Jacob Fincowicz didn’t like his name. So he changed it to Jason Midnight – which he doesn’t like any better – and became a Private Investigator. But not just any private investigator. Because if Jason Midnight isn’t quite real, then how can his cases be either? Such as:
-- Why does everyone in the world with the (possible) exception of Jason want to kill George Johnson?
-- What is the identity of the demonic late night DJ who brings the spirit of Jack the Ripper back to life?
-- Why does a strange cultlike family oddly resembling the ancient Norse Gods not fear the end of the world so much as eagerly anticipate it?
-- Who is the mystery woman who keeps drowning out Jason’s private inner theme music with her own soundtrack?
-- And what is the Devil doing in charge of the Manitoba Lotteries Corporation?
Interview with John Baillie
Zumaya Publications (2005)
Reviewed by For Reader Views (6/06)
Reader Views is happy to welcome John Baillie, author of the humorous detective/fantasy novel, “Midnight’s Delight.” John is being interviewed by Juanita Watson, Assistant Editor of Reader Views.
Juanita: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today John. Would you please tell us the storyline of your new novel, “Midnight’s Delight”?
John: The book isn’t really a novel, it’s a collection of short stories. Although some characters appear in more than one story, there is no linking plotline between the episodes. They are all events in the life of Jason Midnight, North End Private Eye in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. If the book can be said to have a storyline per se, it is to portray in a manner that is entertaining and often humorous the idea that Jason is a reverse take on the usual Private Eye. His involvement in a case usually results in the introduction of new and even stranger mysteries than his clients originally came to him to solve. Jason’s role is to open wide doors of experience and reality, usually in a totally absurd manner.
Juanita: What inspired you to write “Midnight’s Delight”?
John: My wife said to me, “You’ve got to stop writing about yourself.” I used to tend to cast some literary alias of myself as the central character in all my stories, and it really wasn’t working. I wanted to write stories that mixed horror, fantasy, sci fi, and suspense, with as much humor as I could work into the mix. I decided a detective figure was the best agent I could come up with who could acceptably walk between all these worlds at once. The stories were actually written over a period of some fifteen years, and reflect different aspects of my thinking at different times, but Jason rapidly became a highly suitable spokesman for what I wanted to do. I came up with the character shortly before I moved to the North End of Winnipeg, where Jason was born and raised, and the neighborhood rapidly grew to take a role in the development of the ideas, regarding Jason’s personality, financial status, and general views on life.
However, a major influence on the development of the book came during the last ten years or so before it was published. My health began to seriously deteriorate. I was developing a tumor that eventually grew to the size of a pear in the left atrium of my heart, before it was finally detected and removed in March, 2005. This condition seriously aggravated another chronic condition I suffer from, so I grew more and more detached from being able to interact on a normal physical level as my symptoms worsened. As a result, I turned to writing more and more as a means to experience. I couldn’t do much in real life myself, but my characters could still function, and I believe I began to make their experiences more extreme as a compensation for my own growing lack of connection. Writing this book and the other material I did during those ten years became a vital aspect of reaching out to the world.
Juanita: Why did your main character change his name and become a private investigator? And how did you come up with such an interesting lead?
John: Jason Midnight was born Jacob Fincowicz, and didn’t care for that moniker, or the nickname that grew out of it, Jake the Fink. Jacob tried a number of different occupations, but none of them worked out, as something bizarre would always happen forcing him to take on the role of an investigator to deal with the matter. People naturally came to Jake with their problems, as he was a good listener, and in a strange sort of way, seemed able to help them as long as they didn’t pay too close attention to how he came to supply his usually disturbing solutions. He eventually came to recognize that he was playing a role as an agent trying to restore order to a disordered world. Someone told him this is what private investigators do in popular culture, so he immersed himself in the genre, reading everything by Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler, seeing all the film noir movies, etc. He took some formal training in a detective school, but like all his other education, this also went wrong, and he eventually struck out as a lone wolf.
His business immediately failed. Just when he was on the verge of packing it all in, believing that he could not be who he thought he should be, a strange woman arrived in his office and offered him a case that forced him to reinforce all his cliché conceptions of himself as a classic hardboiled private dick, and confirming that the new name he’d taken for himself in his new role in life was the one that had to stick: Jason Midnight.
Jacob chose that name because he felt that Jacob Fincowicz had absolutely no support in the world to become a private eye. His family would never understand what he was up to, no one he knew had ever done such a thing before or could understand why he would want to, and he also knew that on some level he wasn’t working in the mundane world or everyday neighborhood of Winnipeg’s North End anymore when he set out on this path. He had to declare himself as someone new, and the name Jason Midnight worked for him in the tradition of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. But after he had the name painted on his office door, he thought it sounded too cliché – too much like something an imposter pretending to be one of those real hardboiled characters would choose. So he doesn’t want to use his real name, because he doesn’t think that defines him adequately in his new role, but he’s also embarrassed by the name he did choose, as he thinks it’s probably a bit too cheesy. Especially when everyone in the old neighborhood still thinks of him as Jake the Fink. So now he feels trapped with both, even though they both irritate him.
It’s the sort of thing that always happens to him. He can never quite get his act together. He always feels as if he’s two personalities ,fighting it out in one body. One, the guy who just wants to be a normal neighborhood sort of fellow, nothing special, and the other, the bizarrely romantic dark agent stepping with impunity through the layers of mystery in the universe. One name keeps him grounded, and the other opens every door to experience.
I came up with the lead because I created the character at a time when I felt very ambivalent about my own life. I was changing professions a lot, and hadn’t found one that I thought truly defined me. When I started writing the Jason stories, I was in a certain job that I hated and that I felt like a complete alien doing. I felt like I was a totally different person when I was at work and dealing with the particular client base that job involved, than I was anywhere else. I wasn’t comfortable with this situation, so I applied it to Jason’s life. Probably to compensate for what I was going through, I made him much more at home with his work identity, and less so with his non-work persona.
Juanita: Would you tell us more about the Heighdy Hole Hotel? How did you come up with this unique setting for most of your novel?
John: It’s based on a particular Hotel in the older part of downtown Winnipeg I used to occasionally stop in at for a drink. Jason’s other usual haunt, The Pungent Onion Club is completely a fictional creation, but the actual Heighdy Hole was a popular business man’s hangout for a lunchtime drink, as it is conveniently close to all the high rise office towers at Portage and Main in Winnipeg, the main center for commerce in the city. This made it ideal for the particular plotline I introduced the locale in, “Sex Slaves of Pango-Pango” – a less than reputable little hideout where a reputable man could live a bit of a double life not far from his usual arena of action. The actual building is fairly old and dingy, a bit of a hole in other words, and I liked the sound of “heighdy ho” becoming the Heighdy Hole. A jaunty, sleazy place to grab a quick drink on the sly.
Juanita: What are some of the zany cases Midnight finds himself having to deal with?
John: Just your usual run of the mill stuff. A woman’s husband is killed in a car accident, having left a note stating he was rushing home with an irresistible urge to make love to her – except he had never actually slept with her before. Midnight is hired to find out what made him change his mind, just before he died. In another story, Jason reveals how he likes to live his life with his own personal soundtrack playing in his mind – until he meets a woman who somehow gets into his brain and changes the melody. Then there’s the time he’s called in to stop a teenage girl from using voodoo to fix amateur hockey games. And there’s the case of the businessman who is literally coming apart at the seams, his very physical frame beginning to unravel. And there’s this mysterious disc jockey that no one has ever seen, who has apparently summoned the spirit of Jack the Ripper back to haunt the streets of Winnipeg. And the prostitute who seems to be working with an invisible demon who literally consumes her tricks. And of course, Jason ends up facing off with the Devil himself in the last story, who is apparently working for the Manitoba Lotteries Commission and causing some questionable results to occur in the local million-dollar draw. All in a day’s work for Jason Midnight.
Juanita: You certainly have a gift for creating unique characters and over the top situations. How did you come up with the thirteen narratives, and the wacky characters in “Midnight’s Delight”?
John: I react to passing incidents that seem insignificant at first sight, and somehow weave them into complete scenarios in my mind. “Sex Slaves of Pango Pango” came out of an article in a magazine I glanced at concerning two chemicals which are not usually mixed together creating entirely new effects when combined that neither chemical’s nature would hint at on its own. I often wonder what it would be like to be driving to work or something and hearing a movie soundtrack accompanying your life out loud as you lived it. I woke up one morning and the first thought that came into my head was “Voodoo, Love and Hockey! That’s the answer!” I have no idea what I thought the question was. “Unravelled”, which was actually the first Jason Midnight story ever to be published and is reprinted here in this collection, grew out of a time when I was sitting on the bus and somebody got off, going down the steps in front of me, and they were wearing a black mitten with threads that were coming loose. I never know what is going to inspire me, but I try to remain open to whatever is happening around me, and wherever that may lead my thinking to.
As for characters, once I’ve got an idea for a story, I need to come up with people who can carry it off. Characters definitely grow out of the situation or plot conflict I want to write. I create a situation that needs to be resolved, and try to come up with the personalities that can make it play out for maximum entertainment. However, once I create them, they sometimes do demonstrate a capacity to take over. I recently completed a story for a second collection based entirely on the idea of Jason saving the character at the last moment – but when I got there, it turned out the character really needed to die anyway, and it was the right thing to happen to that particular personality. Caught both Jason and me by surprise, but we did recognize how what happened, although tragic, was actually more satisfying for everyone involved.
If there’s any other driving factor behind my characters’ personalities, I’d have to say it’s the fact that I like writing dialogue, especially funny dialogue. So my characters have to be eccentric and quirky enough in their basic make up to carry off the absurd conversations they get into. I write what they say first, and fill in the blanks on what they’re like to make them speak that way afterwards.
Juanita: John, would you elaborate on the existential theme of your book? How does Midnight’s unique perception of reality play out in his mis-adventures?
John: I had my first success with Jason in a story I wrote that won first prize in a humor contest run by the Manitoba Writers Guild in 1988. In that story, which is not in this collection, Jason is presented as hopeless as a detective but well-versed in the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, making a few obscure references to their work as what I thought would be in-jokes in the text. To win the contest, I had to read the story aloud at a special Guild banquet. After the reading, half a dozen people proudly came up to me individually to say they had caught the references to Camus and Sartre and thought they were hilarious, but they doubted if anyone else noticed. They were so happy about this, I thought, “I have to leave this in.” So it became a sidelight feature of Jason’s adventures from then on.
In the other story I mentioned, also not in this collection, in which Jake is about to give it all up as his detective business has failed and he is rescued at the last moment by a mysterious woman reinforcing all his film noir personality traits, he is about to commit suicide, because as a good existentialist, he has realized life has become too absurd to live. Then life becomes even more absurd, and strangely enough, this gives him the will to go on. So he answers the great existential question of ‘in a world where you’re only going to die someday anyway, should a man kill himself at once and get it over with or live out the pointlessness of it all’, by deciding with typical Jason logic, that if life is absurd, then death must be really stupid. And he’s never given in to such impulses since. But he has to work at it. Every day. And with the confusion that comes into his life over his double identity and the differing roles he feels cast in, sometimes reaffirming that decision everyday can be quite hard work for him.
So in one sense, he’s very much a practicing existentialist, and readers still enjoy and relate to his often totally whacked out pronouncements on some of the more sombre, deeper philosophical questions we all face. But each reader is still certain he or she is the only one getting the joke, which I think in some equally whacked out way says something about the nature of existentialism right there.
Juanita: John, who would enjoy reading “Midnight’s Delight”? Who is your reading audience?
John: I like to think that my stories will appeal to the reader who’s looking for something different. Someone who likes a laugh with their horror, fantasy, sci fi, or even straight mystery story, and those people who like to recognize an existential joke or two. I try to make each story quite different – there’s no formula to a Jason Midnight story. Some of them even come out quite serious at times. So I hope to appeal to a reader who likes to have his or her imagination stimulated in a different way each time they pick up the book, instead of only reading more of the same, more of the same. I like readers who don’t mind being kept off balance in their expectations regarding what is about to happen.
Juanita: Reviews for your book all commend the humorous nature of “Midnight’s Delight.” Would you comment on the comedic side of your book and writing style?
John: I view laughter as a vital necessity in life, especially when things are at their worst. I know I didn’t get through the medical crises I did without keeping a sense of humor about even the most horrible moments, and there were a few. Keeping an eye on the absurd qualities of any given situation is central to keeping a balanced view on life. You’ll never be able to give yourself up entirely to fear or hate if you can find something to laugh about. Nothing frightens me more than a person with no sense of humor.
Juanita: What are you ultimately trying to convey to readers through the highly entertaining antics of Jason Midnight?
John: That there’s always something new to think about or experience. You should never close yourself off to what life has to offer. It’s a good thing to think about situations from perspectives you might never have considered before. And if you can have a laugh along the way, all the better.
Juanita: Is this your first novel? Do you have any more in the works?
John: I’ve written quite a body of work, but this is the first collection that has been published. Zumaya has a Jason Midnight novel called “Broken Stone” under consideration at the moment, and I’ve been working on a second collection of short stories since I got out of the hospital after heart surgery. In fact, I started working on what turned out to be the climactic story in that collection while I spent four days trapped in a hallway in the Emergency Department of the hospital before I was properly diagnosed, but the manuscript went missing, even though all my other possessions were returned intact... A case for Jason Midnight if there ever was one, and some day, I’ll have to write the story of how he looks into it for me.
Juanita: John, how can readers find out more about you and your endeavors?
John: I have a website, created by my wife, accessible at http://io.uwinnipeg.ca/~rbeaubie/index.html. She is no longer at the university, so we’re not sure how much longer we can count on them carrying the site. We hope to get our own domain name soon. As well, information about “Midnight’s Delight” and any further works can always be found on my publisher’s, Zumaya, website, accessible at www.zumayapublications.com. E-book copies of “Midnight’s Delight” can be purchased at fictionwise.com.
Juanita: John, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us today. We are happy to hear that you are on the mend from your illness, and encourage all readers to pick up a copy of your fantastic book “Midnight’s Delight,” and we hope to hear more from you and Jason Midnight in the future. Do you have any last thoughts for your readers today?
John: I’d like to thank Reader Views for giving me this opportunity to reach a wider circle of people. I hope they’ll enjoy reading the book as much as I did writing it.