We’re delighted to have the chance to chat with C.J. Tudor, whose debut book The Chalk Man has received huge amounts of critical acclaim. We’ve been lucky enough to have read it (and it’s a gripping, eerie read, folks) – if you haven’t got yourself a copy yet, we strongly recommend that you do!
Firstly, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. You’ve had a lot of interesting jobs over the years; a copywriter, a television presenter and even a dog walker… what led you to start writing?
I’ve always written, from when I was very small, but it took me until my thirties to knuckle down and actually try to write a book. The first thing I wrote was rubbish, but at least I’d finished something. Like most writers, I had to fit my writing around the stuff that paid the bills – I was also looking after my little girl when I wrote The Chalk Man. It’s been difficult, but I got there in the end!
Agreed, writing with kids is a big challenge – well done you for getting it done. One of the eeriest aspects of The Chalk Man are the chalk drawings, which reoccur throughout the book. Where did the idea come from?
A friend gave my little girl a tub of coloured chalks for her second birthday. We spent the afternoon drawing stick figures all over the driveway. Then we went inside and forgot about them. Later that night, I opened the back door and was confronted by these weird chalk drawings everywhere. In the darkness, they looked incredibly sinister. I called out to my partner: ‘These chalk men look really creepy in the dark. . .’
I’m never looking at kid’s chalks in the same way again now! The plot switches between two different time periods; the gang as 12-year olds, and then as grown-ups. Did you find this challenging or was it relatively easy to plan out?
I wrote all of the 1980’s sections first and then threaded in the 2016 chapters. I think that made it easier because I already knew the characters and what had shaped them. But I didn’t know exactly who had followed what path. I kind of let that develop as I went along and went back to tweak sections as necessary.
I thought your characters felt incredibly authentic and relateable (right down to their names – Fat Gav, Metal Mickey and Hoppo; love it!) – where did the inspiration for them come from?
The gang of friends is loosely based upon me and my friends as pre-teens in the 80’s. Not in terms of individual characters but certainly the stuff we did – like riding our bikes around town, hanging out in the playground, building dens in the woods. The nicknames just sort of came to me – Metal Mickey was a TV show I loved as a kid. There was actually a Hoppo in one of my classes at school. Eddie Munster was a nickname I thought was fun because kid’s nicknames are often quite random. For example, a friend nicknamed a boy she liked Hojo after Howard Jones. But when she wrote it on her bag (as you did back then!) it looked like Mojo, so that name stuck!
Love that there’s actually a real Hoppo out there somewhere! There’s a lot of other intriguing sub-plots going on in this book, such as Eddie’s mother carrying out abortions, and her run-in with the local reverend. In fact, it feels as though every character has their own issues, which gives a lot of depth. Was this deliberately plotted out, or did the characters ‘grow’ on their own?
They definitely grew on their own. It’s a strange thing. Sometimes you don’t feel as if you are inventing characters. It’s like they’re already there, just waiting to be brought to life on the page. You discover more and more about them as you go along. If I sat down and thought about creating a character it would feel really fake.
There’s obviously a lot of darkness in this book; what attracted you to this sort of genre?
I’ve always been attracted to dark, creepy stories from when I was very young. I have no idea why – my parents are completely normal! I was quite a precocious reader, moving on to adult books at a young age: Agatha Christie then Stephen King and James Herbert. I devoured horror in my teens, despite the fact I had terrible nightmares and a ridiculously over-active imagination! I think most people have a fascination with death and the macabre. That’s why crime fiction is so popular.
What would you say are the best and worst aspects of being a writer?
The best aspects are being able to write full-time – it still feels like a huge luxury and privilege. Also, getting to meet other authors and talk to people about books and writing! Travelling to different places, free books. No downsides as yet!
That’s brilliant that you’re enjoying it so much. Have you got any great tips for other aspiring writers out there?
Never give up. I’m a debut author at 46. You don’t need expensive courses – the slush pile works. Don’t write what you think people want. Write what you love because what agents and publishers want is constantly changing. Always have another idea that you’re excited about. The hardest thing can be knowing when to let go of a book and accept it isn’t going to get published. Having another project on the go makes that easier!
Have you read any great books recently? If so, which ones would you recommend that we read?
I’m constantly reading great books! The Innocent Wife by Amy Lloyd, The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J, Harris, Paper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin. I loved Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough and I’ve just started her new one – Cross Her Heart - which is ace. I’m also looking forward to getting stuck into The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton.
Many thanks to CJ Tudor for agreeing to take part in our Q&A. If you’d like to read The Chalk Man (which Stephen King himself recommended recently), click here.