Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Conversation with Thriller Writer Christopher J. Yates

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Christopher J. Yates
with Christopher J. Yates

We are delighted to welcome thriller writer Christopher J. Yates to Omnimystery News today.

Christopher's debut novel is Black Chalk (Random House; April 2014 trade paperback and ebook formats), which asks several intriguing questions: How well do you know your best friends? How far would you go to protect them? How far would you go to break them?

We recently had the opportunity to catch up with the author to talk about his new book.

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Omnimystery News: How much of your own personal experience have you included in Black Chalk?

Christopher J. Yates
Photo provided courtesy of
Christopher J. Yates

Christopher J. Yates: Well, I went to Oxford University and I live in the East Village, New York. Meanwhile, my book is set half in Oxford and half in the East Village. So it would be very hard of me to play the "this book is not autobiographical" game. (And I find it frequently tedious when authors do this in any case. It is a natural human curiosity to look for the links between a life and a work.)

So the plot of Black Chalk is based on a game the students in my novel decide to play. And this is a game that's almost exactly the same as I game I came up with when I was at university — a game of psychological dares and consequences. However, this was a game that my friends and I only talked about playing, we never actually went through with it. The story of Black Chalk is therefore, to a large degree, me imagining what would have happened had we played. And my book results in a tragedy, so perhaps it's a very good idea that we never decided to play.

OMN: Give us a summary of the book in a tweet.

CJY: I can't do any better than my incredible editor, who wrote the following tagline for the front cover: "One game. Six students. Five survivors." It's a perfect and intriguing summary.

OMN: How did the book come to be titled?

CJY: The title Black Chalk just popped into my head while I was sitting in the local dog park, watching my Cocker Spaniel, Mabel, wrestling with a Boston terrier. And the second it jumped into my mind, I knew it was perfect. The book has a certain degree of darkness to it (the death of one of your main characters can do that to a novel). Half the book is set in a university, so the reference to chalkboards worked. And the idea of writing in black chalk on a black surface worked for me as a metaphor for human emotion — the way we might feel something but not be able to find the words to express why. Immediately I searched online to see if any other book called Black Chalk was out there and there wasn't. So that was it, the title was set. And then, almost a year later, after my book's publishing date had been set, I found out that another writer was planning to release a novel named Black Chalk. And it too was a psychological thriller set in Oxford.

OMN: That sounds like a crazy coincidence.

CJY: It is an extraordinary coincidence. At first my mind rushed to thinking about whether it was deliberate, some sort of conspiracy explanation. But I've been in touch with the other Black Chalk author (we're actually now on very friendly terms) and it is just a crazy coincidence. Even more spooky, we both went to Oxford University (although at different times) and in the course of our emails, we worked out that we have even played cricket against each other. What if someone on the cricket field said something that lodged in both our minds — and we both ended up writing novels called Black Chalk because of it? Or is it just a really spooky coincidence? We'll probably never know.

OMN: What kinds of films do you enjoy watching?

CJY: My favorite movie is There Will Be Blood. And if you think about it, the title is a great standalone instruction to a thriller writer — promise the audience something gory; deliver upon that promise. What happens between the promise and its deliverance in There Will Be Blood happens to be pretty spectacular as well.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list for us on any topic.

CJY: My second book is going to have a lot of food in it — and I'm something of an adventurous eater, so here are my top 5 scary foods you should give a try (all of which I've eaten).

5. Grasshopper — crunchy like nuts; perfect with a cold beer.
4. Raw horse — if you like sushi or steak tartare, what's wrong with an equine version; sublime.
3. Pig skin — one of my biggest gripes with America is that it's so hard to buy good pork with the skin on; life doesn't get much better than crispy pig skin.
2. Blood sausage — if you like bloody thrillers, why not try a bloody breakfast? Blood sausage and eggs is the perfect match for a Saturday hangover.
1. Tripe — this is perhaps my favorite food in the world; try it Roman-style in tomato sauce; if you happen to live in New York, Emilio's Ballato make tripe to die for.

OMN: What's next for you?

CJY: The book I'm now writing is entirely American — setting, characters, spelling, idioms etc. This is challenging because when I write I need to hear voices (this admission might result in me being locked up). I hear the characters voices and the narrator's voice. Every voice in Black Chalk (but one) was English, which, because I'm English, I found relatively easy. Now I have to hear only American voices. But I think I'm getting there, I'm halfway through. And tying up nicely with this — before I finish my second book, I will have become an American citizen (if you'll be kind enough to have me).

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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.

To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website at ChristopherJYates.com or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates

Black Chalk
Christopher J. Yates
A Psychological Thriller

One game. Six students. Five survivors.

One game. Six students. Five survivors. It was only ever meant to be a game played by six best friends in their first year at Oxford University; a game of consequences, silly forfeits, and childish dares. But then the game changed: the stakes grew higher and the dares more personal and more humiliating, finally evolving into a vicious struggle with unpredictable and tragic results.

Now, 14 years later, the remaining players must meet again for the final round. Who knows better than your best friends what would break you?

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