Jeffrey Round is the author of The P-Town Murders, soon-to-be released Death in Key West, and the upcoming The Honey Locust.
1. What made you pick Key West as a location for your novel?
I work a lot through sheer inspiration, both in the planning and writing stages, and tend to go with my instincts. While I was still writing The P-town Murders, the first book in the Bradford Fairfax mystery series, I had already sensed that Key West would make a good second location for Brad and his gang. (Keeping in mind, of course, that all the books in the series are based in and around gay resort towns, so that leaves only so many choices.)
2. The plot of Death in Key West has so many interesting and unexpected twists. Were you ever surprised at the direction the story took as the plot developed, or did you have a general plan or ending in mind when you began?
I’m often surprised where a book will take me, both geographically and creatively, even while I try to plot its course as strictly as possible beforehand to minimize writing time. In the case of mysteries, however, the need to create secondary characters can suddenly assert itself as the protagonist finds himself in a challenging situation and I find myself needing to invent a way out of the dilemma. Frequently, the personality of a secondary character will dictate where the plot goes. For instance, Jim’s friend Lindsey is a rebel and social refugee, hence her home at the wildlife preserve on No Name Key. Having Brad look for Jim there gives the story an added twist. (There really is a No Name Key, by the way.)
3. Did the Bradford Fairfax series originate with a single book idea, or did you envision it as a series from the beginning? Do you think of each book as a unique entity, or do you write with the plots of subsequent installments in mind?
I think the correct answer is that both the book and series originated with the character of Bradford (named after Bradford St. in Provincetown.) I was in Provincetown, sitting in a Jacuzzi, when I looked up and saw a pair of binoculars trained on me from a house across the way. At that moment, I envisioned a character being spied on and shot at, etc. Out of this came the seeds of the first book plot, which later developed into the idea for a series.
As for a series, I disliked TV sit-coms as a teenager because the characters never grew or changed in any noticeable way. To me they didn’t seem real or, if they were, then they were boring. I decided my characters would change and develop like real people over the course of the series. The most obvious example of this is how Brad comes to terms with his relationship with Zach. It’s a struggle for him on many levels, and thus becomes the catalyst for change. I purposely use that tension in the books, but had to plan it carefully over the course of the first few story lines.
Sometimes, an off-hand remark in one book can become a larger piece of the puzzle in a subsequent book. For instance, a brief mention in The P-town Murders of the murder of Brad’s former work partner gave me the inspiration for a major segment of the action in book three, Vanished In Vallarta. At the time of writing the first book, however, it simply seemed an unimportant fact I had no intention of using again.
In the long term, the series (which I initially envisioned as six books, while leaving open the possibility for more) is heading toward a grand conclusion of sorts, bringing together many smaller pieces of a puzzle I’ve left lying around in earlier books. This will address such questions as “Who is Grace?” and “How did Box 77 (Brad’s agency) begin?” In the larger sense, it will also address the issue of a personal legacy: What do we leave behind when our lives are over? Although the agency’s aims are non-violet, this is an issue Brad frequently grapples with in the course of his work for the recondite security organization.
4. How does writing a series differ from other types of writing you have done? Have you encountered any particular challenges while working on a project of this scope?
Creating a mystery series was one of the most liberating things I’ve done in my writing career. I think it would be fair to say I perfected my comedic voice in this series, as well as proving that writing need not be labor-intensive. Before the series, I wrote three literary novels, each of which took five years to write and each of which provided its own logistical challenges. The P-town Murders took just over five months to complete. Because mysteries tend to work on a formula (even when you subvert that formula or refashion it after your own ends, as I like to do), proper planning and plotting are essential. I’ve since applied that thinking to my “non-genre” work, and now find the writing much quicker, though still not as quick as writing a mystery.
5. Opera is referenced quite a bit in the novel. Was opera one of the inspirations behind Death in Key West, or did it just sort of work its way into the narrative during the writing process?
The latter. Although I had the character of James Vanderbilt in mind from the start, it was only after I began writing that I discovered Jim was an opera singer. Until then, he was just a spoiled, obnoxious rich person, even though I wanted him to be sympathetic. Giving Jim an artistic temperament made his behaviour much more excusable, even admirable, in a perverse way. People are more inclined to forgive your lapses of behaviour when they think you have an artistic temperament.
I usually write with music in the background and at the time I was going through a bel canto opera phase. Adding the musical component was fairly straightforward once it became clear Jim was a singer.
6. Was there any one character or person in your own life that inspired you to create the character of Bradford Fairfax?
The Peep spying on me in the Jacuzzi was key, though really it was Provincetown that created Bradford Fairfax. All during that trip, I encountered people I later reinvented for the first book. For instance, the lesbians who run Coffee Joe’s in The P-town Murders were modeled after two real-life women who ran P-town’s most successful coffee shop. Walking around town one day, I photographed a man who looked like what I thought a villain should look like. (Watch out when I have a camera in-hand.) He later became Hayden Rosengarten, the wealthy entrepreneur at the heart of the mystery. The next day, I saw two men jogging on Bradford St. and decided one of them looked like Bradford Fairfax. When you’re inspired by real life, you don’t have to do as much research.
7. Did you spend any time in Key West in preparation for writing this novel? If so, to what extent did your observations of the real Key West influence the setting of the novel?
I lived briefly in Key West in the ’80s, then still very much in its heyday as a gay Mecca. Although it has since gone into decline, the Key West I describe is strongly influenced by my memories of that time when Tennessee Williams was still alive, Calvin Klein would show up on his yacht, and the drag queen Divine lived just down the street from me. The Lighthouse Estate, a prime setting in Death In Key West, was modeled on the Lighthouse Court, the most famous gay resort of the day. It still exists, but is no longer gay.
In the winter of 2004, I felt I was ready to start writing Death In Key West. At that point, I hadn’t been back to KW in more than a decade. I decided to go for New Years, hoping I might somehow get myself invited to a party that would provide material for the book. Little did I know, the entire city becomes a party on New Years, with mass celebrations in the street, which gave rise to the scene where the drag queen Sushi descends on Duval St. in a giant ruby stiletto. As with The P-Town Murders, much of this book is a mystery grafted onto the diary of my actual trip. Even the incident with the rattlesnake on the key highway was real.
8. Were there any particular books or films from detective or mystery genres that influenced you as you were working on Death in Key West?
I hadn’t read many mysteries before writing one because I held a literary snobbishness about "genre." That trait is now nicely exorcised from my personality. These days, I particularly enjoy Agatha Christie’s Poirot books. I love her humour and her talent for creating memorable characters. The cleverness of Christie’s plots is timeless, though other aspects of the writing feel dated. For fast-paced action and truly surprising plot twists with a current feel, I greatly admire the writing on the BBC series, Spooks, aka MI5 in North America, most particularly in the first four seasons.
9. Early on in the novel Bradford draws a connection between Jim and the character of Cio-Cio-San – "The loss of both a lover and a beloved child. Unendurable sorrow. Death." In what way does Cio-Cio-San inform the character of Jim? Was Puccini’s opera a particular influence when you were writing the novel?
Without giving away too much of the plot, Madama Butterfly is an echo of what Jim endures in love and life. He identifies with it. I, on the other hand, am not a big Puccini fan (Tosca is the only Puccini opera I care for.) Like Jim, however, I too am a devoted admirer of singer Maria Callas. (For my essay on Callas’s collected studio recordings, see: http://www.jeffreyround.com/TwentyYearsOnDisc.php.) I’m far more inclined to the work of modern German opera composers like Richard Strauss and Alban Berg, with a little Richard Wagner thrown in now and again, though Wagner seldom comes in bit-sized portions.
10. There are many musical references in the book, particularly opera. What role does music play in your own life?
I’ve played various instruments all my life, beginning with the clarinet, then graduating to saxophone, guitar and piano. I’m also a composer. You can find an example of my music on my website, here: http://www.jeffreyround.com/araby.php.
11. Could you discuss your inspiration behind characters such as Yuri, Allie, Mad Dog, or DeWayne Darker? How difficult was it to create such a distinct and memorable voice for each one?
Both Yuri and James Vanderbilt were based on real-life people I met during that trip to Key West at New Years (though neither of the characters in my book would be easily identified as the men I’d met.) The other three, like Lindsey Loman, were purely and simply inventions with no basis in reality. With the smaller characters, the names just come to me, as do their personalities and even their accents, often fully formed. I’m thrilled to hear they’re distinct and memorable.
12. What do you hope readers will take from your book?
While much of my writing tends to be “weighty” (my next Cormorant book, The Honey Locust, takes place during the Bosnian War), this series is my way to exercise my lighter side. Which is not to say there are no moral lessons here: the primary one, to me, is that it always pays to do the right thing, even if no one else knows you’re doing it, or even if you’re mistaken for doing the wrong thing. Act with integrity. It’s your conscience and your karma that you’ll have to live with for the rest of your life—and possibly your next life.
On the other hand, I write these books so people will laugh and forget their troubles and take life a little less seriously. (Considering the state of the world these days that can be difficult.) If the series inspires you to travel to the magical locations I set the stories in, then good. And if you happen to meet the love of your life while traveling, even better. Despite all appearances to the contrary, life can be fun, is the message. We just have to remember to enjoy it. Sometimes I think I write these books to remind myself of that.