Most of us face our greatest trials as adults. For those who face their tests early and meet them, that victory can be a source of inner strength for the rest of their lives. For those tested and found wanting, the shame always remains, somewhere under the surface.
That’s the case for Patrick “Patch” McConnell, the protagonist of Grist Mill Road, New Paltz/New York City author Christopher J. Yates’ second novel. In the opening pages Patch witnesses a senseless crime: His friend Matthew ties a girl, Hannah, to a tree and shoots her 49 times with a Red Ryder BB gun. The final shot goes through her left eye, leaving it a “dark, smashed plum.” He does nothing.
Chapters cycle between points-of-view and alternate between 1982 and 2008. We get the viewpoints of Matthew Denby, the shooter, and Hannah Jensen, the victim. Our sympathies shift as we learn more information; formerly clear roles of perpetrator, victim and silent witness are blurred.
Yates knows how to make a book go. The big question – why? – provides the fuel. The friction among the three characters as they recombine adds heat. Oxygen comes in the form of characters, episodes and details ancillary to the main plot, providing needed breathing space without sacrificing momentum.
The setting is Manhattan and a fully realized Ulster County, with a few names only slightly changed. The characters grew up in Roseborn, an old cement town, and romp unsupervised on the Swangum Ridge, which, like its harder-to-sound-out real-world corollary, the Shawangunk Ridge, is composed of hard white conglomerate and world-famous for its rock climbing. The novel’s title came to him while he was driving on the Thruway and saw the sign marking Tillson’s Grist Mill Road overpass.
Author Christopher J. Yates splits his time between New York City and Ulster County. He’s British, but you wouldn’t guess it from his prose. His characters sound like natives, and the descriptions are spot-on.
Yates and his wife purchased a home in New Paltz just over two years ago. We caught up with him there a few weeks ago.
How did you go from a London puzzle editor to a NYC/Hudson Valley novelist?
Quite a bit of a chasm, isn’t it? I actually trained as a lawyer, and the puzzles job was something I got when I realized I was going to [quit] the law. It lasted for maybe ten years, and I still do some freelance as well. But really, it was I wanted to write, and I was just waiting until I was confident enough to sit down and actually get on with it. So at the age of 30 I switched from full-time puzzles to doing freelance puzzles, which gave me enough time to write, because I’m a very slow writer.
What is the story about to you, and why did you want to tell it?
Although it has a thriller setting, to me it’s kind of about love and redemption and tragedy. It ends in tragedy, but it also has a happy ending, I think – although I’m not sure everyone would agree with me on that – but it ends with death, but it also ends with a love story. So for me, those are the two keys to it, and almost like the two keys to life: There’s death, but during life there’s love. And we all know we’re going to experience death, but it could be that we all experience love as well.
Some of the real place names, like Ulster County and New Paltz, are used, while others seem to be amalgamations. For example, Roseborn seems to be Rosendale, but much closer to the Ridge’s parks.
In terms of its location, it’s a lot more like Ellenville, because you’ve got the high parts of the Ridge there and you’ve got the ice caves there and the blueberry pickers’ huts, so I used all of that stuff locationwise. But yes, historywise, it’s more like Rosendale, certainly.
I went to the Snyder Estate in Rosendale for one of their open days to do a lot of research on the cement industry. I describe in the book the gateposts [at Hannah’s house] having models of the Brooklyn Bridge; the Snyder Estate actually has those. They have a large cave at the back of the property, which I completely used on Hannah’s parents’ property as well. It’s a really cool place.
The Swangum Ridge plays a big role in the story. What’s your favorite place to hike in the Gunks?
I like the road less traveled. There’s a section of the Rainbow Falls Trail that doesn’t actually go past the falls. It’s a place where two paths connect between Upper Awosting and Castle Point Carriage Roads, called Litchfield Ledge. There are certain sections that are off the main carriageways; you almost never see anyone there – which is crazy because, the one I mentioned, for example, has one of the best views in all of the Gunks, overlooking Lake Awosting.
But I’m fairly certain I’ve hiked almost every single trail in the Gunks, apart from maybe some of the much further ones, like the really, really remote ones. But of the ones centered around the [Mohonk] Preserve and the [Minnewaska State] Park, I’ve been pretty much everywhere.
Patch has a food blog and dreams of opening a restaurant upstate. What are some of your favorite local restaurants?
I have a ton in New Paltz that I really like. The new place that just opened called La Charla, which does kind of higher-end Mexican food – that one’s incredible. I love the Mountain Brauhaus, but everyone loves the Brauhaus, which means it’s hard to get into. There’s also a place that does similar food called the Gunk Haus [in Clintondale]. And then I really love the Village Tea Room and P&G’s. Yeah, I love a ton of places around here.
Where do you do most of your writing: upstate or in the City? And how does where you are affect how you can find the time to write, or does it affect the writing in any other way?
Most of the writing of Grist Mill Road was actually done in the City, because we didn’t get this house until two years ago. And I finished the novel shortly after we bought the house here. Actually, after we bought our house we didn’t have any furniture, so I brought in one mattress, one chair, one desk and one fork, one knife and one plate and one glass. And I just stayed here for a few weeks, sleeping on the mattress and then sitting at the desk every day. So that was fantastic. It really helped clear my head, just being here in an empty house; not much else to do. I hadn’t sorted out my Internet, I had no distractions, so probably the better part of the last 50 pages were written here in the house. And I imagine, with my next novel, most of it will be written in this house. It might be 50/50.
When you started writing, was Black Chalk the first book you wrote, or did you have some others that weren’t published?
This is my second published book, but I wrote two-and-a-half before I got published, and no one will ever see those. They were good training, and I’m glad I wrote them. In fact, the reason one of them was a half was because I realized, having done the first two and having had them rejected a couple times, I knew the half wasn’t very good, and I knew I needed to start something fresh. I feel like two-and-a-half novels that will stay in my drawer was just the right length of training for me.
Does the process of writing energize or exhaust you?
It depends on the day. You get good days and you get bad days. The days when it kind of energizes you are fantastic. Sometimes it can take me five hours to write 300, 400 words that get thrown away, and sometimes it can take 30 minutes to write 500 words and you kind of sit back and go, “Wow, I’m done.” I think a lot of that has to do with the subconscious. I think sometimes your subconscious has just been getting the stuff ready for you. So when it came to writing the ending of Grist Mill Road, it really did come out very, very quickly because I’d been thinking about it for years.
Do you outline the entire plot ahead of time or figure it out as you’re going along? There are two schools on that, right?
It does basically fall into two schools: those who know pretty much where it’s going beforehand and those who don’t; and I don’t know where it’s going. So, with the opening chapter of Grist Mill Road – you know, how a boy ties a girl to a tree and starts shooting her with a Red Ryder BB gun – I wrote that chapter and I had no idea why he’d done that, no idea whatsoever. [Mild spoilers ahead.]
I was writing away for about two years, and I was getting panicked because I still hadn’t worked out why he did it. And that thing I said about the subconscious working stuff out for you – I think that’s what happened to me. One day I was just going to make myself a cup of tea in the kitchen, and halfway between my bedroom and the kitchen I just stopped, and it was like I’d been hit by a thunderbolt and the entire story unraveled in my head as to why [Matthew] did this terrible, awful thing. So that was fantastic.
I didn’t know that, and I didn’t know how Patrick and Hannah ended up married. It was almost exactly the same process. I think that one may have happened in the shower – you know, that kind of lightbulb eureka moment – it came to me: “Wait, what if she couldn’t see him [while she was tied to the tree]?”
I wouldn’t have anything against people who plan it all out in advance, and I’m kind of in awe of them. I cannot do that at all. I think I need those kind of eureka moments. That just feels more natural and organic for the way I write.
What was the hardest part about writing from an American point of view?
Oh, yeah, everything. I was slow to get going on this because of writing from the American perspective. I think lots of technical details – just stuff like understanding American schools. I had a few advantages, however: My wife is American, and I’ve been with her since 1998, so I certainly hear an American speak every day. She has a friend who’s a schoolteacher who I contacted a lot to ask her about American schools to make sure I got my facts straight.
When it came to the newspaper [where Hannah works], I had to do research on American newspapers. The hardest thing was, I like to hear a voice in my head, which isn’t necessarily my own voice. When I write, I kind of hear the words spoken in a certain voice; and when I find that voice, then it becomes a whole lot easier. When I’ve written stuff in the past, it’s been mostly with an English-accented voice. Finding the American voice inside my own head was definitely the hardest thing – just hearing an accent and tone.
Some reading recommendations: Two pieces of fiction, one classic and one contemporary, and one nonfiction, any time.
My classic is The Quiet American by Graham Greene. Graham Greene is my favorite author, and I’m not sure he’s massively read in the States. And The Quiet American could be the gateway drug into Graham Greene. I love him because he writes meaningful novels with very meaty plots. So you can read it for the thrill of his language, or you can read it as just a straight-up thriller, or you can do both, which is the ideal way to read him.
Contemporary novel is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I couldn’t recommend this highly enough. It’s one of those novels where sometimes it takes [a while] for your ear to adjust to the writer and the way they write. Saunders has this really unique way of writing: He has this unique language – it’s almost as if he’s invented his own language. But once your ear catches hold of his way of talking, you kind of sink right into it, and after that it becomes a real treat to read it.
And nonfiction is Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan. Although it’s a 100-percent-true story, it reads like a thriller, and I really enjoyed it. In a nutshell, it’s about this successful young news reporter who talks like she’s going insane and most of her doctors think she is insane. One thinks she’s an alcoholic and this is just the effect of her alcohol withdrawal. But actually, it turns out she has an incredibly rare brain disease; she’s something like the 200-and-somethingth person ever to have been diagnosed with it. So it’s got a medical drama and it’s like a mystery thriller and it’s a page-turner and it’s just fantastic.
Grist Mill Road, published by Picador, is available in bookstores now. An author event, including a reading and discussion, will be held on Sunday, March 4 at 3 p.m. at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock. The Golden Notebook is located at 29 Tinker Street in Woodstock. For information, call (845) 679-8000 or visit www.goldennotebook.com.