A psychological competition between friends at Oxford University turns tragic in Yates’s twisty debut, Black Chalk.
Where did the idea for Black Chalk come from?
The central idea—six students playing a game of psychological dares of their own invention—came right out of my own time studying at Oxford University. In fact, it was a game that a friend and I came up with. In real life, the game was only ever lightheartedly discussed, we never actually played. This is probably a very good thing. Things go terribly, tragically wrong for my six fictional players.
It’s clear early on that the narrator may not be 100% reliable—what did that choice enable you to do?
Well, the narrator is a hermit. And being a semi-hermit myself (as I think many writers are), I know that seclusion can sometimes do strange things to the mind. The reader finds out right away that the hermit-narrator has been damaged by something in his past and can only get through his life of fear and seclusion with strange memory rituals, doses of whisky, and various prescription pharmaceuticals. So, on the surface, the narrator is clearly not the sort of person you’d choose as the star witness in a criminal prosecution. And further on in the story, something happens that might make the reader question everything they’ve been told even more. The novel opens with an epigraph, a quote from D.H. Lawrence, “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” And in many ways this is a cryptic clue to everything that follows.
In what way did your work on puzzle magazines help you construct the plot?
It helped hugely. I think novel writing can be a lot like solving a puzzle that the writer has set for themselves. When I started out, I knew the premise and I had a vague sense of how I wanted my tale to end—the mood more than the precise finale. So in writing Black Chalk, I needed to carefully seed my story with a series of revelations and clues that would lead the reader to a surprising but satisfactory solution. When looked at from my point of view, this basically turned my plot into a logic problem. And from the reader’s point of view, I hope that the plot revelations arrive like the answers to crossword clues that have been struggled over but then seem blindingly obvious once they’ve been filled in. Sudden little puffs of truth.
How did you end up being published in Russia?
I really wish I knew. Before I ever heard that I would be published in my own language (English-English), an email arrived telling me I was being offered a Russian deal. I didn’t even know the manuscript for Black Chalk was sent to Russia, neither did my agent! So the mysterious offer probably had something to do with international literary scouts, the James Bonds of the publishing industry, covert intermediaries who manage to obtain manuscripts, by means foul or fair, and then send them off around the world secretively. But the aspect of this “Russian House” story I can explain is that, when I started writing I set myself an important deadline—if I didn’t have a publishing deal by the time I was 40, I would give up writing. One day before my 40th birthday, while I was in Puerto Rico “celebrating” the arrival of middle age and the end to my writing dream, up popped the most delightful email I’ve ever received. I had scraped home, had been offered a publishing deal just under the wire.
Was the plot fully worked out before you began writing?
Not even nearly. I’ve tried the whole “planning in advance” method and it just doesn’t work for me. Ideas don’t come to me quickly enough and I can’t seem to force them. I need to have light bulbs moments in the shower, revelations while walking the dog, epiphanies on the elliptical. Also, I’m not sure I’m the type of person who would wake up each morning and write if I knew my own stories in advance. I need to experience the plot the same way the reader does—I also have to write everything in order, no jumping ahead. So if I get stuck, everything grinds to a halt, unfortunately. It’s not the way I’d choose to do things. But I seem to have no choice, it’s just what works for me.