Christopher J. Yates Delivers Twists in His Psychological Thriller Black Chalk

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One game. Six students. Five Survivors.

Christopher J. Yates’ debut novel, Black Chalk, is a psychological thriller about the consequences of friendship gone awry. When a group of Oxford University students play a game involving public humiliations, the consequences haunt them for years. The result is a story littered with twists that will keep you guessing until the final page.

Paste chatted with Yates about the puzzles in his new novel, lasting friendships and the games of Vladimir Nabokov.

1blackchalkcover.jpg Paste: Given your past career in puzzle making, was there ever any doubt that your first novel would be a mystery?

Christopher J. Yates: I suppose I never thought it out that much. It just began to develop that way. You sit down at your desk every day and try to entertain yourself as much as the reader. I just enjoyed challenging myself to come up with different twists and mysteries. There was an intellectual game I was playing against myself.

Paste: As a reader, what elements are you looking for in a book? Did those same elements made their way into Black Chalk?

Yates: I hope so. I think it has some interesting plot twists and, hopefully, the reader is curious enough to follow through on these puzzles and games that are being played throughout the book. I’d hope they’d want to keep going to reach a solution.

Paste: What books have you read that have stumped you with the puzzles they presented?

Yates: The biggest one would be Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, which is a book I love and adore. I think Nabokov, as much as writing a novel with that book, is setting a puzzle and playing a chess game with his readers. It’s as if he’s sent you this chess problem where he’s several moves ahead of you and only he knows the solution. I find the number of theories about who wrote Pale Fire and what the meaning of it was very interesting. That was a huge influence on me writing Black Chalk. I sort of used that question of “who really wrote this book and why did they write it?”

Paste: What was it about Nabokov’s prose that really struck you? Everyone who talks about him has a different take on his personal impact on them, but a lot of it revolves around the beauty of his prose.

Yates: It was the beauty of his writing, initially. It just sucks you in. The first page of Lolita, for example, is one of the most beautifully written pages of literature ever. But then you begin to realize there’s more than just these beautiful sentences going on. He’s kind of toying with you. You’re the mouse in his game. I’m not sure everyone would respond to that well, but I’m happy to be toyed with by Nabokov and go wherever he takes me.

Paste: As you were writing Black Chalk, did you feel as if you were the cat or the mouse? Did you plan your attack from the start, or were you along for the ride with these characters?

Yates: I didn’t know everything that was going to happen, but I did like the idea of, as the writer, playing a game with the reader. I liked constantly challenging them to guess what was going to happen or see something before it was revealed. There were certainly elements I knew were going to happen at a later stage that I kind of hint at along the way. Hopefully, when the reader gets there, they’re satisfied by the twist. My real desire is the reader gets to any twist and thinks, “Oh, it makes sense because he said x, y and z along the way.”

Paste: How much did your own university experience shape the dynamics of the friend group in the book?

Yates: Massively. I studied at Oxford University. A friend and I, over the course of several nights in the college bar, came up with the idea of the very game that’s played in Black Chalk. We thought it would be a very interesting game to play. It’s actually quite a cruel game, so we didn’t follow through with it.

Paste: You didn’t follow through on the game, but these characters did. Is it a degree of conscience or is it a degree of fear to not follow through on a game like this? What do you think causes some people to play a game of humiliation and others not to?

Yates: In the book, there’s a mysterious society called Game Soc who offer to put up a large cash prize. This initially induces the characters in the novel to play the game. If my friends and I were offered 10,000 pounds to play such a game, I’m fairly sure we would’ve been tempted. Another of the elements I used from my own time at university was that we were all really good friends, but also there was a strong element of competitiveness between us all. That came out in many, many ways. We would play cards together, and it would always end up in screaming rows because we were all such terrible, horrible competitors about it. We were at an age where you maybe shout over a game of cards a bit more. My attempt in writing this novel was trying to figure out what would’ve happened if my actual friends and I had played the game. I think it would’ve gone badly.

Paste: It’s obviously to an extreme level in the book, but I thought it was poignant to point out how friendships in your youth can intensify very quickly and then dissipate over the years. What do you think are the keys to keeping friendship going over a vast period of time?

Yates: Maybe playing card games and screaming at each other is a good idea, because I’m still friends with lots of the people I’ve had shouting rows with. I think sometimes if you go through something quite intense, it tends to stay with you. A lot has to do with honesty as well. My friends and I could shout at each other, criticize each other and could say almost anything to each other, and the next day it would be forgotten. As long as everyone accepts that’s the situation and everyone’s fine with it, you just get on with it the next day and your friendship strengthens, or perhaps you shout at each other and you’re not friends for the rest of your life. It’s a sort of trial by fire, I suppose.

Paste: One scene that really stuck out to me was when the characters are sitting around talking and listening to The Stone Roses before everything goes to hell. Are there any experiences with music you’re particularly nostalgic about?

Yates: Yeah, I think I included a few references to musical tracks throughout the book. There’s also a reference to a Morrissey song, “Everyday Is Like Sunday.” I think music is a huge thing when you’re a student, because you sit in each other’s rooms and it’s one of the ways you bond and find likeminded people. It was really important for me to use the music in there, not only to set the time period in the early-‘90s, but to reflect my own experience of sitting in friends’ rooms, listening to music and just talking and talking.

Paste: What’s next for you?

Yates: I’m about 90-95% of the way through my second novel. It’s different in that all of it is set in the United States. It’s been a challenge to write, because I wasn’t born in the United States. I’ve been writing it with an American accent in my head. It’s set in upstate New York, and it opens with this terrible, violent incident between three 12- and 13-year-old friends in the mountains. It’s going pretty well and, while it was a challenge to write as an American, I enjoyed it. Plus, I just became an American citizen.

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