James S. Murray, better known as “Murr” to fans of the prank-based show Impractical Jokers on truTV, had a calling long before he joined his Staten Island friends in laughing at each other’s expense for a living. As it turns out, the reality television star also has a talent for writing thrillers, and devoted readers have made his debut novel, Awakened, co-authored by Darren Wearmouth, a Publishers Weekly and Sunday Times bestseller. Murray spoke to us about the inspiration for his action-packed horror novel and teased the rest of the trilogy still to come.
In Awakened, construction crews extending a New York subway line to New Jersey unknowingly release a subterranean predator, and the attempt to contain the threat engulfs the city, the president of the United States, and a secret organization that knows more than it’s letting on. But it was the subway setting that initially inspired Murray, especially considering his own difficulties as a Staten Island commuter when the book was written over a decade ago.
“The Z train ends at Broad Street,” Murray explains. “Why don’t they extend it to Staten Island and New Jersey? It would be perfect! So it does come from a real place of pain,” Murray admits. “As a native Staten Islander, it is very frustrating commuting to Manhattan.” This frustration and the dream of subways reaching into the Jersey suburbs may have provided the explanation for the underground creatures’ escape, but the dark tunnels also appealed to Murray’s horror sensibility for the novel.
“[Taking] the subway late at night, like 2:30 in the morning, there were many times I’d be on the train, and the car would be empty; it was just me in there,” says Murray, setting the scene. “And fourteen years ago when I wrote the book, sometimes the train would lose connection with the third rail — it would happen a lot back then — and you’d be plunged into darkness, and the air would go off. You’d be alone in the car, and you’d be like, ‘This is kind of scary!’… so that’s where the idea hatched.”
Awakened originated as a short story that became a chapter in the novel, but not the opening one as one might expect. “If you can believe it, I wrote all of Awakened around one chapter,” Murray says. “That was the idea for the whole thing, so I figured out what happened that led to this and then where it went from there… it’s the middle of chapter six, where the two cops are on foot walking through the tunnel, and they hear the sound of a little girl’s voice from the breach going ‘Heeellp Meeee!’ That’s what inspired the whole book.”
In the days before Impractical Jokers made him instantly marketable, the novel wasn’t simply rejected by publishers; the unsolicited manuscript was sent back unread despite Murray’s certainty that he had written something special. “I felt like I’d put together a really exciting, fast, action-packed, pulse-pounding thriller that captured the energy and the craziness of a real emergency, you know?” Murray laments. “A lot of times you read a book or you see a movie or TV show, and you’re like, ‘That just doesn’t feel real to me!’ That moment, when things are going crazy, it is chaos! Your brain is only partly working as it’s trying to absorb all this new information, and I wanted to capture that.”
Harper Collins brought on veteran horror novelist, Darren Wearmouth, to help polish up the languishing manuscript, and it was a perfect match. “[Darren] and I have very complementary skill sets,” says Murray. “I’m good at pace and dialogue and action and cliffhangers because I think in those terms from TV development, and he’s excellent at character and description and overall structure of a novel. So we worked together and whipped the book into shape into what you have now in bookstores. Book two and three are much more collaborative; we’re riffing on ideas and building on each other.”
After the success of the summer release of Awakened, the second and third books in the trilogy will be published over the next two years at the same time, starting with the second book on June 18, 2019, and Murray is ready to tease details of the next installment. “I’ve already announced what book two is called,” he says. “It’s called The Brink, and book two does take humanity right to the brink. I have the cover, too; I’ll release it soon, but it is scary as hell.”
The Brink will continue the themes of Awakened, and for those who have read the first novel, Tom Cafferty will be a familiar protagonist. “Awakened is very much about obsession. The first book is about the mayor, Mayor Cafferty, who has been so obsessed with success in his goal, in his dream, in his legacy that he loses track of everything. He loses track of what’s right and wrong; he loses track of his marriage; and he has to come to terms with that in book one. Book two is about obsession as well.”
In The Brink, however, the obsessiveness comes from an antagonist introduced late in Awakened, Albert Van Ness, the leader of the shadowy organization known as The Foundation, whose knowledge of the predators released in New York runs deep. “Book two is all about Cafferty and Van Ness,” explains Murray, “both men equally obsessed, both men wanting revenge on each other and going after each other. It is very much about The Foundation, book two.”
As for book three, Murray can only hint at the stakes that will be raised to the ultimate level. “Well, when you take down the Foundation that’s been hunting these creatures the past eighty years, what happens then?” asks Murray. “I have no idea what [the book] will be called yet, but the idea is extinction. There can only be one apex predator on Earth. Who’s gonna win?”
If Awakened is any indication, humanity’s victory is anything but assured! Murray’s first novel is available for purchase now, and his follow-up, The Brink, can be pre-ordered before its June 18, 2019 release. Murray is currently on tour with the Impractical Jokers promoting the group’s upcoming summer movie according to the schedule available at http://awakenednovel.com.
Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter. The full audio of this interview will be available in an upcoming edition of The Den of Geek Podcast.
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