A Conversation with C. J. Tudor

The novelist touches on the inherent creepiness of childhood and moving her coming-of-age thriller from small-town America to the UK.

C. J. Tudor

In 1986, Eddie and his friends are kids on the verge of adolescence. They spend their days biking around their sleepy English village and looking for any taste of excitement. The chalk men are their secret code: little chalk stick figures they leave for one another as messages only they can understand. But a mysterious chalk man leads them right to a dismembered body, and nothing’s ever the same.

In 2016, Eddie is fully grown and thinks he’s put his past behind him. But then he gets a letter in the mail, containing a single chalk figure. When it turns out his friends got the same message, they think it could be a prank…until one of them turns up dead. That’s when Eddie realizes that saving himself means finally figuring out what really happened all those years ago.

Expertly alternating between flashbacks and the present day, The Chalk Man is the very best kind of suspense, in which every character is wonderfully compelling, every mystery has a satisfying payoff, and the twists will shock even the savviest reader.

Recently, C. J. Tudor spoke with Read It Forward editor Abbe Wright about the inspiration behind her novel, the value of not plotting too carefully, and the classic stories and films that spurred her own work.

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Read It Forward: C.J., can you tell us what the plot of The Chalk Man is all about?

C.J. Tudor: It’s a very dark, creepy thriller set in 2016 and 1986, where we first meet 12-year-old Eddie and his gang of friends. They live in this small village in the UK and spend days going to the woods. They come up with this game that involves drawing these chalk stick figures on the ground as a way to pass secret messages between their gang. It’s quite innocent, until these chalk stick figures start to appear on their own, just before some terrible things happen in this small town. It culminates in these stick figures leading the friends to the body of a murdered girl. Thirty years later, Eddie thinks the past is very much behind him, and then one day he receives a letter in the post containing just two things: the drawing of a stick figure and a piece of chalk.

RIF: Where did you come up with this idea? I read in your author’s note about someone gifting some chalk. Is that the root?

CJT: For my little girl’s second birthday, a friend of hers, Claire, gave her a box of multicolored chalks. The next day, we went out onto the driveway. She wanted to draw a stick figure, so we drew these stick figures all over the driveway, lots of different colors, doing different things, jumping and leaping and dancing. Just covered the driveway in stick figures, and then went in and I forgot about them.

Later, I opened the back door to let our dog out and the security light came on, and there were all these stick figures all over the driveway. In the dark, what looked innocent in daytime suddenly looked incredibly sinister. I turned to my partner and said, “These chalk men look really creepy in the dark.” And then, as if the lightbulb moment went up, it was like, “Hm. There’s an idea there.” And the next day, I started writing it.

RIF: Wow.

CJT: So, thank you very much to Claire for buying the chalk.

RIF: We first meet Eddie when he’s 12, and these friendships warp and change over 30 years, bringing questions like can they trust each other? Can they not? What, if anything, are you saying about friendships as we mature?

CJT: I think it’s a strange one, because I’m actually still in touch with a lot of my friends that I’ve known since infant school. We don’t see each other that often, but we’ve all found ourselves back in the same city again, so we try and meet up a few times a year. What’s interesting is how in some ways you don’t change that much, or maybe you don’t change that much when you’re with people you knew when you were very young. You almost fall back into your childhood roles.

Eddie, Gav, and Harpo have never moved away from the town where they grew up. So in a way, they’re still acting as they did when they were children. Even though they’ve changed physically and in other ways, there’s still that dynamic between them. I think you find that when childhood friends get together, so often the funny kid will still try and be the funny kid. Or like Mickey, in Eddie’s group, there’s often a friend who causes more friction.

And you have shifting dynamics in friendships. They’re very close friends, but there’s that tension because everybody’s not as close. There’s the girl in the group, so that creates different dynamics. That’s quite interesting and sometimes doesn’t change that much, as adults. The book is very much about friendships as children and then as adults, and how the things we do as children can still have reverberations. Even small acts create a ripple that affects us many years later.

RIF: Eddie’s a 12-year-old boy, and your writing gets perfectly into his mindset. How did you do that? I found myself thinking, “Does C.J. have a brother?” How was the experience of writing a much younger male character?

CJT: I haven’t got a brother; I’m actually an only child. Sometimes, without sounding too pretentious about it, you hear a voice in your head. It’s almost like you create it, like you just find it, and you start writing, and it just comes out on the page. It felt so natural, and it was like a new teenaged Eddie, and a new older Eddie, and I could hear his voice in my head. Maybe it’s partly because myself, and my group of girlfriends, were all quite tomboys when we were kids. A lot of things Eddie did as a boy, my friends and I did. We weren’t particularly girlie-girls, so the gender thing didn’t really make much difference. I just understood Eddie. Well, most of what Eddie does anyway.

RIF: As an adult, Eddie drinks a lot, and he’s worried about losing his memory to Alzheimer’s like his father. Do you think alcohol plays a part in his inability to remember some things, or is this the start of his brain failing him?

CJT: I think the alcohol phase is a handy excuse for lots of things. Like a lot of people, it’s that whole “drinking to forget” thing. I think a lot of people use it as a crutch. He doesn’t really see the contrast between how he’s worried about ending up like his dad, suffering from Alzheimer’s and such, to losing his memory and the effects of the drinking. But as he says, he sees himself as an alcoholic. He certainly drinks too much sometimes, and knows very well what he’s going to do. In many regards, he’s actually in control of it. He’s quite a controlled person. So in some ways, the drinking is just an excuse not to think about things. And Eddie has a few things not to think about.

RIF: Exactly—it’s handy. Each of the characters in this book has a secret they’re trying to keep hidden. Can you talk about how you kept these secrets straight as you were writing, and how you introduced the suspense that kept readers turning the pages?

CJT: It’s a funny one, isn’t it? It’s always so hard to break down your own writing to say, “I did it like this,” because I’m not a planner. I don’t have a diagram that I draw, or notes about characters. I just keep it all in my head. I roughly know what’s going on and could tell you what’s happening on a certain page.

Creating suspense, if you’re thinking about it, you’re probably not doing it. If you think, “I must create suspense here; I must put a hook here,” it’s going to feel like that, and the reader’s going to know. It’s going to feel like you’re forcing it. Hopefully, it should come naturally by what the characters are doing, by the way the story moves, and by the way the characters move the story along.

I was very conscious about wanting to keep people reading, but having a reveal at the end of every chapter that feels forced in, I think it takes you out of the book. Every bit of suspense should really come from the characters themselves and their actions that build. Having two time periods is quite good for that, because you can ramp it up on both times. One chapter in 1986 then one in 2016 is quite good because you’ve got that pause where you go back to the other, so you can leave something hanging in ’86. Interestingly, I wrote the two bits separately—the 1986 parts first, and then I started to build in the current-day ones and tweaked things accordingly. That’s why I like not planning too much, because you have the freedom to change things.

RIF: Ah, I like it! Did you know “whodunit?” when you started?

CJT: I did know. Even though I don’t specifically plan, I always have an idea that I’m getting to this point. But we might go all over the place on the way to get there.

RIF: Eddie is definitely an unreliable narrator. What do you think is so thrilling about reading books with unreliable narrators?

CJT: I think it’s because people are unreliable. People very rarely tell you the whole truths about things. Everybody presents a version of themselves to different people, and sometimes different versions to different people. Particularly if you’ve got a first-person narrative, it’s quite natural that people don’t tell you everything; they hold some things back. That feel likes a real person. They might tell you a bit of this then a bit of that, and sometimes a story that doesn’t quite match up. There’s realism to unreliable narrators because it’s thinking you know somebody, and then finding out you weren’t right about them.

RIF: Right.

CJT: Whether it’s an unreliable narrator or any sort of trigger with a twist, I think every reader likes that “Oh!” moment, and sometimes getting to it just before whatever the reveal might be.

RIF: And it flies in the face of our tendency to judge something immediately.

CJT: Turns things on their head a little bit.

RIF: The Chalk Man is a great coming-of-age story and also a creepy thriller. How did you decide to blend these two genres? Is there something inherently creepy about coming of age and being a kid?

CJT: It comes down to the coming-of-age part. Children themselves are quite dark, and people often forget that children can be quite dark creatures. They like dark, creepy things that scare them, and that age is when you’re still finding a moral compass. Certainly, within schools, there are some unpleasant things that go on, such as bullying, and children tend to keep that within their world. A child’s world at that age can be quite a dark, scary place because you don’t want to talk to adults about some things, and school itself and groups of friends can be quite terrifying.

I think most people can remember a kid they were terrified of at school, or in their town who they tried to avoid. It’s not like the adult world where everything is a bit more civilized; it’s quite brutal at that age. There are things kids do to other kids that, in adulthood, would perhaps have the police involved. There’s that dark underbelly to childhood, and all kids, in a way, like to be scared. It’s actually a really good combination.

RIF: Do you have a favorite coming-of-age book that you go back to?

CJT: Obviously I’m a huge Stephen King fan, so it’s very current at the moment: I remember reading and loving It as a child.

RIF: Another gang of boys.

CJT: Yeah, and I loved Stand By Me as well. I loved films, and a lot of the films at the time were that group of kids getting involved in something creepy or scary, like The Goonies, The Lost Boys, and all that.

Those are the books and films I grew up with, so there’s that influence, and I was always interested in writing something like that. But being from the UK particularly, I wondered, “Why can’t we do this in a UK setting?” It’s always been very much small-town America, but very similar to small-town UK. It’s nice on the surface, in a pretty little town, but there’s a darker underbelly to things. So, those were my influences—the stuff that I grew up reading and watching and loving. A lot of that probably goes into the book.

RIF: Yes!

CJT: A very vivid period in my life.

Author Photo: © Bill Waters

C. J. TUDOR lives in Nottingham, England, with her partner and 3-year-old daughter. Over the years she has worked as a copywriter, television presenter, voice-over artist, and dog walker. She is now thrilled to be able to write full-time, and doesn’t miss chasing wet dogs through muddy fields all that much. The Chalk Man is her first novel.

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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