An Interview with SJI Holliday, Author of The Damsel Fly

Cover Spread Damselfly.indd

I loved Willow Walk by SJI Holliday, reviewed here, so I’m thrilled to be part of the launch celebrations for book three in the Banktoun series, The Damsel Fly. I’ll be sharing my review of The Damsel Fly very soon, but today I have a wonderful interview with SJI Holliday.

The Damsel Fly was published by Black and White on 2nd February 2017 and is available for purchase in e-book and paperback here.

The Damsel Fly

Cover Spread Damselfly.indd

Katie Taylor is the perfect student. She’s bright and funny, she has a boyfriend who adores her and there are only a few months left of school before she can swap Banktoun for the bright lights of London. Life gets even better when she has an unexpected win on a scratch card. But then Katie’s luck runs out.

Her tragic death instead becomes the latest in a series of dark mysteries blighting the small town. The new school counsellor Polly McAllister, who has recently returned to Banktoun to make amends in her own personal life, is thrown in at the deep end as the pupils and staff come to terms with Katie’s death. And it’s not long before she uncovers a multitude of murky secrets. Did Katie have enemies? Is her boyfriend really so squeaky clean? And who is her brother’s mysterious friend?

With Banktoun’s insular community inflamed by gossip and a baying mob stirring itself into a frenzy on social media, DS Davie Gray and DC Louise Jennings must work out who really murdered Katie before someone takes matters into their own hands…

An Interview with SJI Holliday

Hi Susi. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and your latest release The Damselfly. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?

Hi Linda. Thanks for having me! A little bit about me… well, I am Scottish, have travelled the world and now live in London. I grew up in a small town near Edinburgh where my parents had a newsagents and then a pub… so you can see where the influence came from for the settings in my books! I’ve got a brother who lives in New Zealand, a sister in Chile and another sister who still lives in Scotland. I try to visit as often as I can.

And tell us a bit about The Damselfly without spoiling the plot of course!

It’s a tragic tale about a teenage girl who is found dead at home. It’s a classic whodunit with lots of potential suspects, mixed with the psychological exploration of a community in mourning.

How far is Banktoun, the setting for your novels, based in a real place and how far an imaginary place?

Basically Banktoun is my home town, with some parts removed or renamed. When I was writing Black Wood, I printed out a map of the area, scored out the bits I was cutting out, adding in my replacement street names, and spotted an actual place called Black Wood just outside the real town. It was meant to be!

The Damselfly is your third book set in Banktoun. How have the plots emerged?

I always had the idea for The Damselfly bubbling at the back of my mind after a real-life tragedy that stuck with me. Willow Walk came from nowhere, in that I had no real idea I was going to write it, but it did emerge from Black Wood in that Marie was mentioned very briefly in the first book as a potential love interest for Davie and it didn’t pan out – so I decided to give her a story. I did something similar with Quinn from Willow Walk, who is given his own part to play in the third book. So although these are standalone mysteries, reading them in order does provide the reader with a few nuggets.

How do you think your writing has changed or consolidated over the three books of Black Wood, Willow Walk and The Damselfly?

I deliberately set out to write each book in a different way, but still keeping the overall voice that comes out of me without me having any control over it. I experimented with past and present tense, first and third person narrators, flashbacks, things such as letters and blogs inserted in there to add to the tension. Ultimately I am still a new writer, with only three books under my belt, and I don’t think I will ever stop learning and experimenting with what I do. People say this is my best book. I hope I can keep improving, but I’m worried that it’s not achievable. Authors are notoriously wracked with self-doubt.

The Damselfly considers the impact of social media. What is your view of today’s use of social media?

It has its pros and cons. I do hark back to the days before it existed and have fond memories of a life without the internet, but it exists now and it isn’t going away. Social media is an excellent way for people to keep in touch from all over the world, in real time. People make friends that they might never have made otherwise, and then meet them in real life. People who love books are spoilt for choice with recommendations, clubs, blogs about books. But there is a dark side, of course. The keyboard warriors who set out to deliberately hurt, forgetting that there is a real person behind the screen somewhere. Nasty people will always be nasty. It’s a shame to give them a platform, but removing it won’t make them go away.

Why do you think female writers are so good at psychological thrillers?

Ha – good question – probably because we overthink things too much! Some things I tell my husband, and I can tell he is trying hard not to roll his eyes at me when I am analysing something I’ve read or heard about in the most minute detail. I think men are more into doing things, women are more into talking them to death first – sweeping generalisations, of course. Mark Edwards and Peter Swanson are excellent psychological thriller writers.

You also work in the pharmaceutical industry. To what extent does this give you an understanding of procedures that you can employ in your writing?

I’m not sure it helps at all! Unless you can count the slightly anal use of spreadsheets and managing time effectively – I work best when I am busy and have a deadline.

All your books have received critical acclaim from fellow writers. How does that make you feel?

It’s an amazing feeling when a writer you have admired for years tells you that they loved your book. I find it hard to believe them. It is utterly terrifying asking your peers to read and comment on your book – this one especially so, as I was convinced it was total rubbish.

When I read your books I’m always so impressed by the way the variety of sentence length affects the tension and plot. Do you have to edit hard to achieve this effect or is it part of your natural writing style?

It’s my natural style. I spent a long time writing short stories before I finished a novel and I think this time was where I really developed my ‘voice’ without realising that was what I was doing. I spend a lot of time thinking about the book before writing a word. I write lots of notes, and then I finally get stuck in. When I edit, there are huge passages that I don’t even touch – but of course there are certain parts which will get re-written several times until they sound just right.

Your books increase my heart rate as I read. Does your writing have the same effect on you as you write?

Yes! And some bits make me scared, or sad and some bits make me cry. Quite a lot of The Damselfly made me cry. When I am in the flow of it, I do feel like I am actually in Banktoun and that I actually know these people.

You often take part in events with other writers. How important is it for you to do this?

It’s very important for several reasons. Firstly, there are thousands of authors out there and thousands of books published every year – we have to be seen so that readers know we exist. It makes my heart sink when I tell someone I am a writer and they say ‘Oh, would I have heard of anything you’ve written?’ and I say ‘No, of course not!’ How many authors would the average person recognise on the street? Very few, I think. Secondly, we write to be read – so meeting readers is wonderful – especially if they have read your book and make a point of coming to tell you so. Being at a good book event can also introduce your books to new readers, and that is ultimately the aim. Thirdly, I have made some very good friends in this business – crime authors are a lovely bunch and it is always great fun to hang out with your mates, talking about stuff you love.

So, if you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?

I love drawing, but I am not very good at it anymore (I was quite good when I was younger.)  I keep hoping I will have more time to teach myself. I will, eventually! My dream would be to write and illustrate a children’s book. One day!

And finally, when you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

I love creepy psychological thrillers and the everyday horror type things. One to watch out for this year is The Binding Song by Elodie Harper. My perfect kind of book.

Thanks so much Susi for your time in answering my questions.

About SJI Holliday


S.J.I. (Susi) Holliday grew up in East Lothian. A life-long fan of crime and horror, her short stories have been published in various places, and she was shortlisted for the inaugural CWA Margery Allingham prize. She has written three crime novels, a mix of police procedural and psychological thriller, set in the fictional Scottish town of Banktoun. They are: Black Wood, Willow Walk and The Damselfly – all featuring the much loved character, Davie Gray. Susi also works as a pharmaceutical statistician. She is married and lives in London.

You can find out more about SJI Holliday via her website, by following her on Twitter or finding her on Facebook.

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