When James S. Murray first tried to sell his debut novel, his experience was one that’s painfully familiar to many new writers. Murray spent a year completing his manuscript—a science fiction-tinged horror tale about bloodthirsty subterranean creatures awakened by the construction of a new subway line beneath New York City—and then sent it to practically every publisher and agent in town. The responses were disheartening, to say the least.
“Awakened was the hardest I’ve ever worked on as a single project, no joke,” Murray says. “I spent a year writing it and polishing, getting it into great shape. I wasn’t on TV, I had no connections, I didn’t have a cousin [in the publishing industry] or anything like that. So I sent out probably 100 career letters and the manuscript to every publisher out there. I sent it to every literary agent out there. And it got returned to me, unopened, by every single one.”
Murray shelved his novel and went on to a successful career in comedy and television, serving as senior vice president of development for NorthSouth Productions and co-founding the comedy troupe the Tenderloins. Fourteen years after his first attempt at publication, he tried again—but with vastly different circumstances and results.
Impractical Jokers, a hidden-camera show developed by and starring Murray and three of his high-school friends, premiered on truTV in December 2011, racking up 1.5 million viewers for its debut episode. By the time Murray dusted off his novel in 2017, Jokers was in its sixth season and Murray, now known simply as “Murr” to viewers, had amassed a sizeable fan base. This time, he sent the novel to HarperCollins and had a three-book deal on the table within days.
Now Murray and his co-writer, Darren Wearmouth (brought on board to help polish the first book and complete the two sequels), are celebrating the release of THE BRINK, book two in the Awakened series. This installment finds former NYC mayor Tom Cafferty once again battling the monsters that nearly decimated his city in Awakened. But this time Cafferty and co. are operating on a global scale as they take on the Foundation, a sinister organization that has its own plans for the creatures.
Amidst a schedule packed with live performances, show tapings, and book signings, Murray carved out a few minutes to talk with The Big Thrill about his latest high-octane horror tale.
Tell me about your history as a horror fan. Have you always been drawn to the genre?
Oh absolutely. I’ve always been a fan of horrors and thrillers. Growing up, I was truly obsessed with Ridley Scott’s Alien movies, the Terminator movies, things like that. I grew up reading a lot of Michael Crichton and Stephen King, too.
You completed the first book as a solo effort 15 years ago, and Darren came on board to help polish it. How has your co-writing relationship evolved with THE BRINK?
Darren and I fit together perfectly as a writing team. We have very complementary skills. Darren writes descriptions, settings, and action very well. I excel in dialogue and characterization. So put the two of us together and you’ve got one decent writer [laughs].
The first book was mostly confined to NYC, but THE BRINK is set against a global backdrop. Did opening up the world of the story make it harder or easier to write?
It wasn’t so much that it was easier or harder, but it certainly made it more fun. Touring our live show with the other guys from Impractical Jokers, I’ve been lucky to see a lot of places around the world. So writing about these creatures (spoiler alert) infiltrating humanity on a global scale has been a fun way for me to re-visit and reimagine these places in my mind.
You work in television, a medium that’s very much concerned with keeping viewers tuned in during commercial breaks and returning for new episodes. What has that work taught you about writing novels?
Everything. Long before Jokers, I worked as a senior vice president at a production company for over a decade. Basically, my job was to create, pitch, and sell TV shows. When you’re in a pitch room, you only have a few minutes, if not seconds, to make an impression on whoever is in the room. Your pitch, your story, whatever it is, needs to be catchy. It has to have a hook. In my writing, I try to keep that excitement in every chapter. Each chapter ending should be a huge cliffhanger that leaves the reader wanting more.
Along those lines, are there any creative tricks you’ve honed in your comedy career that carry over to writing horror?
Comedy and horror are basically two sides of the same coin. They’re both about tension, the release of tension, and discomfort in general. A setup/punchline joke is a lot like being chased by a serial killer. The setup is “Will he get me?” You’re left wondering. And the punchline is the answer to that question: “Yes. You’re dead.”
IDW has optioned the TV rights to the series. Any news on that front that you can share?
That’s old news. We bought the rights back from IDW last year. Currently, we’ve reformulated and are now pitching the first book, Awakened, as a standalone movie.
I’ve read that you’re afraid of heights and sharks. Quick, pitch me a novel that combines those phobias.
Hmm…Well unfortunately, Sharknado is already taken. Sharks on a Plane also sounds like the worst sequel to Snakes on a Plane ever. How about a couple stranded on one of those high-altitude suspension bridges above shark-infested waters? They have two options: either starve on the bridge or jump and face the sharks. I don’t know [laughs].
The third installment in the Awakened trilogy is due out next summer. Do you plan to keep writing novels once the series is wrapped up?
Absolutely! This English degree from Georgetown better be worth something! Apart from the third installment of the trilogy, we have at least two more books coming out over the next three years. And more in the works!
James S. Murray is a writer, executive producer, and actor, best known as “Murr” on the hit television show Impractical Jokers on truTV and for his comedy troupe, the Tenderloins. He also served as the senior vice president of development for NorthSouth Productions for over a decade and is owner of Impractical Productions, Inc. Originally from Staten Island, he now lives in Manhattan. Awakened is his first novel. Connect with James on Twitter @jamessmurray.