Jason Arnopp, a busy journalist and script-writer whose work has appeared in publications as diverse as Heat Magazine and Doctor Who Magazine has contributed to the Audio Go BBC Doctor Who/Sarah Jane Adventure ranges and also wrote the 2005 Friday 13th spin-off novel Hate-Kill-Repeat. His first full-length feature film script credit, the supernatural thriller Stormhouse, was released on DVD in the UK earlier this year. Jason's first original horror novella, the chilling Beast in the Basement, has been available for download since last month and has been attracting rave reviews. Jason recently spoke with Starburst Magazine and explained exactly how he got his beast into his basement...
Starburst: What was the inspiration for Beast in the Basement?
Jason Arnopp: That’s now a hard question to answer, as this story has been in my life for a while. In 2008 or thereabouts, I wrote it as a one-off 60-minute TV drama script called Happy Ever After. The story was pretty much the same, but after deciding to convert it to prose, I ended up adding plenty more to it, giving it a slightly nastier edge and improving the whole thing greatly. When you’re writing your lead character in the ‘present-tense first-person’, it becomes so much easier to get inside his head. There are suddenly so many more questions that you have to answer. Weirdly, I once thought that Happy Ever After would be impossible to carry off in prose form. I was wrong.
Was the story always intended to be written as a novella?
As I said, it didn’t start life as a novella, but there’s no question in my mind that it’s novella-sized. A few people have said they wished Beast in the Basement was longer, but it’s the kind of story that must not outstay its welcome! And hopefully it doesn’t.
Was the story fully-structured when you started the actual writing process?
These days, I rarely jump into writing before something’s at least 90 per cent worked out. With Beast in the Basement, it certainly helped that I had the Happy Ever After script to work from, but I didn’t want to stick to that template so rigidly. This was a whole other medium, after all, and the story was four years old. I wanted to free myself a little and see what happened, within the basic structure of the story, so when I was writing the novella I only referred to the script very occasionally. As readers will see, Beast has a very definite structure in certain respects, but at times I also wanted to let the main character do what he liked. Which sounds like a terribly pretentious thing to say, but sometimes characters really do seem to develop their own freewill.
Beast in the Basement strikes us as something of a cautionary tale, warning perhaps of the ‘cult of celebrity’ surrounding certain authors and franchises. Does this reflect your own concerns about particular areas of publishing?
To be honest, no, but I guess it could be read that way. For me, it’s more of a cautionary tale for parents, but it depends who the reader sympathises with most! I like the fact that it’s impossible to empathise with a character, without agreeing with what they’re doing. I’m very much anti-censorship and there lies the key to my own intentions while writing Beast in the Basement, along with the opening dedication ‘to scapegoats everywhere’.
You’ve previously written for established series like Friday the 13th, Doctor Who etc. Was it liberating to create and work with your own characters and situations in prose form for the first time?
I wouldn’t say “liberating” as such, because I love working in both of those worlds. Doctor Who especially has been a part of my life since I was four years old, so it feels like a glorious sandpit rather than a set of shackles. Having said that, any writer wants to be able to create their very own sandpit. You do enjoy that freedom, while also feeling the added pressure. You don’t have an established franchise to hide behind: this is all-new, all-singing, all-dancing… all you. I had written all-new short stories before (including one, The Screams Next Door, for a charity horror anthology called Voices from the Past) but Beast in the Basement was a much bigger undertaking. I loved writing it, in both of its incarnations.
Beast in the Basement skirts with themes touched upon by Stephen King in Misery. Was Misery a conscious influence on the story?
Not conscious, no, but there’s no doubt that I am a King fan and love Misery. You like to imagine that, the day Stephen King came up the concept for Misery, he popped open a bottle of champagne with joy. A few of King’s stories feature writers as characters, so it’s perfectly understandable to make that connection with Beast in the Basement. There are also a couple of themes which Misery and Beast broadly share, such as obsession. While I wrote, I perhaps only occasionally thought of Misery, to make sure I wasn’t meandering directly into King territory!
Which authors inspire you in your writing? Are you predominantly interested in ‘genre’ (i.e. fantasy-based) material or would you have a crack at a Holby City if the opportunity arose?
When writing horror prose, Stephen King can’t help but be an influence. Over the years, I’ve also admired Shaun Hutson for his unflinching and pacey work. I’m slightly more of a watcher than a reader, though. In film, I like people like Quentin Tarantino (for True Romance, especially), the Coen Brothers (for Fargo, especially), Charlie Kaufman, Woody Allen… and in TV my scriptwriting heroes are people like Tony Jordan, Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, Toby Whithouse, Shawn Ryan - ingenious writers with flair and soul. Some might not think of this last one as an author, as such, but to me the stand-up comedian Stewart Lee is a truly great writer/artist. I’m inspired by his stand-alone attitude, plus the thought and attention he devotes to his work, and he makes me laugh like no-one else. Genre fare is definitely where I tend to lean, but I like anything with some form of intensity, and/or great characters. For that reason, I’d love to write Holby City, as it has both of those qualities. So do shows like Waterloo Road, EastEnders and Casualty. Of course, there’s no doubt that writing Doctor Who, the TV show, would be a real dream come true for me.
The novella is only available to download at the moment. What’s your opinion of the rise of the download novel?
I’m a big fan. This whole sea change in publishing is especially relevant when you’re talking about a novella like Beast in the Basement. By and large, ‘trad’ publishing has only been interested in novels. They might, at a push, be interested in a short story collection. Something in the no man’s land between those two extremes, like a novella, wouldn’t be of interest. The ‘Kindle revolution’ has proven that book buyers don’t think that way. They just want stories they can pick up and read, whatever the length, provided they’re getting value for money. As so many more things fight for our increasingly limited attention spans, it’s arguable that many people are starting to prefer the shorter story. Plenty will always want the super-immersive fantasy epics, but the leaner and often meaner story is clearly on the up. I also love the freedom of indie publishing. The way in which authors can put their stories out there, without a whole chain of execs pitching in and giving notes. Provided the author never loses sight of the fact that he or she always needs a good editor, this is a healthy enough development. Their stories can be just the way they want them. The main thrust of my career lies in scriptwriting, which can sometimes be a long and slightly testing process, so it did feel liberating to write Beast in the Basement, running it by a handful of trusted readers and note-givers before inflicting it on the universe. It felt like a really fun experiment and something new.
You‘ve mentioned earlier about getting ‘inside the head' of your characters. Is that something you find easy to do?
I actually did find it quite easy. Once you’re sure about who your character is, writing as them in the first person isn’t so much of a challenge. The tough bit is getting them straight in your head beforehand. Knowing who they are. Beast’s main character may be a writer, but he’s completely different to me. When writing things you don’t agree with, you do have that slight concern that readers might think the character is you! I thought about this for a moment while writing Beast in the Basement, then thought about American Psycho and all the worries went away.
You recently scripted supernatural sci-fi thriller Stormhouse. How did that come about?
I’d worked on a couple of short films and a comedy sketch show pilot with a British director called Dan Turner. One night in a Soho pub in May 2010, he casually mentioned that he had an idea for a film about the military capturing a ghost. I fell off the back of my chair, and then it was all we could talk about for the rest of the night. Dan had been looking into various bouts of paranormal activity in Suffolk military bases, and his research helped us firm up Stormhouse’s plot. In August 2010, we were in a Suffolk military base, shooting the film. The whole thing was a very fast, exhilarating process. The following June, Stormhouse had its world premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival, which was of course loads of fun, before heading down south to the wonderful London Film 4 FrightFest. There’s a received wisdom in this country that it’s impossible to get a film made without jumping through various film council hoops. I say it’s only impossible if you decide it is.
Are you planning any full-length original novels?
Not right now. At the moment, I think my next prose thing may well be a short, scary story. Scriptwriting, as I said, is my main focus, but really I take everything on a story-by-story basis. If I come up with a tale which might work best in prose, that’s the medium I’ll choose for it. In truth, though, I really like novella-length stories. I don’t read many enormo-novels and frankly lose patience with them. I definitely like my stories lean and mean, in the same way that I always love an 85-minute film.
What can we expect next from Jason Arnopp?
Since Stormhouse, I’ve written a couple of horror feature screenplays which my agent is shopping around. I would love those to be made. I’m also working with a production company on a genre film which was their basic idea and is great fun. In TV, I’m co-writing a pilot script with someone, and I really wish I could tell you who that is, because it excites the hell out of me. Hopefully, one day, it will all come to light when this series hits screens! Lastly, following on from my non-fiction guide How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else, I have a couple of other non-fiction e-books up my sleeve - one of which will be a collection of my favourite interview articles I wrote during my past life as a rock journalist.
What advice would you give to struggling writers or anyone who thinks they’ve got a story they want to tell?
God, there’s so much advice that a new writer needs. You’ll find various motivational essays on my website at JasonArnopp.com - many of which take on a healthy, ‘tough love’ attitude. I’d also recommend the sites of writers James Moran, Danny Stack and Chuck Wendig. One of the most important things I’d say, though, is to think of your writing career as a long game. Don’t be in any rush. If you’re learning to write, let that happen across many, many stories which only friends and families may see. You only get one chance to impress most professionals and in the early days, your work is never as ready as you think it is. That’s a really tough lesson to learn. A lot of hard work, a little patience and self-control, along with the utmost respect and consideration for people whose help you want, will go a very long way.