❉ We chat with Jason Arnopp, whose found footage novel ‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’ was hailed by Alan Moore as a “magnificent millennial nightmare”.
We Are Cult recently chatted with Jason about his latest book, ‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’ and his diverse writing career, which includes a number of Doctor Who tie-ins (anthologies, audio books, audio dramas and comic strips), independent film and a stint writing for metal bible ‘Kerrang!’
Tell us a little about your childhood. Were you creative?
I was, thanks mainly to Doctor Who, which ignited my young brain while also terrifying me on a regular basis. I wrote Doctor Who stories in prose, and also in comic strip form, handling my own – cough, cough – art. I still have those exercise books packed full of stories and occasionally enjoy having a browse back through them, to try and recapture a sense of the sheer energy that drove those action-packed narratives!
I always thought of Who as a horror show, rather than a sci-fi or fantasy show, and I still do. That show is all things to all viewers.
What were your formative influences?
Besides Doctor Who, I’d cite Enid Blyton’s book ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ as (a) a great story and (b) another really positive influence on the creativity of young minds like mine! ‘The Faraway Tree’ had a different world at the top of it on a regular basis, which very much mirrored the ability of the Doctor’s TARDIS to turn up anywhere. When you read ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’, you couldn’t help imagine your very own world appearing at the tree’s peak.
I was always drawn towards the darker stuff across all media and again, I think I have ‘Doctor Who’ to thank for that. I always thought of Who as a horror show, rather than a sci-fi or fantasy show, and I still do. That show is all things to all viewers. As I grew up, of course, I watched more and more horror films, with classics like ‘The Evil Dead’, John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Blair Witch Project’ embedding themselves in my consciousness. I also gravitated towards Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk who are my favourite authors. One of my very favourite books, though, is ‘House Of Leaves’ by Mark Z Danielewski. A truly deranged and epic gem!
How did you begin your professional writing career?
I was a teenager when the UK rock weekly mag ‘Kerrang!’ advertised for writers to handle the more extreme forms of metal, like thrash metal and death metal. Through that advert, I started writing for them. I remember being astonished when the reviews editor Alison Joy first said she was going to send me a couple of records to review. I literally said, “What, so you mean this review’s going to be printed in the actual magazine?”
One of my most memorable trips was with Cradle Of Filth in Rome, mainly because we got held at gunpoint by The Pope’s enraged guards!
You worked on Kerrang! for several years. Did you get to meet any of your heroes, and what were your most memorable assignments?
I did get to meet plenty of my heroes and I’m happy to say that I can’t think of any who disappointed! Back in the 90s, record companies could still afford to fly journos and photographers around the globe every week, so I caught the last of that era, I think. Some of the most memorable trips were Manic Street Preachers in Japan, Pantera in Baton Rouge, Cradle Of Filth in Rome (mainly because we got held at gunpoint by The Pope’s enraged guards!) and Bon Jovi in Mexico.
Did you background in journalism in any way prepare you for creative writing or understanding the publishing market?
The book publishing market feels a whole entity unto itself, so I wouldn’t say journalism helped me understand that. I reckon journalism helped lay down a few foundations for creative writing, though. It instilled in me a respect for deadlines, that’s for sure. Journalism also helps you decide which details of a story to reveal upfront, in order to coax the reader in. And of course, my time in journalism meant that I was able to write in the persona of a journo like Jack Sparks without it being too much of a stretch! I like to keep in touch with my journalistic side in one way or another: a few years back I released a non-fiction book called ‘How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else’. Nice!
In 2005, you wrote ‘Hate-Kill-Repeat’, a tie-in with the Friday 13th franchise. What was the appeal in getting inside the head of one of slasher film’s most enigmatic serial killers?
Oh, it all appealed to me! I’ve always been a big ‘Friday The 13th’ fan, so that was a dream job – and my first novel too! Because it was my first novel, though, and over 10 years ago, I don’t know if I’d ever dare go back and read it. I still had so very much to learn about writing – and I still very much do, you never stop – but I’m confident that I did, at least, pack it with the highest possible body count I could muster! That book never seemed to be reprinted, and so you tend to see the odd copy on Amazon and eBay these days for crazy prices…
You’ve made a number of contributions to the wider world of Doctor Who fiction in different media. What are the unique challenges and storytelling opportunities behind each medium?
The greatest opportunity presented by audiobooks and audio dramas is this: unlimited budget! And the greatest challenge they pose to the writer is painting vivid pictures in the listener’s head, ideally without too much obvious description in the dialogue, such as, ‘Look, Doctor – the Dalek has keeled over, then tumbled off that cliff!’ You have to sneak as many visuals in as you can, using sounds as well as dialogue, of course.
Doctor Who has provided a lot of writers with opportunities for professional writing; would you say it is a good training ground for writers?
I wouldn’t say Doctor Who, in any medium, would necessarily be the best training ground for the newer writer, mainly because Who is pretty tough to get right. It might seem like a show/format in which a mad bloke turns up on a planet with a companion, fights some foe or other, then hops back into his police box, but the reality is way more demanding for a writer. Then again, sometimes landing in the deep end can be a great experience for a writer, because it forces them to sink or swim!
You wrote a one-off TV drama, ‘Ghost Writer’, in 2009. Were your experiences of working on a short-form TV production useful? What did you learn?
Yes, that was very useful, especially as that particular production had plenty of logistical constraints! The 30-minute script had to be set in a maximum of three locations (although that craftily became four on the day!), have a maximum of six characters, a maximum of 20 scenes and no special effects or anything too technically demanding. Oh and the whole thing had to be shot in four hours! So that was a brilliant exercise for everyone involved. Necessity is the mother of invention.
In 2011, you were both script writer and producer of the independent horror feature ‘Stormhouse’. Then in 2012, you script-edited the film ‘The Man Inside’, which featured Peter Mullan and Michelle Ryan. Tell us about your experiences on those projects.
They were both wonderful experiences, both with the director Dan Turner. The films are very different, which is good! ‘Stormhouse’ was a particularly remarkable experience because the whole production team lived in a remote military base during the whole shoot! It was distinctly creepy and silent at night. Pitch black, which helped to create the supernatural mood. It also seemed good for the actors, especially those playing military parts, as they could get into the right frame of mind pretty easily!
In 2012, you published the novella ‘Beast In The Basement’ and ‘A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home’. How did those projects come about? What were the inspirations behind them?
I love the instant nature of self-publishing. Or, at least, once the long journey towards finishing a story is complete, you can publish it on Amazon or wherever pretty much immediately. So that appealed to me, and when I had the idea for ‘A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home’ – a short story set in the home of whoever reads it – I was able to publish that in a flurry of excited activity! I’d already published ‘Beast In The Basement’, which is a longer piece and more of a twisty thriller! ‘Beast’ actually helped me to secure my wonderful agent, Oli Munson at AM Heath, and it continues to be one of my most popular stories.
You use Patreon to support your prolific output of short stories. What attracted you to Patreon, and what are your thoughts on the crowd funding model for creatives? Do you see crowdfunding as the future for indie publishers?
I think it’s healthy for authors to work in traditional publishing, while maintaining a certain degree of independence, purely to mix it up. I was attracted to Patreon by the way it allows fans to support creators on an ongoing basis, and it was certainly fun making my pledge video which was directed by my good friend and Doctor Who/Torchwood/Severance writer James Moran! But the main reason I’ve used Patreon, is to attract new readers by making short stories available for free. People can then decide to pledge to me if they like. It’s a long game, but I always knew it would be. Crowdfunding could well be the future for indie publishers, but I don’t know. I do think crowdfunding has some pretty crazy prize points, like £10 for an ebook…
Your book, ‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’, is out now in mass market paperback. What’s it about?
It’s about the arrogant celebrity journalist Jack Sparks, who sets out to write a non-fiction book debunking the supernatural… and then ends up dead. So it’s a book within a book. A found footage book, if you will. We know from the start that Jack’s dead, so reading his last ever book is all about the how and the why. And hopefully some big scares and laughs along the way!
Who is publishing ‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’? What have they been like to work with?
Orbit Books have been absolutely amazing to work with. There’s no finer feeling for an author (apart from maybe typing ‘The End’), than to feel backed up by a team at the top of their game, as Orbit are, from editing to marketing to PR to the production side of things. What a giddy pleasure it was to sign a two-book deal with them in June 2015.
You recently received a glowing endorsement from the legendary Alan Moore. What was THAT like?
That was utterly surreal! I found out that the mighty Mr Moore loves ‘The Last Days Of Jack Sparks’ when he left a voicemail message on my phone, saying as much. I kept expecting to wake up, but it never happened – not even when I later had a phone chat with him, in which he told me again how much he likes it. Incredible. He gave us a wonderful quote for the book (including “A magnificent millennial nightmare!”), which he actually wrote on a notepad. I have that sheet of paper framed on my desk, as you can imagine.
What else are you working on at the moment?
Book Two! This will be a standalone book, unrelated to Jack Sparks. A supernatural thriller, perhaps with fewer obvious comedic elements, but it’s too soon to be sure about that judgement! Hopefully it will be seriously gripping and scary and make you feel afraid in your own home, which is always an objective of mine because I’m evil.
What projects do you have planned for the future?
More novels, I hope! Having worked in various media, I really feel like I’ve come home to roost in the world of prose. I do like the added control you have as an author in this medium, even though the fact that the buck really stops with you can be unnerving at times! And who knows, maybe there’ll be a Jack Sparks movie, somewhere down the line…
How can people find out more about your work?
My website at JasonArnopp.com is the place to start: hopefully it provides a clear enough picture of stuff I’ve done. You can also find out more about me and my ludicrous hobbies, such as collecting old video shop movies on VHS! Oh, and it has two of those free stories I was telling you about: ‘Auto Rewind’ and ‘American Hoarder’. Go get ‘em under the Free Books tab!
What words of advice would you give to any budding writers?
The main thing is write a whole load of stuff, most of which is probably going to be quite poor at first, but you’ll learn from all mistakes. Over time, you’ll build a healthy storytelling instinct: you’ll know when a story’s wrong, even if you don’t immediately know how to fix it. Don’t fear notes from people who know what they’re talking about. Seriously, notes from people who know what they’re talking about are gold dust! Lastly, be yourself. Be you. Don’t look at other writers’ work and think, ‘Oh God, I could never have thought of that’. Chances are, that writers would never be able to think of your stuff either, because you have a life and a personality and a set of preoccupations that are unique to you.
Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview.
❉ ‘The Last Days of Jack Sparks’ by Jason Arnopp is out now from Orbit Publishing, the SF and Fantasy imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, RRP £8.99.
❉ An earlier version of this interview appeared on Daily Waffle.
❉ Kind regards to Jason Arnopp, Clara Diaz and the estate of Jack Sparks for their assistance in facilitating this interview.