By Kay Kendall
Calling all anglophiles plus fans of psychological thrillers and Oxbridge novels! Here is a dandy book for you by Christopher J. Yates. Even figuring out the title’s meaning provides a puzzle to solve—BLACK CHALK.
The plot unfolds from two alternating points of view. One is told by a first-person narrator, a recluse who lives in New York City in the present day. The second is third person-narration from fourteen years earlier, when five young British students and one American meet at Oxford University. They become friends, and then deadly rivals. They begin a game that seems at first casual and then turns ferocious as it takes over their lives. Four young men and two women, all of keen intelligence and unique personalities, are driven to win.
And so—as Sherlock Holmes famously said to Watson—“The game is afoot.” The prospect of fun, competition, and a cash prize of ten thousand pounds gets the six players to sign up. Yet, losing a round means that a player must perform a humiliating task. Gradually the tasks become excruciatingly upsetting. Finely tuned psyches are damaged. Friendships are broken. Eventually, a life is lost. What caused this innocent game to become so devilish? Who is the villain in this piece?
Christopher Yates loves puzzles—of this there is no doubt. Even figuring out which main character provides the first-person narration takes more than a few pages to figure out. Is there something in his English blood that draws him to devise and decode enigmas? Perhaps he had an older relative who worked with Alan Turing at the venerated Bletchley Park during World War II. Suffice it to say, after leaving Oxford and working in the law for a time, Christopher turned to puzzle development, even representing the UK at the World Puzzle Championships. He still freelances as a puzzle editor and compiler.
For the last eight years, however, he has lived in New York City with his wife, newspaper features editor Margi Conklin, and their English cocker spaniel Mabel. The dog he describes as “furiously hungry,” adding she is not a Brit despite her breed. She was born in Connecticut—arguably as English as you can get and still be an American state. He appears to enjoy the States and his home in the East Village, and, aside from the weather, has no complaints. Indeed, when his debut thriller BLACK CHALK launched, Page Six of the New York Post heralded the news and The Huffington Post profiled him. All devilishly fine publicity. Why, some thriller writers might even consider killing for that.
Welcome, Christopher. Thank you for taking the time to chat. I know you’re from England and attended Oxford, studying law. Beyond that, please add a bit from your background to help our readers understand what moved you to write BLACK CHALK.
Hi Kay, thank you for taking the time to speak to me. Yes, I was born and raised in England but I moved to New York in my mid-thirties, nearly eight years ago. The setting of BLACK CHALK shifts between New York and Oxford, two places I love and feel at home writing about. Probably the main reason I wrote BLACK CHALK was because, while I was studying at Oxford, I had an idea for a game of psychological dares—the very game, in fact, that my six students play in my story. Thankfully my friends and I never played the game (I don’t think it would have been pretty; in my novel, the game leads to a death) but the idea stayed with me and seemed like the perfect topic for a psychological thriller.
Your six characters who play their game so keenly are all hyper bright and intense, in their different ways. If you picture yourself among them, if you would have played the game, would you have dropped out early?
Great question, you’re the first to ask that one. If I’d played the game of psychological dares with my friends, there would have been two opposing forces working on me. Firstly, I’m fiercely competitive (too competitive, probably) and also hugely stubborn, two qualities that would have demanded of me that I never ever surrender. However, I’m also incredibly easily embarrassed—life, to me, is full of shame and humiliation, I spend every day trying to avoid some kind of mortification or other. So I’m not sure I could ever have won my own game, I’m too mentally squeamish. But I probably would have stayed in the contest long enough to scar myself deeply for life.
Many reviews of BLACK CHALK refer to your narrator as “unreliable.” That is not how I would characterize him. Without giving anything away about your plot twists, would you call your narrator unreliable?
The novel begins with a quotation from D.H. Lawrence, “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” This indicates right from the start that everything in BLACK CHALK might not be as straightforward as it seems. My narrator is a hermit, heavy drinker, constant pill-popper and admits to having a terrible memory (something he tries to counter with a strange system of memory prompts he calls “physical mnemonics”). However, to some degree BLACK CHALK isn’t about whether you can trust such a person. Why should a reader EVER trust a narrator? Perhaps it is stories themselves that are unreliable. And yet we trust stories—Aesop’s fables, Shakespeare’s plays on human nature, Orwell’s warnings about tyranny. I hope BLACK CHALK can be enjoyed purely as a story. But at the end of the novel, the reader might ask, “Who really wrote this story? And why?” Personally, I’m often drawn to novels that pose little puzzles for their readers. PALE FIRE by Nabokov is a great example—now there’s a fascinating narrator. PALE FIRE was a huge influence on BLACK CHALK.
Now that you live in New York City, do you find that being there is filtering into what you write? Or are you mentally back in England as you plan your stories?
Well, half of BLACK CHALK is set in New York City, so I had to do a lot of mental switching back and forth between England and the States. And New York is a great place to live as a writer—this makes it very hard not to write about it. And being a taciturn Englishman, I adore the loudness and openness of New Yorkers. All I have to do is walk my dog a few blocks every day and I come home with some kind of inspiring new material.
Please tell us a little about what your next book will be. Are you done with Jolyon and the gang, or will we hear more about them?
I am almost certainly done with Jolyon and his student buddies. I’m not saying “never” but the way I ended BLACK CHALK left a number of questions that I hope my readers will want to answer for her or himself. A sequel would tell the reader what I think those answers should be and I don’t want to intrude. My next book is actually set entirely in the States, written with an American-English voice and American characters. This is terrifying to someone who still speaks with an undiluted English accent and is in constant fear of getting things wrong. The story is set partly in upstate New York where, at the beginning of the novel, my narrator Patrick recounts something terrible he witnessed when he was twelve involving a Red Ryder BB gun, his best friend, Matthew, and a girl they both know from school.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with readers of THE BIG THRILL. We look forward to future tantalizing stories from you.
Christopher J. Yates was born and raised in Kent and studied law at Oxford University before working as a puzzle editor in London. He now lives in New York City with his wife and dog. BLACK CHALK is his debut novel.
To learn more about Christopher, please visit his website.