Jo Mazelis is the author of short stories, non-fiction and poetry. Her collection of stories, Diving Girls (Parthian), was short-listed for the Commonwealth ‘Best First Book’ and Wales Book of the Year. Her second book, Circle Games (Parthian), was long-listed for Wales Book of the Year. Her stories and poetry have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in various anthologies and magazines, and translated into Danish. Significance is her debut novel, and is a 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winner. Her latest book is a collection of short stories, Ritual, 1969.
Ritual, 1969 is named one of the Top 10 Books of 2016 by wales arts review Journal, which says: “Ritual, 1969 is a subtle collection of considerable breadth and ambition that sees Mazelis take us into a world which is both familiar and yet at the same time somehow uncanny. By taking the reader out of their comfort zone she makes them look again and again at the familiar, making them realise that it was never quite what it seemed in the first place.”
This interview is taken through mail.
Alephi : First of all, we congratulate you on your book, ‘Ritual, 1969’ being selected by the reputable Wales Arts Review as one of the best 10 published in 2016. How do you feel about this moment of pride?
Jo Mazelis : I was naturally very pleased and surprised. When a writer sends a book into the world they have no idea really of what people make of it (aside from reviews) so this sort of honour really helps to make one feel that the work has merit and also meaning.
Alephi : You are more interested in short fiction than the novel. Is there any specific reason for that?
Jo Mazelis : As a young woman I discovered the short stories of DH Lawrence, Flannery O’Connor amongst many others, and I loved the form, so when I began writing it seemed obvious that I should write short fiction. I later found that the circumstances of my life made it difficult to attempt anything longer, but increasingly I felt I had to try to write a novel. It was only when my life changed and I had a little more time and energy that I finally wrote ‘Significance’ which I’m pleased to say won The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2015
Alephi : You are also a poet. Could you please elaborate on your poetry, form, content and your poetic perspectives?
Jo Mazelis : I find that the things I write about in my poetry are different from those in my fiction – or rather the themes emerging might be the same but how they are handled is very different. Sometimes I might write a poem that is purely observational, even written on the spot as it were. For example, I was in a car waiting at the traffic lights when a young man on a motorcycle drove straight through a red light. He had a young woman on the seat behind him and it seemed that everyone in all the other cars almost held their breath because what he had done was so dangerous. I got my notebook and began writing even before the lights changed. There was an emotional charge, something from memory, that just set this going and I had a sense that I would forget the moment if I didn’t write it there and then. But I might just as easily have an idea based on something I’m reading, or the sight of something in nature – a crow or more likely an insect of some sort. At other times I might try to capture something of the texture of memory – or conversely use the poem to record something fleeting that then might be developed in the poem or may reappear in a short story or novel.
Alephi : Every form of art is undergoing a sea-change in terms of content and form. Short fiction is no exception to that. That it has been changing in terms of form and content gets reflected in the use of various literary jargons such as realism, surrealism, magical realism, fantasy, post-modernism…. What do you personally feel about these changes?
Jo Mazelis : I’m not sure how much things have changed really – there is a big difference between the ‘dirty realism’ of Raymond Carver’s earlier work and that of Alice Munro or William Trevor for example – or there seems to be. Some people argue that there are only really seven plots which are retold in different forms, with different characters and locations. I’ve been trying to do a little research on World Literature recently and it seems that some of the folk stories we think about as coming from the European tradition may have started out in India, for example ‘The Princess and the Pea’ and ‘Rumplestiltskin’. With more recent literature I know there was a big change in the sixties and seventies with the work of postmodern writers such as Donald Barthelme (who was influenced by Samuel Beckett), but I don’t think I was very much aware of him and my influence was more from writers like Ian McEwan and Angela Carter. However, having said that, McEwan’s first collection had realist stories as well as those that might be called surreal and Carter uses aspects of magic-realism.
When I write I like to work organically without analysing what I am doing – this might sound like trying to dress in a darkened room – you might end up wearing clashing colours and odd socks with other garments turned inside out – but at least that would be different. I suppose I am saying I don’t much like rules, but clearly every writer is going to be influenced by developments in literature and other changes in the wider world.
Alephi : What is essential to the existence of the best short story?
Jo Mazelis : Because of the nature of short stories the writing has to be sharp and dive in fairly quickly, but different writers achieve this in so many different ways. There was a story by David Foster Wallace that I read years ago called ‘Forever Overhead’ in which almost nothing happens and yet it is so beautifully paced, the events so vividly described, it is stuck in my brain. The same is true of Angela Carter’s ‘The Fall River Axe Murders’ yet the two stories couldn’t be more different.
There is a lot of debate about the length of short stories – and Flash Fiction seems to have gained a lot of momentum but for reading pleasure I would still rather a story that I can get my teeth into.
Alephi : As there are plentiful women characters in the stories in ‘Ritual, 1969’ can your stories be billed as feminist?
Jo Mazelis : Absolutely, though not to the point of being dogmatic or of putting politics before storytelling, rather in this collection it happened that I was thinking a lot about women’s experience and identities. In part this was because I was also working on some autobiographical writing especially about my childhood and education and how these made me the person I am. In my earlier collections I had written quite a lot of stories about men or with male narrators but these were also in some sense an aspect of my feminism, because I was trying to figure out how some men think, or how situations are misread from both sides of the gender divide.
Alephi : Can it be categorically said that your stories represent the landscape and life in Wales?
Jo Mazelis : Most of the stories are a combination of experience, invention and observation. I travelled through parts of Wales which were fairly new to me at the time I was writing these stories and I really wanted to try to capture something of that; the mountains, lakes and rivers as well as the sea. Inevitably I was also interested in the history of those areas but I also wanted to inject some mischief as well as critique attitudes to the natural landscape. So for example in the story ‘Storm Dogs’ the American protagonist has travelled to Wales to discover her roots, but finds herself, mysteriously, engaged to a young war veteran. The mountains of Wales are often thought of as romantic and mysterious, full of sublime beauty, but people who live there and farmed there had harsh lives. In another story ‘A Bird Becomes a Stone’ some students travel northward filming what is a mysterious and atmospheric film – this is the Romantic version of Wales, but one member of the crew disputes this. Three of the stories have French locations, one is set in London and Brighton, in some ways this reflects my organic approach – these stories were not designed to go together, but hopefully they succeed as a collection.
Alephi : I gratefully thank you for giving me this interview. and, congratulate you on winning the recent honour for your book.