When people ask me how long it took to write The Chalk Man, I usually say, ‘Around ten months . . . and ten years building up to it!’ I was a late-starter when it came to writing. I didn’t knuckle down it until my mid-thirties. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to write. However, I’d often toyed with the idea of a book that drew upon my own adolescence in the 80’s . . .
A coming-of-age story with a mystery at its heart and a good dose of creepy horror. Something that could reference all the books and films that were such a huge influence on me at the time, such as Stephen King and The Goonies.
There was just one problem. I didn’t have a compelling hook to hang it all on. Oh, and at the time, not a single agent or publisher was interested in that type of book. The idea lay dormant. I wrote other stuff. Short stories for women’s magazines. A novel opening that won a competition. But I still felt like I was searching for that big idea.
Then, on my daughter’s second birthday, a friend gave her a tub of coloured chalks. We took them outside and 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 to be confronted by these weird chalk drawings everywhere. In the darkness, they suddenly looked incredibly sinister.
I called out to my partner: ‘These chalk men look really creepy in the dark. . .’ ‘Ping’ went the lightbulb in my head.
I had an idea I could run with. A childhood game involving chalk figures that turns sinister and ends in murder, set between 1986 and the present day. I started writing the book the next morning, cramming it in any minute I could between my dog-walking business and looking after my little girl. The first draft was done in about six months.
Amazingly, an agent loved The Chalk Man and – after a bit of a re-write – she took me on. Five months later, I had a book deal. Lots of them, in fact.
The Chalk Man has now been sold in 38 territories across the world. For someone who was once told that her mix of mystery and horror wasn’t marketable, it’s been quite a turnaround. But then, no one could have predicted the rise in 80’s nostalgia, the popularity of the television series Stranger Things or the IT movie. I certainly didn’t. I wrote The Chalk Man over the summer of 2015, way before any of that!
It just goes to prove that you can’t write what you think people will want. Stay true to yourself. Write what you love, even if it seems that no one else does. Yes, it’s taken me ten years but I’ve finally written the book I always wanted to write. And, as my twelve-year-old self might say: ‘It feels ACE!’
The Chalk Man is published by Michael Joseph