Up Close: C. J. Tudor

Stradling the Line Between Mystery and Horror

By April Snellings

In the realm of thrillers that raise gooseflesh while they quicken your pulse, C. J. Tudor is on her way to becoming a household name. Her 2018 debut, The Chalk Man, was greeted with the kind of reception most new writers only dream of. Named Best First Novel in the ITW Thriller Awards and anointed with a Twitter endorsement from none other than Stephen King, The Chalk Man quickly established Tudor as a powerful new voice in thrillers that straddle the line between suspense and horror.

Her sophomore release, 2019’s The Taking of Annie Thorne (published in the US as The Hiding Place), leaned more heavily into traditional horror, but Tudor’s latest offering, THE OTHER PEOPLE, finds her back in The Chalk Man’s stylistic territory: it’s a propulsive thriller with just enough horror elements to have you reaching for the light switch before you walk into a room you know by heart.

Just as The Chalk Man was inspired by her daughter’s sidewalk sketches, Tudor’s newest novel has its roots in a real-life encounter. The writer was stuck in traffic on the UK’s M1 motorway when she found herself trailing the same car for several miles: an old beater with “loads of faded stickers around the rear window.” Something about the car sent Tudor’s imagination into overdrive, and like any good thriller writer, she quickly found herself sifting through an assortment of worst-case scenarios.

“I found myself wondering, what would happen if a face appeared in the rear window of that car—perhaps someone in trouble, being kidnapped?” Tudor remembers. “Then I started thinking, what if it was someone I knew? And then my mind tumbled down the darkest rabbit hole: what if it was my own child, being driven away in a strange car when she should be tucked up in bed at home?”

Tudor at ThrillerFest 2019 in New York City, where her novel The Chalk Man was honored with an ITW Thriller Award for Best First Novel. Also pictured: Harlan Coben, recipient of last year’s Silver Bullet Award.

That’s all it took to set THE OTHER PEOPLE in motion, and soon Tudor was spinning a paranoid chase thriller about a man who has devoted years of his life to tracking down the car he believes spirited his daughter into the night three years ago, just minutes after his wife’s brutal murder. The police are useless, because they believe Gabe Forman’s young daughter, Izzy, died along with her mother that night—victims of an unsolved double murder that Gabe himself was initially suspected of committing. Not even the little girl’s autopsy results are enough to convince Gabe that he didn’t see her in a car on the M1 as he was driving home from work that evening, calling to him as her abductor sped off into the night.

Three years later, Gabe has taken up residence in a battered and rusted camper, spending nearly every waking moment wandering England’s highways and rest stops in hopes of finding the car that might have held his daughter. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman named Fran is traveling those same roadways with her own daughter, Alice. While Gabe is on the hunt, Fran and Alice are on the run—Fran knows exactly what happened to Gabe’s family, and she’ll do anything to stay one step ahead of the Other People. After all, her life and Alice’s depend on it.

The Chalk Man also won the Golden Bullet Award for Best Translated Crime Novel at last year’s Krimfestivalen in Oslo, Norway.

“I had an idea of Gabe straight away,” Tudor says, on shaping the characters who inhabit her relentlessly paced spinetingler. “I saw this thin, hollowed-out man who spends his life haunting the motorway and service stations, searching for his lost daughter. I just really loved the idea of a character who lives his whole life on the road. I find service stations fascinating. They’re odd places, transitory. Neither here nor there—a bit like purgatory. I also liked the idea of this little plucky girl and her mum, on the run, but from who? And the idea that all these people are in motion, connected, close but just missing each other.”

Once the basic concept was in place, Tudor says she committed to the book without knowing where it would take her.

“I don’t think any further ahead than the next chapter,” she says. “I keep everything pinned on a kind of mental corkboard in my head. Sometimes, I go a little crazy trying to keep track of everything, but usually I get there.”

In this case, “there” is a fast-paced, complex story with intricate plotting and multiple POV characters. Like all of Tudor’s novels to date, the story sends tendrils into the past even as it barrels toward a breathless conclusion. It seems Gabe has been keeping a secret from his family, and a young girl’s fate might depend on whether he can find the strength to confront it. There’s also a sinister conspiracy thrown into the mix: the title refers to a network of people who can help distraught survivors of violent crime find some modicum of closure, if they’re willing to pay the price. It’s a testament to the story’s depth and complexity that none of this info constitutes a spoiler.

Another shot from ThrillerFest 2019, with fellow authors Jennifer Hillier, Samantha Downing, and Riley Sager.

Still, Tudor eschews outlines and insists that the only trick she’s found to see her through that complex web of character work and plot twists is to keep pushing forward until she somehow manages to write a novel.

“I’m not precious about writing,” she says. “There is no magic formula to writing a book. It’s work. Hard slog. You have to push through the difficult bits where you want to give up and write something else. You have to lay awake at night, fretting over plot strands. You have to put in the hours. That’s it. There aren’t any shortcuts.”

And if it seems that Tudor appeared in the publishing world out of nowhere, rest assured that her “no-shortcuts” rule has applied to her entire career. While “writer” has long been her most desired job title, she had to go through a number of others to get there, from waitress to voiceover artist to dog walker. And though The Chalk Man might’ve been her breakout novel, it certainly wasn’t her first attempt at authoring a book.

“It took me over a decade to get published,” says Tudor, now 48. “There were many false starts, ‘close but no cigars,’ and unfinished manuscripts along the way. I had an agent for a short while in my thirties. But it didn’t work out. They wanted me to write straight crime and I couldn’t contain my inner Stephen King. Leaving that agent was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and for a long while I thought it was probably the stupidest! Getting an agent is difficult and I had just thrown myself back into the slush pile. But ultimately, it worked out okay.”

Tudor with Lisa Jewell (left) and Lisa Gardner at Oslo’s Krimfestivalen 2019.

That might be a bit of an understatement for a writer who has gone, in a few short years, from walking dogs to touring the world to promote her novels. (Tudor, who lives in Nottingham, England, has a large international following; for instance, her novels have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Brazil.) It’s a welcome reminder that, ultimately, all it takes is one yes from one editor at one house to set a career into motion.

“I went from being a mum and a dog-walker to having major book deals across the world,” she says. “My hero, Stephen King, tweeted about my book—that was possibly the best moment of my life! I get to write full-time for a living now and this year I have traveled to Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Dublin, New York, and Brazil promoting my books. I’ve won awards and met some of my writing heroes: Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Harlan Coben. I never forget that I used to walk dogs for £10 an hour.”

Though THE OTHER PEOPLE just hit bookstores, Tudor is already well into her next novel: a thriller/folk-horror mash-up called The Burning Girls, about a disgraced minister who begins to suspect that the 30-year-old disappearances of two teenage girls in a small English village might be connected to the centuries-old burning deaths of eight Protestant martyrs.

“After the thriller vibe of THE OTHER PEOPLE, I wanted to write something darker and more gothic,” Tudor says, before dropping a comparison that underscores her appeal to thriller fans and horror devotees alike: “I think of The Burning Girls as The Wicker Man meets Sharp Objects.”

 

April Snellings
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