Please welcome Jason Arnopp to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Last Days of Jack Sparks was published on September 13th by Orbit.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Jason: Hello! Thanks very much for ushering me in. I started writing at around the age of five, having been inspired by Tom Baker-era Doctor Who and Enid Blyton stories like The Magic Faraway Tree. I created my own comic strips and short stories, all of which involved an explosion roughly every five seconds.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Jason: I’m very much a hybrid, so you could call me a plotser. I establish a skeletal framework, which tends to work out the story’s big turning points, and I try to decide what the story’s really about (although this will often change). Then I dive on in and work it out as I go. This can cause me untold trouble, in the form of rewriting and wailing and gnashing of teeth, but I think it’s important to engage the subconscious mind and let the story grow the right way. I find it extraordinarily difficult to put myself entirely into character’s heads before I start writing them. It’s like the difference between viewing them from above, as if they’re chess pieces, and actually possessing them like some kind of demon.
When I do go off the story rails, incidentally, that’s when I tend to turn to hardcore plotting wisdom. I kind of treat story structure templates like they’re Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad – I only call them when I’m in trouble.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Jason: It would honestly be quicker to tell you what I don’t find challenging. I pretty much find it all very challenging and sometimes just unpleasantly difficult. The more writing experience you gain, the harder it arguably seems to become, because you get a more accurate idea of what it actually takes if you want to really achieve things and break any kind of new ground. For me, the most challenging thing about writing is that each new project seems to require a whole new skillset. It’s not like you learn your trade and then it’s plain sailing, oh no. What a ludicrous way to try and earn a living.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing? How does having a background in journalism affect (or not) your fiction writing?
Jason: I’m influenced by every genre thing I’ve ever enjoyed, and some I haven’t. Particularly things involving the supernatural, or what seems to involve the supernatural. So that would be everything from Doctor Who to The Evil Dead to Stephen King to Mark Z Danielewski’s House Of Leaves to Scooby Doo to John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. Chuck Palahniuk is also one of my favourite authors: I love how he has his very own style, and takes such unflinching looks at the human condition.
To make the obvious joke, journalism certainly trained me in the art of making stuff up! But actually that’s not true, because I was always lucky to avoid the dark side of journalism that involves ruining lives or bugging people’s phones. Spending over a decade on a weekly rock magazine certainly prepared me for deadlines and possibly taught me how to work out what to write first in any given piece. And in the case of The Last Days Of Jack Sparks, of course, it helped me write a journalist character with some degree of authority.
TQ: Describe The Last Days of Jack Sparks in 140 characters or less.
Jason: It’s a scary and funny thriller about an arrogant celebrity journalist who sets out to debunk the supernatural and ends up dead. #JackSparks
TQ: Tell us something about The Last Days of Jack Sparks that is not found in the book description.
Jason: At one point, the book incorporates a scenario based on a real-life thing called The Philip Experiment. In 1972, a group of Toronto researchers invented their own fictional character then tried to summon him into some form of existence. The results remain ambiguous to this day, making the whole thing rather fascinating. I changed its name to The Harold Experiment in this book, for reasons which should become plain enough when you read it.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Last Days of Jack Sparks? What appealed to you about writing a psychological thriller?
Jason: I do like to climb inside characters’ heads and have a natural curiosity about life’s big questions. So I suppose I combined both interests by writing about a guy who travels the world looking to disprove the existence of ghosts. It appealed to me to make Jack an unreliable narrator, because that can be a useful way to reveal character while keeping the reader guessing.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Last Days of Jack Sparks?
Jason: Of the global locations featured in the book, Hong Kong was the one I hadn’t visited in a long time, so Google Street View really helped there. God bless Google Street View, it’s a real unsung hero for writers. One brief part of the book is told from the POV of a flight stewardess, so I interviewed my friend Phill Barron, who works in the air as well as being a prolific screenwriter. Perhaps the most research-intensive topic in the book, though, was combat magic. More about that in a minute…
TQ: In The Last Days of Jack Sparks who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Jason: I hate to say it, but Jack was the easiest character to write. I’m not sure what that says about me, but it’s true nonetheless. The thing is, authors regularly seesaw between egotism and self-loathing, so perhaps it’s healthy to let some of that ego run riot through a fictional character. A lot of people siphon out some of their worst traits out through writing and maybe I’m one of ‘em. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
So, the hardest character to write? That was Sherilyn Chastain. Since Sherilyn’s a combat magician, she had to know her stuff. Luckily, my friend Cat Vincent is a retired combat magician and could tell me lots of stuff. In fact, plenty of Cat’s sage words went straight into Sherilyn’s mouth, which made reading the book quite an odd experience for him!
TQ: Why have you chosen to include social issues in The Last Days of Jack Sparks?
Jason: I suppose what I chose to include were social media issues. I’d noticed quite a lot of certainty expressed on social media, perhaps as an unconscious response to what often feels like an increasingly chaotic world. There are lots of great things about social media (and about certain kinds of certainty, for that matter), but sometimes it’s hard to escape the nagging sense that Twitter’s a vast room full of people yelling through megaphones, then wondering why no-one’s listening. Often feels like we’re in broadcast mode more often than we’re in receive mode. So that darker side of social media was interesting to me and helped to illuminate Jack’s own character, particularly as his own ego starts to peel away and reveal more of him beneath. Thematically, the book ended up being an exploration of how ego, belief and certainty interact in the social media age.
TQ: Which question about The Last Days of Jack Sparks do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Jason: That’s a great question, I like it. Hmm, let’s see. The ideal question would be, “Would it be a big help if I reviewed the book at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks or Indiebound?” And my answer to this would be, “Hell yes, thank you so much, it would be a bigger help than you know! Especially for a debut novel, positive reviews are gold dust. Or, actually, word of mouth, off or on social media, can be just as valuable. Some folk might imagine that publishers put books out there and people just automatically buy them, but it’s tough – there’s a whole glittering constellation of books out there, vying for readers’ attention. You can practically feel each copy of the book selling, one at a time. When people pop up on Twitter to kindly tell me they enjoyed Jack Sparks, I send them a link to a secret page on my site that tells them how exactly how awesome they are. Word of mouth is vital.”
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Last Days of Jack Sparks.
Jason: My favourite line appears twice in the novel: “There’s no such thing as the Devil”. I also like “No one listens any more. Only when it’s far too late do our ears open wide”.
TQ: What's next?
Jason: I recently delivered the second book in my two-book deal with Orbit Books. This one is standalone and has nothing to do with Jack Sparks, who is after all, as dead as a doornail. It occupies the same general kind of territory, though, being a supernatural thriller. When I write, I aim to create an edgy kind of sense that almost anything can happen, so hopefully that unpredictability comes across in both The Last Days Of Jack Sparks and the next novel. Surprising (and hopefully delighting) readers is so much fun.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Jason: Thanks so much for having me. I had a totally qwiller time!
The Last Days of Jack Sparks
Orbit, September 13, 2016
Hardcover and eBook, 400 pages
"Ingenious and funny . . . Magnificent." -- Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen and V for Vendetta
Jack Sparks died while writing this book.
It was no secret that journalist Jack Sparks had been researching the occult for his new book. No stranger to controversy, he'd already triggered a furious Twitter storm by mocking an exorcism he witnessed.
Then there was that video: forty seconds of chilling footage that Jack repeatedly claimed was not of his making, yet was posted from his own YouTube account.
Nobody knew what happened to Jack in the days that followed -- until now.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks is spooky and strange. I absolutely love it. The novel's main character, Jack Sparks, is the poster person for unreliable narrator. I don't trust his brother Alistair either. The story is primarily told from Jack's POV in the form of a book he was writing called "Jack Sparks on the Supernatural", which is being edited and published with the help of his brother Alistair who offers his own notes on the events in the book. There are additional POVs included from people who are interacting with Jack and present a different picture of him.
Jack has written 3 prior books - "Jack Sparks on a Pogo Stick", "Jack Sparks on Gangs" and "Jack Sparks on Drugs". He ended up in rehab after that last book.
Jack has already made up his mind that the supernatural is all baloney. The intent of his latest book is to basically rip apart anyone involved with the supernatural and debunk what they are doing. It doesn't go quite as Jack planned. Jack Sparks is dead but how he gets there is a wild ride.
I really disliked Jack for the most part. He's self-important, self-entitled and unpleasant though he's often funny. His motives for writing about the supernatural are suspect. He's not nice. He's rude. However, toward the end of the novel I really came to feel for him, which is not to say I liked him.
Arnopp has put together a wonderful supporting cast for Jack, including his roommate Bex, his brother Alistair, and many of the people he encounters on his global trek to interview those who work in the the supernatural fields - an exorcist from the Church in Italy, a group in the US trying to recreate an experiment from the 1970s during which they try to create a ghost, and Sherilyn Chastain (a combat magician) in Hong Kong.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks is tautly written and breathtakingly paced. Jack is both horrible and fantastic and the supporting cast of characters are well fleshed out.
Arnopp leads the reader deep into the chilling heart of the supernatural and Jack's psyche - neither of which are fun places to be. The Last Days of Jack Sparks is thrilling, astonishingly twisted and fabulous.
Jason Arnopp is a British author and scriptwriter. His background is in journalism: he has worked on titles such as Heat, Q, The Word, Kerrang!, SFX and Doctor Who Magazine. He has written comedy for Radio 4 and official tie-in fiction for Doctor Who and Friday The 13th, but The Last Days of Jack Sparks is the first novel which is entirely Jason's own fault (though some may prefer to lay the blame on Jack...)