Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Wednesday, November 8, 2017: Maximum Shelf: The Chalk Man

Crown Publishing Group: The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

Crown Publishing Group: The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

Crown Publishing Group: The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

Crown Publishing Group: The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

The Chalk Man

by C.J. Tudor

C.J. Tudor wastes no time cutting to the creepiness in her captivating novel, The Chalk Man. The thriller opens with:

"The girl's head rested on a small pile of orange and brown leaves."

Not chilling enough? How about:

"Someone approached. They knelt down beside the unseeing girl. Their hands gently caressed her hair and stroked her cold cheek, fingers trembling with anticipation. Then they lifted up her head, dusted off a few leaves that clung to the ragged edges of her neck, and placed it carefully in a bag."

The prologue ends with "the girl in the woods was never put together again."

Are you scared yet?

The Chalk Man centers around Eddie and his group of friends, and alternates between two timelines--1986 and 2016. In the earlier time, Eddie is 12, on the cusp of puberty like his buddies, including the only girl in the group, Nicky, who makes Eddie feel "really hungry and... a bit sick" whenever he sees her. They spend their days biking around their English village, going to the fair and searching for adventure.

After Fat Gav, one of the boys, receives a bucket of colored chalks for his birthday, the friends devise a secret mode of communication. Each of them is assigned a color, and they draw chalk men in one another's driveways to convey coded messages such as meet at the playground now.

One day the gang gathers at the playground, each thinking one of the others summoned them with chalk instructions, but they all deny having done so. When they follow the chalk men pointing into the woods, they make a gruesome discovery: the dismembered body of a local girl. And it's not their sole encounter with death that summer.

In 2016, Ed is a teacher living in his childhood home, which he inherited. He has a female tenant, Chloe, on whom he nurses a mild crush, but otherwise Ed is single and doesn't have much of a social life. He seems fairly resigned to his mundane existence--until he receives a letter from an unknown sender containing only a chalk figure. Also, his old friend Mickey is coming back to town and wants to meet with Ed. Mickey is interested in writing a book about the friends' past, claiming he knows who killed the girl in the woods.

Soon Ed starts having nightmares, waking up to chalk men scribbled around his home, both outside and in. He realizes the dead won't stay buried unless he confronts them head-on.

The Chalk Man is a remarkable achievement, made even more impressive by the fact it's a debut. Tudor is a master conjurer of thrills, crafting tight scenes that make the skin crawl in a fun way, without crossing into gory territory. It's like walking through a haunted house at a carnival--there's an unrelenting sense of unease and scary stuff happens, but you know you're in safe hands. Tudor's style is so cinematic, readers will not only vividly envision everything she's describing, they'll hear the ominous music on the soundtrack. And many chapters end on a note that makes it impossible to stop reading.

Tudor also infuses her story with heart and the pang of lost love, making her novel even more satisfying. The author nails the male point of view, of both Eddie the boy and Ed the adult. Even without the chapter headings indicating 1986 or 2016, it's clear which voice is narrating--the boy going through life-changing events whose full impact he hasn't grasped, or the man still trying to move past those events 30 years later.

One of the most memorable characters is Mr. Halloran, aka the Pale Man, a mysterious albino teacher at Eddie's school. His nature is gentle and he comes to the rescue of more than one kid who's hurt or bullied, but why does he seem so forlorn, and what was the nature of his relationship with the dead girl? Tudor keeps readers guessing, and when she finally reveals the truth, it's quietly devastating.

It's not all chills and darkness, though. Tudor observes life with deadpan humor. In 2016, Ed's friend Mike "works for an advertising agency--the type that has unnecessary umlauts in its name and an aversion to capital letters." When Ed visits a nursing home and sees an old episode of Diagnosis Murder on the TV, he thinks, "[I]f you hadn't lost your mind before you came here, watching Dick Van Dyke and his family hamming it up every day would probably send you over the edge."

Tudor won't send readers over the edge, though. She'll have them exactly where she wants them--on a creepy adventure that's enthralling until the final word. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Crown, $27, hardcover, 288p., 9781524760984, January 9, 2018

Crown Publishing Group: The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

C.J. Tudor: 'It's All About the Characters'

photo: Bill Waters

Before becoming a full-time novelist, C.J. Tudor worked in a variety of jobs, including copywriting, television presenting and dog walking. Tudor lives with her partner and daughter in Nottingham, England.The Chalk Man, coming from Crown on January 9, 2018, is her debut thriller.

This novel was inspired by chalk figures you drew with your daughter in the driveway that later scared you in the dark. What else scares you?

Zombies, heights, flying, rollercoasters, dolls, make-up, high heels, semicolons. It's a long list!

Also, I have a young daughter, so I spend a lot of my time being terrified about things that could happen to her. From natural disasters to eating unsliced grapes. That's what it's like when you have a child. Your world is constantly fluctuating between absolute wonder and crippling terror.

If someone says "What's the worst that could happen?" I can usually tell them, in graphic detail!

The group of friends in the book and their adventures are loosely based on you and your pals when you were preteens. What was your coolest discovery on one of your explorations in the woods?

I still meet up with my friends from school. I've known most of them since we were seven! Last week we were talking about this and my friend Kirsty reminded me about the old "air-raid shelter" we found. I'm sure it wasn't really an air-raid shelter. But to us, at the time, it looked like one. It was a long, corrugated hut at the bottom of this huge, overgrown garden that backed onto the playground. We'd climb through the fence and sneak inside.

It was full of junk and old newspapers dating back to the 1950s, and in one corner there was an old Silver Cross pram, with what looked like bullet holes in the side. I can still picture it vividly. So creepy. I have no idea why I haven't put it in a book yet!

Why did you choose to write from the male point of view? The voices of your protagonist Ed as a boy and a man are both very convincing.

Thank you. It just felt very natural. Without wanting to sound pretentious, sometimes it doesn't feel like you are creating characters. It feels like you are discovering them. I heard Eddie's voice, and that was it.

Also, I'm a bit of a tomboy. The writers I idolized growing up were male, such as Stephen King. I actually find writing from a man's POV easier. I was once told that a female narrator I wrote was too dark and sardonic. Because obviously, women can't be bleak and funny, right? Argh!

Was there any pressure to use only your initials, to keep your gender ambiguous?

Not at all. It was my call. My first name is Caroline but everyone calls me Caz. Caroline felt a bit flowery and Caz didn't sound very author-ish! So, I plumped for initials. There was no intention to be deliberately ambiguous. No one suggested that I should do it. It just felt right.

You left school early, but the protagonist in Chalk Man and your next novel are both teachers. Why is that?

Yep, I left school at 16 against all my teachers' wishes. I was getting good grades but I didn't have a particularly great time in my last year of school. I wasn't bullied as such, but I'd had enough of the pressure, the cliques, the small cruelties. No one I know had a good time at school. I'd be deeply suspicious of anyone who did! We expect kids to endure things in school you would never put up with as an adult. Children can be amazing but also incredibly cruel.

Kids are still finding their moral compass at that age, dealing with these hideous hormones and insecurities, and we put them in an environment that brings out the worst in them. I think that's why I chose teachers as my narrators. I wanted to explore that world from a child's perspective and an adult's.

Also, I find our expectations of people in certain professions interesting. Lawyers, doctors, police officers are somehow permitted to be conflicted, to drink, to have a dark side. Teachers, not so much. I wanted to turn that on its head.

You've said that everything you know about writing, you learned from reading. Whose books did you study? Did you consciously analyze them or did you learn by osmosis?

I never learnt anything from studying a book, apart from how to memorize long passages of text and spew them out for exams! Everything I learnt about writing and creativity, I learnt from reading for pleasure, from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie to Stephen King. That's where my real education took place.

That's not to say that learning about literature and writing isn't a wonderful thing. It is. My English teacher, Mr. Webster, really inspired and encouraged me. But I also believe you don't need a degree or an M.A. to be a writer.

Read lots. Write lots, as Mr. King says.

When you started writing, did anything about the process surprise you?

When I started, I had no idea how to structure or pace a 90,000-word novel. So I just kept at it until, hopefully, I got it right. I'm still learning. Writing is not something you can ever be done with: That's it. Got it now. You can always get better. Generally, I think writing is 10% inspiration and the rest is practice, perseverance and pints of coffee (or wine!).

Your agent says you're a brand. How would describe your brand?

Disturbingly cheery. My writing does all the dark, scary stuff for me. I'm a bit of a rock chick. I collect anything with a skull on it. I love weird. But I'm also a mum who sings Disney songs with her little girl.

My writing is the same, I suppose. My books are dark but with a heart. Bad stuff isn't scary unless you care about the people it's happening to. That's so important. For me, a book is all about the characters. They own the story. And my stories just happen to be as creepy as hell!

What are you looking forward to most on publication day?

Drinking champagne for breakfast! And seeing my book on the shelves, out in the world, for the very first time. I've been writing for over 10 years. I've had many rejections, a lot of "close but no cigars" and I'd pretty much accepted I might never get that break. I wrote The Chalk Man while I was working as a dog walker and looking after my little girl. I had no expectations when I submitted it, apart from rejection. When it went to auction in the U.K. and then sold in 38 territories worldwide, it really was a dream come true. It's changed my life.

When people ask me how long it took to write The Chalk Man, I usually say: "Around nine months, plus 10 years of preparation!"

So, I shall be milking every moment. Oh, and tweeting lots of embarrassing pictures of myself grinning alongside my book in bookshops. They'll probably have to get security to escort me out of Waterstones! --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

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