Today’s guest at the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight is Christopher J. Yates, a writer who the New York Post recently declared might very well be "…a new Stephen King, albeit with a British accent." That’s an impressive accolade for any storyteller.
Yates’ debut novel is a highly acclaimed thriller titled, Black Chalk. It’s an intricate, pleasingly complex, and deeply engaging tale about a twisted version of the classic "Truth or Dare" game waged among a close-knit group of college friends that goes darkly awry across years and continents. It’s no spoiler to reveal here that not everyone who starts playing this game survives to witness aghast its startling end.
Yates is remarkably well-suited to craft such a truly ingenious book. He’s not only versed in the labyrinthine twists and turns of the law via the degree he earned in his native Britain, but he followed up his schooling with a successful career in puzzle magazines before embarking on the literary journey that ultimately birthed Black Chalk.
One might assume an established puzzle-master like our esteemed Mr. Yates would fare exceedingly well under the renown rigors of the Author Spotlight. But there’s only one way to find out if that’s the truth. So let’s tie him tightly to our sturdy wooden chair, crank up those unforgiving klieg lights, and dare Yates to emerge unscathed at this interview’s conclusion.
Gazala: In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and tell why you choose them.
Yates: For my religious text can I please take the Book of Mormon. I'm an atheist who was brought up Church of England (I was in the choir, no less), so I've heard a lot of Bible and I'd like something to read for pure entertainment value.
For my non-fiction book, I'm going to be very unoriginal, but honest, and plump for a dictionary. But no ordinary dictionary, The Chambers Dictionary, a British dictionary (I'm from England and moved to the States seven years ago). I have a much-loved copy, an 18th birthday present from my mother, that is now falling apart. It's quite an eccentric dictionary both in its word choices and definitions. For example, "Kazoo — a would-be musical instrument," and, "Mullet — a hairstyle that is short at the front, long at the back, and ridiculous all round."
And for fiction, I'd like Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, an extraordinary puzzle of a book that was one of the strongest inspirations for my own novel, Black Chalk. Pale Fire is a thoroughly entertaining novel that reads like the equivalent of a chess problem or Chinese puzzle box. The whole story teases the reader with questions of the narrator's identity and intent. I think it might take me a decade to even begin to glimpse some of its delicious secrets, so it's a book that would certainly keep me occupied.
Gazala: Your new book is an excellent and gripping psychological thriller titled Black Chalk, set in New York and at Oxford University, in which a group of six students play an elaborate game of dares and consequences with tragic results. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Black Chalk, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.
Yates: Firstly, thank you so much for the praise and recommendation. I feel strongly that you are a man of exquisite taste and utterly impeccable judgement and your followers should listen to everything you say. However, if they're foolish enough to need more information, then I would first tell a potential reader the tagline for Black Chalk — "One Game. Six Students. Five Survivors." Then I would reveal that I used to work full time as a puzzle editor and then a puzzle compiler and that The Times of London described my book as "an inventive and intricate psychological puzzle thriller". And to conclude I would seal the deal with the words "Oh go on, pleeeease. It's really good. Honest."
Gazala: What are books for?
Yates: Books are for many things — forming colorful browse-worthy rows; painting beautiful word pictures; high-speed thrill rides through fascinating plots; pressing flowers; education (even fiction can be educational, but in a subtle and alluring and sometimes even dangerous way); hiding treasure (metaphorically — and literally if you cut hiding spots into the pages); empathy training; attracting the opposite sex (ask my wife how I wooed her — the answer beyond "nervously and badly," is, "with books"); and finally, for balancing on one's head to learn proper deportment. This is a complete list.
Gazala: W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?
Yates: Anyone who's ever read an article in which various writers present their rules cannot fail to agree with Maugham. But I don't think most writers consider themselves in sole possession of a set of hard-and-fast rules that form The Grand Secret To Writing. But I think the media have to package things to make them grab the reader's attention. And who's going to read an article entitled "Ten Writers Share With Us Their Personal Guidelines, Which They Don't Think Are Universally Applicable, But The Reader Might Find Useful Notwithstanding the Fact That Writers Sometimes Ignore Their Own So-Called Rules"?
Gazala: An old college friend just dared me to do something I'm going to do despite my better judgment. This may take a while. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.
Yates: Don't go through with the dare, Richard, I implore you — you've read Black Chalk and you know things are going to go very badly indeed. But while you struggle with your dilemma, I will ask the following question of myself: The main narrator in Black Chalk is a hermit living in New York; on your Twitter profile, you describe yourself as a part-time hermit living in New York; are you obsessed with hermits?
Good question, Christopher. The truth is, I have something of a hermit fantasy. What I really want most in my writing life is an isolated log cabin in which to work. However, my wife is a journalist in New York and isolated log cabins are fairly hard to come by in Manhattan. (I've heard there's even a shortage of them in Brooklyn, which is a huge concern for the greater-bearded urban woodsmen population.) In fact, I recently came across my personal Dream Writer's Log Cabin, here, which is sneakily classed as an RV, so you can just plonk it down on any piece of land you own without zoning issues. I have thought about very little else in life ever since I saw this. But until I can find a surreptitious way to get my wife fired from her job, I have to create my own isolated log cabin. For example, every morning I lock my phone and the Internet in a safe with a timer (OK, admittedly not the WHOLE Internet, my wireless router). Hey presto — isolation. Also, I work next to a school yard. There you go — wildlife. Plus, my building has a gym in the basement that is almost always entirely empty — and so down I go to 'hike' and 'chop wood'. Is any of this fooling anyone apart from myself? And on that note, I think it's time for me to leave you. I have to go and build an imaginary fire from a virtual log pile.
An imaginary fire built from non-dimensional logs by a pseudo-hermit who resides in Manhattan? Puzzling, indeed, putting aside for the moment the power to distance one's self quite vibrantly from banal workaday realities as circumstances warrant. You can dare yourself a peek inside Black Chalk by clicking here. Better yet, you can forgo the toe-dipping and take the mighty Black Chalk plunge at Amazon.com by gathering a slow, deep breath, and clicking here. After all, who among you doesn’t relish a formidable puzzle?