James Aitchison calls himself the invisible writer because you probably haven’t heard of him, despite having 201 books, 264 poems, 104 short stories and 20 essays published, with over three million books sold.

However, you might recognise one of his pseudonyms. James Lee, David Carrick, Mike Rader, and T.N. Roman, among others. His two series, written for readers from year levels six to twelve, Mr Midnight and Mr Mystery, are wildly popular in Singapore, where Jim lived for many years, and in surrounding Asian countries. They’ve been translated into almost every Asian language and are studied in universities and taught in schools there. Jim has won an Australian Arts in Asia award for his contribution.

Now, ‘Mr Midnight: Beware The Monsters’ is a series on Netflix, and it’s a lot of fun.

While Jim uses his real name for poetry (he is published in several anthologies, and in one, A World Full Of Poems, he is in the company of the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and Emily Dickenson), he uses pen names because, as he says, “People won’t let you out of your genre, so if you’re Agatha Christie you have to write crime, if you’re Enid Blyton, about cucumber sandwiches, so I change my name to suit the audience. In the children’s books – the horror stories for Asia – no one could pronounce Aitchison, so I called myself James Lee because that’s East/West. In another, I called myself T.N. Roman. No one knows what it means, but it’s a typeface – Times New Roman.’ He says, laughing uproariously.”

Jim was born in Sydney and went into advertising in Melbourne, writing copy. “It was great fun, going to ‘In Melbourne Tonight’ and doing the commercial rehearsals. Hal McElroy (Picnic At Hanging Rock, Blue Heelers, Sea Patrol) was my offsider. Hal and I used to take these trays of cold Noon Pies, and we’d be so hungry we’d eat three or four of them before we got them into the prop cage at GTV 9.”

Then Jim began writing for the iconic ‘Mavis Bampton Show’. “That was a great thrill,” he says. “The show that really changed television.”

Jim was a writer for Grace Gibson Radio Productions, which he wrote for in the last days of the big radio serials in the seventies. “I would have loved to have been around in the forties when radio drama was at its peak,” Jim says. “Grace Gibson kept going; she was still doing radio soaps right up until 1979/80, and the company is still producing radio plays today for community and country radio. I wrote a show called ‘Under Her Spell’, and then another called ‘A Murder a Minute.”

Jim loves spoken word stories. “I think when you read off a page, your mind is creating pictures from the words, and I think it’s the same with sound. You’re listening to this voice, and the voice itself is already a definition of something, and then comes the other voices, the sound effects and the music. The music is particularly important in radio drama because it gives you that extra flavour.”

Jim says there’s still a place for radio drama and hopes to write a couple for Grace Gibson Productions. Then there’s the internet and podcasting. At a talk he gave for the National Film and Sound Archives in Canberra, Jim says, “People asked, ‘How did you write 130 episodes all by yourself? Did you have notes?’ And I said, No, It’s all up here,” he says, pointing to his head. “Did you have a computer? No, on a typewriter. Once I started, I’d do one copy for me and one for the studio, and I very rarely took it out, tore it up and started again. Your brain just went into this special place, and the words flowed.” Jim has co-authored two books on the subject, ‘Yes, Miss Gibson,’ and ‘A Theatre In My Mind.’

After moving to Singapore and becoming the creative director of an advertising agency (which created the brand for Singapore Airlines), Jim left to be a full-time writer, writing a bestseller on advertising called ‘The Cutting Edge’ and talking to the fifty best people in advertising in the world at the time (1990s).

He says, “The publisher asked, ‘Now that you’re writing a lot, have you ever thought of writing a kid’s book?’ and I said, No.” The publisher said, “There are horror stories like ‘Goosebumps’, but there’s nothing for Asian kids.” So ‘Mr Midnight’ was born, with Asian characters and stories set in supermarkets, Asian schools, jungles, swamps, things that Asian kids had seen, so they could almost step into the stories.

Like Hitchcock, Jim took the ordinary and made it extraordinary, and the result was literally a blockbuster – kids would line up around the block to have their books signed by Jim. He asked them to write their names on a slip of paper, and he still has those slips from his young readers. The film company Beach House Pictures developed the idea for the Mr. Midnight books and sold them to Netflix. It won the Asian Academy Creative Award for Best Children’s TV Show in 2023. ‘I hope they come back for season two!’ Jim laughs.

Jim is also a songwriter, writing the lyrics for the 2023 Singapore Christmas song, ‘I Wish The World A Happy Christmas’ with music by Jeremy Monteiro.

Jim and his wife Ginette love living in Langwarrin. Their daughter and her family live next door, and Ginette’s parents live further along. Jim doesn’t mind people knowing that he has Stage 4 lung cancer, which he’s being treated for in Frankston. They have managed to reduce his tumour from the size of a tennis ball to nothing using immunotherapy.

‘We just hope it doesn’t come back,’ Jim says. So do we, Jim. So do we.

Peninsula Essence – February 2024