My guest this week is a prolific horror author. His name is Chris Coppel. He's the author of more than a dozen books in this genre.
Chris also has a famous father who wrote a screenplay for a film that I guarantee you'll know, which has had a huge cultural impact.
I was fascinated to catch up with Chris.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Chris: Screenwriters tend to be more visually minded. And if you can translate that into the written word form, in long form, I think it's going to make a better writer.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: What does it take to write a horror book? Hi there. My name is Bryan Collins. Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast. My guest this week is a prolific horror author. His name is Chris Coppel. He's the author of more than a dozen books in this genre. Chris also has a famous father who wrote a screenplay for a film, that I guarantee you'll know, which has had a huge cultural impact. I was fascinated to catch up with Chris, not just to hear about his famous dad but to understand how he approaches writing horror books and sustaining interest in one genre, niche, or niche if you're in the United States.
My takeaway is that writers should create what they love to read. Rather than looking at amazon.com and trying to figure out what's going to sell the most copies, if you're unsure what to write about, do this. Open up your Kindle app on your phone or on your computer, or look at your bookshelf. Look at all of the books that are on your shelf or inside of the app. Because those are the books that you should try and write too. That's because you spend time and money and your attention reading them. You'll have a much more enjoyable experience if you write what you love to read. This is an idea that I've come across, not just from talking to Chris but from talking to other screenwriter instructors.
A couple of years ago, I went to a storytelling workshop that was hosted by Robert McCain. At the end of the workshop, I asked him, "Robert, what should I write?" He said to complete the exercise that I just described. When I opened up my library, I was surprised to see that there were no genre fiction books in my library. Instead, I found a lot of nonfiction books. This is the genre that I love to read the most, and it's the genre that I write the most. Now, for Chris, on the other hand, he describes how he reads a lot of Stephen King and how this had a huge impact or influence on his work. So, the next time you're unsure about what you should write about, simply write what you love to read. And I guarantee you'll find it much easier than staring at a flashing blank cursor and wondering if anybody will actually go ahead and buy this.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy this interview with Chris. It was a fun one. If you do, hit thumbs up wherever you're listening, or share the show. Or simply just leave a short review on iTunes. Because your reviews and ratings really do help more people find the Become a Writer Today Podcast.
Now, I was actually considering pausing the podcast for some time. But I did decide to commit to another 10 to 12 episodes. So, if you'd like to get more episodes from me, please let me know. You can shoot me an email, or you can simply share your feedback by leaving a review on the iTunes Store. And if you know other writers who would enjoy listening to a podcast like this one, then please also send them a link. Now let's go over to this week's interview.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Chris.
Chris: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Bryan: There's a nice intriguing jam about your father and his impact on your writing career, which we'll get to in a few moments. But before we cover that, could you give the listeners a bit more information about who you are and how your writing journey started?
Chris: My name is Chris Coppel. I started writing very, very early on but not serious writing, just little notes and one-page stories that I did nothing with. But I really enjoyed just the physical act of having these weird thoughts come to me and be able to write them down. Then, I think it was '95, I sat down and I had this great idea for a story where you didn't know — it ends up being a story about the adventures of a dog as told from the dog's perspective. But it's a dark story. It gets dognapped and used for smuggling. It has to actually break out all his friends from a kennel and find their way to London. It's dark and got some scary bits in it.
But all I wanted to do initially was an exercise. I sat down one night. I was working at Warner Brothers. I sat down one night, and I started writing this. I wanted to see how many pages I could get into it without it being recognized that I was writing about a dog. So, I just called her "her" and about how the end of her day, how it felt so wonderful to lie and stretch in front of the fireplace. I kept it going as long as I could before I ended up having her face in a food bowl, which I think probably was the giveaway. I didn't stop. And I ended up writing, over the course of the next four months, about 92,000 words. And the book came out. Originally, it was published by Little Brown Books in America. It came out about a year and a half after I finished.
Bryan: Is this your book Lucky?
Chris: No, Lucky is very dark. We should have a little more talk about that. It's Luck. No Y. That's a complete anti-Trump book. This one, it was originally called Far From Burden Dell when it was published. But I ended up buying the rights back, and I changed the title to Lucy.
Bryan: I'm looking at the cover now. There's a picture of what looks like a dog's tail in a dark alleyway.
Chris: Yeah, that's the one.
Bryan: So, that was your first book?
Chris: That was my first book. And it did very well in the library circuits. I didn't realize the company that published it, their specialty was providing books for American schools and for American libraries. The schools bought it. I don't know whatever happened to it. The libraries bought it. That's another way to make a lot of money. Because basically, once they all have one, that's it. Then I was so disappointed that it didn't get read enough. This was before Amazon was a real factor. I just sort of stopped writing and focused on doing some screenwriting, some rewrites for people.
Bryan: So, would this have been in the 1990s?
Chris: This would have been in the late 1990s, yeah. It wasn't until I moved back to England with my wife in 2019, that I was watching CNN and Donald Trump — it was one of his big arena events where he just blabbers on about absolute nonsense for hours. I got so angry that I switched off the TV, and I started writing what ended up being this book called Luck, which is the story of a child who was born in very strange circumstances after a horrific accident, and has the power to manipulate people. As he grows older, he finds ways to use his power. At different stages in his life, he uses them in different sort of ways as long as he would in that life. He ends up making himself very wealthy in real estate, and then discovers the way he really can make some fame and fortune with manipulation is in politics. And it goes from there. But it's a very, very dark story.
Bryan: Since then, you've written over a dozen books.
Chris: I'm just doing final edits on book number 13 as we speak.
Bryan: I noticed one is under a pen name C J Axelrod.
Chris: C J Axelrod. That one is — I did it under a pen name because it's very loosely based on the story my father wrote that he never — it was optioned probably 20 or 30 times by major production companies. It never got made. He did a book after the fact which had a very, very, very small publishing. It's called Tweedledum and Tweedledee. I still liked the story, and I thought I'd like to take a crack at it. I turned it completely around. It's obviously much newer and much more modern than when he wrote it, which was in the '50s.
It's basically the story of a super celebrity, who starts getting death threats and hires a body double to do standing at some of the large publicity events. And things just go terribly wrong. But I couldn't decide at that time if — because it's sort of a police drama thriller — whether I wanted to do that sort of book. That was the other reason for having it under a different name, to separate it from the horror stuff. But the one I'm doing now is a combination of police and horror. I decided to keep it with Coppel. I think that's the only one you'll ever see from C J Axelrod.
Bryan: Sometimes it's good to experiment with different genres or niches.
Chris: Which is kind of hard for something else in a different name too.
Bryan: Yeah, it can be. So, you mentioned it was based on a work by your father. Of course, he wrote something a lot more famous.
Chris: Yes, he wrote Vertigo for Alfred Hitchcock. He wrote a few things for Alfred Hitchcock. But that was probably his most famous one. It's probably the one that when people hear that that's my father, they just think, "Oh, my God. You must be an incredible writer." I have to explain that the gene might come down the want to write. But the talent doesn't have to necessarily be there. My father ended up being a very close friend of Hitchcock. So, when he was actually picked to write it, the studios didn't want him. They wanted a much more established Hollywood writer. Well, my father had been in the country, in America, for quite a few years. He hadn't done anything quite that big. But Hitchcock fought for him. My father did it, and he got the screen credit. Being Hollywood, they obviously brought in someone else later on to clean it up. But that's probably one of his biggest claim to fame.
Bryan: Did he write many other screenplays that were adapted?
Chris: He actually wrote the adaption because it was based on a short story, a short French story that Hitchcock bought. He wrote quite a few. There was a wonderful adaption called No Highway in the Sky with James Stewart that he wrote. He wrote Hell Below Zero. Probably his worse decision-making day. He was offered to write this new idea, this new comedy. They wanted to do a series called The Pink Panther. He was offered it. He was very good friends with one of the producers. My father said, "Oh, no. No." He read the early draft of what they wanted. And so, this is just slapstick and silly. It's never going to catch on.
Bryan: Surprise, surprise. It did. Did he make it full time living from writing screenplays? It sounds like he did.
Chris: Oh, yeah. He started off as a playwright. Before Alan Ayckbourn appeared many, many years ago, my father held the record for having three plays on in the West End at the same time.
Bryan: Oh, wow. So, he was very prolific.
Chris: He was very prolific. He probably wrote somewhere in the region of 15, 16 movies. Plus, he did a lot of rewrite work. We lived quite well.
Bryan: Was it his creative output that made you want to, I suppose, teach screenplays and learn about the craft, and then go on to write horror books?
Chris: I don't know. I don't know if that's an easy answer. I think seeing my father shut himself in a room and write — since he suddenly have an idea and go off and have to make a notation — probably entered my bloodstream to the point that when I started having ideas very young and went away to write something down, that came from there. Obviously, I think talent does come down the gene pool in some way. Otherwise, there's no real explanation why he was a good writer, and I think I'm becoming a good writer.
But at the time — he died when I was 16. You don't really consider your father famous. He's not like an actor where everyone's going to stop in the street, and introduce themselves, and ask for an autograph. No one would know him. I mean, he was invisible. Though, as a child, growing up, I've surrounded — they had parties in the house with incredible A listers. I knew enough to know that was kind of cool. But I don't think I actually linked it with my dad and his skill.
Bryan: So, now you actually teach aspiring writers how to write screenplays?
Chris: I don't teach anymore. I taught at UCLA when I was still living in America.
Bryan: So, you must have written a lot of screenplays in your time as well.
Chris: I've written not that many. I've probably written eight, I think. Eight screenplays. Then a bit like painting a new thriller, I did nothing with them. I just put them away, and then I never even market it. In fact, when I did Far From Burden Dell, that's the first one I ever put out there. I don't know if it's having a fear of rejection or I just don't have the ability to self-market myself that well. Now I self-promote at any any given opportunity.
Bryan: I've read, probably the most well-known book in writing screenplays, Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. I don't write screenplays myself. But the big lesson I got from that was how the three-act structure can often inform a lot of genre fiction books as well.
Bryan: Is that an idea you've come across, or is that something you taught to your students?
Chris: Most of my teachings at UCLA was in fact rewriting. Because I was already there. I was director of operations for the school. They didn't believe. The writing program did not believe in teaching rewrites.
Bryan: It seems like a pretty big omission.
Chris: Well, as I knew and as, thankfully, the head of the production department knew, rewrites play a bigger role in having a script completed and made than just writing down the initial draft. It's a very difficult concept if you're not prepared for it. If you're told that yours will be wonderful and you just accept it, then you're going to be thrown all this curse. Make him a her. Don't have an explosion. Have everyone trapped underground instead. You're going to have your story ripped apart. Anyway, they agree that that was a great idea. But I wasn't pitching myself to teach it. I was pitching a program needed to teach rewriting. Then they said, "Why don't you do it?" I went home to my wife. I gave it some thought. Absolutely scared out of my mind, I said, "Sure. I'll give it a try."
What I used to do to start each term was to take a very, very famous film. I basically play the opening of the film, and then give the students the original script, the opening 10 pages of the script. I mean, Back to the Future is a perfect example. But it bears no relationship to the movie. The character, McFly, was completely different. There's all sorts of reasons as to why. I then would have students write. "Give me a five-page script, and I'm going to give you my notes back on what I need to see changed." And we did that for most of the term. But every time I would do it, it would be an open discussion with the rest of the class as to what my motivation was as producer to have the changes made, and what you as a writer would need to do to actually make those changes and still keep the story intact.
Because sometimes producers — I mean, the story about producers having some buxom girlfriend they want in the role even though the part was meant to be an eight-year-old black assassin, they suddenly want the 27-year-old girlfriend to play the part is real. It happens in Hollywood way too much. Not so much in the super A-list movies, but certainly in B movies and lower A's. I just wanted them prepared to be able to pivot and keep their integrity, keep the story there but integrate the lunacy that was thrown at them.
Bryan: Are there any particular screenplays that you would look to, apart from Back to the Future, that you think are particularly good? And Vertigo.
Chris: Goodwill Hunting is probably my favorite script. I mean, the backstory of that is just so wonderful. Two out of work actors from the East Coast of America, unable to be able to get decent acting jobs, decided to write the script. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were those two actors. They wrote it. Of course, it won the Oscar. It's just a beautifully written script.
Bryan: Yeah, it's good for them. It's certainly good for them. Do you think there are many parallels then between screenplays and writing genre fiction? Like a genre fiction author, for example, wouldn't have the producer who's requiring that they make changes. But they might have an editor.
Chris: Well, if you have a good editor who it feels safe in telling you that when the entire chapter is crap, then you have to be prepared to do some rewrites. But know that is the advantage of being a writer. As long as you can get your book out, it will stay intact. It will stay your work. Most people will say that they're completely different genres. You can't take a screenwriter and make him an author and vice versa. I don't know that that's true. There are certain writers, the more long-winded writers, that could never write a screenplay. But I think if you go the other direction and if you start getting your chops as a screenwriter, you've obviously got to add in all the detail and backstory and all the things that are missing from the screenplay. But you have the inherent ability to edit. You will know when to end the scene at a dramatic moment, which can then become a chapter end. You should be good at visualizing opening scenes. Screenwriters tend to be more visually minded. And if you can translate that into the written word form, in long form, I think it's going to make a better writer.
Bryan: I feel like James Patterson will be a good screenwriter. Not that he needs the work.
Chris: He almost doesn't need to. His work just translates so well. I mean, it's very concise. Well, a lot of his books have obviously made it to the movies.
Bryan: Yeah, true. A lot of the books that you write are horror. Is that your favorite genre to read as well?
Chris: I read a lot of genres. But definitely, I think my heavy reading addiction probably started when I read The Shining.
Bryan: Great book. Probably my favorite book by Stephen King.
Chris: That hooked me right there. I think I read every single book he wrote. If you read his earlier works, if you read Carrie — which is the first one he had published — it's very concise and very condensed. It was 60,000 words. Then you go on to The Stand. You're in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of words, and yet you're riveted the whole time.
Bryan: Most of his books these days are quite long.
Chris: They are quite long. Some of them, I think it's possible to say he may drift into sub stories a little bit too often. But to me, he's still a god. He was very much part of — after I wrote Luck, I didn't quite know what to do. A friend of mine had just written a book in California, a guy called Craig Leener who writes teen mystical basketball and alternate universe stories, which are quite wonderful. He said, well, you're such a Stephen King fan. Have you written his book on writing? I said, what's it called? Stephen King On Writing. That is a wonderful book. If you want to write — really, I don't think it matters, the genre. But the fact that it's coming from Stephen King mattered to me. It's a very good roadmap of what you need to do as a new writer. Everything, down to punctuation, and down to character, repetition, and format, and structure. Then he obviously goes on to the more aesthetic side of it. But it's a detailed guidebook on how to write.
Bryan: He also gets into the psychology of a writer too.
Chris: Yes, and he talks about some of the books he's written and his feelings of when he was writing them, and what made him write them the way they did. One of my favorites is — which I think to this day is still the scariest book I've ever read — was Pet Sematery, which is never translated well into film. He was horrified at himself writing what he wrote in that book. He didn't like himself for doing it. He just felt driven that that was the story. Of course, it has become a classic. Nowadays, it's almost tame. But when he wrote it, just the subject matter and the death of the child, and everything else that went with that story, it was very new and very scary.
Bryan: Yeah, I'm a big fan of Misery as well. That's another classic book by King.
Chris: Oh, Misery. That's a great one.
Bryan: Yeah, all about a writer being tortured.
Chris: We're always tortured.
Bryan: When is your next book out?
Chris: The next book comes out on February, the 24th.
Bryan: It sounds like you write one a year? Is that fair to say?
Chris: Actually, I seem to be writing two a year.
Bryan: Oh, good. Nice. Do you imagine that you will continue to work in the horror genre?
Chris: I can't see me not writing in this genre. The better I get at it, the more enjoyment I get at it. Because I feel more confident that there's really, at this point, nothing I want to tackle. I mean, I've already got notes after the one. I'm editing a book of short stories that's coming out in September. I'm doing the proof with the publisher. I'm doing my own edit on this new one, which is I think probably one of my best, which is the one that's part police and part horror. Then I've already got doing notes at the same time of the one that I will write after that. Probably, three months away, I'll put pen to paper.
Bryan: Is the collection of short stories a collection of yours?
Chris: Yeah, all mine. All original. One of the things that Stephen King suggested when you finish a first draft, don't just jump right back in and start doing the edit. Because it'll be so familiar to you, and you're just going to be reading by rote and knowing what's happening. He said the initial second draft, give it at least a couple of weeks, and then put it away for a while, which not all of us have that luxury.
But one of the things he said is, when you finish the first draft, put it away for a week. And don't stop writing. Write short stories. I did. I followed his instructions completely. I suddenly found that I had six decent-sized — I mean, four of them are novella size. They're the 10,000-word level. I thought, wow. This is quite good. Meanwhile, I've been making little notes on my iNotes of just little one-liners that I could stretch them into short stories. I did end up with that. I think it's a 72,000-word short story book.
Bryan: I used to write a lot of short stories years ago. They're fun because you can write them within the course of a week or two, and then move on to the next one. Whereas a novel, it's going to take you a lot longer. Chris, if people want to read your books or learn more about your work, where should they go?
Chris: Maybe the best thing to start with is go to chriscoppel.com. That's my website. That has links for all books to Amazon. Or you can go to — in England and Ireland, they got a Waterstones bookstore. They have them. But if you Google Chris Coppel, it has a lot of links to a lot of sites.
Bryan: That's Coppel with two P's. I'll include links in the show notes. Thank you for your time.
Chris: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
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