Impractical Joker James Murray gets serious about sci-fi in his new book Awakened

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Jul 2, 2018, 6:00 PM EDT

Over the course of seven years as part of the quartet of best friends at the heart of TruTV's Impractical Jokers, James Murray has lived out a dream. Starring in a comedic reality show in which you hang out with childhood pals and dare one another to do insane stuff is about as good as it gets — especially when the show is this successful.

Impractical Jokers have a fanbase that rivals almost any geeky franchise. The group's tour recently sold out Madison Square Garden, as well as five nights at London's O2 Arena, in large part because the guys themselves (the others: Sal Vulcano, Joe Gatto, and Brian Quinn) are so damn likable. They're having more fun than anyone else on TV — in the interest of full disclosure, I knew the group peripherally in high school, which might make me biased, though it also means that I know for sure they are actually fun in person.

But while Jokers provides an outlet for the id in all of us, the cast included, Murray does have other interests beyond pranking his friends. He is a lifelong sci-fi fan — he has a "full wall of functioning lightsabers" in his apartment — and has long harbored ambitions to be a writer, having earned a degree in English during undergrad. After years of hustling on TV, he released his first book of fiction, Awakened, co-written with UK author Darren Wearmouth, a nail-biting sci-fi ride that's dead serious about its thrills and chills.

Murray spoke to SYFY WIRE by phone from Richmond, Virginia, in the midst of his book release tour to talk about the novel and his geek history.

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So your book just came out in late June. How far back does your love of sci-fi and horror go?

Oh, wow, my whole life. I grew up watching; my favorite movies are A Nightmare on Elm Street, John Carpenter's The Thing, the Alien movies (of course 1 and 2 are the best). The Matrix I love, it changed my life. The Descent is the best horror movie ever made; Event Horizon is one of the best. The Ring, when it first came out, was terrifying. I've loved comedy and horror, and thrillers, my whole life. Oh, A Quiet Place was amazing. John Krasinski nailed it. It's such a good story, and so well told.

If there were franchises you were a really big fan of when you were growing up, that would have been A Nightmare on Elm Street and Alien(s), then?

I would say Aliens more than anything, Aliens for sure. Star Trek, Star Wars. Quantum Leap.

Quantum Leap! Who could not love Quantum Leap? What led you from being a fan to writing your first book?

I wrote the novel 14 years ago, long before Jokers. I spent a year of my life writing Awakened, honing it as this very fast-paced summer-beach-read kind of page-turner. And the next year, I sent it out to every agent and publisher and it got returned to me... are you ready for this? Unopened. Sealed! They didn't even open the envelope! I couldn't get a single person to read it.

That's awful... and probably the experience of a lot of first-time writers.

And so about a year ago I thought, you know, that book was great, I loved writing it. So I sent it in to HarperCollins and one day later they bought the trilogy from me.

So it's a trilogy?

Yes. Every summer for the next two years there's going to be a brand-new Awakened book coming out.

Can you describe the story in your own words?

Sure. In the near future, New York City builds an extension onto the existing Z subway train, and they modernize the whole thing. Underneath the East River they build this gorgeous, underwater Visitor's Pavilion, glass, steel, super high-tech. The Pavilion is the hub where all the trains meet. On the inaugural run of the train, on the train itself is the mayor's wife and a hundred lucky New Yorkers who basically won the lottery. When the train pulls into the underwater pavilion, all the passengers are missing, there's a bloodied crimson handprint on the wall of the car, and the windows are shattered outward. So the questions are: What happened in the subway tunnel? Are the passengers still alive? Is the mayor's wife still alive? What you come to learn in the book is that what's going on underneath New York City is far more terrifying than anything you've ever imagined.

Even as otherworldly as it is, I feel like your average New Yorker who's ridden the subway will be like, "Yep, this would happen."

"As if we don't have enough trouble with subway fare hikes!"

Roughly 65% of sci-fi seems to include something crazy happening to New York City [my fan-based guesstimate]. How does actually being from New York affect you writing about New York?

As a New Yorker, you know: You'd be on the subway, it'd be late at night, you're coming home from getting a drink or hanging out with friends... You're in the car by yourself, the train comes to a stop. You're on your way to Brooklyn, you're on the R train, the train comes to a stop between the stations, and then the train loses connection to the third rail. The air conditioning would shut off, and the lights would go out. And it would be pitch blackness in the subway tunnel, and your mind starts to wander,and you think: this is an experience unlike anything else. It's a unique, claustrophobic, existential fear. And you don't realize how tensely you're living until you leave New York [briefly] and you're like "Oh my God."

That "what-if" tension definitely comes across in the book. I've read that Awakened is already in talks to be filmed for TV. But, going in a different direction, if you were going to pitch a Sharknado-style comedy/thriller TV show, what would you pitch?

Did you know that I'm in the new Sharknado movie?

I did not know that.

I'm in the new one that comes out later this year, Sharknado 6. I don't know how much I'm allowed to say, but I'm in it, I have a cameo, they let me improvise, and I get killed in a spectacular way. It was the best.


James S. Murray's book with Darren Wearmouth, Awakened, is available from HarperCollins. The Impractical Jokers will be hosting their annual block party at San Diego Comic Con on Saturday, July 21. And in August, Murray will be appearing, somehow, in a tornado made of sharks.