S J I Holliday ‘Black Wood’ Book Launch
Waterstones, Chiswick, was the venue for Susi Holliday’s book launch last night, where she was interviewed by bestselling crime author Martyn Waites. It was a very relaxed affair with some great banter and anecdotes, but most importantly of all, chocolate.
Martyn began by asking what made Susi write Black Wood.
Susi told him that it was sparked off by something that had happened to her as a child. She and her friend were pursued out a wood by two boys threatening with them with knives. Fortunately they got away, but it was the type of ‘what if’ event, and for a long time she wondered if it had really happened because it was such a strange experience. As this was the 1980s there was no investigation as there would have been today. But this is where Black Wood came from.
Martyn asked whether Susi always knew Black Wood was going to be a crime novel.
Susi has always read crime and horror books, so this may have been responsible for pushing the novel in the direction it eventually went. Initially there was one main character, but centring the whole story around this one person became very hard work, so Susi brought in the character of Davie Grey. She took the unusual step of not making him a police detective, but a uniformed police sergeant. Although Susi recognised he was doing things a uniformed policeman would not do with regards to the investigation, she felt that because the novel was set in a small town this allowed him some licence to work outside the usual boundaries.
Davie was an interesting character development because he evolved in part from a conversation Susi had with Mark Billingham at one of the Theakstons Crime Festivals. Discussing music, they realised that there had never been a policeman who was a Mod and wouldn’t that be interesting? So, in theory, Davie is now the first Mod policeman to make an appearance in a crime novel.
There was some discussion of the development of the characters and the notion of how they began to write themselves. Martyn could relate to this, telling the story of how a particular character of little consequence kept appearing in the scenes as he wrote his novel, until he realised this particular person played a pivotal role in events. Susi said exactly the same thing had happened to her.
Martyn made the point that, in many cases, characters can often be the alter ego of the writers themselves, so was this the case for Jo?
Susi said that this was not the case, but because of the incident that had occurred when she was a child, it took her mother a while to settle into reading the story. Although Susi felt that there had to be something of you in all your characters. She had also come to realise, after a friend had read Black Wood, that an author’s interpretation of their writing may not be the same as the readers. Her friend came out with quite different interpretations and nuances that Susi had not previously recognised.
The amount of research is often something that seems to crop up in crime writer interviews and that night was no exemption.
Susi made the point that anyone writing a police procedural certainly had to do a great deal of research, but as she was not writing a procedural novel and the setting was a small town with an equally small police force, then she did not do too much in the way of research. Although Twitter had proved very helpful when she needed to know something. Searching on the Internet was something Susi tried to avoid too much because it could become a distraction. Poisons were particularly interesting to her as a medical statistician, because she has a fascination for trying to find the ones that evade detection.
It was Susi’s path to publication that Martyn highlighted as particularly interesting. She began as a blogger, reviewing books and interviewing authors. She also went to book festivals as a reader, then eventually began to write short stories. There is a Dragon’s Pen event at Theakstons Crime Festival where budding writers’ names are put into a hat and they are given the chance to pitch to an agent. Susi missed out being picked out of the hat, but was able to speak to one of the agents afterwards and made a pitch. She was told, when she had something, to send it to him. After sending about 10,000 words, she was rung back and asked how long it would take her to finish the book. Throwing out a figure, Susi claimed she would be able to do the rest of it in six weeks. After that she barely had time to eat and sleep, but managed to get it all done.
The writing came relatively fluidly because one of the things that struck her was the sense of place and the characters inhabiting that place. The town felt real to her. What she did to envisage it was to Google her home town, south of Edinburgh, and print out the map. Then she took a chunk of it so she had a street plan.
Martyn said he’d had a similar experience when he identified a tract of land in Essex. He found out later this had been a place where not a great deal happens, but in that particular area the police had never been able to solve a crime.
On being asked whether there would be a sequel, Susi said there had been such favourable feedback about Davie Gray that readers would like to see more of him. So it may be that a sequel is feasible with the characters in a different place.
Feedback also became a topic of conversation with regards to reviews. They are something a writer has to get used to good and bad. Susi is quite aware that everyone will not love her writing, and tries not to get concerned about poor reviews. But when she begin to look at the profile of a reviewer that had given a less than positive response, an interesting picture began to emerge of their technique and judgment. There is also the fact that some reviews can be quite amusing. Harlan Coben’s ‘Never received it. Don’t think I ordered it’ is a treasured classic.
Whereas Susi’s debut novel was written under intense pressure, the next is quite a different matter, as she has been allowed to take her time. Susi thinks this is not a good thing, because working under pressure is a great motivator. But she has agreed to write another story involving Davie Gray.
Then questions were thrown open to the floor.
Asking if Susi was going to mine any more traumatic childhood incidents for the next novel, it would seem that crime writers’ spouses are no less inventive than their partners when it comes to inventing crime scenes. It transpired that Susi’s husband had been keen to consider what would happen if his childhood neighbours had buried a body in the garden.
Keeping it in the family, Susi’s mother has been responsible for Susi’s love of horror stories. Stephen King, James Herbert, and the recent Bird Box by Josh Malerman were some of the writers and stories mentioned.
Susi working practice is a mix of creating an outline and just going for it. But largely she’s keen just to get into the characters so the story begins to tell itself. Martyn mentioned that the first part of his writing is effectively an audition for his characters. One of the problems Susi has is that often she has too many ideas, which has resulted recently in 10 lots of 10,000 words before she settled on something. Susi told the audience that she does not write every day. This may be due to pressures of work or life, or the fact that she just finds herself unable to write. However, recently she wrote 8,000 words in a weekend. But she does find that when she reaches a certain point in the novel she just keeps going.
It is always interesting to know how a writer physically writes. Susi largely writes on her phone and has produced whole chapters that way. She does have notebooks, but doesn’t like writing in them because she’s afraid of messing up the lovely clean pages. She will often write to herself, e-mailing ideas to herself, which she organises in various files on her computer.
Networking is something that every writer needs to know how to do. This, Susi said, is something of a chicken and egg situation. She began to really engage with Twitter after she had met people at the Theakstons Crime Festival. She told the audience what a friendly group of people crime writers and readers at these events are. Once you’ve made some connections, you are able to connect with various groups of people. But it is about being sociable and being seen.
The issue of whether writing classes are worthwhile came up, in that Susi was asked whether she had attended them or was self-taught. Susi did attend some classes because as a scientist she did not have much experience writing and had to learn about things like punctuation which she had been able to largely avoid until she wanted to write fiction. Martyn added that no matter how many classes some people attend, their writing will only get so far. Susi had found that being an avid reader had helped immensely because she was able to discover what voice hooked her and how useful it is discovering new authors to read and wanting to see what they write next. Generally speaking, writers are readers.
Above all, it seems that if you want to write, stop talking about it, put pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard and plunge right in.