Harvill Secker

Q: If you were to “sell” your novel to us in a tweet (140 characters or less), what would you say?

I’d find it hard to do it better than my incredible editor who, for the front cover, chose ‘One Game. Six Students. Five Survivors’.

Novelists are notoriously bad at selling their own stories – if we could tell a good story in 140 characters, or even a paragraph, then why would we bother to write a hundred thousand words or more? But I’ll give it a go: ‘6 students play a game of psychological dares leading to a tragic death. Years later we discover that the game isn't over. Now it must end.’

See, this is why we leave it to our editors.

Q: Why did you decide to set the novel within an Oxford college?                  

The obvious answer is that I myself went to an Oxford college but that would be only part of the story. The setting of a college of 400 intelligent people (be it Oxford, Cambridge or anywhere) has many things going for it – intimacy, ambition, friendship, competitiveness, jealousy, love, hate… A college has a diverse range of characters who are at a pivotal moment of their lives; an old college is interesting architecturally (and therefore allows for enjoyable description); and I think people who’ve never been to such a place are fascinated by these odd and abstruse academic constructs. In fact, the more I think about it the more I think I should rip up my next novel and set it in an Oxbridge college as well. Perhaps Cambridge this time, just so no one could accuse me of being a one trick pony.

Q: To what extent does Black Chalk draw from your own time at Oxford?

While I was at Oxford my friends and I invented a game of psychological dares — a game very much like the one that’s played in my novel — but we never played. So, to a large degree, Black Chalk is about me imagining what would have happened had we gone through with our game.

Q: Several of the characters in the book suffer from mental health problems of one sort or another. Why did you decide to explore issue?  

I think it’s impossible to ignore the fact that intelligence frequently comes with ‘baggage’. Smart people are often fascinating freaks. Furthermore, my narrator in Black Chalk appears to be suffering from severe short-term memory issues; and I myself have a moderately awful short-term memory. And so, for example, I like to leave objects in strange places to remind me to do things. For my novel, I borrowed this idea for my narrator but multiplied it severalfold.

Q: Ritual emerges very strongly as a theme throughout the novel. Do you think being educated in a place like Oxford, which is so steeped in tradition, makes one more susceptible to the practice of private ritual?                                                

I think there are two ways you can go with the rituals of a place like Oxford – you can buy into it, the whole dining-punting-Spring balls-croquet-punting thing, or you can rebel. The characters in Black Chalk choose to sneer at everything around them, although sometimes they secretly wonder if they might not be having more fun if they just gave in to twee tradition. Meanwhile the narrator, looking back on the Oxford part of the tale fourteen years later, is imprisoned by his own private ritual, a sort of memory-based OCD routine he develops to get through each day. He has been scarred by his time at Oxford – although who is to blame for this damage is left to the reader to decide.

Q: Religious ritual is notably absent from your novel. Are you characters simply mirroring the increasingly atheistic society around them or is the absence of religion more deliberate than that?                                                                      

Religion was completely absent from my own time at Oxford, so perhaps that’s why religion is absent from Black Chalk. For me, my novel was, partially, a story about the impulses that drive capitalism (competition and a desire to win, in particular). And that’s not to say that religion has no place in the story of capitalism but I think this would have muddied my own tale. Religion does fascinate me, however, so maybe one day, when I get better at this writing business, I’ll work out how to seamlessly incorporate more themes.

Q: Are the names of your characters important?  

Yes, names are very important – names are words you will be using more than almost any other words in your novel. It’s probably a good idea for you to care about those words. Names either come to me instantly or I agonise over them forever. The names Jolyon and Chad came to me right away because I had always visualised a scene in which Jolyon, meeting Chad for the first time, is decidedly un-jolly and makes a joke about Chad being named after “a Third World fucking country”. Some of the other names simply felt right – Emilia’s very sweet, and this name seems like quite a pleasant one to me; meanwhile Jack’s very blunt, and I suppose that Jack’s a blunt, straightforward-sounding name.

Q: What role do you think fiction plays in the representation of Oxbridge to applicants from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds?                                                  

I’m sure it often does play a role. I’d read Jill and Brideshead Revisited before I applied or went to Oxford and those books probably made me fearful that I was potentially entering a world into which I could never fit. And yet they didn’t put me off. I feared the Oxford of these books, perhaps a small part of me even disapproved of it, but at the same time I longed for Oxford.

Q: Which canonical author(s) would you liken yourself to?                              

'Liken’ is a strong word. But what the hell, Graham Greene. This may not be obvious to anyone who has read Black Chalk but Greene is my strongest influence in that I want to write novels that entertain and thrill, that have some important meaning without being bleatingly obvious and tedious about their ‘worth’ and, most of all, novels that aspire to some use of the English language that isn’t solely descriptive, that is also aesthetic.

Q: If you were sent to a desert island with a record, a novel and a bottle of alcohol, what would you take with you?                                                            

First two are easy: The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers and Pale Fire by Nabokov. But the alcohol is a close-run thing: it would come down to Laphroaig for its quality and the memories, or Jim Beam for the sheer quantity (I live in the States and it comes in 1.75 litre ‘jugs’). I guess, in the end, I’d have to plump for Jim Beam.

Click here to read Varsity's review of Black Chalk