Mars bars, coffee, bylines and adrenaline

Laura White
Laura White

Debut novelist, Holly Watt is a former investigative reporter for national newspapers who has turned the experience into a dark thriller

Holly Watt’s first undercover mission involved breaching the security of a company HQ to gain access to their offices.

She enlisted the help of an ‘insider’ to sneak her in one morning and then she insinuated herself into the landscape of office life, getting her feet under the desk and access to a computer. Her subterfuge was not just on a single day but over weeks and months.

She was so good at melding herself into the unsuspecting organisation that she was even able to shift into another department without raising any alarm bells. Now firmly embedded, she set about devising a
bespoke database of sensitive information which would one day play its part in helping to bring down some of the nation’s political elite.

The HQ was The Sunday Times office in London’s Wapping. And the database was the treasure trove of information which sought to draw together facts about MPs’ expenses – a simmering issue which a few years later would boil over into a full-blown scandal in 2009.

The adventure to infiltrate a national newspaper had been off the cuff: a bit of youthful audacity. Holly, an English graduate from Cambridge, had been kicking around at a loose end after an abortive attempt to train as a lawyer. Her accomplice had been a friend on bona fide work experience on The Sunday Times and they had assumed nobody would notice. They were right, but as time went by the initial triumph began to lose its novelty.  The soft focus world of film, fashion and make-up suited her friend but Holly became impatient for something a bit more hard-edged.

“I quickly realised my destiny wasn’t the Style section,” she says. “I decided I wanted to work on the news section and so that’s what I did. I migrated down to the news desk and sat down there instead.”

This was where a ten year career in investigative journalism really took off although it had a bumpy start.

“They did gradually work out I wasn’t meant to be there,” Holly says of The Sunday Times management. “There was some managing editor who said you are not meant to be here, there are formal work experience schemes, and he kept trying to chuck me out. I kept getting back in again. And eventually they cracked.”

The expenses scandal was picked up by several broadsheets with an ongoing battle between the media and the establishment to get information released.  It took a while to succeed but the important leverage was the newly formed Freedom of Information Act. The legislation also gave Holly a golden opportunity.

“In January 2005 the Freedom of Information Act came into force,” she remembers, “and because of that, and because of my one year of law school I reinvented myself as the legal expert on FOI. I didn’t know anything about it but I knew more about it than the rest of the office.”

This was where her database came in. She created a massive spreadsheet only decipherable by herself which made her indispensable and therefore helped secure an official position on the staff.

“No one else could understand it at all,” she reveals, “So no one could get rid of me without losing all the FOI.”

Holly took to the life of investigative reporting with ease and was soon working on both home-grown political stories as well as travelling to countries in extremis such as Afghanistan and Libya. Her stories have been wide-ranging: she has been to the poverty stricken Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh and she has helped to disclose the tricks of the world’s richest through the Panama Papers.

“I just loved it from the start. I loved the energy in the office.
The excitement. The sense of being in the middle of things. And The Sunday Times: growing up it was always the paper my parents read. It’s a fantastic newspaper.”
Early on, she won a Laurence Stern Fellowship and worked at the Washington Post, the paper responsible for uncovering the Watergate scandal. From The Sunday Times she moved to The Daily Telegraph and then, after a stint in their investigations team, she resigned from The Guardian last year to concentrate on writing fiction. From the vantage point of Devon where she is now based, it all looks relentless if not a little insane.

“In hindsight it was quite chaotic. It was exhausting,” Holly confides. “I do remember once when I was going to Tripoli – as I was going out of the office – my boss said could you stop off in Montreal. And I thought Montreal is NOT on the way to Libya. By the time I arrived there I had been travelling for twenty-four hours and was completely knackered. It was that sense of not knowing when you’d last slept or who you were anymore. I did love it but there was also a sense that you couldn’t carry on at that pace forever.”

If a week is a long time in politics, a decade is a lifetime in investigative reporting and it is a job which leaves little room for anything else. Holly had managed to finish the manuscript for a first novel, but with an idea for a second book brewing in her mind and a new relationship in her life she decided something would have to give. She handed in her notice at The Guardian, moved back to Dartmoor and settled down to becoming a full-time novelist.

Holly owns up to a previous attempt many years ago when she tried to pen some chick lit but describes the effort as ‘absolutely terrible’.  
This time, however, she is on much firmer ground.

For her debut novel ‘To the Lions’, she has drawn from her own
experience as a reporter to weave an extraordinary thriller based around two journalist colleagues working for a fictional UK newspaper. The news room of ‘The Post’, in which her protagonists Casey and Miranda work, is unashamedly loud and macho with an editor who shouts abuse and hurls the occasional missile at his team.

Holly is at pains to point out that it is not based on The Guardian but it is a realistic portrayal of a certain style of media organisation. The two journalists begin to probe into an overheard conversation in a nightclub and end up going under cover, gradually unpicking clues in order to expose a dark and sinister secret. The action moves between London, St Tropez and Libya with an unexpected cameo appearance for Chagford. What gave Holly the initial idea?

“Years ago, I read an article in some Hungarian newspaper,” she explains, “It was only ever rumoured and it was not clear but it was about the possibility of this sort of activity in Sarajevo – back in that time.”

The ‘activity’ to which she refers is harrowing and provides the central theme to the plot and while it is not a story she has ever worked on, the investigative techniques such as fake identities and secret
recording devices are true to life.

Casey Benedict is described in the novel as having ‘the sort of face that could make up to exquisite, and fade to nothing’.  She is the ideal investigative reporter who can turn heads when she needs to and then merge into the crowd and be overlooked. Holly has that same
chameleon quality. She looks every inch the typical country woman on the day of the interview with a glowing complexion scrubbed clean and at her feet a glossy black Labrador whimpering for their regular walk through the fields.

But you could put a back pack on her and she could easily pass for an 18 year old undergraduate on a university campus. Or you could throw her a posh frock and some Jimmy Choos and she could be a sophisticated socialite at the Ambassador’s cocktail party.

It is the quality which makes it easy to be someone other than yourself and has allowed Holly to assume a temporary persona when needed: anything from a maths teacher to a lobbyist or a medical devices expert. She has worn a mini-camera and recording equipment hidden away in her clothing and lived with burner phones to take calls from targets, always hoping that the backdrop sounds of day to day life wouldn’t give the game away.

Like Casey, Holly had to be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice and travel, although she suggests she was not as organised as her fictional heroine. While Casey has a suitcase packed with a change of clothes ready for a quick get-away, Holly had a messy mountain of shoes and clothes under her desk from which she could drag out something appropriate whether it was a little black dress and high heels, a set of warm clothes or something lightweight for the desert.

“I had a suitcase and I had a pile of stuff and I used to throw things in it and go to wherever it was. It was ‘where am I going?’” she laughs.
All too often the answer would be: ‘Shut up, get on the train and we will tell you when you get to Heathrow.’

A typical week would start off with less intensity but it would generally end the same way with student doctor hours and only a brief opportunity to return home on a Friday night before the final sprint to the weekend deadline.

“You started at the beginning of the week seeing contacts and that sort of thing and then it would get more and more hectic towards the end of the week and full melt down on Saturday afternoon.”

In the attempt to chase down a story, she could be thrown into
situations which were dangerous and be sent off to places with a
bullet-proof jacket in her luggage. Did she ever feel it was too risky?

“Well sometimes it was; sometimes it felt risky, sometimes it wasn’t. You were constantly assessing risk and were not quite sure. It wasn’t an appealing thing, it was something that came with the job. And it was just something that you had to factor in and work around.  For me it was about fascinating places where fascinating things were happening, so I wanted to be there.”
She is reluctant to overplay the idea of any bravery and dismisses her gung-ho attitude as youthful naivety. Her inexperience caused her to jump in with both feet, whether it was  phoning up a cabinet minister
late at night to ask him about his expenses or putting a Russian
oligarch on the spot and being surrounded by body guards.

Incredibly, Holly has not only emerged physically unscathed, she
has also kept herself grounded enough to avoid what she calls the ‘cycle’. Hardcore war reporters like Marie Colvin whom Holly knew personally and admired – “I was very junior but she was always
incredibly kind” – represent a different breed who ultimately pay a high price.

Holly explains: “I think with some reporters, you can see it has turned into a bit of a cycle. They go to these extreme places and then they come back and they can’t really settle in either place, so they end up yo-yoing in between. Some people come back for a week and then go off for two months. I think I was always more centred in London; there was a bit more structure, more stability.”

As soon as ‘To The Lions’ hits the bookstores later this month, the manuscript for her second novel will be due for delivery. Holly steamed through the first one, managing to write the initial sixty thousand words in a couple of months and only having a slight hiatus when she had a hiccup in the plot and had to turn to an old colleague for advice.

“I worked very closely with another journalist for ten years, we did all sorts of crazy investigations together. I said how would we do this? We’ve got to get from ‘here’ to ‘there’ – how would we have done that?”

The second novel – as yet untitled – is a closely guarded secret,
although we are promised the same reporter team of Casey and Miranda and another twisting, turning story for them to unravel. No doubt the premise will be an equally spine-chilling subject which is at odds with her warm and friendly personality. Holly fails to see the contradiction.

“My editor at Bloomsbury says that it’s weird: all the crime writers who have written dark horrible books are actually really nice,” she smiles broadly.

‘To the Lions’ is published by Bloomsbury Raven and will be released on 21st February.

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