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July 18, 2014

Book Notes - Christopher J. Yates "Black Chalk"

Black Chalk

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Christopher J. Yates's debut novel Black Chalk is a marvelously complex thriller.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Psychological thrillers don’t get much more complex or twisted than Yates's promising debut."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Christopher J. Yates's Book Notes music playlist for his novel, Black Chalk:


Black Chalk is set at Oxford University, early Nineties, and in the East Village, New York, 2005. The early Oxford sections follow my fictional students as they smoke, drink and listen to a lot of music, so many of my choices reflect this experience (one that I went through myself). Meanwhile, the New York sections follow a damaged hermit who listens to little more than the crazy voices in his head, but I enjoyed working out a few musical tracks that suitably reflect his odd, cracked life.

Theme track: 'We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful' (Morrissey)

Honestly, I could have included twenty or thirty Morrissey/Smiths tracks that describe the sly-but-shy feelings of eighteen-year-old students. I also could have chosen Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive' as the theme track (the tagline for Black Chalk is 'One Game. Six Students. Five Survivors'). But I've decided to go with an early Nineties tune that feels appropriate for the game of psychological dares that my six students play, a game that's riven through with destructive competitiveness and jealousy.

'Everything In Its Right Place' (Radiohead)

The New York sections of Black Chalk are seemingly narrated by a hermit living a life full of strange rituals. His memory has been damaged by his past and his life is guided by a system of 'physical mnemonics'. For example, to help him avoid dehydration, he places six empty water glasses in the middle of his living room floor. When he stumbles across these, his memory is jogged and he drinks some water. Gradually we discover just how many mnemonics he has strewn around his apartment—everything in its right place.

'I Wanna Be Adored' (The Stone Roses)

Early on in Black Chalk, my six students listen to this track as they sit around chewing the fat. Could anything else better sum up the feelings of these awkward but ambitious eighteen-year-olds?

'Eye of the Tiger' (Survivor)

My hermit faces with a challenge. Fourteen years after playing the game of psychological dares he receives a phone call. The game was never concluded. Now, in a few weeks time, the two remaining players must face off. The hermit lives a broken life but knows he has to get mentally stronger and wonders if his recovery could work along the lines of recovering fighters in boxing movies. He evens hums “boxing movie” music, so what could be better than a song written for the Rocky movies?

'Territorial Pissings' (Nirvana)

No novel set in early Nineties student bedrooms would be complete without a little Nirvana. The title is apt, as my students try to stake out their positions within the group. And the line: 'Just because you're paranoid, don't mean they're not after you' couldn't be more appropriate, once the reader finds out there might be something much bigger behind the game being played.

'Can't Stand Me Now' (The Libertines)

A song about two men whose friendship, having been torn apart, descends into loathing. May or may not apply directly, precisely and one hundred percent to my novel.

'Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead' (The Munchkins)

Halfway through my own first term at Oxford, Margaret Thatcher resigned as British Prime Minister. Black Chalk is set in the same period and, after Thatcher leaves Downing Street, my fictional students throw a party and play this song over and over again. I wrote this scene 18 months before Margaret Thatcher died. And after her death, controversially, this song rocketed to the top spot on the UK singles chart.

'Love Will Tear Us Apart' (Joy Division)

OK, this track could apply to maybe half the works of literature in the known universe. In Black Chalk, the love that tears my students apart is a love that is not only romantic/sexual but also based on friendship and their similar upbringings. Unfortunately, it is also the sort of love that led Gore Vidal to say “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” And because 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' was perhaps the most played track in UK student bedrooms of the early Nineties, I'm claiming it.

'Monk's Mood' (Thelonious Monk)

Black Chalk's hermit lives an odd monastic life, describing his time alone before the novel begins as “three cloistral years”. This track by my favorite jazz artist is spiky, from Thelonious Monk's piano-playing style, but also noirish, all smoky horns and dark streets. A perfect track to accompany my whisky-swilling hermit through his strange, unraveling days as he waits to learn his uncertain fate.


Christopher J. Yates and Black Chalk links:

the author's website

Daily Mail review
Publishers Weekly review

Daily Mayo interview with the author
Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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