Author Q&A: Chris Whitaker "Tall Oaks"

Tall Oaks

Everyone has a secret in Tall Oaks . . .

When three-year-old Harry goes missing, the whole of America turns its attention to one small town. Everyone is eager to help. Everyone is a suspect. Desperate mother Jess, whose grief is driving her to extreme measures. Newcomer Jared, with an easy charm and a string of broken hearts in his wake. Photographer Jerry, who's determined to break away from his controlling mother once and for all.
And, investigating them all, a police chief with a hidden obsession of his own . . .

Chris Whitaker's dark, suspenseful and highly original debut published this April (2016) as an ebook and will be published as a paperback in September. I was lucky enough to interview Chris and delighted to have the chance to find out more about his writing of "Tall Oaks". As you can tell from Chris's answers, he is sharp, entertaining and very funny! I hope you enjoy reading the Q&A! 

The book is set in America and uses American vocabulary. Why did you chose to set your novel in America? How much of a challenge was this in terms of spelling / grammar / vocabulary? 

As I reader I tend to favour books set outside the UK, I really enjoy the escapism. America is such a fascinating country on so many levels, and I’ve long been a fan of the small town setting in novels such as A Painted House and TV shows such as Fargo.
As a writer I found the American setting opened up lots of plot possibilities that just wouldn’t have worked had I set the book in the UK. I wanted Jim, the policeman in Tall Oaks, to be working the missing child case mostly alone, which given the autonomous nature of their police forces felt more plausible. There’s a real sense that the media have lost interest too, and given the size of the country, and the crime rate, that felt likely to happen.
As for the technical challenges, it was difficult. I literally went through the story line-by-line looking for inconsistencies in dialogue, spelling and grammar. My editor arranged for an American proof-reader. There was a top-vest-shirt debacle that I won’t bore you with. By the end of it I went a little bit mad. I edited the final chapter whilst wrapped in an American flag.   

It is very convincing in its sense of location - how did you ensure this? Can you tell me a bit about the research for this novel?

Thank you! Making it feel authentic was really important to me. I used photographs, travel guides and newspaper articles to help build a picture of the town itself. Then I looked at detailed maps of California to help with the layout. I did a rough sketch of the town, and also some of the other towns that feature in the book. When I’m writing I constantly have to check which roads characters live on and then work out where they would likely interact with each other, so having it mapped really helps.

Can you tell me a little about your inspiration for this novel? 

We used to live in a house similar in layout to Jessica’s in Tall Oaks. My son slept in the (not at all creepy) basement. One night I was checking him on our video monitor and thought I saw someone in his bedroom. It was actually one of his giant cuddly toys! It gave me the idea for the opening chapter in Tall Oaks.
From there I began to think about the town, and the sort of characters that might live there. I wanted a real mix of characters, all with quite different concerns. I wanted Tall Oaks to be a snap shot of one summer, with everyone at different stages in their lives.

Which was your favourite character to write and why?

Manny. He’s a teenage wannabe gangster, who, along with best friend Abe, attempts to extort money from local businesses. He gets the funniest lines in the book and I absolutely loved writing him. He’s foul mouthed, completely fearless, and seemingly has no inner monologue. Yet at the same time he’s deeply self aware, fiercely protective of his mother and sister and would do anything for those closest to him. I love Manny.
Whose voice did you find most difficult / easiest and why?

Jessica was the most difficult. At the time of writing Tall Oaks my son was the same age as Harry (her son), so trying to put myself in her shoes wasn’t nice. I wanted to capture the despair she feels throughout the story. She’s so sad, and angry and messed up.

I think the easiest was Roger. He’s a plonker. I can relate.

How do you manage the challenge of writing a novel that has several different story lines running concurrently? Do you plan each back story out first or do you let the book write itself?

It was a complete bugger actually. It sometimes had me tearing my hair out. I wanted to move the story forward in every scene, getting the pacing right is perhaps the most difficult thing to do when writing a book. You can have an amazing beginning and end, but if you lose your way between the two the story will suffer. I also wanted Tall Oaks to stand up to a second read, where once you know what’s going it all makes sense.
I don’t plan the back story. I know where the characters are heading, but how they get there evolves as I write.  

Tell me about the books that have influenced you the most; who do you like to read and what have you just finished / plan to read next?

The Last Child by John Hart. I love that book so much. After I finished it I read an interview with Hart where he talks about quitting his job as a lawyer (and stockbroker) to focus on writing. Shortly after I followed his example and did the same. It was a scary decision to make but I said to my wife, if John Hart can do it so can I! I won’t tell you what she said in reply. 
I have an endless list of favourite authors, and I keep adding to it. Dennis Lehane, Cormac McCarthy, John Grisham, Steven King, Kazuo Ishigaro, Robin Wasserman to name a few.  
I’m currently reading Too Close by Gayle Curtis. It’s full of twists and turns and I can’t put it down.
Next on my list is The Good Father by Noah Hawley. It comes highly recommended by Deb O’Connor. Deb wrote the bestselling My Husband’s Son, so she knows her shit.

You're ebook was published very recently and the paperback is due out in September. What's been the highlight since becoming a published author? What strikes you most about your journey?

Holding the proof for the first time was even better than holding my sons for the first time (mainly because the proof didn’t shit in the palm of my hand). 
Working with the incredible team at Bonnier, seeing how excited everyone is about Tall Oaks.
Going to the launch parties of my fellow Bonnier authors. We’re all debut authors and first met a year ago. We’ve supported each other through the publications process and now there’s some bestsellers amongst us. It’s incredible.

Overall the standout highlight was a review I received from Liz Barnsley ( It was one of the first I ever got and came at a time when I didn’t really know how Tall Oaks would be received. Liz ends the (amazing) review by saying Tall Oaks is in the running for her book of the year. Liz reads a trillion books in a year! It’s likely to be the best review I’ll ever get in my life and I’ll always be grateful to her for it.    

What plans do you have for the next 12 months? Are you writing anything new? Can you tell us anything about it?

I’m gearing up for the Tall Oaks launch in September. The amazing Emily Burns (Head of PR at Bonnier) has tons of stuff planned so it should be an exciting time. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get Tall Oaks out there and have even offered to rap/dance/strip if needs be. Emily says doing so may harm sales but she’s probably just being protective. The resulting global fame might prove hard to cope with.
I’m currently working on book 2. It’s called The Summer Cloud and is about a small town in bible-belt USA, the giant storm cloud that won’t move from above it, and the search for a missing schoolgirl. It should be out sometime in 2017.

Thank you so much Chris for such a great interview! It's been great to have you and I've really enjoyed hearing all about your writing and the journey of "Tall Oaks"! I wish you all the best with its paperback publication in September but I'm absolutely confident it will become bestseller! For anyone who's still wondering whether to buy it or not (buy it!!!!) here's my review. And there are plenty more 5* reviews on Amazon and Goodreads! 

My Review of "Tall Oaks" 
This is a great debut - that reads with the accomplishment and finesse of a much more established writer- set in small town America where 3 year old Harry has gone missing. Although the mystery of his disappearance is the main strand of the story, it is actually more a vehicle around which Whitaker can explore the different lives of the inhabitants. As the town works to uncover the truth behind Harry's disappearance, further lies, hidden pasts, secret ambitions, obsessions, relationships and all the other fascinating stories behind the people that live there, are revealed through wit, humour, pathos and empathy. As the blurb promises, this really is a "dark yet hilarious, suspenseful and sad" read.

The writing is vivid, engaging, lively and full of great dialogue and action. The book opens with the harrowing disappearance of Harry and the palpable grief of his mother Jess. Jim, the detective in charge of the case, is clearly deeply affected by the event as well. We are then, with each new chapter or section, introduced to more characters, each with their own complications. There is a lot to keep up with at the beginning and although a little overwhelmed, I was compelled to read on as I wondered how the threads were related and how they might converge as the novel progressed. Whitaker sets a healthy pace; the short chapters and alternating voices make it a very filmic read. Some of the characters bring humour and entertainment which counteracts the sadness of Jess's loss and the intensity of the narratives from her and Jim. There is a good balance.

Whitaker's ability to evoke such a range of scenarios is commendable. His presentation of small town America and the characters within it are completely convincing. Tall Oaks should be a picture perfect town with perfect white picket fences yet Whitaker manages to unnerve the reader with a prevailing sense of foreboding. His sense of location is very clearly established and it is easy to relate to all the characters whether they are likeable or not, vulnerable or strong. Reading this book was like binging on a box set. Other reviewers have compared it to "Fargo", "Twin Peaks" and "The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair". It certainly has that quirky, original, gripping feel. Personally it also felt to me like a rather dark version of "Desperate Housewives"!

Once half way through, I found the novel picked up further in pace and drama. I really enjoyed the story of Jerry and his mother - Whitaker's depiction of madness and control was purposefully despicable, unpleasant and shocking. Then Jim's obsession with Jess gave Whitaker an opportunity to explore the complex emotions of a police officer who gets over involved in a case. It certainly was a case of "just one more chapter..." (or "one more episode"!)which has always been my downfall and the true sign of a great book!

This book follows characters at transitional points in their lives; a time of challenging personal choices, change and new starts. Tall Oaks is a place which means different things to different people, whether it's somewhere to hide or somewhere to run from, a place of safety or a place of threat. It is compulsive rather than gripping, full of hard punches but not shocking. It has elements of a comedy, a thriller, a police procedural novel and lots of drama. The ending was absolutely suburb. Amazing. It was so well executed.

At the end of the novel, Abe says to Manny as they prepare to move on in their lives, it's the "end of an era". That's definitely how I felt when I (reluctantly) turned the last page.

I would highly recommend this book. But don't just take my word for it. Lesley Allen's review on Goodreads really sums it up:

This may be Whitaker’s debut novel, but it’s quite clear he’s a natural. His writing sparkles with wit, passion, pathos and hope, and there isn’t a word out of place. The narrative is jam-packed with twists and turns, shocks and surprises, with gasps aplenty – and the denouement provided me with one of the most outstanding ‘I didn’t see that coming’ moments from any book I have ever read. 

I bought this book myself after reading about it on Twitter and thought the front cover was appealing. 

For more recommendations, reviews and bookish chat follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up to receive future posts via email. 


Popular Posts