In Conversation with Jo Mazelis

In Conversation with Jo Mazelis

Self-portrait: Jo Mazelis

Jo Mazelis’ short story collection, Ritual, 1969, is one of the books of the year. Here, noted Irish short story writer, Valerie Sirr, discusses the collection with Mazelis.

Ritual, 1969, your third collection, has stories set in several different time periods, mostly in different parts of Wales. But among these is a separate group of stories linked by a specific place and person in 1969. Yet the collection has unity. Can you talk about the process of finding the cohesion and rhythm that the collection has managed to achieve? 

When I wrote the majority of these stories I was both thinking about Wales and, as chance had it, travelling extensively through it for the first time in my life. I think I am more interested in the history of place than the idea of a singular Welsh identity. Sometimes despite the fact I was born here, my sense of being Welsh feels vague, but that is the problem of national identity isn’t it? None of us are stereotypes either for good or ill.  One aspect of fiction is the issue of identity; about the growth of identity – think of David Copperfield, Jane Eyre and The Ice Storm, or challenges to identity, The Colour Purple and The Tortilla Curtain, recovery of identity and so on.

The identities of individuals and nations are in a state of permanent flux, so belonging is more of an illusion than reality. At the same time much of what we experience as individuals is mysterious and the aim of living might be a quest to uncover that mystery. Part of the aim of stories or legends or myth is to pin down that mystery, to lay it out all the better to see and make sense of it, or conversely to create further layers of mystery in order to provoke questions rather than provide any answers. Creating fiction is done by using both the subjective memory of self and the larger canvas of history, politics, religion, superstition, language, myth, art and so on.

In many of these stories I was asking if landscape defines character and whether the layers of history beneath our feet retain echoes of the past. I think Seamus Heaney was exploring similar ideas in his bog bodies poems, and of course it was very evident in WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Possibly this is not all that evident in my stories but this discovery of the landscape of Wales was running as a thread alongside a lot of thinking about past events in my life; sometimes focusing on the negative questions of how and when and where things went wrong.

The 1969 stories draw heavily on autobiography; I am the ‘dead girl’ in the first story and also in others in the series though ‘she’ is not named as such. ‘Dead’ is meant here as numb and powerless though it also refers to the role the girl plays in the levitation game. She – meaning my younger self – is also dead in the sense of being gone, as in grown up.

The stories were written over a long period; the earliest in 2006, the last in early 2016. Some were part of story sequences; most obviously the 1969 stories, but ‘Mechanics’ ‘The Moon and the Broomstick’ and ‘Mrs Dundridge’ were also part of a series of linked stories. ‘Word Made Flesh’ was commissioned by John Lavin for Wales Arts Review and others were written for submission to particular anthologies like Honno’s recent The Wish Dog. There was also a long period between 2008 and 2011 when I concentrated entirely on my novel Significance and had to kill any impulse to write anything else. Despite some of the stories being linked, I would hope that each can also stand alone, and while some names and themes will chime with one another, these should add to the collection as a whole creating the ‘cohesion and rhythm’ you’ve mentioned. 

Besides the ‘issue of identity’, is the idea of feminine identity in particular something you were exploring in this collection of exclusively female protagonists?

Yes, but it wasn’t planned, it just evolved that way. I had been working on several memoir pieces during that period so the trawling of memory drew up a catch of themes which were to do with the construction of identity; my own, but those of other girls’ and women’s too. In my first two collections, written between 1987 and 2005, there were many stories with male protagonists, some of them written from the male viewpoint, for example ‘Running Away with the Hairdresser’ which was based on the painting by Kevin Sinnott. His picture shows a man and a woman running down a typical terraced street in the South Wales Valleys and I wrote the story from the point of view of the man.

I’ve been interested in psychology for as long as I can remember – before I even knew what the word meant – and fiction is one way of exploring this.

There are many theories about how and when identity is established; some of the latest claim that we are each born with our personalities already established, but clearly what each of us experiences effects, perhaps distorts us. I was bullied at school by other girls and at the same time the teachers were also very hard on me. Then I got picked on in the streets on my way back and I’d come home to an angry and unpredictable father. I did really badly at school probably because I was either too worried about where the next blow was going to come from, or I’d switched off completely by retreating into my imagination. In thinking about this I was asking myself if I was picked on because I was strange, or whether I became strange because I was picked on.

A lot of the stories in this collection are about knowledge; knowledge as proffered by formal education and knowledge that leaks out in an uncontrollable way. So the last story in the collection was about this; how the system consigned girls to narrow domestic roles, while at the same time information about sex is gleaned from other children. It’s a story about confusion, about the contradictory messages at school, at home, and from the media that girls in particular received while growing up. 

Did Ritual, 1969 emerge for you as an obvious title story? Did you have editorial input? 

When it came to collecting the stories together it seemed a real challenge as there were stories that were supernatural or uncanny and others that were very much realist despite the fact that the events in them were odd or dark. I discussed this with my editor and she agreed that interweaving the different types of story was risky but interesting. There were at least four other stories that I would have liked to include but they just didn’t fit because they differed either thematically or stylistically, for example a story called ‘Marco’s Eyes’ which appeared in a recent anthology and ‘Atlantic Exchange’ which was about Sylvia Plath meeting Dylan Thomas in New York and the two saving one another.

It’s very hard as an author to be objective about these things, because you are invested to some degree in all your work.

Choosing Ritual, 1969 as the title seems right because a ritual can be understood in a variety of ways, it could be a habit, a religious rite or a children’s game that has been repeated down the centuries. Maybe any act which is out of the ordinary has an aspect of ritual to it, for example when the girl in Velvet carefully drops a stone inside a tulip or when the teacher fails to read the poem aloud to her class thus creating a weird performance which the children learn something from, but not what they were meant to learn.

I’ve always been interested in the surface of things and how these can be taken for truth, but how the depths and nuance reveal a different sort of truth. I am aware that my realist stories seem to provoke a sense of unease in the reader; a sense that something bad will happen, or has already happened, but hasn’t been brought to light yet.

I am interested in the borders between places, the hinterland of the mind and the imagination, the light and shade, madness and sanity, truth and lies.

In ‘A Bird Becomes a Stone’ the journeys through Wales symbolise a move from the contemporary industrial south to the older sublime landscape of the north. The story is about the creation of another sort of fiction – a film – and the film is full of gothic darkness and unspoken fears which the lead actress begins to absorb in her dedication to the role she is playing. This story is asking in a way, ‘Is it dangerous to believe in a concocted version of reality – where are the borderlines and pitfalls?’ In a similar way I like to leave things open to interpretation, hinting at one version of the truth but not quite spelling it out.

There’s a ludic quality to Ritual, 1969. As well as the make-believe happening in some of the realist stories, you play with different kinds of story – the gothic, the ‘uncanny’, the ‘supernatural’, are you drawn more to a particular type of story than another?

Ritual, 1969 was unusual in this, as my previous work, particularly my novel Significance was absolutely set in the here and now; indeed one of the characters in that book is somewhat negatively portrayed as being too superstitious and fearful, while others for different reasons put two and two together but come up with seven. That was a novel about how individuals, for different reasons, struggle to make rational sense of a frightening situation, often at great cost.

When I was writing some of the stories in Ritual, 1969 I wanted to experiment with genre as a way of exploring both the past and the borderline between what might be called the supernatural and madness. In particular I wanted to explore the kind of story that can be read both ways; like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw where the possession of the children and the haunting might be real or might be the governess’s imagination.

Thinking about the ludic quality of such writing John Fowles’ The Magus comes to mind. In The Magus the protagonist (and the reader) believes he is witnessing both historical events such as the Nazi occupation of the Greek island where he is teaching as well as its mythical past. As it turns out everything he is seeing is an elaborate construction created by one man. In creating fiction the writer can explore all possibilities but the important thing is to not break the contract with the reader.

When I was younger I believed in ghosts and the idea of the devil and possession and so on. At the age of fifteen I had been told by a psychic that I also ‘had the power’ – this was initially exciting for me but it became more and more disturbing. I had to make a real effort to think more rationally and get my imagination under control. There is a big difference between enjoying the fear induced by ghost stories and films such as The Shining or Carrie and being consumed by it.

I had wanted to write about the Levitation Game for years – as I said in the story that game or ritual has been around for hundreds of years all over Europe and the US – though it seems to be finally disappearing along with so many other aspects of childhood.  I often turn to books like The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren for research because those games and chants from childhood are very often so strange; the residue of an oral tradition that must have passed from child to child without the initiation or control of adults.

Colin Barrett has said his stories ‘stay alive by resisting, right up until they are done’. To what extent, if any, did you plan the stories in Ritual, 1969?

Like Colin Barrett, ‘I just can’t write to a plan. I can’t plot out in advance.’ Instead I begin with vague images, with ideas that might spring from direct experience or from news stories or other material I am reading. My process is to discover the story as I go along.

I think an important factor for me is that I didn’t study creative writing – I just taught myself – or rather I learned by the example of those writers I admired. I have no idea of what sort of writer I might be if I had been able to do an MA in Creative Writing. I did apply to UEA in the late 1980s but as my undergraduate qualifications were in art rather than English I wasn’t successful. I often think that I really shouldn’t be writing at all, that if I were a bit more sensible I’d have given up long ago. So in some ways it isn’t only the stories which are ‘resisting’ it’s me too.

At times I am almost unaware of the underlying themes which emerge and it’s only after the story is finished that I see them. For years I only wrote short stories but I felt a huge pressure to write a novel. The prospect of doing that was frightening especially if I were to attempt it using my own rather organic method of writing, but I think it was too late for me to change at that stage. The stories in Ritual, 1969 were written before and after the novel and were like little blasts of fresh air, each one only succeeding or failing on its own terms. By the time I came to put together this third collection I had a large number of uncollected stories to choose from – somewhere in the region of 60, probably more. Some of these stories don’t work at all but some have potential. Indeed one of my oldest stories, ‘The Famous Man’ which I’d written while I was living in London in the 1980s was recently published online by The Lonely Crowd. It was a story I’d always been particularly fond of but I made that fatal mistake of believing it was a bad story because it had been rejected once and failed to get anywhere in a single competition. The problem with writing is it’s very hard to stand outside any given work in order to judge its success or failure – some stories may have meaning for the writer that exists in the undertow – in other words it is meaningful only to them.

Every reader brings their own interpretation to a given work; I think the best stories leave some space for that.

What new work can we look forward to from Jo Mazelis? A novel, stories? Did you say recently you were working on poetry now?

I’ve always written poetry but I have far more uncertainty about the quality of it than my prose work. I’ve been reading some of the work of the American writer Maggie Nelson, in particular Jane and The Red Parts. In Jane Nelson uses a variety of means to explore the murder of the aunt she never knew in the 1960s; poetry, prose, extracts from her aunt’s journal, news reports and other sources. Her poetry is understated; it almost flies under the radar, but second and third readings reveal the craft and subtlety behind the apparently straightforward verse. Although the subject matter might be thought to be sensationalist Nelson manages to critique just that tendency by exposing it for what it is and pulling the reader back to the real people in the story. In some ways this book by Nelson echoes part of what I was trying to do with my novel Significance so it has a very particular interest for me.

I’ve been working on several things; a second novel, some autobiographical writing, poetry, some short stories and also work which is analytic or philosophical – actually I really don’t know what you would call it, as part of it addresses the visual arts, in particular photography. It’s all a bit amorphous at present, hard to pin down or categorize, so while my impulse is to work on this latter project, I feel I should just abandon it and get on with more straightforward prose.

How do you begin a new work?

I think for me it’s a matter of being open to ideas, to not so much have a fixed notion as almost an empty mind into which I can pour various elements. I look at photographs quite a bit which is something I was doing even before I began writing in earnest. When I say ‘I look at photographs’ I mean I spend quite a long time looking. Recently I’ve been researching the work of the photographer Francesca Woodman and trying to write something that springs from this, but so far, aside from some notes, all I’ve produced is a haiku.

With short stories very often I will take two or three things I am interested in and put them together, so ‘A Bird Becomes a Stone’ was a combination of ideas, experiences and images; for example the Andrew Wyeth painting ‘Christina’s World’, a Russian documentary war photograph, the experience of driving to North Wales, and black and white art films like ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ by Maya Deren.

Back in the 1980s I performed in a short silent film made by Barry Assinder called Covenant in Exile. Clearly this also had some influence on the story though of course nothing bad happened then, but it did give me some insights into playing a role in a film and what goes through your mind as you perform. Thinking about it, I took the self-portrait which was used for the cover of Ritual, 1969 about the same time in the early 1980s as I worked on the film with Barry Assinder. So there is an interesting coincidence to that, but not one I’d considered until now.

But to return to your original question, it seems as if it is never the same process with each piece of writing – the white paper is just as empty every time and just as daunting.