INTERVIEW: Jason Arnopp

Jason Arnopp

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Jason Arnopp is a British author and scriptwriter, with a background in journalism.

He wrote the Lionsgate feature film Stormhouse, various Doctor Who things, a Friday The 13th novel and script-edited the 2012 Peter Mullan film The Man Inside.

jasonarnopp.com

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Tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, the first time you felt you wanted to be a writer, the first exorcism you attended?
Hello Storgy! I grew up in Lowestoft in Suffolk, and I first wanted to be a writer after seeing Doctor Who. This was the super-scary Tom Baker era, as produced by Philip Hinchcliffe, so the TV screen fed plenty of macabre imagery into my young, impressionable brain. I began to write comic strip stories and prose stories, all of which featured many, many explosions. The first exorcism I attended was of a local goose. I’ll never forget how it flapped those wings like some awful demon, with its eyes like burning hot coals. Oh, the hellish honking that ensued.

We are huge fans of the Short Story genre and we understand that you are too? What appeals to you most about the genre in particular?
The first thing that springs to mind is that I get bored of books quite easily. When it comes to any form of entertainment, really, I’m 12 years old. When an author dives headlong into florid description of weather, I’ll often disengage and never come back. So short stories are pleasingly compact, that’s one of their big advantages. They get to the point! Or at least, you hope they do…

For those who may not know you, you started off in journalism and progressed onto fiction for Dr. Who and Friday the 13th (writing screenplays and novels) – is there a particular form you enjoy the most?
Right now, writing novels and the odd script, feels very much like it’s where I want to be. All of the previous phases have been tremendous fun, though, and perhaps I have the most affection for Hate-Kill-Repeat, the Friday The 13th tie-in novel I wrote for Black Flame in 2005. For one thing, it was my first novel, although I admittedly wouldn’t dare go back and re-read it now, since it was 12 years ago! But I’ve also always been a big fan of the Friday The 13th franchise, so getting that job was a real dream.

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What is one of the stand out moments you experienced whilst writing as a journalist?
In 1994, I went on the road in Japan with the Manic Street Preachers. That was probably the greatest trip I ever experienced as a journalist, especially as Richie Edwards was still in the band at that point. I’d love to go back in time and experience it all over again.

What’s the strangest thing ever to happen to you whilst conducting an interview

Pantera’s late guitarist Dimebag Darrell once got me in a headlock, during an interview I was doing with the band in a pub beer garden in Baton Rouge.

Thankfully, it was kind of in jest, although it was quite a fractious interview. Oh, and I was surrounded by gun-toting security guards at the Vatican, when I took the Satanic metal band Cradle Of Filth there for a photo shoot. That’s probably the strangest and scariest and certainly most anecdote-worthy thing.

You’ve written ‘Hate Kill Repeat’ part of the Friday the 13th series; and also short fiction for Dr. Who – how does the writing process differ when working with characters and universes that are so iconic and well established and not of your own creation?
When working with an established property, especially one you love, you can have a great time playing with those toys. The main concern is to do them justice, and hopefully do something new with them, without disrupting the state of play too much! The only downside, if there really is one, is that you have to give the toys back afterwards.

Are you a fan of both Friday the 13th and Dr. Who? If so, which is your favourite film / episode / Dr, and why?
My favourite Friday The 13th film is Friday The 13th Part VII: The New Blood, which pits mass murderer Jason Voorhees against a girl gifted with the powers of telekinesis. Jason vs Carrie, basically. In terms of Doctor Who stories, that’s a tough one. Earthshock will always be one of my favourites, for re-introducing the Cybermen in the 80s and doing so in such a hard-edged way. Tom Baker’s my favourite Doctor, and plenty of his stories are my favourites too, such as Pyramids Of Mars, The Invisible Enemy and The Horror Of Fang Rock.

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How did you find the step up to writing your debut novel ‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’? Was it an easy progression or a challenging one?
When you’re a writer, things very rarely seem easy. Every new project feels like a challenge. No matter how experienced you are, every new story you approach seems to demand a whole new skillset, which can be unsettling. Having said that, The Last Days Of Jack Sparks came together with relative ease. It took 18 months, from start to finish, but I never really hit any scary roadblocks along the way. It just took a hell of a lot of focus and hard work.

Where did the idea for Jack Sparks originate? It’s so relevant to today’s society and seems to glean areas of your career; social media interactions, horror and humor. Is Jack Sparks somewhat of a memoir?
I think the first spark (pun unintended) was just the idea of a man who becomes obsessed with a scary YouTube video, and sets out to find its makers. The next question, of course, was who this man might be, and why he might be so obsessed. And then I think I became preoccupied by the amount of certainty that people display on social media, me included. It feels as though these chaotic times make people all the more determined to pick opinions and hang onto them for dear life. I don’t think that’s a great idea.

Ha – I don’t know if I’d describe the book as a memoir, exactly, but I suppose authors always end up pulling parts of their own worldly experience and interests into whatever they do.

We need to feed the story machine, and so we tend to shove parts of ourselves into the meat-grinder first!

Could you describe your early writing habits and how you sustained the motivation to write. Have you noticed any differences/changes over the years and with the format your work has taken?
Hmm, that’s an interesting one. I think I’ve always approached work in much the same way: do lots of it and don’t stop. The only thing that’s really changed is the nature of the work itself. Generally speaking, my motivation to write, in any field, has been driven by the need to make a living as a self-employed person. But of course, fiction has a way of providing its own motivation, once you get excited about a story idea and/or a new opportunity.

You seem to be a very busy writer, with lots of stuff going on, many fingers in pies, pins in voodoo dolls – how do you sustain your many projects and keep the work life balance?
I don’t keep much of a work-life balance, but that’s something I’m trying to change. I work seven days a week and it’s very rare for me to take a full day off. Which probably isn’t very healthy.

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You are a self-confessed Horror fan and those who follow your website or social media would notice that you’re a lover of old school gore. You said in a previous interview that John Carpenters ‘The Thing’ (awesome choice by the way) was your favourite, could you expand on why this film sits at the top of your pile?
Well, since then I’ve broadened that view somewhat. I now have two films at the top of the pile, if that’s possible: The Thing and The Evil Dead. The reason I need both, is that The Thing is a movie to revisit every couple of years, whereas I could quite happily revisit The Evil Dead every couple of months or even weeks! The Thing feels like a touchstone movie for me, because I love that whole paranoia thing of not knowing what’s going on inside people’s heads, and in the case of The Thing, their bodies. The Evil Dead, as most people will know, is just the ultimate horror thrill-ride. Lastly, one vital thing about The Thing and The Evil Dead is that they disprove the received nonsense-wisdom that gore and scares can’t go hand in hand. Of course they can. There are no absolutes.

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I’ve always been a fan of 80’s VHS cases and artwork and it’s great to find someone that shares the same passion. Where did your hobby / passion spring from? Within your collection what would you say are the your favourite covers?
It sprang from being so entranced with video shops during the 80s. Staring up at these shelves full of lurid artwork as a kid. Back then, the idea of actually owning any of these films seemed like an impossible dream. But now I have a flat full of the things and they are tremendous. Or at least, they are until it’s time to move flat. Some of my favourite covers would include The Atlantis Interceptors, The Evil Dead (of course), Tomb Of The Undead, Don’t Go In The House and The Corpse Grinders, but there really are too many to mention.

Is there a particular kind of horror that appeals to your dark side or are you a fan of all forms of the genre?
I do like all forms of the genre, although I lean towards the more contemporary forms, from the 1980s onwards. Vampires in gothic outfits mulling over their immortality don’t tend to do it for me.

What does someone who appears to be so busy writing like to do to relax?
I don’t do nearly enough relaxation stuff, but I like watching documentaries, TV shows and of course films. Netflix has become a great source of documentaries for me, I love it. I’m a big fan of undemanding TV shows like Big Brother and The Apprentice, which give you a chance to switch your brain off for a while. I also love Shaun T’s exercise DVD series Focus T25, which contains workouts you can do in – you guessed it – 25 minutes!

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The opening of Jack Sparks is brilliant, one of the best I’ve ever read. How long did it take to get that initial hook and do you feel that your passion for short stories helps in your structure to writing?
Thank you! You know, I can’t remember how long that took, so I suspect it must have come naturally and quite easily. Hooks are very important to me, and I think some authors underestimate their importance. If I get to the end of the first chapter of a book – sometimes even page one – and I don’t have questions in my head that need answering, then I may not stick around, no matter how great the writing might be. The story is all.

When reading ‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks it’s hard not to make connections with films (this is not a bad thing). I found elements of ‘The Entity’, ‘Poltergeist’, ‘The Prince of Darkness’ and ‘The Exorcist’, including many others – when writing the book did you surround yourself with the supernatural, either in film or fiction? How did you research the book?
Yes, I’m sure all those films and more wormed their way into Sparks somehow! Research-wise, I read a few books, including a couple by an exorcist called Gabriele Amorth. The real godsend, when it came to the book’s combat magician Sherilyn Chastain, was that my friend Ian ‘Cat’ Vincent is a retired combat magician. So I interviewed him at length and some of the things he said even made it into Sherilyn’s mouth, pretty much verbatim. Except with an Australian accent.

Do you believe in the supernatural?
I’m open to the supernatural, because I don’t believe we really know anything, except for a few dependable things like ‘two plus two equals four’ and ‘eggs is eggs’. Robert Anton Wilson’s multiple model agnosticism, as mentioned in the book, makes the most sense to me. Best to keep your mind open, instead of jumping on some wagon and clinging to it for dear life.

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Has any bat shit crazy stuff ever happened to you where you literally – or almost –  soiled your under garments?
Nothing supernatural, sadly. I would like to see a ghost, because although it would probably render me terrified of seeing another one again sometime, it would suggest some form of life after death. That would be nice.

I read that you were once held at gunpoint by Vatican City security staff, what happened?
I was in Rome, doing a feature on Cradle Of Filth for Kerrang! magazine. So the photographer and I decided to take them to the Vatican for some impromptu pictures. No prior permission, nothing. And of course we ended up being surrounded by angry Italian men, all toting submachine guns. Didn’t help that the band were all wearing blasphemous T-shirts, including one that read Jesus Is A C**t. That was not an experience I’d like to repeat in a hurry.

‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’ is a brilliantly executed horror story. Who have been your influences over the years with regards to your horror writing in particular? Are there any books or films you would recommend?
Thank you, that’s very kind. The Blair Witch Project and the found footage movies it spawned, such as the Paranormal Activity series, couldn’t help but influence Jack Sparks, and that’s why I wanted to give the Blair Witch creators a cameo as themselves. Doctor Who was also an influence on the book: there are definitely a few Who-like concepts in there. In terms of books, my favourite authors are Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk, so they can’t help but rub off on me a little when I’m writing. Hopefully not too much, though, because I wouldn’t want to ape them – you have to strive for your own voice. Even if it’s Jack Sparks’ voice.

Are there any tips you might offer first-time writers?
Off my top of my head, here are a few. Don’t write ‘aspiring’ or ‘wannabe’ on your Twitter bio – if you write stuff then you’re a writer, full-stop. Don’t fret about how you could never have written a novel penned by someone else – chances are they could never write your stuff either, because you’re you and you’re utterly unique. And lastly, be prepared to write a whole load of rubbish before you create anything worthy of someone else’s attention.

Learn the craft. Learn from every single mistake and don’t be afraid to make them. Mistakes are how we learn.

Could you tell us a little bit about your Patreon project, which by the way sounds bloody awesome, no-one ever receives mail anymore so your snail mail creepy postcard perks sound wonderful? (creating thriller and horror fiction to swallow your soul)
Yes, Patreon is a little like crowdfunding, except it gives you the chance to support a creator on more of an ongoing monthly basis. It’s a longterm experiment for me, and the only real issue is that I haven’t had time to write nearly as many short stories as I’d planned to. But I will get back on that horse!

How do you feel about the reaction to your debut novel?
It’s blown me away! I mean, I’m happy with the novel and felt confident that some people would at least like it, but the response has been amazing. I’m especially happy that there seems to be an equal gender split in terms of the readership, and that it’s gone down well with a lot of people who wouldn’t usually class themselves as horror readers. And of course, to have Alan Moore brand it “a magnificent millennial nightmare” continues to slay me to this day.

For those people who are not aware, screen daily (31st March) released an article saying that Ron Howard’s Production outfit Imagine Entertainment have optioned ‘Last Days of Jack Sparks’ with a view to adapting it as a feature film. How’s this going?
It’s going very well so far, thanks. I’m writing the first draft of the screenplay myself and am having a great time. It’s a real privilege to not only get to revisit the story, but to write some different, new things for Jack to say and do. After writing prose for a while, it’s also wonderful to write a script, because the pages seem to move so damn fast! It’s amazing.

ron-howardRon Howard

How important do you think it is for ‘Last Days of Jack Sparks’ that a company with such visionary power is on board bringing your visionary feast to life?
In my wildest dreams I couldn’t think of someone more qualified than Ron Howard to bring this book to the screen! It’s been a wonderfully bizarre and surreal development, for Imagine to option the book and show so much faith in me as a screenwriter. Talk about living the dream.

Ron Howard said that “Jack Sparks is a tremendously fascinating, entertaining, and entirely contemporary movie character. His journey into the supernatural and his clashes with those forces and with himself are hilarious, disturbing, exciting and surprising as hell. I couldn’t put the book down and I believe it will be a blast for audiences to experience the movie version.” How does it make you feel when hearing this feedback from the great Oscar winning director Ron Howard about Jack Sparks? 
It makes me feel great. It also makes me feel as though I’ve drifted into some alternate dimension where wonderful things happen.

How are you finding adapting your novel into a screenplay?
So far, it’s going very well! We’re taking a different approach in some ways, because books and films each have their own strengths. Several of the ‘set pieces’ seem to translate pretty well from book to screen, but it’s early days yet.

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I have personally enjoyed reading your banter with ‘fans’, whether these be bad reviews on Amazon, or highlighting people’s stupidity with promises of impending doom – do you like having this open dialogue and being approachable with your readership?
Yes, I love a chat on Twitter. One of the joys of the positive reaction to Jack Sparks is having complete strangers popping up on Twitter to tell me they liked the book. I only hope I’m not misunderstood when I post the occasional negative review, though. I definitely don’t do it so that people will rally around and reassure me – I do it because it’s funny, because few authors tend to do that. I post lots of shining reviews, so to post the odd bad one (my Amazon favourite is a two-word review “Stupid book”) amuses me. Also, people are more likely to read a bad review than a good one, and they end up on the book’s Amazon page either way! I don’t understand the idea that you can have lots of great reviews and then a single bad one can lodge itself in your gut – if the consensus is good, then I’m more than happy. If someone buys my book, they’re great and entitled to whatever non-libelous opinion they want to share. The only thing that ever exasperates me is a spoilerific review without a spoiler warning.

What is the best piece of advice you received?
Almost ten years ago, Russell T Davies read a couple of drafts of a script of mine, because he’s an incredibly kind and generous man. He had a real go at me for having left careless ‘draft hangover’ mistakes in the second draft and it was brilliant, because to this day it makes me read and re-read my work more than I might otherwise have done. Not advice as such, then, but every bit as valuable as good advice.

As fans of the short story, can we expect an anthology of your creepy goodness in the future?
Yes, I’d love to do one, but first I need enough stories to fill it. As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t written as much short-form fiction over the past year as I expected, that’s for sure. But one day!

We understand that you’re working on your second book; could you share anything with us at this point on your progress or subject matter?
Yes! The second book exists. It’s called Key Man. Set in Las Vegas, it’s about a hooded figure who walks the streets, holding one key. He tries the key in each front door lock he comes to. And when his key matches a lock, he enters and terrible things happen! Beyond that, I’m not at liberty to say. Especially as it’s not out until January 2018.

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What are you presently reading and what books or authors would you highly recommend?
I just read The White Road by Sarah Lotz, who wrote The Three, which was amazing. This is amazing too, not least because Sarah did so much research for it, potholing and mountain climbing! It’s a super-creepy book too, which is always a bonus. Other authors I would recommend, apart from the aforementioned Palahniuk and King, include Lauren Beukes, Chuck Palahniuk, Claire North, John Higgs, M.R.Carey, Joe Hill, William Peter Blatty, Enid Blyton and David Wong.

With a career in journalism for Kerrang, does music play a big part in your creative process, if so how?
Yes, sometimes I love to write to thrash metal music, industrial electronic music or classic pop like Blondie. Thinking about it, music plays the biggest part in my process during the very first draft, as part of the ritual of plucking stuff out of the ether. Perhaps when I’m editing I need more peace and quiet.

Quick Fire Round

Who would you cast as Jack Sparks?
I’d be happy with so many actors. Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Jake Gyllenhaal

Who would you cast as Maria Corvi?
Hmm, hard to say since she’s thirteen. Can’t think of any actors around that age. So I’ll entrust that job to Ron Howard. Ha!

What did you think of the new ‘Exorcist’ television show?
Haven’t seen it yet!

What did you think of ‘Westworld’?
I liked it. Creepy and very clever.

Is there anything you’re scared of?
God yes. Two that spring to mind, worldwide, are the rise of stupid intolerance and the slow death of empathy.

Who’s the most famous person you’ve interviewed or who had you star struck?
I’d have to say Tom Baker had me the most starstruck and is also one of my more famous interviewees. I went to his home for Doctor Who Magazine in 2009, which was amazing. We started the interview in his kitchen, then took his dog Poppy for a walk in his woods. One of the greatest days of my life and I was really happy with the two-part interview which I believe you can still read on Tom’s official site. Incidentally, I wrote a non-fiction book on the topic of interviewing people – it’s called How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else.

As an adult have you ever been in a fight?
Nope. The nearest I got was about 10 years ago. A mad bloke was intimidating people in a fast food restaurant. When I stepped in, he threatened to give me “the golden needle”. To this day, I still don’t know what the golden needle would have been.

Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees?
Jason Voorhees for me – way cooler mask. Plus he uses all manner of different weapons whereas Michael tends to be lumbered with a boring old kitchen knife.

Freddy Krueger or Pinhead?
Interesting one. Pinhead, I suppose, given that Freddy ended up delivering a few too many one-liners.

Stephen King or James Herbert?
Stephen King. Nothing against James Herbert, mind – I’m pretty sure I’ve enjoyed his books.

Best five John Carpenter films?
The Thing (obviously), Escape From New York, The Fog, Halloween, Ghosts Of Mars.

For those who may be unfamiliar with your work, how best would you describe your writing; and of course the superb ‘Last Days of Jack Sparks’?
That’s a tough one, to describe your own work like that. All I can say is what I try to achieve, which is to scare the reader and convince them that anything can happen. I also try to make them laugh and ensure they have a good time, while working their emotions like some insane puppeteer! The Last Days Of Jack Sparks attempts to do all these things, as do the forthcoming Key Man and my previous short-form books Beast In The Basement, A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home, Auto Rewind and American Hoarder.

Hopefully your readers unfamiliar with my scribblings might be tempted to check one of these titles out. They can grab American Hoarder for free when they subscribe to my newsletter The Necronoppicon at JasonArnopp.com! With that plug out of the way, all that remains is for me to thank you, Storgy, for this fine and epic interview! Hugely appreciated. Good day to you.

 Find out more about Jason Arnopp:

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 The Last Days of Jack Sparks was published by Orbit Books on 28th July 2016.
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