Thursday, January 14, 2016

9mm: An interview with SJI Holliday

If you go down to the woods today...

From when we're the littlest kids, we know 'the woods' is a place of intrigue, of magic, mystery, and sometimes sinister danger. Whether filled by wolves and witches, or Teddy Bears' Picnics, 'the woods' can inspire a range of visceral, gut-level feelings beyond our normal everyday lives. Mythological, yet real.

Debutant British crime novelist Susi Holliday ably tapped into that sense of danger and intrigue last year with her acclaimed BLACK WOOD, which has been called “A deeply unsettling story of bad deeds, complex loyalties and secrets better left buried ... a thrilling debut which grips from the very first page and doesn't let go.”

In BLACK WOOD, something happens to Claire and Jo, two young girls in the woods; Claire is left paralysed with memory loss, Jo deep mental scars and a story no-one believes. More than twenty years later, a visitor dredges up painful memories and ignites Jo's desire for revenge, while at the same time the local copper is hunting a masked man attacking women out by a disused railway.

You can read an excerpt of BLACK WOOD here.

Today, I'm very pleased to welcome SJI Holliday (Susi's pen-name) to Crime Watch as the first interviewee for 2016 in our popular 9mm series. Over the years we've been fortunate to have more than 130 fantastic crime writers share their thoughts as we fired our nine not-at-all-usual questions their way.

And now it's SJI Holliday's turn to stare down the barrel...

Craig and SJI Holliday at Bloody Scotland
(photo: Steph Broadribb/CrimeThrillerGirl)

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Hmm. I think it has to be Jack Caffrey. I love Mo Hayder’s writing, and she’s managed to create a believable yet unpredictable character who remains an enigma throughout. I loved WOLF, because it gave Caffrey centre stage to break a ridiculous amount of rules after he was sidelined a bit in previous books for Flea Marley (also a great recurring character, by the way). I’m still hoping for a proper Caffrey-Flea romance, even if it’s likely to be doomed from the start because of the weight of their combined secrets.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
I can’t remember a lot of the detail of books I read when I was a kid, because I read thousands of the things and I read them fast. I was a big fan of Enid Blyton. I think one of the first books that blew me away as a teen was THE TALISMAN by King and Straub. I read a lot of horror then, but this was my first foray into something that was more fantasy. I loved it, the feeling of being in a very different world, yet somehow it still made sense. Saying that, I don’t think I’ve read anything like that since, although BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman is the most recent ‘fantasy’ I’ve read, but it’s a dystopian horror, rather than having any weird and wonderful quests. You should check that one out by the way. Incredible book.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
I’d written loads of short stories and flash fiction. I wrote my first flash fiction at a creative writing evening class, about a man called Mr Parker, who kept his embalmed wife propped up in bed. Everyone else was writing pretty descriptive prose about summer gardens and unrequited love, so it got a few gasps when I read it out. That’s when I knew I was on the right track with the dark stuff.

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Outside of those things and trying to fit in the day job (I’m a clinical trials statistician), I don’t have time for anything too mad or exciting. I love to travel, and it’s great that I can combine that with book related activities too. I have less time to read now (I used to devour several books a week before I started writing) but when I do, I love to read something gripping in one sitting, with a nice bar of chocolate to hand. I like watching horror films, walking, exploring, seeing friends and family. Mainly I like to relax!

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider?
I live in London, where of course there are a ridiculous amount of things to do. One of the nicest ways to see different parts of the city is to walk along the river… away from the crowds by the London Eye, head east or west and you’ll find plenty of stuff to do. Near Kew Gardens, Strand-on-the-Green is the perfect place to hang out with a cold cider on a summer’s day. Or if you’re intent on staying central, head to the Hunterian Museum to see pickled body parts, or Pollock’s Toy Museum to see some very creepy dolls. I know that’s not one thing, but I don’t think it’s possible to pick just one thing in London.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
People used to say I looked like Martine McCutcheon, most famously known for playing the ill-fated Tiffany Mitchell in Eastenders and starring in a series of Activia Yoghurt adverts. I can’t imagine anyone who could play me better. I’m sure she’d jump at the chance, but I wonder if she can do a Scottish accent?

7. Of your books, which is your favourite, and why?
That’s tough, as I’ve only got one published and one on its way in spring 2016. It would be like choosing my favourite child! Saying that though, as much as I love BLACK WOOD (my debut novel), I think it’s impossible not to improve as you write more and more – so I think the second one (WILLOW WALK) shows my progression, as a writer. I felt like I knew what I was doing a bit more, and I’m tackling some taboo subjects, which is always exciting.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a bookseller’s shelf?
When I got the email from my agent to say that a publisher wanted to buy my book, I was in the café in the gym, ready to go for a swim and a healthy dinner. Instead, I called my husband and we went out for burgers and champagne. It had to be done!

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
Without a doubt, it was sitting on the bar of the Curly Coo pub in Stirling as part of Bloody Scotland. There were five of us, and we were dressed up to the nines, belting out our rendition of "Cellblock Tango" from Chicago. It was terrifying to do, but also the best thing I have ever done. Stepping out of your comfort zone is good. It got a lot of praise and I’m pretty sure it’s not the last you’re going to hear of ‘The Slice Girls.’

Thank you Susi. We appreciate you taking the time to chat to Crime Watch. 

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