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"In the old days -- in the 1960s and 70s -- we talked about the great Canadian mosaic: Everyone had their own little piece of the mosaic. But I think when you look at life that way your piece becomes almost a ghetto. You're not supposed to go outside of that, right? And one of the great things about our culture right now -- and Vancouver is a very exciting place -- is that those cultures are all blending and merging."

 

 

 

 

 

He makes it all sound so easy. More. He makes it sound inevitable. Like natural progression. But it's not. It's impossible. Almost all of it. And yet...

A working journalist for the last two decades, Donald J. Hauka had written some short stories about a crime reporter who solves mysteries. The stories ended up with Dundurn Press in Toronto, a respected midsize house that happens to publish a good share of crime fiction. They contacted Hauka and said they liked the stories and the character that starred in them -- a Kenyan-born Muslim named Hakeem Jinnah -- but they didn't publish short fiction. Give us a book like this, they said, and we'll publish it.

Hauka didn't write a book. He wrote half a book. "And when I'd finished half, I fired it off to them and said: Look, this is as much as I've gotten done. This is enough for you to figure out whether you like it or not. Get back to me."

When they did get back to him, they offered Hauka a contract to publish the book, when finished.

That would be enough -- perhaps more than enough -- for some writers. But Hauka noticed a clause in his contract that left him with film rights and he wasted little time in finding a production company willing to take on the project. An important piece, to be sure, but it still meant finding a company that would finance the project and air it. And -- against all odds, once again -- on his very first try, Hauka did, in the form of a development deal for a movie of the week for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. And all before the book was finished, much less published.

"You just have to be at the right place at the right time with the right project, that's all," says Hauka, a quiet man of middle years with a sharp sense of humor and a youthful gleam in his eye.

Hauka's character, Hakeem Jinnah, shares his sense of humor and vocation with his creator. In Mister Jinnah: Securities the city room almost becomes a character: the mostly cheerful politicking in the newsroom, the jockeying for both bylines and position and the camaraderie that is sometimes all that's left when the chips are really down.

Intended to be a single volume of a series, in this first installment Jinnah is covering the suspicious death of an even more suspicious stock promoter while, in his spare time, he and his wife's cousin prepare to make their fortune with a stock scheme of their own: the Orient Love Express, a company that matches Chinese businessmen with Russian women.

Set in the ethnically varied city of Vancouver -- where Hauka himself is based -- Mister Jinnah: Securities is at times screamingly funny, yet manages to capture many of the subtleties of the multicultural aspects of the city. Jinnah himself is cheerfully politically incorrect and sometimes harmlessly annoying, but it works well in this book. And, on January 14th when the TV movie airs on CBC, Canadians will be able to see if it works on film.

A business reporter with the Vancouver Province, the 42-year-old writer lives in New Westminster with his wife and son. He is currently at work on a book on British Columbia history as well as more Jinnah novels and movie treatments.

 

Linda Richards: You're a reporter.

Donald J. Hauka: A political reporter.

Not securities?

Not business, no. Although when they first printed up the catalog [for the book] they'd said that I was a Vancouver crime reporter. And I said: Well, I know in Vancouver it's a subtle distinction, but I'm a political reporter. [Laughs] So they fixed that up.

Mister Jinnah: Securities is your first book?

Yes. It's the first novel.

And early success, Don, because I know there's a film.

Well, what happened was three or four years ago I sent a series of short stories out based on this character. Eventually they ended up at Dundurn Press. And they said: well, we really like the character but we don't do short stories. Think about writing a novel.

I wrote about half of it. And when I'd finished half I fired it off to them and said: Look, this is as much as I've gotten done. This is enough for you to figure out whether you like it or not. Get back to me. Well, a year went by and I figured, you know: more waste paper. Then on New Year's Eve 2000 I got a voice mail, coming back from vacation, from Dundurn saying: I hope you haven't sold this to anybody else and we apologize for taking so much time but we'd like to give you a contract for it and please give us the other half. So that was nice.

That was in January, so I started finishing the book and I read the contract and it said I had the right to flog the film rights and I knew Dundurn wouldn't have time to do it. So I went to some people that I knew in Vancouver and I said: Well look, I've got this book contract and I'm writing this book. Here's the character and here's some short stories. In about, I guess it was April or May, they said: You know, this is worth developing. Why don't we take it to Banff [Film Festival]? And I said: Why don't I come to Banff with you? And they said: Oh no. Banff is all about rejection. You'd just be rejected. Nothing happens in a hurry. And I said: I'm a journalist. I deal with rejection on a daily basis so don't worry about it. And they said: No, no. We don't want you to go. And finally I said: Look, I'll sleep on the couch, I'll pay for my own ticket to go there and what I can also do is write a funny freelance article for our entertainment department on what it's like to be rejected at Banff. So they said: Well, OK.

So I slept on the couch and we had three meetings set up on Wednesday. And the first one was at 8 am with CBC [the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation]. So Monday I hear all the horror stories from other people about Banff and pitching and the worst pitch stories they ever heard. Like the guy who went in to pitch his project and the producer picked up a newspaper and started reading. So he doesn't know what to do, but the guy kind of looks over the edge of his newspaper and says: Oh, keep going. I'm listening.

I was prepared for this level of rejection.

At eight o'clock Susan Morgan from CBC television comes in and sits down and she's got a stack of [projects]. She puts this big stack down and she picks up [our outline] and says: Well, I haven't read any of this except for the one page and on that basis we're prepared to give you a deal.

And I'm ready to pitch now, but they said: No, no. No need for that. We'll get back to you in about half an hour. By the time we walked up the stairs to the Banff Centre after being at the hotel, within 15 minutes they got back to us and said: You've got a development deal. So my story [for the newspaper] got to be about how I didn't get to write the story.

After that CBC said they wanted a two hour MOW [movie of the week] that could be used as a pilot or whatever.

That's incredible. Things just don't happen that way. Any of it.

It does not happen this quick. But [people] said: Oh well, now you've got the development deal. You'll be in development hell for years. It'll take years for CBC to make up their mind, they'll make you rewrite it 100 times.

We hired two story editors to work with me to do the screenplay and we set to work in September [2000] and we finished two drafts by the end of November and in January CBC said: That's great. You can produce and make that. We'll give you a million bucks. All the other funding agencies fell into line and we started shooting in mid-July and we finished in mid-August. So about a year and four weeks after they said yes in Banff, we were filming.

So about a year and a half after you got the OK from the publisher to go ahead with the book.

And, in actual fact, we got the development deal before the book was finished.

Wow. You're Cinderella!

Not really. But it's been quite interesting. And we didn't choose to do the book as the first movie. When you get a development deal it's kind of based on the character rather than the story, so we decided to go with one of the short stories, which I call "Pizza 9-1-1". It was vaguely inspired by this rather gruesome local killing where this guy ended up in a pizza oven. And they never figured it out. So, of course, in the newsroom, we had all these rather grim jokes like: They hadn't I.D.'d him yet but they think he's a large Hawaiian.

Oh, groan.

Yeah: sort of typical sensitive journalist stuff. Although the story is not to do with that actual case, the body in the pizza oven is what sort of inspired it. And that's what the movie is based on.

And, like the book, it features Hakeem Jinnah?

Yes.

Is it before or after the book takes place?

Well, we're rather vague on that. They're more or less stand alones. So, in the arc of his character, it could be before or after. The book is actually what we're in outline to do right now for maybe the second one. They're thinking that they might do two [in 2002] instead of one. So we're not sure if we'll do the book second, or it might be the third [movie]. If it happens.

You really are Cinderella.

Not really. I haven't got any stepsisters, for a start.

But you've done a lot of stuff that people say can't happen.

Well, it can happen.

It just doesn't.

You just have to be at the right place at the right time with the right project, that's all. And for us it was really great because it hit every single button on CBC's mandate. Because it's from the West Coast, it's ethnic, it's multicultural, because Vancouver is multicultural. And it's great because, for instance, there are scenes shot in [the Vancouver district known as] Little India. And instead of having people with those awful Peter Sellers-type accents, you have what you normally have, which is some people dressed traditionally but speaking with the same West Coast accent you or I have, which is the way life is. We like to think that we're trying to sort of bust out some of the typical politically correct barriers that are around people.

And not to say that the book is about that, but it's very much part of the book. I grew up in Vancouver and I know some of the neighborhoods and I worked with some of those guys in the newsroom: I'm sure of it!

[Laughs] We all have. In fact, that was half the fun when the book finally came out in June: Everyone in the newsroom was reading it trying to figure out A) If they were in there -- and were mostly disappointed when they weren't -- and B) trying to guess who each character was. You could really tell who they didn't like: This bad guy, he's so-and-so, right? Well, no. Not really but good guess.

That would have been fun. And were some of the characters based on people they could recognize?

They're more or less all compilations and composites. I can't remember all of the people I've worked with over the years just at The Province alone. And I've worked on other papers, too.

How long have you been a journalist?

I got my first job in 1978, right out of high school as the sports editor for the Williams Lake Tribune.

How long were you a sportswriter?

Not for very long. I only stuck it out up there for about four months and then I came back [to Vancouver] and I went to SFU [Simon Fraser University] for a while.

Studied journalism?

Oh no. They didn't have journalism then. The standard route was to study English and then work on the student newspaper. And, of course, working on the student newspaper was really just an excuse for student activism and stuff like this. And the late 70s and early 80s were really a bad time for that. Government cutbacks everywhere and the backlash of neo-conservatism and all that. Then I got a job in the [Fraser] Valley at the Dunning papers which are, sadly, no more.

How long have you been at The Province?

Let me think: 16 years. I started in 1985 as a summer student and I figured I'd be there for a couple of years because I was going to write books. [Laughs] And I blinked.

And here you are. And you did it.

Eventually.

But you did it. That's great. I like to hear that. That that was what you wanted to do and now... so when do you retire?

[Laughs] Well, I like to think of Jim Coleman as my example for retiring. He died [in 2000] actually. Jim was like 80-something. Jim had always worked as a sportswriter and he'd worked for all the Vancouver newspapers and settled in at The Province. I think he'd written about Hemingway boxing with somebody and he'd written about race, he'd been all over the world. He'd been rich and broke any number of times and he just kept on writing and writing and writing. He never retired. Ever. Pacific Press [who owns The Vancouver Province] is rife with examples of guys who were there for 20, 30, 40 years: they retire and within a year [snaps his fingers] they're dead.

Coleman said: The secret, son, is to never retire. So he would come in every day and before leaving the house he would say to his wife: If I'm alive when I get back home I'd like pork chops for dinner. We had one typewriter left in the entire newsroom and it was his. And he was the only guy who was allowed to type out his columns.

Why a crime novel, Don?

It's kind of a long story, but to make it short: I used to write radio dramas for CBC. And a good friend of mine [was a producer] and I worked with him on a couple of projects. At that time CBC was coming up with their Mystery Cafe idea and he said: Do you have any ideas? And I said: Well, I've got this idea about a crime reporter working in a newsroom. So the initial ideas for stories I worked on for CBC radio. We sent them off to Toronto and waited and waited and waited. We finally got this kind of weird blurb back saying: We kind of like this, we don't like that, maybe you could do this, oh we're just not sure. We finally said: Forget it. This is not going to happen. I decided maybe it would work in print and I started working on the short stories. So it's kind of ironic: it started as a CBC radio project, they didn't really want it and it ends up on CBC television.

Mister Jinnah: Securities is a very funny book and so it doesn't surprise me to find you to have such a well-honed sense of humor.

I find myself totally incapable of writing anything without humor in it. I've tried writing thrillers and mystery and this and that and I just have to make a joke. You know how it is when you work as a journalist: You deal with a lot of unpleasant stuff.

And life is full of absurdities.

It is!

You just can't help but laugh sometimes, even at the most gruesome stuff.

Exactly. Well, thus the large Hawaiian. But the humor thing came very naturally and the character [of Jinnah] lends himself to humor because I think, like most crime reporters, it's a defense mechanism, but also I think it's a way of looking at life. That life is full of comic absurdity.

He's a pretty funny guy.

He tries to be.

He's a little bit of a cheeseball, but not really. Or kind of, but in a happy way.

Well, I'm glad that you feel that way because I was very nervous writing it, thinking: I know what I'm trying to portray here. The guy you never take seriously.

Yeah. Because he's saying that stuff and you're thinking: He's kind of cute. He could be annoying but not really.

A steady diet of it could be annoying, but if it's judiciously sprinkled it's endearing.

And he's married and always flirting and you just know he's not going to do anything, really.

His wife would kill him.

And his wife is a Sikh. And he's Muslim, which I guess could provide conflict but doesn't seem to. Do you have reason to know the Sikh community well? Or did you do a lot of research?

I don't know the Sikh community any better than any other non-Sikh, but you know, that's why the character is kind of interesting because he doesn't really quite fit. Our [Indo] community [in Vancouver] is mostly Sikh. But there are levels of subtlety there that most people in the non-Indo community don't get.

Then all those damned Brits at the paper!

Who think the Raj is still going. That's kind of the relationship that the editor has with Jinnah. One of the great things about doing the book was doing the research and meeting lots of people from the community and finding out about those differences.

I think you did a good job of capturing a lot of the subtleties of that community. I mean, it seemed to me that you were intimate with it.

I wouldn't pretend to have captured all of the subtleties, at all. But I'm glad that I appeared to know what I was talking about. [Laughs]

In the old days -- in the 1960s and 70s -- we talked about the great Canadian mosaic: Everyone had their own little piece of the mosaic. But I think when you look at life that way your piece becomes almost a ghetto. You're not supposed to go outside of that, right? And one of the great things about our culture right now -- and Vancouver is a very exciting place -- is that those cultures are all blending and merging.

Like a melting pot. [Laughs]

Well, not so much like a melting pot. But the cultures are fusing and crossbreeding: like Indian Raga is fusing with West Coast Jazz and writers from here are using traditional themes but placed in a modern context. And you get Asian writers and Indian writers and others talking to each other and expressing their views. And the intermingling of ideas makes this a very exciting place because you get new and different stuff that way.

I like to think of it as sort of bleeding off the edges of the mosaic so that the colors blend and mix together and then you get something that's quite different and you don't have those little ghettos: people are free to move back and forth.

The other thing about [Jinnah] himself is that he's totally politically incorrect. I mean, that's the whole thing: Whenever we want to talk about an ethnic community I think a lot of Canadian writers are terrified to treat them as humans.

Though in some cases, for good reason. Because there are so many people waiting to lynch people.

Absolutely true. Absolutely. But you see, that's the whole problem is that you bend over backwards to make sure that you're not being racist or accused of racism that, in some ways, you lose the humanity. | January 2002

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.