Steve made that love a reality. I, on the other hand, continued to endure the snow at home, complaining about the weather while making frequent trips south.

The last time I saw Steve, I'd asked if he had anything appropriate for the cover of my upcoming book. I went to his studio and we mulled through his work, but nothing felt right. It's possible he was holding out on me, hiding something that would have been perfect. He was wary of publishers. His work had graced the covers of a number of well-known books and he was dissatisfied with the reproduction quality.

He showed me one of the recent publications. To my eyes it was beautiful. He shook his head impatiently. "Look at the colours!" he insisted. "They’ve leached all the warmth out of it." Then he showed me the original and I saw what he saw: a minute variation in flesh-tones, but enough to make a difference overall.

Our conversation drifted. Steve seemed relieved that I wasn’t going to press the issue of finding a cover painting. We drank and talked. I told him about a comedic passage I'd just written about opera. To my surprise, he began to recite the lyrics from Vissi d’arte, Floria Tosca's impassioned aria about living for art, living for love. I surprised him by reciting the same lyrics in Italian. (I had a greater advantage, having translated them for my book, Death In Key West.)

In all the years I'd known Steve, I had no idea he was an opera queen. "But I dislike jazz," he confided. That was Steve, always defining, always grading things. But it made sense. Jazz is freeform whereas classical music is highly structured, not unlike Steve's paintings. Yet the admission seemed to contradict his physical good looks, his quick laugh when you said something genuinely funny. Steve looked more like the guy who should be at the centre of the party or in the middle of the dance floor, soaking up the latest dance tune. In fact, Steve had no use for such things. It just wasn't him.

I left that day full of plans to visit him in Costa Rica. It never happened. I got busy; he got hard to get hold of. I last heard about him several months ago at a party. A friend of the host, another gay artist, had been raging over the fact that a Steve Walker painting had just sold for $30,000. All I could think was, "Good for Steve!" Curious, I asked the name of the artist who had been so angered. I'd never heard of him. I later looked up his work on-line and was amused to find second-rate reproductions in an Attila Lukacs style. Hardly original.

"You know why people prefer my work to photographs?" Steve once asked me. I nodded. In fact, I did know. Because it took time to create that Steve Walker look. You can erect a building in a month, given the manpower and the tools, but art takes time. And time is one thing that artists never have enough of. Oddly, Steve never complained of feeling that he wouldn't have enough time.

In an interview some years ago, Steve told writer Michael Rowe that the one thing he hoped for, what he felt an artist could aspire to, was to "chronicle the times in which he lives, and leave some sort of indelible record behind when his own time comes." Steve fulfilled his part in the bargain. Now it's up to the pundits. Or just maybe it's up to us, his appreciative friends and fans, to keep Steve Walker's images and his uniqueness alive.

Jeffrey Round is a Toronto novelist and filmmaker. His most recent book, Lake On The Mountain, was published by Dundurn Books in January 2012.

Under the Havana Moon

Every few years, I fall in love with a city. Last time it was New Orleans. It wasn't love at first sight, though. I had to go back a second time to be sure. Despite Katrina's lingering devastation, it was an amazing place. The time before, it was Paris--all that splendour. So it makes sense that a cross between the two would do it for me.
Havana did.
The city's contradictions defy you at every turn: vibrant and laid-back, squalid and beautiful, rundown yet visually awesome, poor but very, very safe. Fascinating, is how I describe it.
It helps to have some Spanish at your command, as well as a reliable companion. I had both. At the airport, I met an Australian surfer. I'll call him Charlie Dingo. Charlie has a nose for adventure. He's what's known in the vernacular as a "chick magnet." Despite our disparate backgrounds, we clicked. It was like having an instant friend, only with no history. Thanks to Charlie, I met some very fun Cubans. Thanks to me, Charlie knew what they were saying. Together, it guaranteed a great time.
I like my hotels clean, spacious and quiet. El Paseo Habana in Vedado offers that and more. It's a 15-minute walk from La Rampa, a lively cultural area, and a leisurely hour from Habana Vieja, the city's main tourist destination. If you're looking for a beach, however, don't stay there. It's considerably farther from Playas del Este.
Unlike me, Charlie is not a hotel guy. He wanted una experiencia verdad--the real thing. So we set out to find him a casa particular, the new capitalist trend for Cuban families with a spare room to rent. Basically, they're government sanctioned B&Bs.
In my experience, Cubans are not naturally friendly and out-going. They're reserved, like Canadians. It's only as we went from casa to casa that we got to meet some locals. An offer of coffee here, an invitation for rum later on--and suddenly you have a social life in Havana. It can be very rewarding.
Walking is the best way to see the city. There's also a good $5 double-decker bus tour, but it's pretty fast and you won't catch much of the English commentary--grammatically correct, but spoken at breakneck speed. Just enjoy the sights then go back later and visit whatever looked interesting.
Mastering the currency might prove difficult. It bewildered me. First, there's the CUP, or moneda nacional. It's the only legitimate currency. No one wants it. The alternative is the convertible peso, or CUC. If someone seems to be asking for "cook", that's what they're talking about. It's also called "divisa", which makes it really confusing. That and the fact that the two currencies are vastly different in value.
Visitors make the mistake of thinking there are two price listings for everything and that locals pay less. Not true. If the price is listed in CUP, anyone can pay in CUP or CUC. If you pay in CUC, however, you're paying more. When the price is in CUC, there's no choice: everyone must pay in CUC. But does it really matter whether you're paying thirty cents or a dollar-twenty for a beer? Charlie might disagree, but then Australians drink a lot of beer.
As racist as it sounds, many Cubans will try to cheat you. It's a national pastime and done without malice. Ask the price first and always count your change. I've even been short-changed in the CADECAs, or Casas de Cambio, while exchanging money. On the other hand, you can always bargain for things. Charlie was better at it than me, so I let him do the "no entiendo" thing and waited to see how far he got before I entered the game to nail the price.
One of the things that may surprise you is how literate Cubans are. On Calle Obispo, Old Havana's famed market street, I came across five bookstores, as well as a gigantic used-book stall. At first I put it down to a lack of cable TV, but after visiting several Cuban homes I realized this wasn't the case. What they don't have is Internet. WiFi is all but non-existent, so everyone reads. If you're desperate, some hotels offer on-line access for up to $10 CUC per hour. It's slow, so don't expect to spend all your time checking Facebook.
Nightlife can vary. During the week, clubs tend to close around midnight, though you can always find something happening on the street, legal or otherwise. (Charlie was always good for that.) The police tend to harass the locals rather than the tourists when anything untoward happens, but keep your wits about you.
There are plenty of nightclubs. Some are fancier than others. Nearly everyone gets dressed up, however, and Cubans really know how to dance. As for music, you'd be just as entertained by stopping to listen to a free concert (you'll hear them, especially on weekends) as you would by paying to go to a jazz club. The free concerts are very impressive. In another country, some of these people would be top dollar talent.
There is almost no visible LGBT culture, and Cubans are both sexist and macho in their manner and speech. On the other hand, once you get to know them, they will happily trot out their cell phones and show you pictures of their friends and ask you to guess which of the beautiful girls are real and which not. Again, it can be confusing.
There's one big LGBT party every weekend, but it moves around to avoid being busted. Both film director Pedro Almadovar and designer Jean Paul Gaultier have been netted in raids at gay gatherings. (Presumably, they survived.) You might meet someone on the Playas del Este to tell you where to find these events, or sometimes at Cine Yara on La Rampa. I'm not a beach person so I didn't venture that far. Besides, I didn't go to Havana to spend all my time doing what I do at home.
In fact, my primary reason for going was to check out the possibility of setting one of my Bradford Fairfax comic mysteries there. Luck, and Charlie Dingo, were with me. I had some of the best adventures I've had in a long time, and most of it quickly spun itself into a plot long before I boarded my plane home. So if you're a fan, keep your eyes open for Fairfax International: Havana Club in the future. Once I get around to writing it, of course.
Hasta la vista, baby!

Dame Agatha and the Body in the Library

Mystery writer PD James found her output "astonishing". Queer as Folk creator Russell T Davies thought her remarkable enough to include her as a character in his revival of the beloved Doctor Who series. And, oh yes--she’s also the best selling author of all time. No small feat for a woman with no formal education. I'm talking about the demure Dame Agatha Christie, writer of more than eighty books and plays, not all of them mysteries.

I tend to go on Christie binges, reading three or four titles in a row then putting her aside for a while. Truth is, I don’t want to run out. I turn to her when I want good fun, a bit of entertainment and common sense. She’s a delight when she’s good, a wonder when she’s great, and at the very least amusing--or tedious, depending on your outlook--when she is neither.

She was frequently brilliant, yet not above publishing dreck. (And happy to admit it, if only in her private diaries.) She was not a literary stylist and her characters can at times be downright annoying. Her true brilliance lies in baffling her reader's attempts to solve her crimes, with endless variations in so doing. It's sometimes possible to figure out the "who" of her whodunits, but it's close to impossible to figure out the how and why, even when the clues are laid out before our eyes.

You can't read just one Christie title and categorize her. If I were to create a Christie primer, these half dozen titles would be indispensable: The Mysterious Affair at Styles (both Christie's and Hercule Poirot's first appearance), The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (a classic, possibly her most audaciously brilliant work), And Then There Were None (also brilliant, though less likeable because none of the characters is sympathetic), Crooked House (one of Christie's favourites among her titles), Three-Act Tragedy (see my note below), and Curtain (Poirot's last, and perhaps most surprising case.)

Fans of the soft-spoken Jane Marple will note I haven't mentioned any of her books here. That's partly because I've read more of those belonging to Poirot, but also because I am less astounded by her cases, however much I enjoy her sly character.

Here's a roundup of titles I've read recently, with a possible rating from one to four stars.

Cat Among the Pigeons (1959) (**)

This is one of those hybrid Christie novels--half-mystery and half-thriller--which don't completely satisfy either genre. It's from what I call her late-middle period--post-war, but pre-sixties--where she seemed for a while to have become bored with writing. Some of her books from that period take on a rote quality, though the genius isn't completely missing. In a diary entry in the 1930s, she claims to have got tired of Poirot, calling him an "ego-centric creep", and uses him less well. In this case, he pops into the story's latter third to solve the crime without doing much other than uttering an occasional comment on morality. The plot involves a trio of murders at an all-girls school in England. This is preceded by a revolution in an imaginary country called Ramat, and involving a secondary plot about missing jewels. The story is further marred by unnecessarily having too many characters to keep track of, though the solution, as usual, is delicious.

The Body In The Library (1942) (**)

A somewhat more cohesive effort, this story features Miss Jane Marple, that quietly observant spinster whose understanding of human nature serves her well in her frequent forays into accidental sleuthing. Christie intended this as a parody of mystery genre cliches, thus the book's title. When a dancing girl turns up strangled in the library of an English gentleman, he claims to know nothing about her. His wife, a friend of Miss Marple's, cannily invites Jane to do some sleuthing on her own. A second body turns up not long afterwards. Apart from Marple, none of the characters is really compelling, and the book feels quickly tossed off, as though Christie couldn't wait to be finished with it. The story is further marred by having not one but four professional sleuths investigating the murders, though we know Marple will solve it. Sorting out the police inspectors gets tiresome, and the solution to the murders feels a bit arbitrary.

Murder at the Vicarage (1930) (***)

An early Christie, and the first to employ Miss Jane Marple, that diligent do-gooder with the pessimistic outlook on her fellow human beings. This is clearly a book Christie put a good deal of thought into, as all the loose ends tie up ever so neatly in a rather impressive way. A much-loathed magistrate is murdered in the vicarage at St Mary Mead. Suddenly everyone in the vicinity comes under suspicion for one reason or other. It takes Marple's all-seeing eye and quick wit to put the pieces in place, which she eventually does to good end. Plenty of fun characters and outrageous quips.

Three Act Tragedy (1934) (****)

An early Christie mystery featuring Inspector Poirot, which The New York Times called "Uncommonly good." I agree. By now, Christie has got very adept at her variations on a "locked room" murder. This is one of her best. The writing is smooth and the mystery is tight, though she drops her clues liberally throughout. It has the added attraction of a colourful, headstrong female character nicknamed "Egg." Poirot is already on the scene when a mild-mannered clergyman is poisoned at a cocktail party. At first, he can discern no motive and thus has no lead to follow. When at last he grasps it, he's shocked by its audacity. You will be too.

Jeffrey Round is a Toronto novelist and filmmaker. His most recent book is the mystery-thriller Lake On The Mountain, from Dundurn Books. Visit: www.jeffreyround.com.

Slow Down--Turtles Crossing: On the Perils of Publishing

Jan 11, 2012

The baby has arrived. (Yay!) Well, sort of (Boo!)

Yesterday, I got word that my newest book, Lake On The Mountain, was printed. Now all I have to do is wait for it to be delivered from the printers to Dundurn's warehouse--via turtle express. There are few industries where the adage "Hurry up and wait" applies more surely than in publishing.

Let me take you through the various steps (if you have the patience, that is...)

Year zero. First, you get this fantastic idea that already looks like a book in your head. It's brilliant. So brilliant, it burns a hole right through your brain. So now all you have to do is write it. Right? Sure, go ahead.

Year one. Writing a book can take time. A lot of time. And that time varies according to your expertise and dedication to the cause. My first book, A Cage of Bones, took me five years to finish. It's a coming out story that takes place in the fashion industry in Europe. (Nope, not a horror story, despite its title.) It was an industry I was familiar with, having worked there briefly before I started writing. The research was done, but learning to craft my story took a bit longer.

Year two: Being in a rush to get published ("Hurry up and wait!"), I started contacting agents before the book was finished. To put it politely, none of them had time for a first-time author knocking on their doors with an unfinished manuscript.

Year three. I had a messy but mostly coherent script. So I started contacting publishers instead ("Hurry up and wait!"), so sure was I that they would want my book. A word to the wise: selling an unfinished book is nearly impossible unless you're Stephen King.

Year four. I had exhausted every known publisher in Canada--seems no one wanted to take a chance on a newbie. ("Hurry up and...hmmm, give up? Never!") Time to start looking at international publishers.

Year five. Once I got a publisher interested (in England of all places--who would have thought the wide world would be interested in my book?), I still had to polish and revise the book to their satisfaction.

Year six. Only then was I offered the golden ring: a publishing contract. All of which took another year, and the publication date was still a year away, and all the time I was growing older...

Year seven. Happy endings! Despite everything, my book came out and sold very well at home and abroad. In fact, it's still selling more than a decade later. Was it worth the wait? You bet!

So this recent book (my sixth) was a bit of lark, all things considered. By now, having a track record and knowing how to structure a story, it takes me less time to create and sell my work. So only three years later, here I sit, waiting to hold my new book in my hand. Okay, I guess I can wait another week. In fact, I'll have to.

On The Way

Jan 1, 2012

You've probably heard about El Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage in France and Spain. For more than a thousand years, people have walked The Way to reach the Cathedral of Compostela in Galicia, where tradition holds that the remains of St James are buried. Like me, you may not have thought a film could be made about it, but it has, and a good one. Also like me, you may have resisted reading about the Camino because of its religious overtones. You can put those fears aside.

With one smart move, Martin Sheen and his other son, Emilio Estevez, have recouped the family name. Sheen stars in, and former-Brat Packer Estevez wrote and directed The Way. As one character slyly tells another in the film, "Our children are the best and the worst of us." Say no more.

If you know anything about me, you'll know I don't promote religion or politics, the isms and schisms that divide, divide, divide. I don't like dogma of any sort. On the other hand, I will promote things I believe in. If you want to talk spirituality or human rights or good government then, Hey! I'm your guy.

The Way is not exactly drama, not exactly documentary, but neither is it mockumentary. It has no special effects, no car chases, no intricate plots, and no manufactured romances. The credits are mercifully short. In fact, it's unlike any other film I can recall. If anything, it's a mirror, plain and simple.

There is a story of sorts: a man loses his only son, goes to France to collect his body, and along the way things happen. But what's it about? you may wonder, as did I, but not for long, because you'll get wrapped up in watching. In a way, this film is a parable. It's The Wizard of Oz on a deeper level. A man has a quest, but doesn't know he has a quest, and while he walks The Way he reluctantly falls in with three companions, each of who has a quest. A Cowardly Lion, a Tin Man and a Man of Straw, if you like.

Still, the meaning of the film is up to you. You can read anything into it that you like, and it will speak to you. As one character tells another, "You walk the road for yourself, only for yourself." Because what this film is about, dear reader, is you. Only you. And so, it is beautiful.


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