Inspired by an event from her childhood, author SJI Holliday’s thrilling debut BLACK WOOD, hits the streets this month with a splash.
Something happened to Claire and Jo in Black Wood: something that left Claire paralyzed 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. At the same time, Sergeant Davie Gray is investigating a balaclava-clad man who is attacking women on an abandoned railway, shocking the sleepy 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. Can he crack the case before Jo finds herself with blood on her hands?
Holliday is eager for you to find out!
Holliday grew up in East Lothian, Scotland. 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. She took some time to chat to The Big Thrill about her debut, the event that inspired this story, and a personal fact that may surprise you.
Tell us something about BLACK WOOD that isn’t mentioned in the publisher’s synopsis.
Jo is quite a difficult and complex character. She’s had a pretty awful upbringing and many things have shaped her into who she is. Ultimately, I don’t think she’s bad, but she has made some questionable choices. She’s a character that you may love to hate.
Another thing to mention is the location—it’s set in small-town Scotland, in the type of place where everyone knows everyone’s business. It’s a fictional town, but one that is very much based on where I grew up. I live in London now, and it couldn’t be any more different.
I noticed you have quite a following in the UK, but your book is not yet available in the US. Are there plans for a worldwide release?
Oh yes, definitely. We’re talking to several US publishers at the moment. It will be released in the US, one way or another. I have many friends and followers overseas who I know are dying to read it!
Part of BLACK WOOD is based on an event in your childhood. Can you tell us more about that?
The idea was sparked from something that happened to a friend and I when we were young, maybe eight or nine years old. We were playing in woodlands near my friend’s house and two boys appeared—they were a little older than us, and we felt intimidated by them, so we left the woods, walking out along a field that ran by a small stream. They followed us, and one of them said, “You better run. We’ve got a knife.” I’ve no idea if they did or didn’t, but as a young girl I was petrified. We escaped unscathed. Physically, at least.
BLACK WOOD is a very dark story. Do you find the more graphic scenes difficult to write? Or are they simply where your characters take you?
I’ve always read dark books—I grew up reading horror novels and I love the heart-racing thrill of being scared. It was natural that I’d write the kind of things that I like to read. I don’t think my graphic scenes are anywhere near as brutal as some things I’ve read. Sometimes I think I need to go darker! I think most of the darkness in my book is the kind that lives inside your head—and that can be scarier than any monster.
How difficult is it to shift from Pharmaceutical Statistician to author? I hear you have multiple spreadsheets for each story.
It’s very hard to switch. I try to use my “organized” brain and set up the spreadsheet at the beginning—tabs for word count, outline, timeline etc., but it falls by the wayside when my “creative” brain kicks in. The biggest challenge for me is switching from one to the other when I am very busy with the day job. I am completely absorbed and get quite stressed! When I struggle to write, I do keep the creative side ticking over by writing notes and scenes for whatever it is I am working on. It all works out in the end.
Sgt. Davie Gray turned out to be one of the book’s main (and favorite) characters. Do you envision a sequel to BLACK WOOD?
Yes and no. It was always planned as a standalone, with Jo as the main character, but then I realized she was quite intense, so I brought Davie in as a bit of relief from that. He does seem to be popular, so I have outlined a couple of follow-ups set in the same town, but with different characters taking the lead—and with Davie linking it all together. But I’m working on another standalone at the moment, so we’ll see.
What is the best advice—and harshest criticism—you’ve received as an author? And what might you say to aspiring writers?
Best advice given to me is the same advice I’d give to others—just finish something. As someone who was used to writing short stories and flash fiction, I struggled a lot with writing something novel length before completing BLACK WOOD. I started numerous novels that ended up fizzling out. I still have that problem now—the issue is that as you’re writing, more and more ideas pop up. You have to keep them in check! It’s good to write a few notes then file them away for later.
Harshest criticism? I’m not sure. Thankfully, most responses to my writing have been complimentary, but when you get something published, you soon find out that everyone’s a critic. Some readers can be very unforgiving, but there comes a point when you have to stop letting it affect you. People are always telling me not to read online reviews, but it’s sort of a twisted obsession.
Tell us one thing about you that might surprise us. It can be a secret—we won’t tell.
I was (very briefly) a member of the Territorial Army. On the first training weekend, I was almost blinded when they accidentally put my contact lenses in an antiseptic cleaning fluid during the medical. I dropped out before I was fully qualified. I wasn’t keen on spending my weekends being yelled at because my boots weren’t shiny enough. I do admire people who give up their free time to serve in the TA, but unfortunately it wasn’t for me. I stick to more sedate hobbies now.
SJI Holliday grew up in East Lothian, Scotland. 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.
To learn more about SJI Holliday, please visit her website.