We are absolutely delighted to welcome debut author SJI Holliday to the Orenda Community blog!
Black Wood is an extraordinary thriller, full of memorable characters, unexpected twists and turns (this is not an understatement) and some beautiful writing. A hugely exciting debut that will undoubtedly leave you wanting more!
He spots the two girls through the cracked screen of beech, sycamore and leg-scratching gorse: a flash of red skirt and a unison of giggles … The smaller girl sees them first and she lets out a strange little squeak and jumps back, grabbing onto the other girl’s T-shirt, revealing a flash of milky white shoulder. He grins.
Something happened to Claire and Jo in Black Wood: something that left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars. But with Claire suffering memory loss and no evidence to be found, nobody believes Jo’s story.
Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for vengeance. And at the same time, Sergeant David Gray is investigating a balaclava-clad man whos is attacking women on a disused railway, shocking the sleept village of Banktoun. But what is the connection between Jo’s visitor and the masked man?
To catch the assailant, and to give Jo her long-awaited justice, Gray must unravel a tangled web of past secrets, broken friendship and tainted love. But can he crack the case before Jo finds herself with blood on her hands?
Q&A with SJI Holliday
How long did it take you to write Black Wood? Was it a story you felt compelled to tell?
I wrote about 10,000 words quite quickly, then ran out of steam. I’d already done something similar with other books, seeming to hit a wall that I couldn’t break through. But it was different with Black Wood because firstly – yes, it was something I felt compelled to write (and I’ll tell you why in a minute …) and also because I had a critique partner who was urging me on, and finally, because I was lucky enough to get an agent based on those 10,000 words. So I had no choice but to deliver it! When I was signed up by Phil Patterson at Marjacq, I had 10,000 edited words, another 30,000 unedited and a rough plan for the rest. I gave myself six weeks to finish it and send it to Phil, and I made it with one day to spare.
How close to ‘true events’ in your past is the plot?
The inciting incident … the boys in the wood … that’s based on something that happened to me and a friend when we were young. I can’t really tell you more right now though as a newspaper is interested in an exclusive! I’ll keep you posted …
You’ve worked as a crime reviewer/blogger, putting you in a position to critique other writers’ work. How did this influence your own writing, and, having being the ‘reviewer’, did you feel nervous about how your work would be accepted by others?
Well, it can be good and bad for a writer to review others. You get to read loads of great writing and sometimes that can spark ideas – techniques, language and style can all filter through into your own writing, even though you do retain your own unique voice. But sometimes you read things and think ‘aargh – that’s my idea’ – but it never is. Two writers can take the same basic idea and run with it in completely different ways. The other thing you notice as a reviewer is what makes you keep or stop reading – and those things definitely help improve your own skills. As for feeling nervous … YES, ridiculously so. Even though I got some great early feedback and some lovely cover quotes, I am still incredibly nervous about how it will be received. No one can like all books though – from being an avid reader, I can completely appreciate that Black Wood won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s doing okay at the moment though, so fingers crossed!
The plot is packed with intertwined small-town mysteries that are systematically unveiled, resulting in a series of spectacular denouements. How hard was it to keep track of the various strands when you were writing? And did you find it difficult to sustain the dramatic tension?
I’m not sure I thought too much about the strands until much later in the process. When I was writing, new things would come up and I just went with them … then tried to make sense of it all in the end! Sustaining tension was challenging and I did tweak things a lot to try and achieve that – I tried to using short chapters, point-of-view switches, and adding in little nuggets of mystery throughout. I hope it worked!
Many of your characters have experienced great trauma in their lives, and yet appear to be strong and capable; for example, Jo. Do you think some people are psychologically built to suppress horror or compartmentalise it without being affected?
Yes I do. In many ways, Jo is a mess. But on the whole she gets through it. I think we all compartmentalise horror to an extent. You just have to, don’t you?
Was it necessary to do much research for your book? If so, what?
The main piece of research was the repeated watching of a YouTube video on how to skin a rabbit. That was vile! Apart from that, very little. I had to ask some advice on some police procedure during the final edits, mainly just to cover the questioning of a suspect who wasn’t arrested. I also did a bit of research into the mental health act. It was all online though.
Were many changes required when the editing commenced, and did you find it difficult to rework or rewrite?
Nothing major, except some tidying up of the timeline for all the strands. My editor was brilliant – she made a nice spreadsheet with everyone in there and where they were supposed to be when. I had to add in a few sections and a new chapter to tie up some loose ends, but nothing was really removed. My submitted draft was well edited already, as I’d had editorial advice from my agent, and a report from a freelance editor to help me pull it all together. I worked on the ending a bit too. It actually changed from the submitted version, and in hindsight the new ending was staring me in the face all along. Sometimes you have to step away to see it!
The structure is rather ingenious, particularly from a debut author. Did you find it difficult to marry up the story, written, as it is, from so many different perspectives?
I wrote ‘The Woods’ and ‘The Boy’ sections as their own complete stories, then used them to frame Jo’s main narrative. When editing, we jigged some of those sections around so I had to make a few tweaks elsewhere to make them all tie in. I made it all quite complicated for myself, but I enjoy books where things shift about and leave you a bit disjointed, so that’s what I wanted to write. Every idea I come up with seems to go like this. Why can’t I just write something linear?!
Did you have a clear idea of your characters’ personalities and motivation before you started writing, or did they evolve and grow in the writing?
I knew Jo, but she still evolved. The others grew as I wrote. Sergeant Davie Gray was never in my mind in the beginning. I realised I needed another major point-of-view character and suddenly I pictured him, bored out of his head, playing wastepaper bin basketball in the police station. Then he took on a life of his own. I never understood what writers meant when they said things like that, but it really does happen.
Are there any books that particularly inspire you? Writers to whom you might aspire?
I love Stephen King’s storytelling ability. The way that he can make completely unreal situations sound feasible. His book ‘On Writing’ was what made me want to write. I also love Mo Hayder, for her excellently written dark, creepy scenes – and I love the way she’s written a series but kept it fresh – that’s a tough thing to do.
If you had any advice for debut authors, what would it be?
Just write. It’s the same advice that all authors give out, and it really is as simple as that. Read as well though – not necessarily ‘how to’ books, but writing in the genre you want to write in. You need to learn from the masters. Oh, and go to events – ‘real life’ and online networking is essential as writing in a vacuum won’t get you very far.
Is there a sequel or a second book in the pipeline?
I’ve really struggled with the dreaded book 2! Apparently it’s a common thing … I have two ideas outlined as follow-ups – not sequels as such, but set in the same town. I also have loads of ideas for standalones, some with supernatural elements, some very horror, some thrillers… I think because I started on short stories, ideas come to me quickly and I can write an outline very quickly. It’s the writing of the actual book that’s the hard part! I’m on it though – I’ve given myself another ridiculous deadline. It’s the only way.
About SJI Holliday
SJI Holliday grew up in Haddington, East Lothian. She works as a Pharmaceutical Statistician, and as a life-long bookworm has always dreamt of becoming a novelist. She has several crime and horror short stories published in anthologies and was shortlisted for the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham Prize. After travelling the world, she has now settled in London with her husband. Her debut novel, Black Wood, was inspired by a disturbing incident from her childhood. You can find out more at www.sjiholliday.com.
Black & White Publishing
Published: 19 March 2015
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