Midnight 99 is an intriguing mash-up fo a sci-fi/crime-noir novel that builds a contemporary world in which the conspiracy theorists were right. The lizards are our overlords and ex-broadacast journalist and now drug dealer, Tulsa Kalhoun is down and out and all outta love. When she wakes up to find a dead , naked. lizard atop her hotel toilet, you just know the trouble has only just started. A great and gripping neo-noir mystery from Asley Christine. After o’d read this one, I couldn’t help but want to know more in our recent catch-up. We talk about Tulsa’s new novella, influences, and so much more…
Olly MacNamee: Ashley, I’ve read your new novella, Midnight 99, and I must say, its an intriguing, humorous mash-up of crime noir, sci-fi and a good dose of conspiracy theories too. And all narrated by our would be hero, Tulsa Kalhoun. One time journalist and now drug dealer. I must say, you seem to have fun building this new world, but where does one start? What was the initial spark behind this story?
Ashley Christine: The stuff I write usually grows out of whatever art I’m obsessed with. In this case it was The X-Files. I have a piece of fan art in my office that shows an alternate universe Dana Scully who’s covered in tattoos and holding a switchblade. I was staring at that picture while listening to a Grace Jones album and I kind of merged them together and saw this badass, a tattooed Grace Jones as a badass paranormal detective. Whereas X-Files takes a very grounded approach to the paranormal and conspiracies, I wanted to see a more unhinged Gonzo approach. That’s when this Grace Jones paranormal detective started dressing and talking like Hunter S. Thompson. And I knew I would follow this person anywhere. Thus Tulsa Kalhoun was born.
OM: The novella’s title, Midnight 99, refers to a very specific drug doesn’t it? Care to elaborate?
AC: Midnight 99 is a base level drug for this universe. It’s kind of like the spice mélange from Dune. Basically, humans aren’t evolved enough to see and communicate with all the aliens and entities that populate our plane of existence. Midnight 99 is like consciousness steroids, it allows human brains to level up and gives them a space at the galaxy’s grown up table. But like steroids, Midnight 99 has side effects. Bad things can happen if you take too much of it and worse things can happen if you stop taking it.
OM: The opening chapter really does set the tone for the whole book, doesn’t it? A memory-fogged Tulsa wakens to the sight of a dead naked alien sitting on the toilet with the remnants of a pretty wild S+M party strewn across the bathroom floor. A murder mystery, but with a healthy does of sex, drugs and rock and roll. It sold the whole thing to me immediately. Who do you hope this book appeals to given its broad influences?
AC: I hope it appeals to people like me, unabashed weirdos, who like dirty jokes, random humor, and want a reading experience that grabs them by the brain and takes them on a wild ride.
OM: I love some of the more exotic characters you introduce throughout the book. I particularly enjoyed the aliens such as Almond Joy and Grey Willie. It’s definitely a crime-noir story, but more Who Framed Roger Rabbit? You seem to take crime noir stereotypes and infuse a whole new take on them with aline DNA. But, which characters came fully formed, and which evolved over the course of writing Midnight 99?
AC: Almond Joy went through a lot of evolutions, and a lot of different names. I knew I wanted a square jawed Joe Friday type, and I liked the idea of an alien narc who always looks like the most common generic 30 year old man no matter what population he’s in. The challenge was making him interesting and not a total robot. Grey Willie kind of came all at once, because I wanted to see a grey alien portrayed in a different way than we’ve seen them. The idea of a gangster grey was just so fun that I found his origin story just poured out of me.
OM: Speaking of Almond Joy, while this is a neo-noir murder mystery, it’s also an easily accessible story too, with a good deal of pop cultural influences, isn’t it? QuezTech, for example, is another great example of this tongue-in-cheek parody that I am sure no-one will fail to recognize.
AC: What are you talking about? QuezTech is a totally made up company that has no parallels to any real company with a strong brand identity and cult of personality around the deceased CEO.
Initially, I was going to have the Nash family be more of a political family like the Kennedys. But it occurred to me that the Kennedys are a 20th century idea, and basing something on the Kennedys just felt a little overdone and outdated. And don’t get me wrong, I er-ah love makin’ fun of the Kennedys (read that in a Mayor Quimby voice) but there aren’t really the same level of political dynasty families in the 21st century, you know? So, I thought, who are our 21st century idols? And I thought about the way people venerated Steve Jobs after he died and how much power tech companies have and that felt like a more dynamic thing to explore.
OM: What other influences did you turn to for this multi-layered plot?
AC: Let’s see, we’ve talked about X-Files, Hunter S. Thompson, noirs, murder mysteries, tech companies, gangster aliens…ah, all the wacky conspiracy theories that are out there. (Back when conspiracy theories were wacky and not threats to our fragile democracy.) The problem I have with conspiracy literature is that it turns into meandering word salad pretty darn quickly. I realized if I wanted a satisfying narrative about Lizard Overlords, I’d have to make one up.
OM: Given that Tulsa Kalhoun is gender fluid, I have to ask, how much of your own personality did you pour into this kick-ass protagonist?
AC: So much! Tulsa and I are both genderfluid nonsense makers who stomp to the beat of discordant drummers. Also, like Tulsa, I have a huge crush on Gillian Anderson. But honestly who doesn’t? But if readers want a real life parallel for Tulsa, then watch comedian Amber Ruffin. Like Tulsa she is a wacky delight.
OM: I love the fact that our lizard overlords are not only responsible for such human endeavours as the wheel, but also they have such bad, bad taste too. Alien hill billies with the gaudy decor to match. It’s a great new take on the whole lizards-are-our-masters schtick too. Many readers may not realize just how much humour there is in this novella. Was this the toughest challenge when writing this gritty drama?
AC: The real world is serious enough. I started writing this in April of 2016, when the idea of a President Trump was a wacky punch line. This book is me taking my angst about real issues and then throwing through my internal absurdist filter. I made the Lizards responsible for most of the things that are terrible in the world and then I get to laugh at them because they’re powerful and unkillable but they’re also dorks, big tacky dorks. I mean, we humans are so serious and self-important but really we are such dumb and absurd creatures and I figured aliens would be the same way.
OM: And, why the reliance of footnotes? I must say, I did read them, and found that they told a great deal of backstory very quickly and effectively. Was that part of the plan?
AC: I’m a huge fan of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, which has an entire secondary story in the footnotes. I love how tactile that book was, how it forced me as a reader to make choices about where I focused my attention. I like art that makes you a little dizzy and prompts the audience to have an individualized experience. If anything, I would’ve done more with the footnotes, and the layout of text, but e-books are kind of limited in that regard. Which is why House of Leaves has never been made available digitally. I think there’s a lot of potential for digital books to deliver a deeper interactive experience with the text. I’ll be very interested to see how digital reading evolves in the next 10 – 15 years.
I also like listing random facts and bits of unknown history that have no bearing on the story. And footnotes let me do that. Yay!
OM: And, there’s even room for romance. But, Tulsa’s ex-partner, Lucy Nash isn’t your usual femme fatale, now is she?
AC: Oh man, when I was writing, I had the hardest time with Lucy. In earlier conceptions she was more of a shallow Paris Hilton/Kim Kardashian type. The problem was that it’s difficult to root for your main character if they’re obsessed with a really unlikeable person. After reading my first draft a writer friend of mine gave me a suggestion: “Instead of an ice-cold femme fatal, what if Lucy was a really warm, nice person?” That broke things open for me. Through Lucy the novella really found its heart.
OM: Finally, Ashley, go on you can tell me, who done it?
AC: All I can say is it’s not who you think it is. If you want to know more, you’ll have to wait for the thrilling conclusion in my next book, Midnight 99: The Squeakquel.
Midnight 99 is out now digital from $2.99