The town of Haddington is the inspiration behind the fictional setting of Black Wood, debut crime novel from SJI Holliday. Here, the author speaks to Kendra Olson about the book:
He places the trap on the ground, at the base of a dark, rotting oak. Its drooping, diseased branches hang like tentacles. Ready to grab…
Black Wood is an intriguing twist on the psychological crime thriller. Although there is a detective, and a crime, this novel isn’t your traditional mystery book. And that’s a good thing. When Jo is introduced to Gareth Maloney in the book shop she works in, she instantly recognises him. He was one of the boys who hurt her best friend Claire when they were kids, paralysing her from the waist down. When Jo tells Sergeant Davie Gray, one of Banktoun’s few police officers, he doesn’t believe her. After all, it’s been twenty-three years. Jo then decides to take it upon herself to investigate Maloney. But Claire feels differently, wishing Jo would leave the past alone.
When we met up in London to discuss the novel, Susi Holliday—who writes under the initials SJI— told me that the inspiration for the story came from something she’d experienced as a child. When she was about eight years old, she and a friend went into the woods to play and encountered two boys who told them they had a knife. Though they never saw a knife, Susi and her friend weren’t going to take any chances. Terrified, they made the same choice as Claire and Jo do in the book, to run home by cutting across the burn. Susi and her friend were lucky that nothing happened to them, but the boys were never found and the incident was quickly forgotten by everyone. Except Susi, who told me that it always stayed with her.
At the heart of Black Wood is Banktoun, a fictional version of Haddington. Susi admitted to me that when she left Haddington, nearly sixteen years ago, she’d felt lost. “That community was the centre of my life. When I left that initially it was really difficult. It felt like I had my heart cut out…I still have all the memories of those times and I just miss that. The community feel of it. You don’t really get that in London.”
So why fictionalise it? As Susi said, “It’s very similar in lots of ways but… I knew that if I set it in present day that I was going to get stuff wrong, so if I fictionalised it I could make it how I remembered. I just changed the street names. The geography bit pretty much sits as it is except for the name but then I’ve actually cut a chunk off to make it smaller which just made it easier for me to handle. And I wanted it just a bit more remote than it is, because it is quite a decent sized market town. It’s quite busy but I wanted to make it a little bit more claustrophobic and creepy.”
When Susi lived in Haddington, she worked in her parents’ pub, The Plough Tavern, which allowed her to get to know all the regulars. That experience was something she tried to recreate in her novel which has a wide range of characters: from Bridie, the local gossip, to Craig and Rob who are in the midst of planning their wedding. The pub itself features briefly in the novel too, as a gathering spot for Jo and Claire.
Holliday has chosen a unique way of telling her story, using the perspectives of several different characters, both past and present, thus allowing us to see the bigger picture and make up our own minds about what happened to Jo and Claire in Black Wood. I enjoyed following this mystery through to its shockingly unbelievable, but completely logical, conclusion.
Black Wood is published by Black & White Publishing (March 2015).
Available in paperback and ebook from Amazon as well as from many independent book shops.
See also: https://www.sjiholliday.com
Reveiewer. Kendra Olson, is the author of The Forest King’s Daughter. Find out more about her at https://kendraolson.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @KendrarOlson
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