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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