Interview: SJI Holliday

The Five By Five Interview with SJI Holliday

(“Five By Five?” Um, well… I wanted a name for this feature, and as well as being a big crime fiction fan I am also a big Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, with a soft spot for “rogue slayer” Faith, who uses the phrase constantly – though she never explains what it means, it’s an expression used in telecoms/military coms to confirm a signal is being received clearly, so hopefully this means we’ll get a clearer picture of our interviewees!)

My first brush with SJI Holliday was when I randomly read The Deaths Of December, which has a great, if creepy central concept. Then she moved publisher and Karen Sullivan pressed a copy of The Lingering on me – well, let’s just say I’ll never look at a bath in the same way again! I now can’t step on a train without thinking about Violet, and her more recent novels are also among those that lodge in the back of your mind long after you’ve closed the covers. But while her books are dark and chilling and distinctly twisted, Susi is a totally lovely person so don’t be scared to say hi to her if you see her at an event or festival!

Susi (SJI) Holliday is a Scottish writer of dark fiction. She cut her teeth on flash fiction and short stories, and was shortlisted for the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham Prize in 2014. She is the UK bestselling author of the creepy and claustrophobic Banktoun trilogy (Black Wood, Willow Walk and The Damselfly), the festive serial killer thriller The Deaths of December, the supernatural mystery The Lingering, a psychological thriller set on the Trans-Siberian Express (Violet) and a horror novella (Mr Sandman). Her latest two novels (The Last Resort and Substitute) contain a speculative science edge. Her short stories have been published in magazines, newspapers and anthologies. By day, she works as a clinical research statistician. Susi divides her time between London and Edinburgh. She loves travelling, long walks, and scaring herself with horror movies. Find her on Twitter at @SJIHolliday and online at www.susiholliday.com

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First, the sensible questions…

Q1 Tell us a bit about your journey to publication and how you got to where you are now. Why crime fiction rather than another genre?
I was always a fan of mysteries – Famous Five, and those “choose you own adventure” books. Then I progressed to Stephen King when I was quite young, and then I flipped back to crime novels, mostly American – Jonathan Kellerman was a big favourite. Anyway, I read all the time, and I always fancied writing something… so when I was travelling in 2006 I started a novel. It was rubbish, but I was kind of into it. so then I did a creative writing evening class, wrote loads of very dark short stories, then started finding out all I could about the process of writing, how to get published etc. I started connecting with crime writers online and then I started going to festivals, and somewhere along the way, I met the person who would be my agent. About three years after I met him, I had a partially written book and I entered the prologue in a competition. It got longlisted and I tweeted about it, and the agent messaged me and asked if he could read it. He signed me up on the strength of that partial book, but it then took nearly a year to get a publisher. I’ve had several publishers along the way – but still that same agent. He is my biggest cheerleader and I don’t think I would still be writing if it wasn’t for his support.

Q2 What was it like sitting down and writing your first novel, and what is it like now – easier, harder, just different?
I started off with short stories and I had LOADS of fun doing that. It’s so satisfying to get something written quickly. Starting a novel was daunting and I had a few abandoned attempts before I finished one. I remember finishing my first novel – Black Wood – and getting such a buzz. I wasn’t sure I could ever do it again, and I swear it really does get harder each time. I try to plan as much as I can as I need to fit the writing around my day job, which is sometimes very challenging – but I often wonder if I wrote full time, would I write more or just tit about for even longer every day?

Q3 You’ve become the queen of the spooky, chill-inducing psychological thriller – what drew you to this?
I think I just like being scared (I know, I’m weird) and so writing things that scare me seemed like a good plan. I have an ambition to write the scariest horror novel ever.

Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
Coming up with ideas is my favourite bit without a doubt. I love playing around with storylines and working out plots. The actual writing bit is hard. But it’s always satisfying when it’s done and the first person reads it and goes “Oooooooh!” I have literally hundreds of ideas for novels and I will never live long enough to write them all.

Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
I’ve just sent in my 9th novel to my editor – it’s called The Hike, and it’s about two couples who set off on what should be an enjoyable weekend trip in the Swiss Alps, but of course, it’s all fun and games until someone falls off a mountain, haha! It’s out next summer. Once the edits for that are done, I’ll be starting work on book 10 – which is one I am very excited about and also a bit daunted as to whether I’ll be able to pull it off.

Now for the quick-fire round…

Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
Hannibal Lecter and Patrick Bateman.

Q2 What book have you reread the most?
The Woman in Black is my all-time favourite. Just the thought of reading it makes me nervous.

Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
I don’t think I’ve used the same method more than once, I like to be inventive.

Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
FFS. Both in abbreviated and full-form, in both life and writing.

Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
I mostly read on Kindle now but when I read a paperback I am definitely an evil corner folder!

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Thanks for those answers, Susi – how wonderful to hear about an agent who is such a cheerleader! Relationships with agents, publishers and editors can be so important. And I’ve never read The Woman In Black, but if it’s that chilling perhaps I should wait til I’m on a sunny beach surrounded by friends before I pick it up…

Susi’s latest book is Substitute, published by Thomas & Mercer, you can buy it on Amazon (getbook.at/substitute): Like any mother, Chrissie wants to protect her family. She would do anything to keep them safe. So when a mysterious stranger turns up at her door, offering to prevent the deaths of the people she loves, it sounds too good to be true. The only problem: she must choose someone to die in their place. A substitute. When her daughter Holly has a terrible accident, Chrissie has no option but to enter the programme. In that horrifying moment, she would do anything to save her. But even after Holly makes a miraculous recovery, Chrissie is convinced it’s just a coincidence. After all, who can really control the laws of life and death? But as the dangers to her family escalate and her chosen substitutes begin to disappear, Chrissie finds herself in an underworld of hidden laboratories and secretive doctors. And the consequences of playing by their rules are far deadlier than she ever imagined…

She also has a short story in new collection Terror Tales of the Scottish Lowlands, the latest in the Terror Tales series from Telos Publishing edited by Paul Finch. Here’s the blurb for the collection: The Scottish Lowlands. Gentle hills, dreamy woods, romantic ballads, heroic songs. But dark castles tell tales of torture and woe, of reiver cruelty and the madness of kings. While the shades of slain armies still battle in the mist, witch-hunters ride and the bone-fires blaze… Perfect for Halloween as the dark nights draw in! Order the paperback direct here: https://telos.co.uk/shop/horror-dark-fantasy-and-science-fiction/dark-endeavours/terror-tales-of-the-scottish-lowlands/ It’s also available in print and ebook from That Giant Online Retailer That Shall Not Be Named.

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