Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: interview with Holly Watt

We may be in the middle of a global crisis, but there’s nothing in the rulebook to say you can’t continue your interview series during a worldwide pandemic.

Holly Watt started her journalistic career at the Sunday Times, before moving to the Daily Telegraph, where she worked as the Whitehall Editor and co-ran the investigations team. At the Telegraph, she won an award for her work on the MPs’ Expenses scandal and later, as an investigator for The Guardian, she won another award for her coverage of the Panama Papers.  

She’s reported from all over the world, from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, Libya to Jordan to Lebanon. She’s flown in everything from Lynx helicopters to Air Force One, worked on location and undercover but, in 2019, she took her writing to a new frontier: fiction. Her first novel, To The Lions, won the 2019 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger and her second, The Dead Line, published by Raven Books, is out now.

Through the power of technology, we had the chance to ask Holly about her life as a reporter, her creative process and Casey Benedict, the heroine of her novels. We’re delighted to bring you this exclusive interview. 

INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about yourself. Where do you live? What’s your background/lifestyle?

WATT

I live in the middle of nowhere in Dartmoor. I moved down here after quitting my job at the Guardian, where I worked on the investigations team. Before the Guardian, I worked at the Telegraph and the Sunday Times

INTERVIEWER

Who or what inspires you?

WATT

Apart from my nearest and dearest, I find newspapers inspiring. Despite all the criticism they receive, sometimes justifiably, I still find it amazing that these thousands and thousands of words are produced every day with the intention of informing the public. Even after almost fifteen years as a journalist, I still find that extraordinary. And I can never read a newspaper without finding some fact or story that makes me stop and think. 

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love or do you have another passion?

WATT

Writing was definitely my first love. I spent years of my childhood writing little stories and making up endless adventures. I remember being quite surprised that not everyone did the same thing. 

INTERVIEWER

According to The Literary Review, your first book To The Lions is ‘…eye-popping in its revelations of undercover journalists’ tactics…’ As a reporter, you chased pirates around the Indian Ocean, flew on Air Force One and ended up lost in a nuclear shelter under one of Gadhafi’s palaces. Was it difficult turning your real-life experience as an investigative reporter into fiction? 

WATT

I didn’t find it hard. In fact, I found writing about these things really helpful. In hindsight, I lived my twenties and early thirties at a completely ludicrous pace. I remember once flying London-Montreal-Paris-Djerba (Tunisia)- driving to Tripoli in Libya-back to Djerba-Stuttgart-Monaco-London. Monaco was for a friend’s birthday party, which was a bit of a culture shock after Tripoli. I would only be back in London for a few days at a time before heading off again. It’s quite hard to process things when you’re zooming around that much, so writing about some of it helped.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about your main character, Casey Benedict. What did you find interesting about her? 

WATT

She’s hugely driven, but she doesn’t really understand why. She finds it easier to jump on a plane and fly to a warzone than face any sort of emotional music. She loves the hunt, but she doesn’t like the kill. She’s a mass of contradictions. 

INTERVIEWER

Which crime writers should we be paying particular attention to at the moment? 

WATT

I always love Eva Dolan’s writing. Her books pop back into my head at unexpected moments. 

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank screen to completed manuscript? Do you plan the plot before you write or do you just dive in? 

WATT

I don’t really know! And sometimes I worry I will never be able to do it again. For the first one, I just started writing and hoped for the best. That one took the longest, because I didn’t know who the characters were. The first draft of the second one was a mess – I had to do a huge rewrite which was a bit stressful. But it hadn’t felt like it was “working” right the way through, and luckily halfway through the rewrite, it suddenly pulled together. (I am using the word ‘suddenly’ only because my lovely editor won’t let me use it in my book!) For my third book, which I am just finishing now, I wrote a synopsis for my publisher and used that as a springboard for the actual book. But I’ve been quite happy to bin bits that don’t work. I usually find out what a book is really about around 80% through writing it. There’s a point when I realise: “oh, that’s it.” I aim for a first draft to come in at about 80,000 words, as I am the sort of writer whose word count goes up and I edit. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a writer? 

WATT

Not especially. I want to make people think, but I don’t want to force them to a conclusion. It’s more like “for your consideration” than “think this”.

INTERVIEWER

What was the first book that made you cry? 

WATT

I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles when I was quite young (Probably about eight. Who knows why? It must have just been on a bookshelf) and felt very sorry for Tess. It was all just quite bleak. I gave Thomas Hardy quite a swerve after that. And then had to read Jude the Obscure at university and… Well, you don’t feel wildly uplifted by the end of it. 

INTERVIEWER

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

WATT

Some days, the words don’t flow. And some days, they don’t flow, but if you sit there and push on through, they do. And both those days look the same, and feel the same, so you can’t tell when you are completely wasting your time. On top of that, I’ve written some of my favourite bits on days I really didn’t feel like writing at all. It’s weird. 

INTERVIEWER

Name a fictional character you consider a friend. 

WATT

I’ve always loved Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture the Castle

INTERVIEWER

Did getting published change your perception of writing?

WATT

I was lucky because the way publishing schedules work, I was a long way through writing The Dead Line by the time To The Lions came out. My first review was on something like NetGalley and it was really dire – the reviewer really ripped it apart. I think if I hadn’t been quite a long way into The Dead Line, it would have knocked me a lot more. As it was, I just read some nicer reviews instead and got on with it. But I definitely found it discombobulating having people appraising To The Lions while writing something else!

INTERVIEWER

Which book deserves more readers?  

WATT

Emma Flint’s Little Deaths (although to be honest, a lot of people read it!)

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any friends that are writers? If so, do you show each other early drafts?

WATT

Yes, two of my best friends are a married couple called Paul Vlitos and Collette Lyons. Paul teaches creative writing at the University of Surrey. One night, they were over at mine for dinner and I admitted I was trying to write a book and he ordered me to send it to him. The next day, rather unwillingly, I sent him about a third of To The Lions. He ordered me to finish it. Rather brilliantly, about a year after that he and Collette sent me the first draft of their book, which they wrote under the name Ellory Lloyd. I read it on the way back down to Devon and missed my stop. It’s called People Like Her and it comes out early next year. It is completely brilliant. I secretly think they only wrote it because To The Lions got published and they thought, “Well, if that muppet can do it…” 

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you? 

WATT

Finishing Book 3! I’m trying to come up with a title…

QUICK FIRE ROUND:

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book? 

WATT

Possession by AS Byatt. 

INTERVIEWER

Saturday night: book or Netflix?

WATT

 Book, but usually next to Jonny while he watches something on Netflix. 

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic? 

WATT

Critically acclaimed – I need to be told what to read next. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

WATT

No. If I do, they are too hidden for anyone to have ever spotted them. 

INTERVIEWER

Any embarrassing moments? 

WATT

Oh so many. 

INTERVIEWER

What’s the best advice you ever received? 

WATT

He’s putting you down because of his own insecurities (Ooh, that’s a bit heavy. But also true.)

INTERVIEWER

Any reading pet peeves? 

WATT

I think I’ve slightly spoiled crime fiction for myself, because I sort of write it alongside as I read it. It’s a bit like newspapers – I think about how I would have done the story as I read it. I’d love to be able to go back to just enjoying them straightforwardly. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a theme song?

WATT

 No, but I probably should. 

INTERVIEWER

Your proudest achievement? 

WATT

I still feel very thrilled when I think about winning the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger last year.

INTERVIEWER

Best advice for writers just starting out? 

WATT

Don’t wait for the muse to show up. Sometimes, you need to crack on without her. 

To find out more about Holly, you can follow her on Twitter or visit her website: www.hollywatt.co.uk

The Dead Line by Holly Watt (Raven Books) is out now – available from Amazon and Waterstones.

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